“A guitarist sings through his instrument,” says Steve Stevens, Billy Idol’s longtime six-string sonic master and all-around music-making partner. “Just as you can feel a singer’s personality come through in his voice, a guitarist’s personality comes through in his playing.”
Stevens points to two selections on his list of “five essential guitar albums” as examples: “When I listen to Steve Howe on The Yes Album, he automatically makes me smile, because his guitar playing is playful and happy. On the other hand, Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin IV takes me to a totally different place, one that’s mysterious and dark. That’s what guitarists do – they tell stories.”
And an important part of musical storytelling, according to Stevens, is the ability to create strong riffs, which he calls “the backbone of a great song.” “As much as I appreciate brilliant soloing, I’m really an addict for killer riffs,” he notes. “A strong riff is an indelible part of what makes a song work – you hum it, you do air guitar to it. You hear that intro and your hands go up in the air. It’s really hard to think of any amazing songs that don’t have great riffs.”
Another of Stevens’ choices is Van Halen’s Fair Warning, which he calls “a dark and angry masterpiece.” But the guitarist recalls the first time he heard the band’s 1978 debut album, an experience that he says, “totally took my breath away.” “I was at a party with maybe 50 or 60 people,” he remembers, “and all of a sudden ‘Eruption’ came on. I was like, ‘What is that?’ I went right to the turntable, picked the needle up and put it back at the beginning. ‘That’s a guitar?’ I said. I’d never heard anything like it. It was thrilling. It’s funny, though – I didn’t feel envious, like, ‘Goddamn, there’s nothing left to do on the guitar.’ I was inspired. I never feel competitive toward other players. I’m always proud of what they’re doing for the instrument.”
Below, Steve Stevens discusses his choices for five essential guitar albums. “Some of them might seem sort of obvious,” he says, “but they really had a tremendous impact on me and my playing. Beyond incredible technical ability, the guitarists here speak through their instruments in a dramatic way. I think that’s the best thing I could say about any player.”
Yes – The Yes Album (1971)
“I’m a huge Steve Howe fan, and this is the first Yes album with him on it. It’s like he waited his whole life to make a statement, and when he got the chance he really went for it, jamming almost every style of guitar together into one incredible moment.
“I guess for some Yes fans the pinnacle is Close to the Edge. The Yes Album isn’t as refined as some of their other records, but that’s kind of why I like it. Steve takes you on a bit of a guided history of the guitar here, and it was really influential for me. Later on in my development, I would realise ‘Oh, that’s a Chet Atkins lick here,’ and ‘Oh, he’s doing a Wes Montgomery thing there.’ Hearing Steve made me go out and check out other guitarists who weren’t just doing blues-based electric rock guitar.
“A lot of people were probably introduced to Yes with the Fragile album – they heard Roundabout on the radio and bought that record. To me, though, Fragile is one of their weaker albums because it’s a compilation of a lot of their solo pieces. There isn’t as much band interplay as there is on some of the other stuff – there’s certainly a lot of it on The Yes Album. And Steve really makes his presence felt here. For guitarists, there’s a lot to dig into.”
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“It’s an obvious one, but for me it’s the ultimate Zeppelin record. They never sounded better than they do here. I mean, Stairway to Heaven – come on. How many kids picked up the guitar because of that song alone? Millions, probably.
“It stands the test of time as one of the best examples of a guitar player, Jimmy Page, running the gamut of every musical style on the instrument and doing so brilliantly. You’ve got blues-based rock, gorgeous acoustic pieces, slamming hard rock and tripped-out psychedelic stuff. What else is there? It’s all you need in a Led Zeppelin record.
“I wanted to go with the debut album because it was such a profound statement. No other record at the time sounded as good Zeppelin’s first album. But with that one, Page still had one foot in the Yardbirds and the other foot in whatever this new band was going to be. He found it all here; it’s the quintessential Jimmy Page. It’s as if everything he had been doing his whole life led up to this one. Once Led Zeppelin IV came out, it was like, ‘This is the sound of rock guitar.’”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (1968)
“The first album was an audacious introduction – ‘Who’s this guy? Did you hear what he’s doing?’ – but on Electric Ladyland Jimi firmly took control of his career. This was Jimi being allowed to do whatever he wanted without being reined in by pop constraints. It was self-produced and bears all the marks of somebody seeing out his vision all the way.
“Jimi explores both his blues side and his wild, psychedelic side, and over the course of two records you become fully immersed in his world. From top to bottom, it’s deep, it’s bold, and it’s all astoundingly great.
“It’s pretty daunting, too. Other than jamming with people on Voodoo Chile, I don’t think I know how to play one lick on this record. I didn’t really want to learn it. You kind of absorb Hendrix in a different way, I feel; you let the music wash over you, and that’s enough. With Led Zeppelin IV, I wanted to know how to play every second of it, but when it came to Electric Ladyland, I was content to let what Jimi did stand on its own.”
Gerardo Nunez – Jucal (1997)
“Here’s a record that people might not know. Gerardo Nunez is a mind-boggling flamenco guitar player, and this record just floors me. Paco de Lucia obviously rewrote the book on flamenco guitar by bringing in all of these other influences like fretless bass, completely pissing off purists. Gerardo went beyond that, especially with the tunings he uses. He plays some unaccompanied pieces here, and you can’t even make out the tunings. He’s incredible.
“His technique is unrivaled – I’ve never heard a flamenco guitarist who has his facility – but he’s also exceptional as a composer. He allows really intricate jazz voicings to come into flamenco in a way that’s never been done before. He’s put out a bunch of great records, but to me this is his best work. If you want to hear something unbelievable that’ll take you somewhere new, this is an album to pick up.”
Van Halen – Fair Warning (1981)
“It’s the dark side of Van Halen. Anybody expecting the fun California side of the band was in for a shock when they put on Mean Streets. It’s vicious, snarling, stomping, just totally pissed-off. It doesn’t get any brighter after that, and that’s the whole point.
“I think Fair Warning was the band’s least commercially successful album. I was talking to [producer] Ted Templeman, and I told him how much I loved it. He said, ‘Oh, man, the label was really disappointed in it.’ They had wanted the band to do what they had been doing before, but Eddie and Al were just like, ‘Nope. We’re going nasty and dark.’ Even the cover is angry. You look at it and you kind of know what you’re getting.
“I don’t think there were any hit singles on it, but it doesn’t matter. Eddie does some of his most brilliant playing throughout the record. It might have been a fucked-up time within the band, too – substance issues and what not – but what came out of it was some really hard-hitting music. I love it.”