INTERVIEW: Stevie Salas

Stevie_Salas Framus Idolmaker

One of the coolest guitars on show at the Winter NAMM Show this year was the Framus Idolmaker, a unique instrument designed by guitarist Stevie Salas with Framus’s Marcus Spangler and Hans-Peter Wilfer. It’s an incredibly original guitar that only vaguely recalls the merest possible hints of anything you’ve seen before, and when Salas was in Australia recently I jumped at the chance to interview him about it. But I also took the chance to chat about something very near and dear to my heart: his most triumphant guitar solo at the end of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Here’s our chat.

So what the hell are you doing in Australia? 

Y’know, I’ve been there many times before but I came down to do one song with a band from the Northern Territory, the kids of the band Yothu Yindi. They have this really cool band (East Journey) and somebody asked me if I’d come down and cut a track with them. And any chance I have to come down to Australia, I’m gonna take it. 

What’s the music like? 

Y’know, it’s hard to describe. I’m a big fan of Aussie bands. One of my top three favourite groups of all time is Midnight Oil, and I worked with Michael Hutchence. So I kinda understand. They have this sort of Aussie sound, which is hard to describe if you like here, but it’s traditional rock… I can’t describe it but I can identify it when I hear it. So they sort of sound like that but it’s very indigenous as well. It’s my first time ever as a producer mixing a didgeridoo.

What else are you up to musically at the moment?

I’m in the middle of making a music documentary for PBS. It’s a Native American music documentary, so I’ve been working with guys like Slash, Steven Tyler, Quincy Jones… everybody’s in the movie, so I’ve been really busy with that. I took a job a couple of years ago which was really weird for me: a job at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I created a Native American music exhibit called Up Where We Belong: Natives In Popular Culture. And it’s an exhibit to tell an untold and unknown story about the Native American experience in pop music history. So what I wanted to do was, to me Charlie Patton is the beginning of the blues. Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson gets the lion’s share of the credit but Charlie Patton was a Native American, so we started talking about Charlie Patton and then we go into the birth of rock n’roll with Link Wray. Link Wray was a Shawnee Indian who invented the power chord and distorted guitar! So with the exhibit what we decided to do was instead of having a bunch of scholars and Native American people tell you about these Native American musicians, I’ve spent a lot of time at a pretty high level in the American music industry so I was able to call up a lot of people – the George Harrison Estate, Ringo Starr, Clapton – and let them tell the stories. If Eric Clapton told you Jesse Ed Davis was fantastic, you’d take that to the bank.

Wow, that must be creatively fulfilling in a new way – or do you have a background in curating things like this?

No, it’s like a whole new thing for me. Something about myself: I started really young with Rod Stewart – in fact I wrote a book about that tour which is on presage on Amazon right now – and I started so young, played all the arenas over the years, played with so many Hall-of-Famers. And I didn’t want to keep going out on tour and jumping around like a monkey. I had something else to do that was interesting to me, and creating television shows and movies was something that was new and exciting. I was in over my head and I enjoyed that. The music I can pretty much do with my eyes closed and half asleep.

Well the tricky thing in the current climate is to find that one thing that you can do that nobody else can do, and make that your thing!

That’s what I did as a guitar player, right? I had to figure out how I was going to stand out as a kid, and that’s why I started to play the funk riffs with the rock sounds. That was what I had to do to get a record deal back in the day. Even now, a couple years ago I got a call from Justin Timberlake and went into the studio in pretty much the same kind of thing I was doing since my first solo album, and I did that song “Dead And Gone,” which sold another two million copies! And that’s the other thing you’ve gotta do in our business. Every three or four years you’ve got to come up with something big again so you stay relevant.

I really respect Justin Timberlake – I remember when he did his first solo tour of Australia, I think everyone expected him to do like a solo version of an N*Sync show but instead I heard he spent most of the time behind a keyboard playing Stevie Wonder songs and stuff. 

Let me tell you something. I went into the studio expecting it to be like a plush session. I didn’t give a shit. And I sat down with him and he did the exact same thing. He sat down at the piano and he came down with melodic notes, things that I would never consider, and I consider myself to be musically intellectual but I realised that this guy had it in spades. He really humbled me and he made me realise, this guy is the real deal.

Devin Townsend playing the Framus IdolmakerSo let’s talk guitar! I checked out your new Framus model at NAMM, and I was hanging with Devin Townsend when he played it and he was blown away. And then I saw Alice In Chains live and William DuVall was using one on stage.

William took one of my guitars, yeah! Well here’s the thing. This is my third signature model I’ve done in 25 years and I was in no hurry to do another signature deal. I did a deal with Washburn in the late 90s and it was for an astronomical amount of money, but the guitars were less than what I wanted and I just felt like I had a sour taste in my mouth after that. But what happened was that I was at a party in Germany and Hans-Peter was there. I’m a sentimental sap: he told me that Framus was his father’s company and he really wanted desperately to make it successful, thinking of his father. And my father was my best friend, y’know? And I thought ‘Y’know what? This guy wants to do this for his dad?’ And Hans-Peter goes the extra mile with using the proper woods, and that made a difference to me. So I asked – and I didn’t think he’d really want me to – ‘Do you want me to come design a guitar for Framus?’ and he goes ‘Would you really?’ So I flew over and to my surprise he actually gave a shit! I went over there over four trips. I didn’t want to make another Gibson or another Fender. I wanted something that can hold its own and I wanted a unique shape that a kid who’s into punk rock or a kid that’s into metal can appreciate. So the head designer Marcus and I started from scratch and I had some pretty cool shapes, and from there Marcus and I really dug in. I think we really got lucky because when the guitar came out at NAMM it was just the talk of the show! And the thing is that I wanted to design a guitar with Marcus and with Framus moreso now as a designer. I wanted to take everything I’ve learned from gigs at football stadiums and Madison Square Garden, and things from all the great people I’ve worked with about woods and tones, and I wanted to put all my knowledge into an instrument so it wasn’t about me doing a Stevie Salas signature. It was about me showing that I can design something that was still relevant to people. It was more about begin a designer with Framus and Marcus than trying to create a Stevie Salas guitar. I think the whole idea of success should be, I’m not the most famous guitar player and certainly not any more, so I don’t expect people to go buy a Stevie Salas guitar. I want them to buy it because it’s a fantastic instrument.

Well that’s what I dig about it so much: when I picked it up it already felt like a guitar with a history, but you can’t pin it down to anything. It vaguely, slightly, kinda reminds you of a Firebird but it’s nothing like a Firebird, y’know?

Exactly. I wanted a kid who could play a Jazzmaster to pick up that thing and love it. And when you see it, I wanted you to know it wasn’t something else. If you saw a guy play that on stage, like your saw William, you’d say ‘Oh, that’s an Idolmaker!’ There’s no doubt about it. Hans-Peter, Marcus and myself really decided to reinvent the guitar. If you look at the cuts, Marcus was instrumental in these cuts that flow almost like the ocean. It’s in sync with the planet, y’know what I mean? We started with some of the edges being much narrower but we put the meat where it needed to be for the tone, and it’s kind of a new approach, y’know?

So tell me about the pickup choices. 

I was in Germany in December still working on prototypes. Right now we’re experimenting with pickups and I really like the Seymour Duncan Phat Cat P-90 in the neck position. That’s a special pickup and I’ve been using those for a while. You can play funk music and get it really clear and clean but it doesn’t sound so clean that it sounds wimpy. It still has a creaminess  to it in the neck position, and also you can rock with it, or you can get very down into some clear, clean guitar. And the back pickup, I’m always experimenting. I’ve always used the Seymour Duncan Custom Custom – that’s been my pickup for years – but I’ve been messing around with one called the ’78 Model. And pretty soon I’m going to be swapping out… Jeff Diamond from Diamond Amplification and myself have been designing a new Seymour pickup that’s pretty amazing and I’m going to be putting that in the Idolmaker. The pickup possibilities in the Idolmaker are endless. I plan on making a version so I never have to play a Strat again, and I’m planning on a version so I never have to play a Les Paul again, y’know what I mean? With the way the guitar is set up we can just switch a few things around and it’s incredibly versatile. A lot of people may not realise, but my very first guitar endorsement in 1988, Jol Dantzig used to make me these guitars and I really learned the importance of having my neck be maple or mahogany. Not the fretboard but the actual neck wood. And just flipping around between the maple and mahogany necks makes a huge difference on these guitars. My big thing was I would play a guitar without plugging in and I could tell if it was going to ring or not. I think the wood says everything in an instrument. Y’know, I’ve made it a challenge to help Hans Peters make Framus a really successful global guitar company. I don’t wanna sound cocky but I don’t have a lot of challenges left that I want to do, that I give a shit about. The first part of the challenge was ‘Can I design a guitar with these guys that is relevant?’ and the next thing was ‘Can we make this successful and make Hans-Peter’s dream come true for his father?’ And that’s a good challenge and I’m into it. And as long as we pay attention to quality – and Hans always does – I’m into it!

Framus idolmakers

Before you go I’ve gotta ask you about your work on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Growing up in my little home town, we didn’t have MTV or anything like that and you had to take your great guitar moments wherever you could find them. I remember going through the credits to find out who played that. 

Let me tell you a few secrets about that movie. I was a staff producer. I was still a kid myself and I was a staff producer for David Kershenbaum who was the music supervisor on the film. And he said ‘Stevie, we need to you do some things on this film. It’s a film about some crazy kids and they want to be in a rock band…’ and they’d scored the film already but the film wasn’t really working so good. So I went in and I re-scored over the whole film with the guitar. At first I was just going to do the stuff of them jumping around the room when they didn’t know how to play, which was really fun to do. I had to actually play left-handed so I could sound like I really didn’t know what I was doing. But the movie still wasn’t testing well. So all of a sudden Stephen Herek, the director, called me and David and we went to a house in LA and the garage was set up for the big scene where we do the big solo that everyone talks about now, right? And so I showed up on set, George Carlin and I were wearing the same outfit, and we didn’t know what we were going to do because nothing was written. We were just sorta figuring out this new ending, and Steven said “Stevie, just move your fingers all over the fretboard as crazy as you can.” There was no sound, nothing was plugged in and I just flew my fingers up and down the neck. And then I went back to the studio that week and I figured out how to score to myself! Which was almost impossible because it’s really ridiculous what I did! So it was kind of a joke, right? And then afterwards this solo started to become this thing where people wanted the TAB of it and they started learning it. Just recently I was sitting at a pub in London and this kid came up to me and said he went to this big university and for the end-of-year thesis everyones’ thing was “Your Solo In Bill & Ted.” They had to study it and do some kind of thing on it. Holy shit, that was just complete bullshit and here it is now! So maybe the joke is on me because maybe my subconscience had done something bigger than I’d ever realised! Maybe if I had have thought about it it might have been shit! But when is anyone gonna make a comment about George Carlin being brown Native American fingers?

Thanks to Dominant Music.