The background of guitar virtuoso Steve Dadaian is fascinating, to say the very least. During his time studying at the prestigious Columbia University, he was entering guitar and songwriting competitions that were judged by names such as Slash, John Petrucci of Dream Theater, Jon Donais of Anthrax & Shadows Fall. He would performed at events with world-renowned guitarists on the bill, masters of their craft like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and Nicko McBrain. One of the songs on his new record was even entered in a songwriting competition judged by none other than Serj Tankian of System of a Down.
Those years of practicing and honing his craft have paid off immensely: February 2019 sees the release of Dadaian’s full length solo album, Follow The Light, a concept record that shows the guitarist exploring cinematic and technically complex musical territories, providing the soundtrack to an original story that Dadaian put together for the album. With elements of metal, jazz, hard rock, and classical music all making up the blueprint of the album, Follow The Light showcases Steve Dadaian as one of the most technically fascinating guitarists of this new generation of musicians. We sat down for a brief phone interview with Steve prior to the release of the album to talk about day jobs, writing a solo record, the importance of maintaining a practice schedule, and much more.
Note: Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.
I read this information that was sent over to me about you before this interview, but you’re a dentist, correct?
That’s my day job, yeah! I go back and forth, like sometimes on my lunch break, I’ll go and do session work. The studio I record at is about ten minutes away from where I work, so sometimes I’ll be there. It’s kind of chaotic but it still helps me with keeping the dream alive, you know?
I’ve read that you found your love for guitar at an early age, and you would spend as much of your spare time as possible practicing when in college, leading you into the top spots of guitar competitions hosted by people like Slash and John Petrucci. Out of curiosity, how were you able to balance your time, and what did your practice regimen consist of when honing your craft like that?
That's a really good question, because I think now is when all of that work pays dividends. I guess when I really started working hard practice-wise was when I was back in high school. It’s tough because you go to school all day, then you come back [home]; if you have a sport or something you’ll have even less time. So before I even like got into playing, I was just a fan of music, period. I think that’s the most important thing, to be a fan of music and enjoy listening to the instrument itself. I would have in my head an idea of like, “okay, this is an idea of a sound that I’m going for. If I’m listening to a Jimi Hendrix album, I’d think, “what is this sound that I’m going after?” In that case, it would be blues-y, pentatonic bass stuff. So I would try and divide my time into saying, “okay well I want to spend maybe twenty minutes of the day just listening and doing ear training,” trying to identify these sounds. Then I’d want to spend another x amount of time working on my rhythm chops. So I’d try to break it up by having a very regimented practice routine.
This wasn’t something that anyone had taught me; it just kind of made sense in my own head. [I thought], “well if all of these things make up playing the guitar, then I would need to spend this much amount of time on them”. I think when you first start, the natural inclination is to want to spend all of your time getting your technique better, which of course is important. But I think guitar players also forget that like ninety percent of the time what we’re doing is rhythm guitar. It’s not actually lead playing. So I think that dividing it properly is important.
I spent the first maybe the first half of a year playing as a left-handed guitar, before I even found my first teacher here in New Jersey. He said, “listen, dude. You’re gonna have a tough time as an adult finding guitars, getting guitars to play. You should really play righty (right-handed).” And thank God he did that (laughs). I can’t imagine how horrible it would be where I’m going to a store and I’d have two guitars to choose from. So I switched, and for the first couple of weeks, I hated it.
I had a rough start even picking the instrument up. But I stuck with it and I kind of kept going on. After a year of having that routine, it just became exacltly that: a routine. It just became normal at that point, like “oh, well I have to practice for x amount of hours today, that’s just what I have to do”. It didn’t feel like work. And so by doing that, it felt weird if I didn’t do that. It got to that point with high school, through college, and even after that where working at that pace was just part of my daily routine. It’s just like brushing your teeth, I guess. (laughs) It becomes a habit.
My background is a little bit different too because I’m a classical guitar player. I picked up a classical guitar first before I ever picked up an electric guitar. My background was a little bit different because, as well as being a left-handed guitar player, I have certain strengths that maybe a right-handed person wouldn’t have when picking up the instrument. So I started there. All of those things combined is what makes each of us [guitar players] unique, what makes each player has a different sound. Even though they may have the same teacher, they may listen to the same stuff, every person kind of puts that information together differently. To me, that was my regimen and I just stuck with it. I’ve been playing ever since.
Given that Follow The Light is a solo project, what does the process entail for you as a songwriter? Are you sitting down and writing out every single part for each instrument, or are you collaborating with other musicians in the studio on writing?
I think the most important thing is that when you’re writing a song, it’s especially hard if you’re not inspired. If you’re just sitting down and going, “okay, I have to write this record, I have to write”, it becomes a chore to me at that point. If I have to sit down and go, “okay, I have to sit down and write this, ugh I have this deadline, okay they want this,” you’re not really inspired, and it’s really hard. You’re fighting an uphill battle at that point. I started writing this record when I got really inspired to do it. At that point, I was mainly writing all of the music myself, and I would demo it myself, which is the great thing about technology now. You can write a reasonably good demo in your house now, in your bedroom, for very little cost.
The way I write is that sometimes it’ll start with the chords, sometimes it’ll start with the riffs, but there are other times where I’ll maybe have some arpeggio stuff linking together, and then I’ll have to find the rhythm later. For the title track, that riff is what I came up with first. I thought, “I have this cool riff and this melody, it’s kinda exotic sounding. What do I do from here?” And then I came up with that arpeggio section later, but I didn’t have the chords underneath it. But I just knew where the harmony was going. You get each little piece together when you’re sitting by yourself. Each song took roughly about a month to write. Some a little longer, some a little less. There are times when you’ll hear the melody, and then you’ll get that down. Other times you’re just hearing some chord progression. I would say that for at least two-thirds of the album, that was just entirely me [writing]. I would write all of the guitar, bass, and drum parts, and then I would do the synth too. I don’t know how to play the drums at all, but I know how the drums should sound, even though I can’t play them. I would write those parts, and then I’d have my drummer come in. He would, more or less, be playing the parts that I gave him on the demo.
I would basically be writing this by myself, and then I would be going back and forth between these things going, “hey, I like this part, the bridge sucks here, etc.”. You’d kind of struggle with these parts until you felt comfortable and happy with them. A lot of it was solitary, but on two tracks because there’s definitely a cinematic and orchestral feel to a lot of the tracks…there’s this guitar player from Italy named Claudio Petronic, whose a fantastic player, incredibly talented. We worked together because he’s also into that cinematic feel, so we collaborated on the opening track “The Journey Ahead”, and “Clash In The Corridor”. We did that together because we want that big sound! So there was some collaboration that went on, but for the most part it was very solitary. But because I was inspired to really write the album, it did come together kind of quickly, which was lucky for me. Doesn’t always happen!
You mentioned that you also wrote the synth parts too. How did you come up with that crazy synth line on “Red River”? That caught my attention immediately.
That’s probably the hardest, most technical song on the record. It’s interesting, because I’m always looking for new sounds. That part of the song uses exotic scales, like Byzantine scales and these different harmonic minor scales. When you use those different pieces together in a certain way, it’s almost chaotic but it has this really interesting sound. I was looking through these different scales and experimenting with them, and I wanted some sort of interesting, two-hand tapping kind of thing. But I wanted to feel more like a keyboard line than a guitar line. I think guitar players, like myself include, have this tendency to want to play lines on the guitar that feel good for our fingers, but maybe aren’t the most interesting musically. I’ve been trying to listen to a lot more non-guitar players in recent years, because the way they approach writing solos or lead lines is so different than the way a guitar player would thing. We’re basically tuned in fifths, and if it doesn’t work with our fingers, then we technically won’t play it.
For that song, I wanted this piano-like line going on within the song, but I wanted it to fit within this metal-like context. There’s a lot of interesting, diminished chords going on there too. It’s a lot different than a number of tracks on the record, but I think that’s what makes it so unique, and especially for that part in the story [on the record]. It’s this haunting, almost chilling kind of part, and I wanted something that was very exotic there, that wasn’t necessarily heavy metal. It just wasn’t the time for that. Each song had to have something different to it, so that you could point and go, “oh, that song had something really interesting to it, and so did that one!” I tried to incorporate that, and I’m glad you like that part. It’s a tough one.
What does the term Follow The Light represent in regards to the meaning of the album as a whole? What does it mean to you? Additionally, I’ve come to understand that this is a concept album. Can you talk a little more about the underlying story that flows through the album? Where did the inspiration for said story come from?
The idea of a concept album has always been, “okay, we have these songs, and if you listen to and read the lyrics, you’ll see the story. You’ll see the characters and the plot development, and so forth.” My thinking was that this had a cinematic feel to it. There are these big sounds and orchestral aspects that add to the scope of the sound. I thought, “what is the music to something that’s cinematic?” Well, that’s the soundtrack. With a soundtrack, maybe a couple songs have words in them, but for the most part, they don’t. But it still tells the story of that movie, in a way.
My thinking was, “okay, mostly, these songs don’t have vocals on them. One does, but most don’t.” It’s mostly instrumental. I wanted it to be the soundtrack of the story. The album is called Follow The Light because on the album cover, there’s this giant structure with a crystal at the top that is emanating light. The story follows this character that’s been searching for that structure that you see on the album cover. It gets interesting because for the people that do get the physical copy of the album, and for the people who get the album on Bandcamp, they will get to read each segment with each track, so they’ll be able to follow along. For each track [title], those words are found within the story of the album. So when you get the album, you’ll be able to read along.
First of all, you’ll be getting an idea of what I was thinking when I was writing each track. But the story itself is about this character whose in this forest. He sees this light, but he doesn’t know where it’s coming from exactly. He’s trying to follow it to the best of his ability. Eventually, he stumbles upon the structure that you see on the album cover. The thing is, there’s this legend about [the structure]. Once he finds this, he goes inside. The story follows this character and his descent into the structure, which is like this citadel inside this forest. It follows him going inside, what he sees when he goes down, and eventually what he finds when he gets to the bottom of it. The story follows his journey, and you’re listening to the music as almost a soundtrack to what he’s experiencing when he’s down there. There’s some of it that’s open to interpretation, but I try to guide the listener as best as I can. I’m a huge fan of getting a record and having it mean something. I didn’t want to have nine tracks that were just cool, shredding guitar licks. To me, that wouldn’t be worth putting in all of the effort to record an album. If someone does get the actual CD, and I actually think on the streaming version too, there are really high quality, hand-drawn images that do narrate the story with some of the tracks. They’ll be able to get a visual representation for what I had in my head that I wanted the listener to see, but there’s also that X factor, that grey area where the listener can use their own imagination to put the pieces together as to what’s going on. It’s kind of a fantasy story. There’s a story there, and even though it’s instrumental, they can follow along.
I read that you will be donating all of the proceeds from the sales of the track “Soul Connection” to the Creative Armenia Fund. What is your personal connection to the charity, if I may ask?
For Creative Armenia Fund, they’re really doing great things. I’m Armenian too. They have a great board of directors there. Serj Tankian (System of a Down) is heavily involved, I believed. Dr. Eric Esrailian, the gentleman who helped make The Promise movie is involved with them as well. A lot of great artists and musicians are associated with this foundation. For me, I really resonate with it because their initiative is to foster the arts. It’s a worldwide initiative where they’re fostering talent and artists to allow them to do what they want to do. We take for granted, sometimes, the opportunity that we have here in the United States. But worldwide, a lot of artists don’t have those same opportunities. They maybe don’t have great schools with music departments and programs, or technology to do what they want to do. [The charity] helps a lot with that.
That song, “Soul Connection” was originally written for a songwriting competition that Serj [Tankian] had hosted. This song was a finalist in it. I didn’t win, but I still wanted to continue what they were doing, even after it. Whatever we get from that is going straight to them. We’ve already donated quite a bit to them already, and we’ll continue to do so as long as people are into the music and they want to support it. I think it’s definitely a worthwhile cause. Even if it wasn’t for the track, I still think that they’re doing great work. For me, when I was putting this album together and looking back on everything, I thought, “you know what, we’re gonna collect what we collect on it, but I think there’s something more important here.” Without that competition, the song probably wouldn’t exist in the way that it did, because of the restrictions and the formatting that he wanted to put on it, in order to I guess satisfy that competition. It actually turned out to be a great thing. The only thing I could think was that even though it was an original song in its own right, I figured that the only right thing to do was try and give back what we can to support this. They’re a really great organization, and they have very good people who run it.
What do you hope people take away from listening to Follow The Light?
This is a record that, before I even started doing it, I really only wanted to do something that maybe not even anyone had really done before. I think for people that do appreciate that same feeling they get when they watch a really good movie, you know that sort of almost nostalgic feeling? I want people to really be inspired by it, to feel the energy that was put into making this. It originally started as an EP, actually. When we got back the artwork and started hearing how the tracks were sounding, there was this really big scope to the music. We felt like it would be too limiting to have this as an EP. I hope people just appreciate the music and get into it, feed off the energy. We plan on doing another record after this and continuing the story.
We’re hoping that if the reception is as good as we’re planning for, and it has been, we’ll be able to do more things like having more artwork, longer booklets, things where people can delve into the story even more. Pending the reception of it, we can continue to do what we do. It’s a labor of love, really.
Steve Dadaian’s Follow The Light is available now. For more information and music, you can visit www.facebook.com/stevedadaianguitar.