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Tech Session

Tech Session - Steve Vai

Issue #43

So here we are, 25 years on, and Passion and Warfare is as important today as it was back in 1990, and a credit to Steve’s passion and drive for the guitar.
Jamie Humphries

To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Passion and Warfare, Jamie Humphries delves into Steve Vai’s bottomless bag of licks and tricks and presents GI's tribute to this landmark guitar album and Mr Vai's very special Alien Guitar Secrets.

The 1980s saw a huge jump in technique for Rock guitar, and also saw instrumental guitar music become a credible and popular genre of music. There was a host of prominent players throughout the decade, many of them signed to Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records but two names that launched instrumental guitar music into the mainstream, and even scored chart success, were Joe Satriani and his former pupil Steve Vai. Both artists took guitar instrumental music to the next level, and instead of simply shredding over a hard Rock backing track, crafted beautifully rich compositions, with the guitar featured as if it were a vocal. Both Satch and Vai were the undoubted leaders of the genre, and continue to fly the flag for instrumental guitar.

Steve Vai had started out as a hired gun working with the likes of Frank Zappa, Alcatraz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, but had always been active as a solo artist as well. His first two albums, Flexible and Flexible Leftovers, included an eclectic blend of styles ranging from hard Rock instrumentals, to power pop vocal tracks, to out and out psychedelia.  For a long time Vai had wanted to just lock himself away and do what many artists dream of doing; writing and recording an album for himself, with absolutely no outside influence, or any concern for musical fashion. In short, totally free artistic expression!

Vai had wanted to document the guitar in a similar way as what he had with the track The Attitude Song, but was convinced that no one would care, or even listen to, his new sonic creations, yet he felt he had to do it. He'd begun working on material for this project as far back as 1982 and the result was possibly the most important instrumental Rock album in history - a collection of instrumental gems, showcasing the guitar in all its glory. But these weren’t pointless songs acting as a vehicle for gratuitous shredding; these songs featured strong vocal-esque melodies, as well as elaborate production. Stand out cuts included Liberty, Erotic Nightmares, The Animal, The Riddle, For the Love of God and Blue Powder.

So here we are, 25 years on, and Passion and Warfare is as important today as it was back in 1990, and a credit to Steve’s passion and drive for the guitar. It also proved that many audiences want exactly what Steve did - a totally honest record. With Sony releasing the 25th Anniversary of Passion and Warfare, along with Modern Primitive, Vai and his band are for the first time performing Passion and Warfare live.

If you have read my piece on Steve Vai in this issue you’ll know by now that I am a huge Steve Vai fan and have been for many years. I was one of the legions of young guitarists who owned an original Floral Ibanez Jem from the late '80s, as well as having the Passion and Warfare poster on my wall, so when GI’s editor asked if I was interested in producing a Vai Tech Session, I jumped at the chance. But if I was going to do this, I was going to do it properly, and try and put a little something into the track, other than just playing licks over a half-hearted backing track! I wanted to pay tribute to Passion and Warfare and be inspired to compose a tribute piece that reflected the sound and style of the album. I wanted to focus on what I consider to be two sides of Vai’s playing; his aggressive hard Rock pyro technique side, and his ethereal, soulful side. I looked at two of my favour tracks for inspiration, The Animal, for its grinding harmonised riffs, and Blue Powder, for its mood evoking chord progression.


Our song begins as a I, IV, V riff progression based around a heavy 16th note swing groove, and concludes with a straight half time ethereal progression, that mixes Aeolian, Lydian, and Lydian Augmented scales.

Bars 1-6 kick things off with an A minor pentatonic riff that uses a sixteenth note groove. This riff has a harmony added a 5th lower, courtesy of an original Digitech Whammy pedal, which adds extra weight to the riff. As the riff concludes the Whammy pedal is turned off and we exit the riff with a whammy bar dive on the open 3rd string.

Bars 7-10 introduce the solo over the A riff, chord I, and is based around the A minor pentatonic scale, using bluesy bends and sliding phrasing. The first solo section concludes with another whammy bar dive and a tapping and bending style lick similar to something you would hear in The Attitude Song.

Bars 11-12 are performed over the D riff, chord IV of our riff progression, and kick off with a signature A Dorian string skipping tapping lick. This lick uses two tapping fingers, so be sure to study the instruction portion of the video. Also take care with the open strings when string skipping. Bar 12 features an ascending tapping arpeggio figure based around G major 7th and A minor 7th arpeggio’s, performed on the 1st and 2nd strings.

Bars 13-14 see us heading back to the chord I riff, and kick off with a wide interval sliding lick, and a tapping lick, that borrow ideas from the track Juice. The interval lick produces a very effective sound, but again take care when jumping strings.

Bars 15-16 conclude our first solo with a wide stretch picking/pull off lick that uses the E minor pentatonic with an added 2nd. This is followed by a descending legato and tapping lick based around the E Aeolian mode.

Bars 17-18 conclude the first half of our track with some 4th intervals and some whammy bar “gargles” produce by flicking a floating bridge.

Bars 19-20 demonstrate Vai’s use of metric modulation, with the feel of our track shifting from a swing 16th groove, to a straight half time feel. Wekick off with an extended B minor 9th arpeggio, performed with sweep picking. This arpeggio covers a very large portion of the neck, and appears to flow across the beats. The lick concludes with some whammy bar slurs and scoops, and a descending A minor pentatonic run.

Bars 21-22 features a bending phrase performed over the Em9 chord that concludes with a descending E Dorian string-skipping lick, reminiscent of a lick heard in Die to Live.

Bars 22-24 include a signature ascending 5th interval run that covers a large area of the neck, and concludes with a slurring C Lydian figure.

Bar 25-27 conclude our Vai style track with some classic licks, and kick off with a descending sweeping figure based on stacked 4th and 5th intervals, reminiscent to a lick heard in the solo to Ladies Night in Buffalo. Our final lick is performed over the F# augmented chord, and is based on shifting augmented arpeggios, implying the Lydian Augmented scale, the third mode of the Melodic minor scale.

For this lesson I used a Sterling by Musicman John Petrucci signature guitar, fitted with DiMarzio pickups. This was plugged into an MXR 5150 pedal, for some extra crunch, and then into a Mesa Boogie combo. For the verse harmony I used a Digitech Whammy pedal. For this track I would aim for a fairly high gain sound, with a thick low end, but some boosted upper mid range to aid pinched harmonics when on the bridge pickup, but retains a warm rich tone when switched to the neck pickup.


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