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This article was originally published in issue #12
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As his new CD The Story Of Light sets the flame burning again, iGuitar was privileged to meet the legendary Steve Vai in his ‘Harmony Hut’ home studio. Stuart Bull asks the questions, while Levi Clay offers his thoughts on one of Rock’s greatest guitarists.
There are few guitar players with genuine cult status. Most guitarists agree that Hendrix was the icon of the 1960s and in the ‘70s we were spoiled for choice, while in the ‘80s you didn’t get much bigger than Van Halen. In the ‘90s, however, grunge had taken hold and pushed guitar into a dark dusty cupboard, but there were some names who still managed to keep the torch alive for fans of instrumental guitar and shred. Among that handful, Steve Vai is undoubtedly one of greatest, with a pedigree like no other - so let’s dig a little deeper and see what all the fuss is about.
Steve Vai was born on June 6th, 1960, in Long Island, New York. As a young child he had the perfect combination of exposure to music along with a deep fascination with what he was hearing. The defining detail here is how broad the young Steve’s musical palette was; being as drawn into Bernstein’s music for West Side Story just as much as Hendrix and Zeppelin. Looking back Steve recalls, “When I first heard Led Zeppelin II for the first time, it was a changing point in my life. I just immediately thought that Jimmy Page was the coolest thing there ever was.” This was all before Steve even turned 10, years before he even picked-up a guitar. Around this time Steve began toying with a spinet organ and even getting relatively serious on the accordion, but as he says, “The accordion is not the coolest instrument in the world if you want to be a rock-and-roll guy, and I always wanted to be a guitar player”.
When Steve was about 13 he wanted to get deeper and deeper into the Rock guitar thing, so armed with a guitar and a packet of strings he headed off to guitar lessons with none other than Joe Satriani. Joe tells it how it was:
“I started at the very beginning, you know, this is an E chord”, and it was these lessons along with intensive theory classes with Bill Wescott that would lay the foundations for what Steve would go on to become. There was a desire to compose and “understand the dots” but as Rock music and progressive bands, in particular, were creeping into his classical compositional tasks, and while he could play songs by Hendrix and Page, he was also composing for small orchestral ensembles.
When reaching the end of his teens Steve attended the world renowned Berklee College of Music (other notable students include Pat Metheny, John Scofield and John Petrucci). It’s well documented just how seriously Steve took this, developing a deep
understanding of reading, transcribing, arranging and composing; all the while adhering to his strict “10 hour workout” which helped Vai develop dexterity, technique, aural skills and stamina. This was all hard work and dedication, in fact Steve has often said that he was very unnatural on the guitar and that 90% of everything he has now has come from work.
It was actually this more academic side that landed Steve his first big break in the music industry when he transcribed Frank Zappa’s The Black Page and sent it to the great man, hoping to find a job. Zappa as so impressed that by 1980 Vai had become a fully fledged member of the band. There were some monumental things Vai did with Zappa’s band, including inviting members of the audience to bring any piece of music to the show, saying he could sight-read it; but the scariest moment was undoubtedly The Jazz Discharge Party Hats, where Vai transcribed and played a freetime Jazz poem that Frank had spoken previously.
After the Zappa project, Vai went on to record his first solo album Flex-Able, as well as recording a couple of albums, including Disturbing the Peace with Alcatrazz and filling the shoes of Swedish virtuoso Yngwie J. Malmsteen. However, these were all small projects compared to the critical acclaim that was heading Steve’s way as part of David Lee Roth’s (Ex Van Halen) Eat ‘em and Smile band. During this stint, Vai got to see the world and become a fixture of the Rock guitar scene - and that’s before we take into account the impact of songs like Yankee Rose, Shyboy and the follow-up album, Skyscraper’s Just like Paradise. There were few Rock fans of the day who didn’t hear Steve Vai’s instantly recognizable style, and if the DLR connection wasn’t enough, then being drafted into Whitesnake to record 1989’s Slip of the Tongue certainly did the trick and set the perfect platform for Steve to record his breakthrough solo record, 1990’s Passion and Warfare.
This record is essential listening, and should be in every guitar fan’s CD collection. It really covers everything Vai is about, from Rock tunes like Erotic Nightmares and The Audience is Listening, to powerful ballads like Blue Powder and For the Love of God and that’s before listening to the experimental Ballerina 12/24 and ethereal Alien Water Kiss. At times this album might sound dated and overly flamboyant, but it’s still an excellent slice of guitar wizardry and to this day, an inspiration to guitarists. In fact there are those who consider it to be the greatest guitar album of all time. Either way, it was to be Vai’s first Grammy nomination, and although he didn’t win with it, he would go on to be nominated for ten more, winning three of them.
Gear-wise Vai really came to rest around this time, after having played a multitude of guitars and amps his, now legendary, relationship with Ibanez guitars was established as he helped to design both the Universe seven-string and the hugely popular JEM. These guitars were just perfect for pulling off all of Steve’s circus tricks, featuring a locking Floyd Rose tremolo capable of huge pull ups due to an especially deep recess, 24 frets with scalloping on the top few for grip, a lavish set of inlays and the infamous “monkeygrip” cut in the body.
To come close to approximating this set-up, you’re looking for a modern Rock guitar with a Floyd Rose and some exceptionally high output humbuckers. Vai’s two most used axes are named “Flo” and “Evo”, though he’s played a huge collection of swirls, mirrored JEMs and even plexiglass guitars. There are probably quite a few guitars that would do the trick, but why bother to look past Ibanez, when it’s ‘the real thing’ for Vai fans? And if a budget approach is your goal, we even have a brand new sort-of budget signature model reviewed in this very issue.
For amps, Steve has played everything from Marshall to Bogner, but over the last 20 years he has had three signature amps released by Carvin, these are certainly worth a look as they give you an instant Vai tone at an unbeatable price. When it comes to pedals he has various signature pieces of gear, including a wah (check out our review here), volume, and the Jemini distortion (based on an Ibanez tubescreamer and a Robert Keely modified BOSS DS1). Steve has also used a huge list of rack gear over the years, from Eventide to TC electronics and most recently Fractal Audio’s fantastic Axe FX (Check out Tom Quayle’s definitive review here.
If you want to get close to Steve’s sound on a budget, I’d recommend a BOSS DS1, some form of delay, a wah pedal and a pitch shifter/whammy pedal.
As you’ll see from Andy James’ video lesson in this issue, Steve Vai is incredibly well-versed in virtually every aspect of Rock guitar technique, from his circular vibrato to flashy whammy bar antics. He’s well respected for his slippery legato runs, blistering alternate picking passages, intervalic tapping ideas and
sweep picking unlike that you often see from neoclassical shredders.
These are all integrated into one instantly identifiable style and even if you’re lucky enough to acquire a great Steve Vai tone, it’s very possible that you could spend a lifetime learning to come close to actually playing like the man!
Since Passion, Steve has gone on to record over ten more CDs of original music, from the vocal album Sex & Religion, with Strapping Young Lad frontman Devin Townsend, to Alive in an Ultra World, a live album where Steve composed an original piece of music for each country he visited. There are epic records, like Fire Garden and artist albums like Sound Theories Vol. I & II, where Vai finally had his dreams realised, having his orchestral compositions played publicly. There really is a rich discography to his name and that overlooks the work he has done in films and games. In fact, there are few scenes as universally enjoyed as Steve’s appearance in the ‘80s Blues flick Crossroads, in the words of Papa Legba: “He’s a real good gi-tar player, name of Jack Butler”; essential viewing for guitar fans! Vai’s uniquely individual voice also makes him one of the most in demand guest soloists too, so in recent years Steve has appeared on CDs with John 5, Meatloaf, Orianthi and Mike Stern.
Although he’s well respected for it, it’s not just as a composer that Steve shines though. For me he’s one of those guitarists who is best heard with the ears and the eyes. He puts on a show and manages to convey additional expression through his facial movements alone. For this reason I can’t highly recommend enough his DVDs Live at the Astoria, featuring Tony MacAlpine, Virgil Donati and Billy Sheehan, or the more recent Where the Wild Things Are, featuring violin virtuosos Ann Marie Calhoun, Alex DePue and Aristocrats’ bass man, Bryan Beller. The other perfectly valid route to go down is the G3 path where you’ll get to see Vai alongside fellow legends such as Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse and Yngwie Malmsteen. Live in Denver is a perfect starting point for this adventure, especially if you want to see someone play a triple necked guitar better than us mere mortals play a regular one!
That brings us to now, and after seven years Vai has finally been back in the studio, giving us The Story of Light, released August 14th. Without a doubt, this is Vai on form delivering track after track of expressive Rock guitar. If you’re still debating on whether or not to pick it up, give Racing the World a listen and you’ll soon be convinced. Tours are planned for both the USA and Europe, giving us all the chance to see someone who really does deserve that much overworked title - a living legend.