This interview was originally published in 2010.
Steve Vai is one of those rare individuals who have taken musical virtuosity, bent it, hammered it, reshaped it, and made it succumb entirely and unequivocally to their wishes. His guitar playing and his compositional endeavors seem to know no boundaries, obey no laws at least none that have been discovered by the professors of physics or written by the custodians of commerce.
His career is storied from his early ’80s work with genius composer/social commentator Frank Zappa, to high-profile gigs with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and Alice Cooper, right on through to his own stellar solo recording output. On Zappa’s 1982 Top 30 album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, the anti-censorship spokesman, himself a ripping, very non-traditional shredder, credited Vai as Stunt Guitarist. If there’s ever been a more accurate example of truth in advertising, it has never exposed itself round these parts.
Vai recently spoke with Guitar.com about, well, a ton of stuff of interest to those of us who either want to cop his incredible licks or possibly duplicate at least a modicum of his success in the music business. Oh yeah, he also analyzed his latest release, The 7th Song, a compilation of tunes, actually the seventh song from each of his seven solo studio albums (with a few extra bones and bat wings thrown in for good measure). Turns out ol’ Steve has been planning for this disc since before Flex-able, the home-recorded 1984 EP that served notice to the world that a new, unassailable guitar hero had arrived. And now, without further ado, we present the Grand Wizard of Impossible Guitar:
Guitar.com: The new disc is a compilation of songs from all of your previous efforts, and you’ve chosen to use the seventh song off each of those discs. Why did you do this?
Vai: Well, you know. Looking to do something interesting, I guess. Whenever I approach a project I try to add some kind of interesting edge to it, or uniqueness. I knew that someday I’d probably do a compilation of sorts, and I didn’t want to just go around and pick the best of. One of my favorite types of songs to play or write are the guitar ballads the kind that I do which are usually sweeping melodies and these singing guitar tones. And I knew that it would make a nice record if I eventually had all of these type songs on a compilation. So in the beginning, when I first started making records, I thought it through a bit, and I thought, Well, why don’t I make the seventh song on every one of my records the sweeping guitar ballad?
Guitar.com: You thought that through right from the beginning?
Vai: Yes I did.
Guitar.com: And why the seventh song?
Vai: Well, that always seemed to be the sweet spot on the record, for the ballad. It just seemed to be the right pacing. Sometimes maybe it didn’t work as well as I was hoping, but I kind of set out to achieve this particular goal, so I kind of painted myself into a corner. But I just thought it would be an interesting thing on a compilation.
Guitar.com: When they’re performing in concert, a lot of artists make the third or fourth song in the set the ballad….
Vai: Yeah, I usually do that too. There’s usually more than one ballad on the record. I don’t totally bring it to a halt on the fourth song, but I usually bring it down a bit. It seems like another break point, but then later on, on a record, the seventh spot just seems right to me. It was just something I tried to construct from the beginning. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the perfect spot, but it felt good to me. And the whole concept was interesting.
Guitar.com: In the notes to this disc you talk about Spiritual Communion. Can you explain how spiritual communion comes into play in the craft of music making?
Vai: Well, first of all, I think that everybody approaches their spiritual health differently. Some people just don’t address it at all, but they do unconsciously. I believe that everything we do in our day-to-day life have some kind of bearing on our spiritual health. I think when a person goes into the creative areas of their mind, you kind of have to reach down into those very personal, private areas.
I shouldn’t say you have to occasionally youll find yourself reaching into those personal areas. Your mind will gravitate toward those things that interest you the most. And some people are very interested in environmental issues, or political issues, or love affairs, or fast cars. And there’s validity in all of that. But I think some people will go into more personal realms of themselves and pull out what’s there to create their art.
For me, when I have an opportunity to play my guitar in the fashion that the songs on this particular record are based, its very liberating as an expressional experience. And usually when I go into those realms, I equate that with some kind of spiritual communion within myself. This is just me, myself, and I. I dont know what the rest of the world does, but for me it’s sort of like a cleansing and sort of like a revealing moment for myself. There you have it.
Guitar.com: I understand what you mean by this. When I have time to put into my music, it is like a religion to me.
Vai: Yeah. It’s very difficult for me to explain it, cause I don’t like really talking about it. When I do, it’s misunderstood, it’s very personal, it gets taken and twisted by journalists and it usually comes out sounding either holier-than-thou, or completely stupid. And that’s why a person’s spiritual experience is completely unique unto them. That’s one of the things in this world that you just can’t prove, you can’t express wholeheartedly. You know what I mean? It’s a personal experience, and when you try to talk about these things, you’re comparing your experiences with everybody elses. It just leaves you open to a lot of criticism and whatnot. I try to make it as clear-cut and simple as possible, but it’s never like that. Everybody’s experience is personal and different.
Guitar.com: Some of your past releases, such as Passion & Warfare and Sex & Religion almost hint that you are even though those are for the most part instrumental pieces that you are in a sense, discussing those issues through your music
Vai: Well, as we grow we go through various changes in our outlooks on the world, and our own personal makeup. And I think an artist will express whatever point they’re at, at the particular time they make a product. So I’m a seeker. I’m also seeking for various things, both on the guitar and in life. Music is a fantastic way to express these things. It leaves you up for criticism and stuff, but what are you going to do? Everybody should find a creative outlet to express themselves, as long as its not damaging to anybody else.
Things like those records you mentioned, I’m really presenting, as opposed to discussing. I feel like I’m more presenting certain issues. And you know I’m evolving too, personally.
Guitar.com: What did you learn from Frank Zappa?
Vai: Well, many things, but one thing: In the face of all kinds of adversity, you should make the music that you really feel like making.
Guitar.com: He certainly did that.
Vai: Yeah, he certainly did. And I saw him do it.
Guitar.com: On some of your tracks, I’ve heard his influence. Obviously you sought out to join him at a point in your life. How influential was his music to you, as opposed to his business sense?
Vai: Well I think Frank’s business sense has a stronger impact on me than anybody else’s. You can definitely hear elements of my music that came directly from Frank. And really that’s a result of my love and admiration for him and his music. When I heard Frank’s music it really spoke to me in the sense that it had all of the elements that I was always hoping to hear in music. It had great comical value. It was very well arranged, well produced, orchestrated beautifully. Some of it was complex, fast little notes, some of it was extremely simple, mundane stuff. There was a lot of it. And there was this wicked guitar playing on top of the whole thing.
Frank’s music had all of the elements: melody, complexity, simplicity, comedy, political and spiritual or religious, I should say, not spiritual in Frank’s case commentaries. A very interesting blend. And like a lot of Frank’s fans, it just spoke to me very heavily. See Frank’s fans are there’s like this family. When you get it, you really get it, and it changes the quality of your whole life, his music. And I’m not alone in that. There are very sincere Zappa fans around the world that would do anything for a morsel of his music. And I hope that, in the future, potential Zappa fans have the opportunity to experience these treasures, because they are life-changing experiences.
Guitar.com: I’m sure it distresses you greatly that we lost him so soon.
Vai: Well, you know, he had the audacity to go and die on us.
Guitar.com: The unmitigated audacity. When you joined his band, the story is that you transcribed into musical notation some very complex piece of his. Was it Black Page Number Two?
Vai: Black Page Number One and Two.
Guitar.com: Is that a true story?
Guitar.com: Do you still sight read a lot?
Vai: No. Sight-reading is a whole other world. When I was in college I declared that I was going to be one of the world’s best sight-readers. I spent an entire summer, nine-hour days, sight-reading clarinet, saxphone, violin every kind of book you could imagine. And then I realized at the end of it all, a) how am I going to apply this and why, and b) I’m not even close to being the best, and c) it’s a life-long achievement because the guitar is such a pickled instrument to sight-read on. If you give me a piece of music I can get through it. But the last time I read music on the guitar was when I did Joe Jacksons record with him, Symphony No. 1. But it was all charted out. It’s not like I’m going and try to sight-read. I would never go into a situation and try to sight-read. It’s unfair to the composer.
Guitar.com: You said you went way over the top in your sight-reading, but certainly in the time you were devouring what must have been dozens and dozens of various song books in your time at Berklee College of Music [in Boston, Mass.], and in other situations certainly that helped you to go beyond being just a straight rock player, to understand more than that, to understand modes and things.
Vai: Absolutely. My music theory lessons in high school, and my guitar lessons with Joe Satriani when I was a kid, were like epiphanies. When I learned what modes were I learned them in high school I had this wonderful theory class. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me musically was Bill Westcott, his music theory class. I learned how to compose there, I learned appreciation for classical music. I understood theme and variation and how to apply them to your music. And Joe took a lot of the things that I had learned and showed me how to apply them to the guitar. And something like modes just opened up my world.
I didn’t think of modes as scales. They’re flavors and colors and tapestries. You can use these if you understand them. They completely color your music. They have everything to do with the way you write your music.
It’s like this: I’ve had a lot of students in the past, when I used to teach. I don’t teach anymore. But when I did, I had every kind of person come in. There were guys who had a real deep love and appreciation for the instrument, but just couldn’t play. No matter what they did they just couldn’t play it. And then I had guys who didn’t understand the sensitivity or the dynamics of the instrument, but they were fascinated with the scales and the chops and the numbers. And they sounded like motoring, like motorists.
And there were guys who knew every kind of guitar made by a particular manufacturer they’d know the dimensions of the neck joints, the ohms of the pots of the tone controls every element of the making of the guitar. They could tell you what kind of neck it is, what kind of wood. There’s people who are completely fascinated with the mechanics of the instrument, but they can’t really play it. I shouldn’t say that it’s such an artistic instrument that everybody can play it. There’s just levels of proficiency.
But then you get guys who would come in and they’d really get it. You could see in their face when they were performing that it was a real expression of themselves.
Guitar.com: Did you get it right from the start?
Vai: I don’t know. That would probably be left to the judgement of others. But for me, it was my entire world. It was the only thing. I didn’t have Nintendo, or the Internet, or videos I didn’t have nearly the distractions that kids have today. And I had supportive parents. I had great teachers. And I just had this uncanny desire to achieve things on the instrument. It didn’t matter whether I was accepted in one particular social group or not. I had my achievements on the instrument. It was fascinating to me to be able to sit down and play a Led Zeppelin song, or a Jethro Tull song. And to be in a band to be in a band was the coolest thing you could possibly imagine. And I was in bands all through high school. So I don’t know if I got it [right away]I still don’t know if I got it [laughs]. I read some of my reviews and sometimes I think I don’t.
Guitar.com: Do you worry about reviews?
Vai: Well, contrary to popular belief, no matter what an artist reads about their work, they’re affected by it. And I mean every artist. I’ll give you a dollar if you find me one that isn’t.
Guitar.com: That doesn’t even slightly, maybe subconsciously, change the way they do things?
Vai: Well, I’ve known artists to quit because of things they’ve read about themselves. No matter how you slice it up, when you go into those creative areas of your mind, and you put them out as a piece of work, that has your stamp on it, what you’re doing is delivering it to the world and saying, This is what and who I am. And you’re open to criticism in the world. And anything you see, anything anybody says about that some people get it and some people dont. Some people are just fuckin hacks. Some people are creative critics. I look for creative criticism because it helps me better myself. But it’s painful when somebody just gets up there and basically just gives the world that you’re shallow, and that your work is this and that. Everybody I’ve ever worked with anybody has always been affected by the things that are said about them in the press, as much as they’d like to deny it.
Listen, going back to sightreading, I don’t want to disrespect sight-reading on the guitar. I think it’s the kind of stuff that I was doing was way over the top. I think that it’s not very hard to learn to read on the guitar and its very valuable. It gives you and awareness of the instrument and it builds the bond between you and your instrument. I think it’s valuable to spend time learning how to read on the instrument. If you don’t, it’s not going to change your life, or even your appreciation for the instrument. But I’ve always felt and this is just me that if you want to speak the language, you should learn the language, and understand it and know how to speak it and write it.
Guitar.com: Including the concept of understanding music theory.
Vai: See, this is a question that I get asked every time I do an interview, basically. There’s this really odd misconception that people think that if you understand music theory, it destroys your expressive soul. That is the most pathetic bunch of shit I’ve ever had to address.
If you’re a mechanical type personality, then whether you know music theory or not, your music is going to come out that way. But understanding music theory can help in your expressionable abilities quite a lot. It’s helped me. It’s helped me to understand. The most important thing for you to develop musically is your ears. Even if you don’t spend any time with the little black dots, you really have to develop your ears because that says it all. Some people can see with their ears.
Guitar.com: What do you mean?
Vai: What I mean by that is that you hear, you’re in a situation and you hear something, and you immediately have an understanding on the fretboard of what to play, or how to approach what you’re hearing. Your ears develop eyes so to speak. Or your fingers develop eyes.
But there’s a lot of things that a person can do to develop their ears, but they just don’t think about it. One of the ways is to have a basic understanding of music theory.
Guitar.com: To be able to hear chord changes and understand what they mean
Vai: Yeah. We’re in sore need of a book that expresses the importance of ear training for musicians. I guess I should write it. All I need is five undisturbed months.