Grammy Award Winning Billy Idol Axe Slinger Steve Stevens: The Interview
By Andrew Catania
Grammy award-winning guitarist Steve Stevens career spans over 35 years. Always sharply dressed, Billy Idol’s axe man has done everything from the Top Gun Anthem, Atomic Playboys record, playing with Vince Neil and Michael Jackson. One thing Steve Stevens isn’t is underrated. He has incredible talent on the guitar. Stevens work on the guitar can be put up against many names such as Vai, Malmsteen, Gilbert, and others. I had the pleasure to speak with Steve to discuss his current and future plans.
Are you rehearsing for Billy Idol or are you doing solo stuff?
I start rehearsals in ten days for a solo Euro tour then I head straight into rehearsals with Billy Idol, so it’s a little bit of both
Are you doing a tour this summer with Billy?
We do a Vegas residency at the Hard Rock. We did that all last year, and we’re resuming up in March we do that for four months out of the year. Then we’re heading down to South America to do Rocking in Rio, and as well in South America, we have dates with Aerosmith, so it’s a little bit of both
Wow! You’re all over the place
Yes! You’ve got to stay busy man!
I’ve been reading. Have you been doing some writing with Ozzy?
Yes. I did a session. The rhythm guitar player in Billy Idol is Billy Morrison, one of Ozzy’s best friends so he asked me to do some writing with Ozzy and we spent about a week working on some tunes and I haven’t heard anything so I guess he’s really happy with them so yes, I did some writing and recording with him
Out of curiosity if he called you and asked you to step in and do some solo stuff would you do it?
Well, that’s what it’s for, for his next solo record so yes, of course! If it’s recording I would as far as touring I’m dedicated to Billy Idol.
Solo album, do you have anything coming up?
After I do this solo tour in Europe, the singer I’m bringing with me is Franky Perez who is in Apocalyptica now and he and I have done some recording and stuff so we’re talking about doing a project together. I don’t know if you call that a solo record but it would be a full-on album and we’d tour behind it. That would be really cool! He’s one of my favorite singer’s and he’s kind of an undiscovered gem at this point so you know I’ve done the instrumental thing and I’m a song guy you know. I love guitar solos within the context of a song so it would be really cool to do something more of a band project rather than a solo record
I was going back into your history because I’ve listened to you since going back to elementary school how and I sound really old now but I was reading when you were on tour with Vince Neil you were trying out some Eddie Van Halen equipment back when you were touring with them opening for Van Halen. Is it true that Eddie Van Halen sent you a truck full of Peavey’s at the time and some of his Music Man Guitars?
Yes, he did. Funnily enough from what I understand he did the same thing for Jerry Cantrell. When I started the tour with Van Halen and Vince I was bringing out my vintage Marshall stuff with me. You know that stuff sounds great but it’s not road worthy and Ed kind of came over to me at sound check and said, “Hey man why you bringing that stuff on the road?” you know. He said why don’t you play through my gear? I said great! So he arranged for the next sound check you know I played through his stuff. He had all the Peavey stuff happening and I really liked it and I played one of his guitar’s and said,”Oh this guitar is really nice, it was a black one!” and he said, “take it!” Then a couple of day’s later a truck shows up with a whole Peavey backline and I started using it from then on. That’s like the ultimate in generosity I mean I was kind of shocked you know. I played those amps for many years.
What are you using? To get into my next question regarding gear? I know you switched guitar endorsements. What are you using for gear now regarding guitars and amps and pedals?
I have a signature guitar with a company called Knaggs out of Maryland and Joe Knaggs was the head of the custom shop and PRS and I had one PRS that I really liked and I found out Joe had built that guitar so we started a dialogue and they sent me one of their guitar’s and I said well it’s not exactly what I would play and he said well I’ll build you anything you want and they’re just amazing guitar’s you know I’m getting spoiled now because I basically have a guitar company at my beckon call you know. We’re now on the third version of the guitar it’s the SSC – Steve Stevens Classic. You know and it’s a handmade instrument and we’re starting to get other people playing them. I mean I couldn’t be any happier with the company they’re just the most awesome makers and individuals as well. It is good to keep an American company and help with their business. There’s only about fourteen guy’s there that work the whole company and everything is made right there in Maryland so I’m really happy with them. Then I have a Friedman, Dave Friedman signature amp that I’ve played Friedmans’ for about ten years now and Dave said if you’re really happy with the amp why don’t we make it available to the public? So that is now available as well.
Very Good! Are you endorsed by any of the pedal companies?
I have a signature pedal coming out with J. Rockett. I just approved the casings and I’ve been using their pedal’s for a couple of years now and it’s kind of an interesting take on it because I have been using on my signal chain you know I have a boost pedal which I was using at theArche J. Rockett Archer which is kind of their take on a Klon I guess but I was always having to put an EQ pedal afterwards to kind of create a curve or whatever and I said is there any way we can combine those two into one pedal and that’s what we’ve done it’s basically a Klon with an eq post gain stage, I have the prototype right here and it’s actually worked out really well for me. So that will be available I think in stores in about three weeks.
Was it at NAMM by chance or did you approve it before NAMM happened?
I approved it before NAMM. I think they had the prototype there. The thing I’d like to point out is that part of the proceeds for my signature guitar goes to MusiCares. It’s a division of the Grammy’s that helps musician’s help get sober and put’s musician’s into treatment and also the J. Rockett pedal, 20% of the proceeds go to Children’s Cancer Fund, so there is some good coming out of what I am doing as well
Well I might have to go onto Knaggs website and add you to my collection
I’ll get to that in a second. When you were growing up I was reading a folk musician inspired you; his name was Phil Ochs
Yes, he and Phil Ochs was a protest singer. He happened to come from my neighborhood Far Rockaway in Queens. There is a cool documentary I think it is on iTunes about Phil’s life and at the time he was as well known as Bob Dylan a hell of a lot more outspoken against the Vietnam War, and he was our local hero, and his sister was my first guitar teacher
Wow! So when you picked up your first guitar was it some cheap knock-off? How did you start playing guitars even though he influenced you?
Yes, my dad actually got the guitar it cost $15 with a music book. It wasn’t for me you know it’s just my dad always loved music, didn’t play but he saw this guitar package at a department store and brought it home and little by little I kept dragging it into my room and I have an older brother, he’s like five years older and some of his friends played guitar and they told my parent’s, “you know he’s making a hell of a racket but it’s in time, he’s got rhythm” so they arranged for Phil Ochs‘ sister to give me my first guitar lessons and I actually played only folk music for quite a while because I didn’t get an electric guitar until I was 13 and I started when I was 7 1/2 so that is why I have a strong affinity for acoustic music
Wow! When you started playing were you self-taught or did you have lessons?
No, I had lessons but Phil’s sister was my teacher but I was just picking and when I developed an ear enough I was just picking up things from the radio or my brother’s record collection or what not you know. I had a real problem with teacher’s back then, but now it’s entirely different but that back then guitar teacher’s in my neighborhood were fuddy-duddy trying to teach me whatever, old standards and I wanted to learn The Who and The Stones and stuff, so I had to take it upon myself to learn that stuff
What was your first band that you got into?
Well like I said when I was 13 I got an electric guitar and I joined my first neighborhood garage band. The guys were about four years older than me and you know we just started playing whatever was popular at the time. So yes, I got into my first band I guess when I was 13 or 14.
Wow! When you were growing up and were playing in your garage band who were some of your influences back then?
Obviously, Led Zeppelin was huge, Hendrix and The Stones and all that kind of stuff. There was a local radio station, FM Radio was just getting going. I mean I’m dating myself here
WNEW in New York had a show every Friday called Things From England where they played the English British imports for two hours and a lot of what was done then was the early Prog-Rock. It was the first time I heard Yes and Genesis and ELP and for some reason I went crazy for that stuff because you know in my house we shared music you know as a family and I appreciated classical and jazz and all those things and when I heard Steve Howe you know play all those styles within the context of a band, it’s kind of like a light switch went on and I went wow you can use all these influences you don’t just have to try and play blues or whatever as much as I liked Clapton and all that it was for me I loved all those other guitar player’s who had all those other influences as well.
Very Nice! How would you describe your guitar playing? Do you have one style? Are you multiple combinations of methods? Because you go from one extreme to the other. Atomic Playboy is over here. You played with Michael Jackson over here. Emmy award winner with the Top Gun soundtrack. I mean you have encompassed a lot of different things.
To me, it’s all music but I will say that one of the things we tried to do with Billy Idol, I think that once I met Billy I really started to develop a style. In the context of a Billy Idol record you have Rebel Yell, Eyes Without A Face, Flesh For Fantasy, these are all different, texturally different guitar things as well as stylistically. I think it was a conscious decision to A: Play what’s best for the song. I know that sound cliche but it is true. If you’re in a band with a singer, that’s your job first and foremost and then to try and develop a style that would make me identifiable quickly. I always wanted to be one of those guitar player’s where you hear 8 bars and go “yes, I know who that is!” So that took a bit of time to develop you know. I kind of hinted at it on the first Billy Idol record and I think you know the last track we recorded for that album was White Wedding and that was the beginning of us stylistically. So you know I have got to give credit to Idol for doing that he really helped me develop a guitar style because we took all these different influences that apparently came from the Punk- Rock background but also great American Rock and Roll. You know he loved The Doors and Credence and we kind of like created a different kind of gumbo with all these different styles. Also our producer Keith Forsey he came from the dance music background, he worked with Giorgio Moroder, so I think if you take all these different influences and you mix them all together you kind of have what became my guitar style
With Billy Idol do you guy’s share the doing lyrics and the and melodies? Does one do the other? Is it a band effort? How does that work? You’ve guy’s have been together for 35 – 40 years
35 we’re not 40 yet!!
I remember when I was 10 and I first saw you with your cool hair and I was like, “this is awesome!”
Yes, it is whatever get’s the ball rolling. Very rarely do I have anything to do with the lyrics with Billy. On occasion, I will suggest a title like Blue Highway or something but any singer worth his salt is going to want to sing his own words. So usually I’ll start with a riff or some words, you know Billy plays guitar, so it starts innocently with two guy’s you know sitting in a room with guitar’s and just hammering out idea’s and seeing what sticks
Wow! When Vince Neil came calling you for his solo band, did you have any say the melodies with his Exposed Album?
To a certain extent, for the Vince record I was already signed to Warner Brothers so I was an artist on their label and then they signed Vince and I was living in New York and he’s obviously an LA guy so I flew out to meet him and we rehearsed and I loved Dr. Feelgood record and thought yes this could be an excellent opportunity you know to kind of play some heavier guitar stuff. You know it was natural. There was like no like grand scheme, it was a pretty natural thing to do. Let’s continue to do what Vince Neil is known for, write good songs and keep it heavy and that’s what I contributed
I read an article in the Hartford Courant, I grew up in Connecticut just like you, I read an article that when you guys came with Van Halen to the Thames River Pavilion up near Groton that when you went back to Billy Idol after Vince Neil you said the crowds were getting smaller and smaller and smaller was that true? Was that accurate what they said?
No. No, I don’t know about that. That’s kind of a misquote. I think they were talking about the Vince Neil tour because what happened was that record came out just as grunge was happening and Nirvana was huge and you know it was hard to get the label on the record you know even though the record out of the box sold 350,000 copies which were looked at then as a failure. I mean now people would kill for them kind of numbers but as the record labels do, they go where the dollar signs are and you know it was suggestions like why don’t you guys put on flannel shirts and Doc Martens and it was like well who the fuck do you think you signed? You know?
So yes we started playing smaller venues and the writing was on the wall as far as that audience and all of the bands that made their career’s in the 80’s were experiencing that you know.
When Atomic Playboys album came out, you said, “ the better the guitar sound, the fewer notes you have to play”
Yes! I still believe in that. There’s a guitar sound, I mean just think of Angus or someone like that. Angus’ guitar just sounds so great that you know you want to give air to that sound and if you are just all the time filling it up with a million notes you’re not utilizing the strength of the sonic capabilities of the guitar. I mean I love guy’s that can play fast. The guy’s I love, it’s interspersed with maybe not so many notes, that’s when it’s really active. Too much of a good thing is never a good thing!
That’s true!! Is it always in pursuit of the ultimate tone with you?
Yes! Absolutely! Still is. You know tone is a huge part of it and I think you know I have a pretty good electronics background. I Actually, when I got the gig with Billy Idol a couple of weeks before that I had gotten hired by Electro-Harmonix to be a product tester and help develop pedals and they held auditions at the music store on 48th Street and they put a bunch of pedals’ in front of you and each guitar player had to come in without seeing them before and configure them and do a demo but they lost my number and the week that I got the gig with Idol they placed an ad on the back page of the Village Voice looking for me so I had to call up Mike Mathews, the guy who owns Electro-Harmonix and I said you know I’d love to come work with your company but I just got a record deal with Billy Idol.
so I think it’s because of that love of electronic’s and gear you know I had a really gifted guitar guy in New York called Henry Yi who helped me kind of tone -in my guitar sound and develop and open up Marshall’s and all that sort of stuff. I love exploring with that. I love soldering and pulling guitars apart. I have four Sears Craftsman cases of just guitar guts and bits and all this kind of stuff and I love getting in there and doing all my own guitar repairs and stuff. I just love doing all that stuff so yes I’m definitely in pursuit of a great guitar sound
That is awesome! After Whiplash Smile you played with Michael Jackson on Dirty Diana do you think that was one of your career highlights?
It certainly raised my profile you know. I remember as famous as the Billy Idol videos were on MTV the day after Dirty Diana had aired I believed it aired on Entertainment Tonight as well as MTV. I was living in New York, and I went out for a walk or something, and I’ve never been stopped by so many people, people running out of McDonald’s to get my signature, I was like what the fuck is this? And I go, “Oh it’s that video! “ So yes it raised my profile in that regard and one of the things I was adamant about when I spoke with Quincy Jones was that it was in my deal that Michael would be in the studio when I recorded and also if there was a video to be filmed that I would be in the video
Fantastic! That is awesome! Do you improvise any of your playing?
I improvise most of my playing. Especially solo’s you know. I’m not good working out solo’s you know we’ll run tape or whatever and I’ll just kind of hone it in. You know I hear melodies a lot of times in my head just based on the vocal melody and that’s kind of what I have in my head at the time I’m soloing so I want to do something that is in some way connected to what the singer is doing and you know depending on the artist I am working with they’ll have suggestions. Billy always has good suggestions as far as solo’s and things and I like getting that feedback from people, it’s part of making music.
How does it feel to have your name come up with guy’s like Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai, Yngwie? Your name is right in there with the top ten guy’s that play. Some people consider it shred, you know, heavy metal, hard rock guitar. Your name is always in there with the top 10 names.
Yes! I guess that is cool you know! It’s certainly not a bad thing. I see people say that a lot of times I am kind of like underrated or something like that and I kind of go well that’s not really true because I won a Grammy, not to be boastful or anything like that, to me I am not underrated or anything. To me, I’m like whoever likes me likes me and I think that is one of the things about it is that it is Billy Idol so real Billy Idol fans know who I am I think sometimes if you’re in a band or something then people know the guitar player better. I’ve always like a bit of anonymity it’s never bothered me. I would be really uncomfortable with the level of fame that someone like Billy Idol has where you can’t go out without being recognized. I like the fact that people that know me, well ok, they might ask for an autograph but by and large, I live my life like any other citizen and I dig that!
I know I saw your T-shirts on your website and I’m like, “I don’t have these Steve Steven’s shirts!”
Neither do I!
I’ll wear a Billy Idol T-shirt, but I will not wear a Steve Steven’s T-shirt! I’m a little bit too humble for that one man
Regarding your plans for 2017, I know that you’re going out with Billy Idol. I know that you’ve got your solo thing. Do you have any American dates coming up? Any artists that you play with?
I work with an All-Star band named Kings of Chaos. Matt Sorum and Robert De Leo from Stone Temple Pilot’s and Billy Duffy and Billy Gibbons. It’s a rotating cast of character’s
Yes! You know first and foremost it’s tremendous fun. To be on stage with other great guitar players and we all respect each other and we all kind of all sit around and talk guitar and shop and all that without the ego thing it’s just a great gig so I’ve got some more Kings of Chaos shows coming up. We’re going to go into the studio and do some recording. So that’s like icing on the cake for me to be involved in a band like that. So after I take my solo band to Europe, we’re starting to talk about doing some American dates so we’ll see how we can fit that in.
Awesome! And with Billy are you recording with him or are you guy’s going to be going out to do some tour dates aside your Vegas residency?
As I said we do this Vegas residency and that is like three or four month’s and then in August we go to South America and do a couple Aerosmith shows and you know he and I have talked about doing some new music together. You know we’re trying to fit that in. He’s got a busy schedule going, he’s got a radio show happening now you know he had his book come out as well so I think he’s looking at other things to be involved in other than just touring and recording. What was great about the last record we did was that it was mostly autobiographical because it was done at the same time as the book so we kind of seen how it’s good if you’re going to do a record it’s good to do a theme about it and a purpose behind it rather than let’s just slap a bunch of songs together you know.
That is awesome! Now you and Josie, you guys go out on the road together. You guy’s just pack up home together, and you’re pretty much on the road. Is that the case?
Yes! I mean it really works for us and you know usually you hear about musicians’ wives being the Yoko Ono of a band or something but she is so not that person. When she’s out there she wants to work with us. She does our meet and greet’s. She’ll do whatever it takes to be part of the band and she can really hang with the band. For some reason, she’s just one of those girls that can really hang with the musician’s in the band and everyone loves her. I don’t recommend it for everybody but in our case, it really works and I love having her. You know I’ve been around the world for 35 years since I’ve toured and done all that so for me it’s great to share it with my wife and I’m one of those guys that will just stay in a hotel room and just go to the venue and I never see anything so she’s always arranging for us to go to museum’s and see architecture and all that. Stuff that grumpy old me will never see.
Josie has been super friendly to me via e-mail getting this together.
She seems like an extraordinary person, and you are an incredibly talented guitarist. I can see your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction for you at some point down the road. I know The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t have that credibility
You know I was happy to see that Yes was finally inducted this year so I wish that it would have happened while Chris Squire was alive cause he was the founder of that band. He was the soul of that band I got to know Chris well, and it gives me hope that Yes will be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, so I am not going to slag the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at all! A lot of my good friends are in it, and I’m happy for them so
My last question for you, what do you think about the state of Rock & Roll and Hard Rock and Heavy Metal? I know asked a couple of times, but it just seems like the music industry has no idea what it’s going to do
Well, I’m old enough to have seen trends come and go and you know when I was really young the record companies had all these kind of teeny- bop artists that they could, you know record companies love to control the artist! They love to be able to like cultivate the image and give the artist the song’s that they have their songwriters that they like and that is kind of where the business is at and that is why pop music has permeated to the market right now because that’s what they can control. For many years when I was a kid, the Vietnam war was happening so music had a message behind it if you think of how political things were everything from Black Sabbath and Hendrix and all these things. People were making records with a purpose and I think unfortunately the world is a pretty dangerous place right now and I think the next generation is kind of waking up to hopefully make music that means something rather than it just being about product you know because myself, and guy’s my age we didn’t pick up the instrument thinking about our bank accounts, we picked it up because we wanted to express ourselves musically and play rock & roll and didn’t want to conform to you know maybe what our parent’s had adjusted to. So you know I’d say anybody who wants to pick up a guitar or wants to be successful in the business you’ve got to want to do it for more than just making money because that’s not the reason. It’s nice if you make money doing it. You know if I stopped making money and playing guitar tomorrow, I’d still do it. I’m not going to go, that’s it! No more guitar! So I think that’s got to be the motivation.
Is there any guitarists out there that catch your eye?
Like a new guitar player?
I guess Guthrie Govan is incredible! I mean and he seems to be doing projects that are making him happy you know. I like Mastodon they’re a cool heavy rock band I’m sure there are other people I am forgetting. There’s a bunch of like newer acoustic players that I don’t even know the names of but just the other day I was watching some things, so there are newer players that are just killing it!
Awesome! Well, Steve, you have been a gentleman for taking all my questions
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4 thoughts on “Grammy Award Winning Billy Idol Axe Slinger Steve Stevens: The Interview”
Excellent interview!!!…..Am a big fan of Steve Stevens and Billy Idol…..Even more so now….very authentic, humble and talented….great combination!!….Going to try and take a vacation in May to Vegas so that I can see one of the shows…….keep doing what you do……cause I dig it!!!……………Hugs & smiles
Thank you Steve for hours and hours of listening to music with you involved…it kind of shaped the things that came for me…
I did not become a guitarist, but a hobby keyboard player…but here we go… and I saw you`ve got cool keyboards like the Mellotron as well… best wishes !
Steve is one of my all time favorite guitarists…BIg fan here…Awesome