By Mylin Batipps
Stephen Dadaian is an electric and classical guitarist from Cresskill, New Jersey. If you had told him at the age of 14 that he would be chosen by Slash as the winner of a national guitar contest, he would’ve never believed you. Now, at 26, The College of New Jersey alumnus looks back and considers that achievement one of his most memorable moments. Most recently in 2013, Dadaian also won a national guitar competition judged and hosted by Jammit, Dean Guitars and Pantera. Currently living in New York City, he is also a dental student and future resident at Columbia University while producing for bands and performing live throughout the tri-state area. He talks about never forgetting our passion, no matter what we are doing.
When was the moment you started playing guitar, and how did you find your talent?
It took hard work. I was 14 when I started playing the guitar. Every two weeks, we had a different cycle class that would repeat, and one of those two weeks was guitar. I loved it so much, and so I begged my parents for a guitar. I quit doing sports in high school and decided to focus on competing with classical guitar. And from then until the age of 21, I practiced guitar for a minimum of 10,000 hours—hours of just solid practice. If you don’t practice a lot, it’s difficult to express yourself through what you’re playing.
Why do you think so many people prefer electric guitar to classical guitar?
I think it’s just a cultural thing. Classical guitar is huge in other countries, especially Argentina and Belgium. But it’s very difficult doing classical guitar in the United States, and for some people it just doesn’t hold their interest. Classical guitar requires a lot of dedication. It’s much more demanding and much less forgiving, and without practicing it everyday, you’re taking two steps backward.
You were chosen by Slash as the winner his online “Ultimate Guitar Showdown” in 2008. Shortly afterwards, you opened for the Third Eye Blind concert at TCNJ. What’s in your mind when you look back at those moments?
It still crosses my mind to this day. I was 21 when I won the competition. A living legend chose me as the winner and gave me his guitar. I was in shock because anyone could have won for many different reasons. Thousands of others wanted the same thing that I did, and I remember asking myself, “What would make me stand out?” So I practiced all classical guitar technique, which took hours of solid practice and time. I heard about the competition through some online forums, so when I was a junior I recorded myself in Townhouses East and sent the video online. When I was home for Winter Break, I decided to go online and see who won the contest. And it said, “Congratulations, Steve Dadaian.” That moment validated everything for me because people always doubted me. Then, I saw in the paper once that Third Eye Blind was coming to TCNJ, and I was asked to open for them. So I did. It was a phenomenal experience.
Do you delve into any other instruments every now and then, or are you strictly a guitarist?
I used to produce music for other bands and artists. Also, I consider electric and classical guitar two different instruments. I play bass guitar and keyboard, but I mess around with those. I’ve come to the realization that I can dabble into other instruments, but I’m never going to be as proficient in those instruments as I am in guitar. I played saxophone in the third grade, and that was helpful because it taught me music theory. Being able to read music was a huge help, especially when playing classical guitar.
How different is it working as a producer in a studio, as opposed to having a guitar in front of you and playing it?
It’s kind of like working in a lab. It’s very methodical, and it requires having an analytical mind. So many things go into producing a song. People think that a lot of hip hop artists just rap, but they also have to double up on their rapping to get a fuller sound. It’s very intricate. Also, it’s very tiring being in a studio, whether you’re producing or playing. You can spend up to eight hours in a studio working on 30 seconds of music. You’re constantly asking yourself, “How can we make the song better?” It requires a lot of patience and discipline.
With your passion and knowledge for music, you would think you’d be pursuing a career in music, yet you’re studying dentistry at Columbia University. What is the reason you chose that field instead?
Before I got into music, I was always a science guy. I studied biopsychology in TCNJ with a chemistry minor. Hunter S. Thompson once said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” The music business is a difficult and unsteady career, and sometimes the talented musicians don’t get the best work. And sure, I’ve taken some of the most stressful exams of my life, but I don’t ever give up on what I love to do. I encourage everyone to pursue his or her education in addition to their passion for music. You can do both! Nine to five I’m in the clinic most days working with patients doing fillings and crowns. Then I clean up and think about the performance later that evening or maybe what I need to practice. I found a ton of gigs here in NYC, and I got to meet Quentin Tarantino doing a gig at Friars Club in New York City. It really is a melting pot of everything here.
Who are your inspirations when it comes to music and/or life?
My parents are a big inspiration. My mom is a classical pianist, and my dad is a dentist. Besides them teaching me morals, they also exposed me to the professional life. Also, I was very impressionable when I was a young kid. I discovered Jimi Hendrix and listened to his album from 1968 called Electric Ladyland. There were some really kickass tunes on there. I remember saying to myself, “If I only I could play like him.” From age 18 until now, my biggest inspiration has been the guitarist John Petrucci. His playing single handedly molded me to the guitarist I am today. My alternate picking technique, phrasing and approach to the instrument are most influenced by him. Other guitarists like Jason Becker, Van Halen, Paul Gilbert and Steve Vai have also had big influences on my playing. My faith and my religion are also inspiring.
If you could say anything to current college students who are working hard to achieve their dreams, what would it be?
Whatever you’re doing now, look at the things you take for granted and capitalize on those. It requires discipline to sit down with yourself and say, “What am I doing and what can I do to improve on it? What are my strengths and weaknesses?” You always want to be evolving. You never want to become stale. If you sit down and ask yourself those questions, you never forget why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing. Be consistent and don’t get frustrated at the hurdles that lay before you. With dedication you always discover something new in your craft, and you never know where it will take you.