By Brian M. Howle
As we discovered in the last issue, Murrells Inlet’s resident guitar laureate Steve Senes bested nine other of the best guitarists on the planet to take the prestigious Guitar Player Magazine’s “Guitar Superstar: Guitar Player of 2009” title in San Francisco, CA, on Sept. 12, 2009.
Hot off the big win, Steve flew back home and began sorting through the hectic and fruitful week, and began making plans for taking his good fortune to the next level – which, as any guitarist worth his chops will tell you, is to be signed by a major recording label. But before that happens, this very accessible and extremely down-to-earth young man took the time to grant me an interview.
Howle: So, tell me … how did this long, winding musical road begin for Steve Senes?
Senes: Well, it’s because I have the coolest parents in the whole world … they took my sister and me to see KISS in concert back in ‘77 … and that was my very first concert … and that was it, man! I fell in love with the band and music in general, and rock and roll in particular. My folks bought me a little acoustic and I just beat the hell out of it the first day, you know? (Laughs)
So then when I was 9 or 10, I started taking guitar lessons from a guy, but didn’t really stick with it at the time. But when I was about 15, my friend and I were walking thru our neighborhood – him with a bass, me with my acoustic, like we’re badasses, you know? And this guy sees us walking by and says, “Hey, come over here and let me show you how to play that thing!” Turned out he had a Fender amp and Stratocaster … he taught me a bar chord, and then a major scale, and I was off and running. I got my first electric guitar and amp not long after that, and it’s all been downhill from there! (Both laugh) Everyone gets exposed to music in a different way, but I think it was this guy showing me how to play rock & roll.
One of the first songs he taught me was The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, and that turned out to be sorta prophetically cool because one of the guys from The Cars was one of the judges in the Guitar Superstar contest. So there I am, vying for this title, in front of a guy who recorded the first rock song I ever learned.
Howle: So what was the biggest influence on you, as far as the genre of music that really got your juices flowing?
Senes: When I was about 15, one of my friends turned me on to Alcatrazz’ Live Sentence , which featured Yngwie Malmsteen on guitar while we were setting up to play at a party. (For you neophytes: In 2007, Malmsteen was honored in the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II. Players can receive the “Yngwie Malmsteen” award by hitting 1000 or more notes in succession). I listened to that and thought, “Man, how the hell do you get a guitar to sound like that?”, and I focused from that point on, on teaching myself how to play in that vein. I played until my fingers were blue, and I realized, “Hey, I can play like that”, and from then on, I forgot about football and baseball and all that stuff I had been into before, and that was it, man! And I was a pretty good baseball player, you know? (Both laugh again)
Howle: Oh, and don’t I know that feeling well, as do a few other million guitarists. So when this fellow was teaching you guitar, did you learn to play be ear, or did you learn to read music?
Senes: Man, sometimes I don’t really know how the hell I learned or what I’m doing. I learned to play a lot of stuff by ear, like Twisted Sister, Iron Maiden or Mötley Crüe, because it’s really not all that complicated. But in order to grow as a musician, I knew I needed to learn the proper way. So when I graduated high school, I went to college and took music courses, and realized a lot of the things I had learned – in how to play – was basically wrong. So then I spent the next ten years or so unlearning that and reeducating myself the right way. But then I realized that pretty much took the rock ‘n roll out of it, and my way of playing and “feeling” it, you know .. so then I spent that time unlearning what I had learned in college, to get back to the way I really needed to play.
Howle: (Laughing) So that was a construction/deconstruction/reconstruction event?
Senes: Yeah, that’s pretty much the way it worked out!
Howle: I’ve seen you play several different types of guitar at your gigs here around the beach. What type of guitar do you prefer now?
Senes: The main ones I play now are made by ESP; the model is a Les Paul knockoff called the LTD EC-1000.
Howle: I first saw you playing a white Carvin, right?
Senes: Yeah, that was actually the electric that I learned on. But about a year or so ago, I found the ESP, and it really changed the way I play guitar. I have two of the them, and the sounds that come out of them when I play are amazing … I mean, there are harmonics and stuff that, in turn, bring out something else in my playing style that the other guitars just don’t evoke. It’s just a great sound that works for me in a very special way.
Steve had to stop for a few minutes to take a call from his buddy at ESP guitars (who flew up to San Francisco for the contest)…
Senes: Hey, that was my friend from ESP … just called to tell me he’s been having fun telling everyone that the guy who won the contest did it on a relatively inexpensive ESP … so now I’m in their official press kit!
Howle: Way cool! Sort of the whole idea of the fringe benefits of winning something like this, huh?
Senes: Actually, remember the guy I told you about, who saw my friend and I walking and taught me how to play? He works for PRS now (Paul Reed Smith guitars) as Quality Assurance Director.
Howle: Small world, huh?
Senes: Really! Anyway, what I was telling you about the ESP … when I was recording my CD, I would pick up any guitar and just do the same thing, you know, just shredding, running scales and stuff. But when I picked up the ESP for the first time, I started playing actual melody lines, you know? All kinds of new, different things started coming out, and I’m telling you, this guitar made it possible for me to make this CD.
Howle: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you have something set in your head, or do you just go in different directions and see what happens, or what?
Senes: It just depends on the material. I had one song on this CD , where I had this riff in my head for probably 7 or 8 years, but I never really sat down and worked the whole thing out. And then, like in “The Swami” there’s that intro loop; I just started that and liked it and then worked everything else around it. I remembered Steve Vai talking about how loops can be an inspiration for creativity. So when I got my gear that came with a bunch of different loops in it, I heard that one loop and started writing a solo over it.
Then I came back about a week later and started the middle break, and then the whole thing sorta wrote itself. And on another song, there was a drum loop that I sorta liked, and I got an idea for a bass line so I picked up the bass and started playing and did the whole bass line all the way through. And in two hours the whole song was completed and recorded. And them sometimes I’ll work on something for weeks and still never develop anything. It’s really weird … I wish I could come up with a reliable method for writing a song! But I guess it all works for the best …
Howle: Well, in my interviews with everyone from Lindsey Buckingham to Johnny Winter to Chubby Checker, the one thing that remains constant in all is that the best thing to do is stay true to yourself, and the way you are comfortable doing things … like they say, stick with who brung ya to the dance, you know?
Senes: And sometimes I’ll have a bass line, like one I had was an industrial sounding thing, and then I started fooling around with tempo changes and the next thing I knew, it had a funk groove to it. Like I said, I wish I could isolate whatever it is that makes it happen!
Howle: And then you could rule the world!
Howle: So how did you come about entering this contest, sponsored by Guitar Player Magazine?
Senes: Well, I read about it last year, and I thought about it, but I didn’t have anything prepared to submit for the entry process. And then this year I saw it again, and though, “Hey, what the hell,” and figured maybe someone at GPM would enjoy hearing something I played or something, never imagining I would be selected for the finals or anything. And one night at band practice (Steve is a member of Superswamp Heroes), I just mentioned in passing to the guys that I had entered this contest, and there was a date when they were having the finals and I said, “Hey, let’s leave this date open in the unlikely event I happen to get in or something”. And I had to set up an online account to submit the songs (a way to prevent a zillion wannabes who just picked up a guitar from cluttering the field with garbage) that required a fee, and they said finalists would be notified by Aug. 1.
Well, about Aug. 2 or so, I was getting a little tight on cash and was going to cancel that account to save the money. Now, when you click on the part to cancel, it prompts a box that says “Do you really want to cancel this account?” And I thought, “What the hell, it’s only 6 bucks and that’s not going to make or break me, so I’ll leave it there for a few more days.”
And not five minutes later, I got an email telling me that I had been selected for the finals.
Howle: Wow … that close to making a huge mistake, huh?
Senes: Yeah, and I can’t imagine how much I would have kicked myself for canceling and never knowing what would eventually come to pass.
Howle: How many people entered the contest? And how did GPM go about selecting the finalists?
Senes: One of their guys told me they got about 2,000 entries in all. And then the staff divided up the entries among them, and each one weeded out their choices and then they ended up with the Top 10 finalists .. and thank God, I was one of them.
Howle: Hey, when I’m out listening to musicians and I hear someone like you … I know you’re destined for bigger and better things. And it may sound a little odd, but I have to tell you, I’m really not surprised that you were selected – I’m happy for you and all, but I never doubted for a moment that you had that ability.
Senes: (In Steve’s typical, humble manner) Oh … well, you’re too kind .. thanks, man!
Howle: But, back to the details … what was the actual final, live competition like? How did that go down, and what was the time between when you played and when you learned the results?
Senes: Well, I flew out there a day early, to get acclimated to the time change and all and to be rested, so I got there on Thursday. And then I spent Friday practicing over and over, and then we went out Friday night and just hung out with all the other guitarists in the contest. And they were all just the coolest, nicest folks … I mean, really, nobody in the contest had an ego and it was just really cool.
So on Saturday, we all took the shuttle to the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center in Livermore, California (east of San Francisco) around noon for a soundcheck with the backing band. The contest is the centerpiece of Guitar Player LIVE!, a 3-day celebration of guitars, music, and gear.
We each had about half and hour to get our settings and stuff on our amps and dialing in our sound, you know, and I got the first half of the song, and then the second half, and then my time was done and I was just raw nerves by then. I mean, Ihear all the other guys doing their stuff and I’m wondering, “Man, what in the hell am I even doing here?”
Well, I was scheduled to go on last (out of 10), and I was up in the Green Room, and I had decided not to listen to anyone so as not to psyche myself out or anything, and then someone goes and turns on the TV up there and I was like, “Oh, great”. So I just put my headphones on and started practicing, and it seemed like every time I took them off, they were critiquing a contestant’s performance, and they would be ripping them apart (sorta like the American Idol format of judges), and that added to the nerves, but it was sorta like a Guitar Summer Camp. I mean, whenever they would rip someone, everyone else was like, “Hey, come on, man” … so there’s all the judges, and about 800 people at a sold-out theater, waiting for you to do your thing …
And then when I walked out on stage, all the nerves just went away. And the next thing I knew, five minutes had passed and I was playing like the best guitar I had ever played in my life!
Howle: Sounds like you were in the zone, huh?
Senes: Well, the crowd was so amazing … it was the first time in my life I felt a stage shake with the applause. Man, that’s better than any kind of buzz you can imagine!
Howle: Hey, I can relate to that … that symbiotic relationship with the crowd is what makes it so alluring. So with the backup band – did you have to provide charts to them, or what?
Senes: Well, they would take charts if you had them, but they said you could just submit MP3’s of your song and that’s what I did. One guy gave the band those, and then each member charted out their part. I can attest to how they did on the other guys’ stuff, but on mine, they were freakin’ unbelieveable.
Howle: I would think they would have to be, to take on 10 musician’s songs from a cold start and then play up to each one’s expectations.
Senes: Oh, easily, the best group of musicians I have ever had the good fortune to be on stage with. They were called “Thud Factor”, and man, they were just awesome.
Howle: Well, how long was it before you learned that you had won?
Senes: I was the last contestant to play, and I wandered outside to text message my dad, and when I came back it was just about ready … I’d say maybe 15 minutes from when I finished.
Howle: Oh … (Laughs) Oh, really? Hey, talk about your Karma justice … saving the best for last?
Senes: Actually, that’s what the guy from The Cars said – they saved the best for last!
Howle: I’ll say it again, Steve … I love ya, but honestly, I’m really not surprised that you won. You are really just that good, my friend.
Senes: Man, it’s disorienting to keep hearing that … all my friends say the same thing, and I’m wondering, “Man, am I the only one who’s surprised?” (Laughs)
Howle: And that’s what makes you so special, bud … So, what sort of things have been happening as a result of winning this puppy?
Senes: Man, it’s ongoing, but I’ve gotten some endorsements from Voodoo amps and Keeley effects … and I’ve been in touch with the guy that handles Gene Simmons … As far as goodies, let’s see … I got: • My choice of one of 3 Mesa/Boogie amps (I chose the Stiletto) • BC Rich Exotic Class Mockingbird in Spalted Maple • D’Addario Prize Package (dunno what’s in there) • My choice of a Seymour Duncan stompbox and pickup set • Voyage-Air Acoustic Guitar • Line 6 Spider IV 75 • Peterson StroboStomp 2 • N-Tune Tuners • Essential Sound Products – MusicCord PRO Power CordDean Markley Prize Package.
Howle: And when will this be in Guitar Player Magazine?
Senes: They print so far in advance, probably not until the first of the year, which is cool because that gives me more time to work on getting my CD mastered.
Howle: So what’s the long range goal now, bud?
Senes: Well, Superswamp Heroes is my main thing, you know .. what I’m really hoping for is to get a little money out of this, maybe get my name out there a little bit, and a recording deal would be nice … but really, whatever happens at this point is fine by me!
Howle: As it would be by all of us out here who are in your corner, Steve. Thanks for your time, and continued success in all of your endeavors.
And folks, that is what you get with this humble, grounded guitar wizard … an easy going attitude without the ego, and I just can’t say it enough … one of the nicest and most talented guys you will ever have the pleasure to meet.
So if you’re lucky enough to live in our little patch of Paradise, make a point to visit Steve’s website and then check out Superswamp Heroes (and his acoustic project, Pale Horse, which plays Wednesdays thru October at Bully’s in North Myrtle Beach). For further updates visit his MySpace site at http://www.myspace.com/9yu and his website at http://senesmusic.com
This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 8, 2009 at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com