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This article was originally published in issue #23
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Steve Vai has a unique sound that makes him instantly recognisable. Even though some of his lines and melodies might be very technical, everything has its place and meaning within the composition of the song.
In this issue we're going to take a look into the unique style of arguably the most iconic and influential modern guitarists in instrumental guitar music. Steve Vai first came to fame in his late teens when he worked with the legendary Frank Zappa, later going on to join the likes of Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. During this time Vai released an instrumental guitar album, Passion and Warfare, which changed the face of instrumental guitar music forever. Steve exhibited a whole myriad of new guitar techniques and approaches to composition on the guitar. In this issue I have been given the honor of breaking down Mr Vai’s unique and vocal guitar style.
When I came up with this example solo, I wanted to emphasise key ideas that Steve Vai has utilised in his music over the wide span of albums he has released, I highly encourage you to take these ideas, move them around the fretboard, try to improvise with them, and create your own variations. Steve Vai has a unique sound that makes him instantly recognisable. Even though some of his lines and melodies might be very technical, everything has its place and meaning within the composition of the song. He is able to manipulate a single note in many different ways, giving it vocal qualities, communicating with the listener an emotion or sometimes humor. Even the fast technical lines have a melodic contour and purpose. Maybe it’s the combination of these factors that make Steve Vai’s music appealing not only to guitarists and musicians but also to the casual music listener.
Before we take a look into this Steve Vai style solo I've prepared for you, let’s look at the harmony of the backing track. The backing track features fairly simple chord changes, however the way I approach the harmony in the solo over the chords creates the unique mood and vibe of the track. In the first half of the backing track we have F#sus2 moving up to A major 9. Over the F#sus2 I am using F# Mixolydian mode, on the A major 9 I am using A Lydian. In the second half of the solo the underlying chords take a similar root movement but this time moved to Dsus2 to Bsus2, over these chords I approach them with D Lydian for Dsus2 and B Mixolydian over Bsus2. Steve Vai’s sound is often associated with prominent usage of the Lydian mode in his music, probably due to his influence from his old guitar tutor Joe Satriani, or most likely from his early days working with Frank Zappa. Who also favoured using this particular mode of the major scale in his compositions.
OK, now I have done rambling on about Vai’s sound and the harmony of this track, let’s take a look into the solo I've prepared! I will describe the concept behind each lick in this column, however I won’t break down each lick note for note, I shall instead describe the concept behind each lick so you can understand it on a deeper level and add the ideas into your own playing. Be sure to download the PDF tab or Guitar Pro file for the solo included within this section of the magazine in order to see exactly how I am playing these licks and concepts.
The solo starts off with a sliding phrase on the G string that includes notes from F# Mixolydian. The chord in the backing changes to Amajor9, when this happens I descend a sequence in A Lydian using some wide interval slides. Some would say this is a very signature Vai sound. Try improvising on one string and creating melodic phrases using only slides to come up with your own Vai style phrasing.
After our sliding we descend a C# Minor Pentatonic phrase over the Amajor9, we are still using notes from the A Lydian scale, as C# Minor Pentatonic highlights notes from the same key centre. We are going to descend this line using pull offs before doing a slight dive with the whammy bar at the end of this phrase on the last note.
In this section of the solo we are going to go back to using some Vai style slides, however this time the majority of this phrase is heavily inspired by sitar music. We first play a short melodic fragment using the F# Mixolydian mode by sliding into each note from above quickly before ascending down a position of the Mixolydian scale using a three note per string fingering starting on the little finger then sliding up and down with the first finger to the middle note of each scale fragment on each string. Be sure to check the tab and video performance to see and hear exactly what I mean. Be sure to try this with other scales, melodies and rhythms.
The backing then changes back to our A Major 9 tonality, and over this we ascend an Amajor9add11 arpeggio, this arpeggio could be called many things, but the general idea here is to create a wide intervallic sound which creates a build up in melodic interest.
Steve Vai is known for his dazzling tapping runs and technique, here is a run that is very stylistic of Vai. We are going to descend the A Lydian scale using 3 note per string legato rolls on each string with a tapped note on the top of each roll. The term roll means to ascend and descend a portion of a scale on one string using legato. In this particular lick we start with a roll and descend onto the next string with a hammer-on from nowhere before executing another roll with an added tapped note with the right hand, we then move down the scale further until we reach the end of the legato phrase. Be sure to practice this initial idea on only two strings at first slowly before building up to the whole lick, have fun experimenting with this idea using different scales! This lick leads us neatly into the next section of our solo where the backing harmony changes and the arrangement builds up, which is one of the reasons I decided to put this extreme legato/tapping lick here, as emphasises the build up into the next section.
After the cascade of legato notes, our ears are treated to a melody over the Dsus2 chord that uses notes from a Dmajor9 arpeggio, however I have spread out the notes to create a wide intervallic sound, the melodic phrase is answered on the chord change with another wide interval arpeggio building up higher over the Bsus2 chord. When playing over changes like this, it always sounds more connected when you play through the changes by keeping a melodic theme or a similar contour movement over the change.
After our wide intervals we ascend up a B Mixolydian scale using Sixth interval patterns that skip between the D and B strings, we pick the D string and use the middle finger on our picking hand to pluck the B string, this creates a very percussive sound that is very reminiscent of Country guitar playing. The pattern moves up the fretboard, creating a build in dynamic that tells the listener that we are going to be reaching the end of the solo soon.
The end of this solo features some fast-paced legato arpeggios. First we are playing a two string Dmajor7 arpeggio that starts on the major 7th degree of the arpeggio before hammering on to the root and meeting a tap on the same string before ascending to the high E string 3rd hammering onto the 5th with an extra two notes tapped with the picking hand (Bidexteral tapping) before descending with the left hand only using hammer-ons from nowhere. This creates a pattern of 11 notes that repeats and sounds very bubbly at high tempos. Be sure to check the tab to get the main pattern of this phrase under your fingers, you can treat the extra tap with the picking hand in the same way as you would treat legato with your fretting hand only upside down, be very sure to practice this one slowly at first! The lick then plays to the chord change from Dsus2 to Bsus2 and this time we play the exact same sequence except we change the notes to imply a B7 tonality before descending down an octave and finishing on a small dive bomb with the whammy bar.
That brings us to the end of our Steve Vai tech session - I hope you have enjoyed the ride! Be sure to take these licks, move them around and apply them in your own playing as soon as you can. Of course there are many other aspects of Steve Vai’s playing that I could have covered in this tech session, however it's always developing and going in different directions and there is so much to cover: his whammy bar stunts alone would take up a whole other tech session! Be sure to check out Steve’s albums and playing to hear more of these ideas and concepts in action. Fellow GI columnist Andy James also covered Steve Vai's style in Guitar Interactive issue 12, so I very much encourage you to check that session out as well for more technical aspects of Steve Vai’s playing ( http://licklibrary.ceros.com/iguitarmag/steve-vai-guitar-interactive-issue-12-magazine/issue12/page/52 ), hopefully a mixture of both of these tech sessions should give you a very well rounded introduction and insight into Mr Vai’s amazing style. Steve’s website also includes some detailed information on how he practices and approaches writing music, I highly recommend checking out some of the entries on his website for an incredibly deep and insightful look into his musical mastermind.
I really hope you enjoy these licks and concepts. Until next time, keep shredding!