’I Didn’t Know How to Capture My Guitar in a Big Way’: Steve Stevens Recalls Tone Issues While Making ’Rebel Yell’ and How Brian May Inspired Him

Getting the right guitar tone for Billy Idol’s classic “Rebel Yell” was far from a simple task, recalled guitarist Steve Stevens.

We could easily argue that this is one of the most ’80s songs you’ll ever hear. And a huge part of it was Stevens’ guitar playing, as well as the sound that he got in the studio. “Rebel Yell” was recorded in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, and is the title track of Billy’s second studio album.

But if it weren’t for engineer Dave Wittman, the song could have easily ended up with keyboards replacing guitars, Steve Stevens said in a recent interview with Final Resonance TV. Of course, there was also the help from engineer Michael Frondelli and the record’s producer Keith Forsey.

Van Halen Stories #36 Steve Stevens “This One’s for Jan” Namm Jam 1987

“I didn’t really know how to capture my guitar in a big enough way”

“We had two great engineers on ‘Rebel Yell,’ Mike Frondelli and Dave Wittman, who was the studio engineer,” Stevens recalled (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs). But at the start of the sessions, the guitarist was facing some sonic-related problems. He continued:

“At that time, I didn’t really know how to capture my guitar in a big enough way. We were managed by Bill Aucoin, who managed Kiss, and I called up Bill, ‘I can’t get my guitar sound! How do I get my guitar sound?'”

“He goes, ‘Oh well, Dave Wittman does the Kiss records, and he’s over Electric Lady [Studios], send him in.'”

Billy Idol - Rebel Yell

The addition of the new engineer for the album was a relief for Stevens. But considering Dave’s résumé, there was no way for things not to sound great. The guitarist added:

“Then Dave Wittman came in, and he had done some Billy Cobham stuff, Zeppelin, Kiss — he knew how to get a good guitar sound. He set up some microphones. I’m in the control room. ‘YEAH! That’s what I’m looking for!'”

“And so from then on, I had this incredible engineer and studio at my disposal,” he added. “And it was great.”

Guitar or Synths?

Of course, the album’s producer was also there and was very helpful in adding more texture to his guitar tone. Bear in mind that these were the early 1980s, and synthesizers were somewhat looked down upon by some musicians.

With that in mind, Stevens felt like he wanted to do everything on a guitar without adding in synths. Reflecting on working with the record’s producer, he added:

“And also our producer, Keith Forsey, afforded me the opportunity to really experiment. I loved that the Queen records said ‘No synthesizers’ on them.”

“And we’re in there in ’83 — end of ’83 — and I said, ‘Everybody’s using keyboards and all this kind of stuff. And I’d really like to fill that space with my guitar. I want to experiment and make my guitar the way Brian May did it,’ and Keith afforded me that. I said, ‘Look, if I don’t do it, then you bring in the keyboards!'”

Tip of the month: Steve Stevens shows how to play "Rebel Yell"

The inspiration he got from Brian May and his very specific tone turned out to be very helpful in making “Rebel Yell” such a great song. The guitar tone on it is huge, it has more textures to it, and, most importantly, it fits the full picture.

Unlikely Inspiration

One of the things that also stands out in the song is the intro riff on the guitar. We’re looking at a somewhat tricky fingerpicking part with a few notes in bass moving along and the perfect fourth on the top two strings, keeping a steady rhythm in eighth notes.

When asked about how this came to be, Stevens said that the intro part had — believe it or not — folk roots.

Billy Idol (65) Steve Stevens (62) "Rebel Yell" (live)

“John Fahey, Leo Kottke,” Steve said while revealing two names who inspired him. “I started on guitar, about seven-and-a-half. That was on a crappy little nylon string acoustic, and I didn’t get an electric guitar till I was 13.”

“So that whole time is when all this Greenwich Village folk scene was really happening. James Taylor, Joni Mitchell — all these kinds of stuff. And that’s primarily what I played. So that kind of acoustic side.”

Co-written by Stevens and Idol, “Rebel Yell” would end up as one of the singer’s biggest singles. This hit from 1983 has since been praised by both pop and rock fans.

Photos: Stefan Brending (2019 RiP Deadland Ritual – Steve Stevens – by 2eight – 8SC9897), Raph_PH (Queen And Adam Lambert – The O2 – Tuesday 12th December 2017 QueenO2121217-26 (39066621655))

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.