Guitar playing that burns

American rocker delievers, Italians go wild

Julia Fein Azoulay
July 21, 2005

Music-lovers detecting distinctly American, red hot licks, funky chops and classic West Coast riffs behind Italian folk hero Vasco Rossi’s rock and Peppino D’Agostino’s finger-style acoustic compositions aren’t imagining things:  generating much of the juice, these days, is California-born and -bred guitarist Stef Burns.

 

Burns, currently the guitarist with Huey Lewis and the News, is in Italy touring with Vasco Rossi and recently released the CD Bayshore Road together with D’Agostino; Burns toured Italy with D’Agostino, as well, to celebrate the 2005 European release of their CD, on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations record label.  Indeed, Rossi’s current Buoni o Cattivi tour isn’t Burns’ first tour in Italy, nor is it likely to be his last; it was the stellar July, 2004 G3 concert in Rome, during which Burns sat in with Vai, Joe Satriani, and Robert Fripp to an overwhelming audience response, that sold Vai on the Bayshore Road project.

 

All of his Italian shows, however, are a long way from some of the mega-gigs Burns has done over the years:  Prince’s Purple Rain tour, Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid tour, and touring and playing alongside Judas Priest, Motorhead, Ozzy Osborne, Megadeth, Faith No More, Slash, and Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue.  Along with providing a great deal of doubtlessly-brazen panty-flinging, these gigs enriched Burns’ guitar playing in a distinctly American way: 

 

“We all performed together on the same record ,” Burns reveals, “but when we went on tour together and I was the guitarist, I played their parts.  Whenever you learn somebody else’s parts, you’re learning their playing:  it rubs off and they become a part of what you know, what you’ve learned.”

 

Besides being profoundly educational for Burns, some of those gigs were also headbangers’ heaven.  And while there are plenty of music aficionados who insist heavy metal has seen its day, Burns – along with many other guitar greats - begs to differ despite the fact that his personal tastes may be evolving.

 

“Heavy metal will always endure,” he tells The Florentine.  “I find myself listening to more jazz and interesting songwriters and softer stuff – but I certainly like playing it.  It’s fun to play.  It’s in-your-face, high energy, aggression and a lot of precision:  heavy metal is very precise.  And there’s a lot of extra testosterone.  It has become part of our culture like rock and roll did, and hip hop – and it will remain part of our culture.”

 

Heavy metal, in fact, isn’t the only style of playing Burns has mastered.  Known for his diversity and impeccable technique, Burns is acknowledged by the finest musicians and avid fans alike for his uncanny ability to shift from one musical nuance to another with unflinching skill.  This ability, Burns insists, comes straight from those he has shared both stage and recording studio sessions with.

 

He attributes his funky edge, for example, to the Purple Rain tour – during which Burns was exposed to what GuitarOne calls Prince’s “trademark melding of steamy lyrics and an irrepressibly bold soul-pop-funk fusion” for the duration of the tour – an immersion course in the language of funk.  “As anyone who’s ever heard Purple Rain can attest,” GuitarOne declares, “when it comes to anthemic guitar riffing that builds achingly to a massive, careening climax, Prince is king.” Burns was a loyal royal subject for the duration of that tour – and one avid to absorb the soul behind Prince’s crackling riffs and smooth-as-silk delivery.  “I was playing funk before that tour, but Prince opened up a whole other level of funk for me because he’s such a master at that,” Burns says with a heavy dose of respect.  “His style has a lot of elements of Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown; I had been playing more in the style of Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire.  Sheila E. was a band with all the music written and arranged by Prince; that plus being on tour with him, watching him play every day and a few jam sessions during sound checks taught me a lot.”  Asked to elaborate, Burns can only generate some funky staccato sounds – but he can’t describe the essence of the Prince style with words:  like a perfect Italian pasta sauce, Burns implies, you can only feel the otherworldliness – you certainly can’t capture it with a list of uptight adjectives.

 

And so it goes.  As every musician knows, the soul of great music gets felt and internalised; it gets passed on from maestro to maestro like a whopping, gutsy blood transfusion of the spirit.

 

So why does a guy who has toured the world with nothing short of the guitar players’ A-list continue to come back to the feisty but diminutive Italy, where the strongest-selling albums might generate fewer sales than one American garage band just breaking out on the college radio circuit?

 

Passion:  the passion Italians feel for music, and the passion Burns in turn has come to feel for Italy.

 

Just as all the best guitarists from everywhere in Italy converge on one serious guitar store off the autostrada in Siena because they’re willing to travel any distance for a great sound, so too do appreciative fans throng the best concerts country-wide, generating pulse levels that could make any musician’s temples throb.

 

“The stadiums and the shows I play in Italy are much bigger than the ones I play in other places,” says Burns, who also played for years with the San Francisco cult-favourite Y & T.  “That’s very attractive.  It’s a huge energy, a grand scale, the size of the music, the appreciation of the crowds – and Vasco and his music are really exceptional.”

 

Ironically, Burns points out, “Vasco is bigger in Italy than most artists are in the States;The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Paul McCartney are a few examples that are big like him - and they are all English!  With Huey we play some big venues like 10,000 or 15,000 people; Vasco plays for 80,000.  Also, my style of playing seems to match with many of the Italian listeners and the Vasco fans.  Maybe because we have in common a love for beautiful romantic melodies - which I love to incorporate into my playing.”

 

This West Coast rocker has had a lot of Italy on his agenda this summer:  his Florence show on July 5 was followed by another concert on the 9th in Udine; Burns has since returned to the States for a nationwide tour with Huey Lewis and the News.  But with a growing circle of ardent Italian fans to his credit, Burns will clearly be back soon – to play for the most passionate audience he’s found to dateright here in Italy.

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