Steve Stevens is about to hit Australia for a clinic tour (an earlier scheduled tour was cancelled when Allans Billy Hyde went under – don’t worry, they’ve been bought by new owners now, but that’s another story). Stevens will be showcasing the latest and greatest gear from Roland and BOSS, including the Roland G-5 VG Stratocaster and Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer, as well as offering insights into guitar playing and generally sharing his decades of knowledge and experience. I Heart Guitar caught up with Stevens to talk clinics, gear and his new project with Sebastian Bach.
I Heart Guitar has two tickets to give away in Melbourne and two in Brisbane. Enter by emailing iheartguitarblog AT gmail dot com with STEVENS in the subject line and answer this question: which 80s rocker did Stevens work with in 1993?
Every clinic is different: what can we expect from yours?
Well Roland are bringing me to Australia, and I’ll be demoing the new GR-55 as well as their new G-5 which is made by Fender, and also their Virtual Guitar, the VG Guitar. Regardless of the whole electronics side of it, the guitars themselves are really great. You’re going to get a great Fender Stratocaster, to begin with, and all the other stuff is like an added bonus. I’ve found that touring with it I end up carrying a lot less guitars with me because one guitar can replicate a 12-string, a Dobro and all these other things. So it’s been really handy for me.
That technology has really come of age recently. I remember trying some stuff about 20 years ago that was cool for the time, but you look back on it and it’s like “…Oh.”
Yeah. I was actually the first person to bring the GR-700 into the States. I was in Japan to do press for Rebel Yell and they brought me up to this very secretive room at Roland and they had the GR-700 there. I convinced them to let me bring it with me because we were getting ready to do the Flesh For Fantasy video. That was like the first guitar synthesiser I had from them.
What do you think of the current state of guitar?
I think it’s healthy. Throughout the 90s there was this dumbing down. There were players who were technically proficient but they almost had to play lousily to fit in with what grunge was all about. I think it’s safe to be a proficient guitar player again. And there are a lot of good newer players like Guthrie Govan, who is just unbelievable. So it’s pretty healthy. As a guy who grew up listening to early prog and stuff, to see some of that influence making its way back again to some younger bands is inspiring.
I’ve noticed from teaching that kids are now discovering things on YouTube that they wouldn’t have otherwise heard. I had ten-year-olds coming up to me wanting to learn Frank Zappa, and I’d think “Guitar is in good hands.”
Yeah. I think it’s really healthy, although inevitably it gets to that point where whenever the technique becomes more important than the composition, there’s going to come along somebody or some band that’s going to strip it all back down. And I’ve seen that happen so many times, especially with punk rock in the 70s and grunge in the 90s. So we’ve gotta be careful.
Tell me about Kings of Chaos.
Right! That’s really an offshoot of a band here in Los Angeles called Camp Freddie, which was started by Matt Sorum, Dave Navarro, Chris Chaney, Billy Morrison and Donovan Leitch. Camp Freddie has been going along for about ten years, and I would guest with them, or Billy Idol and I would be asked to do something, and then as Navarro got busier with Jane’s Addition they asked me to play the whole show. And about a year ago Matt came up with the idea to do this Rock ‘N’ Roll All-Stars, which was kind of like Camp Freddie but the idea was to record albums. So we went down to South America with a cast of characters – Gene Simmons, Joe Elliott – and that was called Rock ‘N’ Roll All-Stars, but Gene kind of commandeered that name. And without Gene it’s known as King’s of Chaos. We did a track for a Deep Purple tribute record which turned out really well, so we’re hoping to make this a kind of semi-permanent thing where we can actually do records. The coolest thing about it is that the artists get to play the stuff that they don’t play with their bands. When we went into the first day of rehearsal with Joe Elliott we said “What Def Leppard songs are we going to do?” He said “Oh man, I want to concentrate on the stuff I don’t do with Def Leppard,” which for him was like Bowie things, Deep Purple and all this kind of stuff. So it feels fresh although we’re all veterans of bands. To play together it all feels pretty fresh.
Cool! And I hear you’re writing with Sebastian Bach?
Yeah! I’m actually looking at a Logic file as we speak. I’m finishing up a song for him. He had guested with Camp Freddie and I was asked to do three nights at the Iridium, which is the small club in New York that Les Paul had started his run at. When he passed away they kept it running but they’d have guest guitarists come it. I’m not a singer, I’m not a lead vocalist, and I just thought it’d be great to bring Sebastian into a small little club like that. So we’re just friends, and he’s working on a new record and he asked me to write some stuff. I think I’m about six songs in now, and so far he really likes where I’m heading with it, so I hope to be on his next record with this stuff.”
Now, this wouldn’t be a guitar interview if we didn’t talk specifics, so the first thing I wanted to talk about there was your Bare Knuckle pickups. What were you after when you designed those?
I bought a set of Bare Knuckles under the radar. I’d read about them – I think there was a review in one of the magazines – and the amount of detail and the lengths to which Tim the owner had gone to to replicate hand-wound vintage pickups, I didn’t think anyone else was doing. He literally had to get people to make the magnets and baseplates. So I was really knocked out. The first set of pickups I ordered from them was a kind of PAF style pickup called the Mule. So I emailed him and told him I was going to come over and play the Download festival with Billy Idol. I said “I’d love to meet you – it really sounds like you’re doing something interesting.” So we met, and lo and behold, I said the one pickup that I always played was a JB by Seymour Duncan, and I felt that the original JBs, something about the pickup had changed from the original ones that I had gotten in the 80s. And he said “Well I’ll look into it and I’ll make you a pickup.” Once I was happy with it he asked if I’d be interested in making this available to the public. So that’s the Rebel Yell. And I said “Well while you’re at it, can you etch a ray gun on the cover?” And he had already done his own logo on it, and he said “Yeah, we can do that!” It’s cool that it’s something that I needed personally and I get a lot of emails now from people saying they really love the pickup.
And guitar-wise, what are you using apart from the Fender/Roland Strat?
There’s a company called Knaggs which was started by Joe Knaggs [ex-PRS], so I have a signature guitar that we’ll launch at the Musikmesse next month in Frankfurt. Joe’s partner is Peter Wolf, who I’d worked with 25 years ago when I had my signature Hamer. So I always liked Peter. He was always a real straight shooter and a real solid, honest businessman, y’know? So I had really shied away from doing a signature guitar but he sent me one of the Knaggs and we developed something. I said I wanted the body thicker, and higher frets, and we started to get into this crazy binding, and what was cool about them was that anything I asked, I never got ‘No.’ They always said they would try it. And that’s something to be said for the company.
Players generally seem to be more aware now that there are all these options they can ask for, things that maybe pre-internet only the really tech-oriented guys might be aware of.
It’s true, and I think more companies are willing to do that. It used to be a real process to do a one-off guitar with a different configuration, but now everything is largely computerised. John Suhr is a good friend of mine and he’s been building guitars for me since 1983. And when he takes a custom order for a guitar, it’s all done by computer and it’s exactly what that person had ordered. So I think, yeah, the manufacturing is to the point now where it’s state of the art for most of these companies.
Do you ever mess around with seven-string guitars?
I have one, but I’m pretty awful on it! It’s easier for me to have guitars set up in different tunings. I have one which is a Les Paul strung with really heavy strings in C#, but seven-strings… I do have one, but man… I see some other bands like Animals As Leaders and I go “Fuck it, I’m not even bothering!” Look at what that guy is doing!
And what about amps?
As well as my Knaggs guitar I’m launching a signature amplifier with Dave Friedman, who’s at Rack Systems. I was touring with my vintage Marshalls and they’d break down and we’d have to replace stuff, so Dave basically copied my favourite old Plexi Marshall that I’ve recorded just about everything with, and hot-rodded it a bit. And then I asked him to do another channel like a Fender Twin. So it’s a two-channel amp. Two entirely different-sounding channels, entirely handmade, an absolutely incredible amplifier. So that’s going to be available next month.
Brisbane: Thursday 21 March (Buy)
Canberra: Friday 22 March (Buy)
Melbourne: Saturday 23 March (Buy)
Sydney: Monday 25 March (Buy)
Presented by Roland in association with Ellaways Music, Better Music, World of Music & Big Music