Steve Stevens: Worst Guitar Player of the ’80s

When I studied the guitar part for Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” I expected the brutal efficiency of power chords and a simple hook.

Nope! The song opens with a complicated fingerpicking figure before moving into a fussily precise intro section. Then it finally lands on three quick power chords before moving into the verse section where, instead of power-chording in tandem with the bass, the guitar plays a precious little upper string countermelody. Even the chorus doesn’t let big easy power chords. You still have to move up and down the neck with stopwatch precision.

I watched a video of Stevens playing “Rebel Yell” without accompaniment and discussing how he wrote the guitar parts. The best sounding thing in the video is when he runs through the power chords in the verse part, which, as he notes with palpable pride, is not what he plays in the recorded version of the song.

Casual listeners would probably never suspect intricate guitar work appears in “Rebel Yell.” The song feels like a three chord howler, like Danzig’s “Mother,” only faster. When it’s over, you’re likely to remember Idol yelling “more, more, more” and move on with your life, never considering that there was some complex instrumentation going on. The technical proficiency of the guitar part adds nothing of value to the song, as the guitar is mixed way below the vocals and the keyboards.

I’d just intuitively guessed how to play the hook and chords of “Dancing With Myself,” a song that originated with Idol’s punk band, Generation X. Learning “Rebel Yell,” a song from three years deep into Idol’s solo career, I realized the corrosive effect of Idol’s guitar player Steve Stevens.

The ’80s were a bad time for guitar players in many respects and Steve Stevens encapsulates almost all of the bad of ’80s guitar. His guitar is so compressed it sounds like he’s playing through a plastic amp. All of the liberating roughness of ’70s punk and blues-style metal guitar was polished away, leaving only the speed and pomp.

His playing is the peak of Guitar Center salesman style, where guitar solos are showcases for tricks no one should care about instead of melodies anyone can remember. Every third note is a harmonic and the vibrato bar never gets a rest. It’s easy to see why people hate guitar because of it and why Slash, who crafted memorable blues scale-derived melodies for his Guns N’ Roses solos, felt like such a breath of fresh air.

The Generation X guitarist seems like an outsider art savant genius when you compare the gloriously catchy two-string opening guitar hook of “Dancing With Myself” with Stevens’ pointless craftsmanship. The chorus on Generation X’s “Dancing With Myself” explodes with Johnny Ramone power chords. It’s a rush and a release.

When Idol remade the song as a solo artist, Steve Stevens played the chords almost timidly, with delicate timing. The guitar sound is an echoey ghost of its punk origin. It strips it of everything that was remarkable. The video, directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper, is an all-time banger, however, but Stevens doesn’t deserve any credit for that.

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