“I no longer really care how fast I play,” admits Stevens. “I just want to play the right things—to play as expressively as I can.” Photo by Charles Jischke.
How will the Knaggs SS2 compare to its predecessor?
I did two world tours with the SS1, and we came up with some subtle design changes based on my playing experiences. Some of what we did helped shift the balance. The body is ever so slightly bigger, so the neck stays at just the right angle when I play the guitar standing. The headstock has a steeper break angle, which gives the guitar a different feel in terms of string tension. And I wanted this one to be more classic rock ’n’ roll, so it’s got a white finish with tortoise binding, as opposed to the first, which had a black finish with pink binding. The SS1 was a lot more glam.
Getting back to the album, on some of the fills in “Bitter Pill” and elsewhere, it sounds like you’re using a DigiTech Whammy pedal.
I did use the Whammy a fair amount. For some reason it reminds me of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer synth sounds I loved as a kid.
What else did you use on the record, in terms of effects?
I honestly can’t recall all of them.I have two Sears Craftsman tool cases loaded with pedals, and so I just took a bunch out and went with what worked best. I do remember using some cool, weird green DigiTech synth pedal a bit, and a Dunlop Zakk Wylde wah. Dunlop made me a cool one covered with rhinestones to use onstage.
Throughout the record, both the distorted and clean sounds are massive. What amps did you play through?
For amps, just my signature Friedman head and 4x12 cabinet, which is built incredibly well and sounds amazing. The cabinet has Celestion Vintage 30s and Greenbacks, two of each. I like it so much that I had a prototype shipped to England for the record.
When you’re touring with Billy, how do you recreate sounds that span so many years? By bringing a ton of gear [laughs]. Seriously, my stage manager keeps asking me to pare things down. One of the things that’s helped is having a touring rhythm guitarist, Billy [Morrison], who’s also in the all-star band Camp Freddy [recently rechristened Royal Machines] with guys from Jane’s Addiction. We brought him down to a rehearsal and just had him plug in and play rhythm to hear how it would sound. This definitely liberated me, because when there’s a solo now, I don’t have to switch rapidly between lead and rhythm roles and different guitar tones. And it gives me a fresh perspective on the music. I get a chance to play the secondary parts that I hadn’t ever gotten the chance to play live.
Another thing that’s helped is that my friend Dave Friedman [Friedman Amplification] is familiar with the whole Billy Idol catalog, and he built me a switching system that makes it easy to switch between my Suhr OD-100 and Friedman amps—the whole gamut of clean to dirty. What I especially like about the system is that when an effect is not being used, it’s switched entirely out of the signal path. My drummer told me, “You’ve got so much gear, but your guitar actually sounds like a real guitar, not a processed one.”
How would you say your playing has evolved since you started working with Billy?
Sometimes people send me old clips, and I have to say that my vibrato was terrible back then. As I matured as player, I started getting into the idea that a guitar player’s vibrato is really like his signature. So I started to really develop that aspect of my playing. Maybe it’s also about age. I no longer really care how fast I play. I just want to play the right things—to play as expressively as I can.
How did you go about working on your vibrato?
I’ve been fortunate to work with so many incredible singers overs years, and I began trying to emulate them—homing in on the way that they use vibrato. Like, how fast or how slow, and how much the pitch varies. I also keyed in to how these singers breathe and use space as much as notes. I’m a songwriter as well, and these ideas have really taught me to play for the benefit of the song.
Let’s switch directions for a second. You’re an accomplished nylon-string player, too. Did you have formal classical training?
I did as a kid. The reason I love flamenco is that I got my first serious guitar, a nylon-string, when I was 8. I didn’t get an electric until I was 13. At 9, I went away to a summer camp and there was this amazing guitar teacher. He and his brother had escaped the Nazis in World War II by climbing a mountain, and he brought nothing with him but his guitar. At the time I didn’t really know what style he was playing, but now I realize it was not classical but flamenco. I really fell in love with the nylon-string that summer.
In junior high school, I had a really good classical teacher who got me accepted into the “Fame” school [Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts], where I was reading music and playing Bach etudes and Rodrigo pieces. At the same time, I got into progressive players like Steve Howe and Robert Fripp, who were certainly incorporating classical guitar in their work. I learned every Steve Howe solo piece, if you can believe it! I still just love classical guitar, love the sound of it. It’s definitely in my blood.
How do you think your nylon-string background has affected your electric playing?
At one point, I toured with Vince Neil in support of Van Halen. We were playing so loud and everything featured these long, extended electric solos. Needless to say there was a fair amount of debauchery involved. So I came off the road and needed to cleanse, needed an exorcism. I didn’t play any electric guitar for the better part of a year and recorded my flamenco album [2000’s Flamenco A Go-Go]. It was one of the most enjoyable things I ever did. Certain aspects of that period stick with me: When I play electric guitar, I think about the tone production that comes from the fingers and about little nuances in articulation. With Billy Idol, I do a 10-minute nylon-string solo live, and I try to get a nylon-string on as many of his songs as possible, as it’s my first love!
They bring their kids now! [Laughs.] That’s the thing about Billy Idol—he really is my generation’s Elvis Presley. Billy’s got this timeless aspect to him. Older fans always want to hear the new material. Many classic bands struggle with people not wanting to hear their new music, which sadly makes them only want to tour and play the same old hits. But we’re always writing and doing new music, while keeping the audience pretty intact. The cross-generational appeal is so cool: Miley Cyrus has covered “Rebel Yell”—and so has her father, Billy Ray!