PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > STEVE STILLS
Publication: Guitar Player
Date: April, 1970
When you get into the Wooden Ship made by the Crosby Stills, Nash and Young Company and set out to meet Guinnevere, you know you’re headin’ in the right direction with your back to Altamont and the confused land of the Stones, where storms often hit. The sea is calm, with an intonation of a deep-seated folk legend. And when you open the cover, there are the original natives from the front porch to the eskimo scene. And you might ask yourself, Who did win? But putting it all together for us is a member of the company; a member whose latest claims to fame have been with Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Supersession, and in the archaic era, the Cafe-a-Go-Go Singers, then the original Buffalo Springfield.
Steve Stills, now 25, was born in Dallas, Texas, and spent most of his youth moving around, somewhat like Zappa. In high school, he pumped the drums as a means to an end: student director of the orchestra. The fulfilment of this ambition was cut short by another move. Simple joys of child-hood to Steve, meant being the student director of the orchestra.
At one time there was a “real neat” group called the Radars, tune in, “In the early stages, I was mostly influenced by . . well], there was a kid who played lead guitar in the band I was in, called the Radars (big laugh), his name was Chuck Schwin in Tampa. Florida. He was a very fine guitar player, he played a Fender. And then there was Chet Atkins, you know. There was a whole little bunch of us who were into kind of a com-bination of all the blues guys and others including Chet Atkins, Dick Dale (ed. note–Lefty Surfer of the Deltones) and Hank;. Marvin. A very weird cross section of far-out guitar players.” Then he laid down the blues influence. “As you know, BB and Jimmy Reed and that kind of style, and, of course Robert Johnson … there was a friend of mine who had some of the old Library of Congress Records.” Today, Steve is following the pack in group favorites, which is of course, the Beeee-at-tils (Kaieli!). And under favorite guitar players, he sticks pretty much to “him,” Foxey Jimi (Hendrix, of course).
Getting around to the stringed beast, Steve raps about how he got tuned into the “axe” and what he did with it. “Well, I played piano and I don’t know, but the percussion just didn’t satisfy me. And my roommate at this time … at this boy’s school . . . had a guitar, so I glombed it from him. When I was younger and first started playing the guitar, around 14, I used to come home from school and head for it right away.
“My very first guitar was a Kay, mahogany, sunburst acoustic thing . . . it was very tinny. In the rock and roll band, when I switched from drums to guitar, I borrowed it . . . it was their version of a jazz guitar, acoustic electric and I played rhythm on that. Today it varies. I have a collection of about 18 guitars, but mostly I play the ‘White Falcon.’ I have a variety of elderly guitars. Most of the guitars that the band uses are mine. David’s (Crosby) two guitars, and the custom-built 12-string is one that I modified myself. Yeah. I cut the neck. I didn’t finish it, but there’s this fellow in San Francisco (Bernardo) who does work for the various guitar shops. I cut it the way I wanted it. It’s a three-piece neck, curly maple, and I did the sanding. Then he finished it. When we started, it was a Duane Eddy 500 they gave me when I was with the Buffalo Springfield. It was too heavy for me. It just wasn’t the right six-string, so I took the body and filed it in a little bit on the inside because the twelve-string will feed back if you don’t have something solid under the bridge. Bernardo built the fret board for me . . . it’s ebony and there were some old pieces of inlay that Harmon Satterlee had sitting in a drawer that I used on the front and the back of the head. We just kind of all put it together. David uses it most of the time, but I won’t give it to him officially, ’cause I want him to go build his own. We need another one anyway.”
This paragraph will be entitled: Steve Stills, the White Falcon, and others.
“Neil and I are going to go to Gretsch next couple of weeks; I think they were really amazed at the pure White Falcons we had, ’cause they’re kind of old, both of them. So they offered to let us design one for them and you know what the design is? (laugh) There is no new design, just build the old one, man. And I hope I’m going to get them to build a 12-string for me. They built one for Michael Nesmith that is the only electric 12 that I know of that is better than mine. I haven’t experimented with how it sounds. On the one I built, it had Gibson stereo pickups. David uses a cut-down L5, as his six-string is mine that I have had for a few years. I have several old Telecasters and a Broadcaster. I also have a black Gibson, that used to have three pickups so I had the center one removed. But it’s tried. I have got like three of them, but the black one is the best. I have kind of worked it … I pulled the pickups out and kind of rewound it and like it’s the hottest, you know, there’s a lot of gain on it. It’ll tear up an amp if you’re not careful. I use it on some of the blues, kind of when the mood prevails. It really works best through a big Marshall.”
And into amps. “The amplifiers we use are all Fenders from the 50′s. All the old blond ones. They’re old Bassmans … which are kind of like having a governor, you know, we’re not going to get over a certain volume level or they’ll blow and we have managed to establish a pretty nice balance that way. I use two Bassmans and Tremoluxs in series and we have a little box that Neil designed and had built. You plug the guitar into the front of the box and it carries the signal to three separate amps so that rather than running the amps in series, you run them straight. It’s like having a guitar chord with three ends. We get pretty good distribution of sound that way. Neil, for instance, uses two of the old, really old Bassmans, the little one, about the size of a concert (with four tens) . . . and I use the others with twelves and have two tens in the Tremolux cabinet. We blew out the old speakers a long time ago, but those amps have a peculiar sound. And the only real criterion is the color and the old blond ones sound like the old brown . . . but the ones with the brown grille cloth are even funkier than the blond ones. I use an old Fender reverb unit with a Sho Bud volume pedal all the time. I can duplicate some of the backward sounds. I’m planning on reworking my Sho Bud pedal before I use it. I want to put a little pre-amp into it, because the line pedal will eat up some of the gain and take the top end off of it. It’s kind of like an automobile using a two-barrel, when it really needs a four. Jerry Garcia has one.”
Taking a break form equipment talk, we went into a bit about practice, music, etc…. “I played the piano, like I said, but it didn’t carry over to the guitar. I try to sit down and write a chart now and I can’t; I really needed those two years in high school orchestra and I wished that we had stayed in the states so I could have gotten them. Now I play strictly by ear. I played and now play at least two hours a day without fail. It makes me crazy if I don’t. If I don’t at least fiddle with it, you know, if I don’t play with it, at least I want to work on the guitar. I recently bought a D-45, a new Martin. Incidentally, it might be good to put it in the magazine that I am searching frantically for an old D-45.” (Hear that gang?) “Anyway, I bought this and shaved the braces down which is a little trick I learned from a guitar maker in New York by the name of Mark Silber. When Martin moved the factory, and went into a kind of production business, the braces on the inside … it’s like we do the best we can … but now they even use a different kind of wood. Martin has a few strange practices, but they’re still the best in this country.”
Wrapping up the equipment scene, so we could get into technique, Steve uses D’Angelico light gauge bronze on his acoustics and Fender light gauge rock and roll on the electrics.
As far as picking goes, Steve uses bare fingers. “I started to play flat pick a little bit when I began to play lead guitar.” Then he found he was less encumbered without the plectrum and could approximate that sound with the front part of his first finger. Now the callous is building up. “I just put my thumb up against my index finger and strum and pick that way and it works the same as a flat pick. Then I can just open up my hands and play a little finger-picking pattern. I just worked a lot on developing the touch for bare finger picking … and I sort of worked on translating it from acoustic to electric. I use the flesh part of my finger, but I also keep my right thumbnail rather long and use that a lot. So my loudest sound is to simply use my thumb and get a little guts out of that thumbnail.”
Playing the guitarist muscle game, he rapped a little on weaknesses. “Well, actually my third finger is the one I find weakest, second to the little finger. I can do things with my little finger that . .. well, it got smashed in an accident when I was fifteen or sixteen and the sensitivity of it isn’t so much. But the one I have always had trouble with is my ring finger . . . the one thing that I want to be able to do and can’t is . . . being able to bend and then get a vibrato going at the top of the bend. Like Foxey Jimi does it a lot, that’s sort of the basis for the way that he plays . . . he’ll sort of bend two and three steps and then wobble it when he gets to the top. It takes a very strong finger.”
Under the heading of evaluation of trends in rock and blues, Steve said that ” there’s not enough music happening. There’s a lot of cats out just making noise. There are very few bands in this country that are trying to play music, but a lot of them go to the extent of hiding their music behind some kind of little game they play . . . you know, it’s some kind of a shuck they’re running and the music gets lost in it. Maybe in about like ten years somebody will get hip and release all the Frank Zappa tracks without voices and the people will start callin’ it Stravinsky. I mean the guy’s a genius but some kind of basic insecurity makes him hide that behind this number that he is running. And the number has its validity, but the music to me is so much more important. I happen to be fortunate enough to have heard those tracks without the voices and they’re incredible. And Jimi Hendrix has let his music get hidden behind his game. A lot of people let that happen and it’s just a shame because there are a lot of talented musicians that are varying their true talent.”
Steve commented that today, the rock and roll bands are replacing the roles of the old Hollywood stars. “What movie stars used to have in the way of public appeal, the rock and roll bands have taken over. It isn’t so much what the rock musicians are doing, it’s what the kids are doing with the pop musicians. The larger-than life thing. It’s like John Lennon is much more important than Vanessa Redgrave; whereas Paul Whiteman was never more important than Gary Cooper. And therefore, the more all the little pieces of BS that go on with the superstar, the less important your music becomes and the less people seem to realize what you are doing musically.”
Steve describes the style he is putting across today as “Contemporary American Music.’ He admits that now he is finally beginning to achieve his ultimate goal … to do something new, do something different … create a new style … a new form.” He claims his music isn’t rock, folk, pop, but yet … ‘it is all those things … there’s a lot of influence from legitimate music from back into the forms that band marches take, you know and symphonic.”
The plans for 1970 include finishing off their tour schedule in London and then a film for Warner Brothers, based on one of their songs. Then, “we’re going to do a summer tour against pop festivals. We’re not going to work any pop festivals, ’cause they’re really a burn.”
We talked a little about the Stones Concert (FREE) at Altamont. It seemed to leave a bad taste in his mouth concerning the Stones’ Karma so we dropped it and spoke about the album. “Well, we just finished the second Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Album but that first one is on the verge of a million items … so I’ll be seeing a platinum album for the end of January, which is kind of nice.” A platinum album, for those unknowing, is an R.I.A.A. award which means that the album has created $2,000,000 in sales. The Gold Album is $1,000,000 dollars worth of business that the artist has created, which breaks down to about 480,000 albums. But the Crosby, Stills and Nash first album is into about 900,000 albums. The second album will be titled Deja Vu. which in French means “I have been there before . . . Sort of the feeling you get when you get a little flash that I’ve done this before … that’ll be on the Atlantic label.”
Steve has a far-out mind, geared to creativity and science fiction. He’s got a lot of heavy thoughts about Moog Synthesizers and computer playbacks and plug ins . . . and I wish we had the space … sometime … man … Sometime we’ll bring it all home to you. Nevertheless, Steve is solid and I hope he came across that way. His head’s pointed in the right direction and although he’s on top now … wait a few years and you’ll really find out how high the top can go. Later.
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