february 2021

Ambitious, hot-wired, and frying the fretboard, the breakout artist discusses songwriting, tone, honesty, and ambition. His collaborator and mentor Vernon Reid joins in.

Rock guitarist Derek Day’s nascent career speaks for itself. At 24, he’s toured with Steve Vai, Living Colour, and Lynch Mob, and has plenty of ebullient charm and rocket-fueled ambition. When asked where he sees himself in five years, he says, with mild reservation, “I will be 100 percent playing the largest stages on the planet.

“There’s no way to not sound bad when you say that,” he observes, “but it’s only because I really believe the things I’m trying to say.”

Day’s latest single, “Click on Me,” was released with a music video in September 2020, and shows just what makes him so exciting: guitar work with fangs, slightly overdriven and snarling, combined with rasping, ruthless, metal-esque vocals that could kill. If it’s not obvious with a quick listen, the song expresses social commentary on widespread internet addiction.

“One of the things that I love about the song is the way it ends,” says Vernon Reid, legendary guitarist of Living Colour and producer and co-writer of “Click on Me.”

“‘When did we volunteer for this slavery?’ And boom! It leaves you with this very stark question,” Reid explains. “It doesn’t sugarcoat it; it doesn’t hold your hand. It forces you to consider what’s been presented.”

There’s even more to Day than the vicious attitude and guitar incisors he displays on that tune. He’s a dedicated songwriter that’s passionate about arranging, who says he draws inspiration from David Bowie, who, Day adds, “knew how to arrange a song like no one else.” One of his goals is to write a film score. “It would just be a blast to sit down for hours on end. I love Tom Waits—he creates atmospheres. I feel like I could do that.”

Looking at his trajectory so far, yes, it seems he could do that, and much more. When we reached Day and Vernon Reid for this interview, Day was in a typically buoyant mood. “I’ve been writing and recording with the band every single day, so it’s just been really busy, and having calls such as these and stuff ... not a moment to sleep.” He laughs, but with his work ethic and high-bar goals, he won’t be caught napping anytime soon.

How are you feeling about the way “Click on Me” has broken out?
Derek Day:
Feeling great. This is the most success I’ve had on a release. I’m just an indie artist. I feel like the content is something I’m really proud of, and something I want to keep pushing. Just this one single itself—I’ll always be promoting it. I’ll always send it to people—if anything, for some form of social purpose.

What was it like working with Vernon?
It was very intimidating at first. He’s a very intimidating guy, because he’s a genius—musically, but also with life. He’s extremely well-read and he’s really smart. But then I just felt overwhelmed with gratitude. Everything he says is such a piece of knowledge, and it’s always new. It was kind of surreal, to say the least.

And Vernon, what was it like for you working with Derek?
Vernon Reid:
Derek Day is 100 percent rock ’n’ roll. All the times I’ve seen him play, being with him in the studio, being with him in my house—he’s the same guy. He just has it. And I love his playing because it reminds me a little bit of the late, great Tommy Bolin.

“Derek Day is 100 percent rock ’n’ roll. All the times I’ve seen him play, being with him in the studio, being with him in my house—he’s the same guy. He just has it. And I love his playing because it reminds me a little bit of the late, great Tommy Bolin.” —Vernon Reid

He’s got chops but he’s very melodic. He’s not playing, like, “Okay, here comes the fabulous arpeggio, because that’s the script.” That’s not what he does. He plays what’s in his heart. And then, vocally he’s crazy. There’s a bit of Jeff Buckley in his voice, a bit of Freddie Mercury. He’s an outstanding vocalist as well as guitarist. And he’s got the songs to support. His songs are great context for his enthusiasm, vocals, and his great guitar playing.I’m just psyched for America to get on the program. He’s got it; he really has got that thing.

You guys toured together.
Yeah, that’s how we got to work together on writing.

Can you talk about how that developed?
We met via Derek’s manager, Ali Shayesteh. He’s an old friend. And he called me and he was very excited about this young guitar player and singer/songwriter that he hooked up. And Living Colour was doing a West Coast run, and he said maybe we could get some dates. Really, from the first time I heard him play and sing, I was like, “That kid’s legit.”

Day: We kind of became a family with the crew and everything. I think that sort of sparked us, right? ’Cause the following January, that’s when we started writing. I left on New Year’s Day, at three in the morning—took a red-eye out to Staten Island, [New York] where Vernon is, and we just started writing immediately. That’s how we wrote “Click on Me.” We’d meet at 7 or 8 a.m. and just write all afternoon. We got a bunch of stuff, but that was the one where I was like, “Alright, let’s make this one happen.”

“This is the most success I’ve had on a release,” Day says of his pointed single, “Click on Me.” “I feel like the content is something I’m really proud of, and something I want to keep pushing.”

What was it about that song that made you realize it was the one?
Well, the first thing you do when you write with someone is you just talk. You’re just like, “What do you like? What do you think is cool?” It’s kind of awkward. But we both had so much in common. We both love sci-fi and stuff. We love Star Wars. We’re just goofing off, and that led into technology. And he told me, “Man, I’ve really been wanting to write a song about this whole phone thing, this whole social media thing. I know some writers are kind of pointing to it, but no one’s really saying what it really is.”

Reid: We were talking about it and knocked around phrases, and it started to emerge. The song used us to write it. What I like about it is that it talks about something that’s such an impact on our lives, but there are no songs about it. We’re overwhelmed by [the internet]—we’re addicted to it. It’s weird because it’s all subconsciously chasing us around, it’s telling us things that we do. It’s a weird, selective space. And that’s the thing the song attempts to speak to. I don’t know of any other song that’s taken that on.

Day: That was the one that got completed fully, pretty much to the T, in a day. And then we spat around a bunch of other ideas. We wrote two other full songs. One is more of a ballad, more personal to my family life. Another one is perfect for these times. It’s about the new form of plague happening. That’s actually something I would love to pick up on.

Tell me more about the co-writing process.
I came with these licks and riffs, the key of the song, but Vernon really shaped it. It was kind of sporadic. A lot of unnecessary notes here and there. I was just excited, like, “Here’s this idea!” I had five separate ideas in the key of D, and we narrowed it down to maybe two or three. But Vernon’s got that ear. He’s just like, “No, we don’t need that, this is going to take away from the point.” Then he wrote a bunch of the words, like, “How did no place become the place to be?” He would give me these hard lines and they would literally just push me back on my feet. And I would kind of fill in the gaps here and there. Honestly, we were so in this universe, I can’t say anything is mine without him being a part of it. It was this big messy blur. Songwriting is weird [laughs].

Reid: Also, what I love about this song is it’s very stark. The way Derek goes, “I want to go viral.” When he sings it, he sounds almost like a spoiled brat. It sounds almost monstrous—that borderline obsession that’s in his voice.

Read MoreShow less

The difference between a good guitar and a great guitar is subjective, but it goes way beyond tone and aesthetics.

I used to hate Stratocasters. Okay, that’s not exactly the full truth, but as much as I admired their straightforward design, signature sound, and robust construction, they never gave me gooseflesh like, say, a blonde dot-neck 335. My happy place was that buttery smooth 24 3/4" feel and the fat, fat, fat, singing sustain of a humbucker-shod, glued-neck guitar. That’s not to say I haven’t owned a slew of Fender products over the years. I treasured the 1950s maple-necked Strats and Teles that passed through my hands, but I never really bonded with them. I didn’t feel like they were my friends.

Fatal attraction. No doubt about it: Visuals are a powerful thing. Whether it’s walking into a store or browsing online, your eyes are your gear radar. And once locked onto the target, a lot of potential turn-offs can be rationalized into the background. I’m as guilty as the next person of being seduced by a lovely shape. I’ve owned at least three of the same-model electric 12-string just because they were so fetching visually. Inevitably, their narrow and crowded necks rendered them almost unplayable to me, so each time I quickly gave up on them.

If the shoe fits. A comfortable neck is a great selling point that has lured many a guitarist into playing certain instruments. Easy is good, right? One of the reasons I didn’t get on with Stratocasters was that everything seemed harder to play on them. I interpreted the long-scale stiffness as an impediment, and quickly lost interest no matter how good they sounded. Once, however, I found myself in a situation where for a couple months my only guitar at home was a Strat. After being held hostage for a few weeks, I realized that a little fight was good for me, and the skirmish became the point. Once I acknowledged this, wringing the neck into submission became a joy instead of a struggle. I also became aware that easy can be lazy, and the Strat pushed me to do better. Amazingly, it also made playing more comfortable guitars better, too.

Your guitar should bring out your best, and catch you when you fall without judgment.

The quest for tone. At the heart of most guitar safaris is the belief that if we had the right tone, we’d be inspired to play more—and better. This is where things get a little misguided. Some guitarists talk about searching for a sound they hear in their heads, which might not be as useful as finding the sounds already buried in the guitars they own. When you examine the breadth of tones that different artists get from the exact same guitar, you realize that sometimes it’s the archer, not the arrow.

The argument for exploration. When I was first starting out, I didn’t know how to mine for gold in any given guitar. But being broke and relegated to a cheap beginner’s instrument, I was forced to explore what it could do. Luckily, I was so fascinated with the damn thing that I tried all sorts of stuff. I experimented with where I picked the strings and noted how that position sounded on all the notes up and down the neck—and how it changed with the different pickups. I turned the controls constantly in conjunction with the amp settings and made mental notes of what happened. I played too loud, and then softly. I leaned the headstock against the speaker and banged on the body. Everything was fair game, and I built up a catalog of knowledge. I’m not a great player, but I know a lot about what guitars can do and why. Along the way, I’ve discovered that building a friendship over time is sometimes better than a first impression might imply.

Quality time. What makes an instrument become a soul mate? First impressions are important, but sometimes misleading. We all have stories about guitars that catch our eye from across the room. Their beauty beckons us closer and invites our touch, but living with them becomes a letdown. Then there are the sleepers that just make you feel at home. I think that sometimes it comes down to spending quality time with each other. My favorite guitars are the ones that push me to try a little harder and reward me when I do. I don’t feel judged if I try something a little beyond my reach, and they don’t complain if I tell the same old story for the hundredth time. Your guitar should bring out your best, and catch you when you fall without judgment. Sometimes that trust just takes a while.

Read MoreShow less