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This article was originally published in issue #23
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Of course, most GI readers will know Steve's impressive back catalogue of solo albums and none have had more impact on the guitar scene than his sophomore album, 1990's Passion and Warfare.
To celebrate another fantastic interview with Steve Vai (you can see our first back in issue 12), and to prepare you for Sam Bell's finger twisting Tech Session, we got to thinking just why Steve Vai is still so important on the guitar scene, what it is that makes him so unique, and see if we could unravel some of the secrets that might set you on the path to unlocking his alien guitar secrets.
Born on Long Island, New York, in 1960, Vai followed the path of many young guitarists. Influenced by the players of the time like Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Jeff Beck and even Allan Holdsworth, Vai began practising hard and taking lessons with local tutors (beginning with Joe Satriani, no less) as well as playing in various small bands.
Eventually Vai decided to follow music more seriously and began study and the world renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. Here things got really intense as he studied the full range of harmony, theory, technique, reading, composition and more. The result was a young axe slinger bursting with knowledge and skill - but with nowhere to go.
Steve's first real job came from his ability to read and write music, a skill which many modern guitarists overlook, but one that's paid off for numerous talented musicians over the years. The gig was transcribing the guitar parts of infamously kooky composer Frank Zappa, an icon to the young Vai. Steve has always been a huge advocate of the benefits of transcription, both for developing your ear, and unlocking the hidden secrets of your favourite musicians.
It was while working for Zappa that Vai was given the opportunity to record a few overdubs and audition for Frank's band, and as Henry Hartman famously said: “Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity”. For the 20 year old Steve Vai, preparation wasn't a problem as he would famously devote numerous hours a day to his picking technique, finger dexterity, legato strength, reading, sweep picking etc., and it all paid as, after just one audition, Steve joined the Frank Zappa band as the “little Italian virtuoso” where he was credited as playing “stunt guitar” or “impossible guitar parts”.
If you're thinking that Mr Vai had a good idea there, being thoroughly prepared from when opportunity poked its head round the door, and if you fancy trying the same approach, you might like to know that Steve has just released an official guitar workout book which features both his gruelling 10 and 30 hour practice routines.
It can't be denied that some of Frank's famous theatrical elements also rubbed off on Steve, almost creating the Vai persona - famous for his over the top costumes, outrageous guitars and entertaining stage antics. Steve became a player who wasn’t just fun to hear, but he became the guitarist to see too, especially when playing in bands like Whitesnake or with former Van Halen front man, David Lee Roth. This is an often overlooked aspect of capturing public attention, but it's safe to say the flair with which Steve decorates his shows is a reason to check him out whenever he's in town. If you've not checked out some of his amazing DVDs like Live at the Astoria or Where The Wild Things Are, you're in for a real treat.
Of course, most GI readers will know Steve's impressive back catalogue of solo albums and none have had more impact on the guitar scene than his sophomore album, 1990's Passion and Warfare. The perfect introduction to Steve's music, the album contains traditional Rock songs with more obvious melodies such as fan favourite, For the Love of God, to some of his more 'out there' soundscapes, like Alien Water Kiss. What you'll notice from listening to Steve is his incredibly unique voice on the instrument. From his harmonic squeals and whammy bar flutters, to his idiosyncratic tapping ideas and sweep picking patterns, developing such an individual voice on the instrument can have been no easy task. Fortunately, this is a subject Steve has covered in great detail: “Uniqueness. Individuality. These are traits that ambitious musicians aspire to. When these qualities are recognized in others, trends are set and fashions are established. Everyone has the ability to be unique, because no two personalities are exactly the same.” if you're interesting in looking further into this, hunt down Steve's Martian Love Secrets articles on his website.
Finally, there's Vai's unrivalled compositional abilities, from emotive ballads like Blue Powder to complex orchestral works like Bledsoe Blvd. Still, a quarter of a century later, Steve continues to influence new artists (just check out New Zealand's Heavy Metal Ninjas - one of my top picks of 2013). But just how did Steve go about developing these skills? Well it would seem that his religious study of harmony paid off. Do you know the difference between a G7 and a Gmaj13? Can you play an F6 chord in 4 inversions? Do you know what these chords sound like? Do you know what chords these work with? Etc. etc. Composition is really about gluing together everything else that makes you the musician you are to express your musical vision, as Steve has said: “I always felt that composing music allowed limitless harmonic and textural abilities, I kind of felt like throughout my life I would continue to compose.” It seems the secret is to compose regularly to flex that muscle, and to not be afraid of looking for inspiration from the world around you.
So what can we take from this? Well, it's safe to say that Steve Vai matters as much today as he did when he first crept onto the scene in 1978, both as an artist and an inspiration to students and fans of music the world over. As the title suggests, as long as Steve continues to deliver his brand of “passion and more flair”, he'll continue to remain at the top of the tree and be the face of virtuoso guitar for many years to come.