Steve Vai: “Playing fast wears thin on you, but melody never does”

Though one of the most proficient shredders of all time, Vai says too much flashiness can get “tired”.

Steve Vai

Image: Sergione Infuso – Corbis / Getty Images

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Guitar extraordinaire Steve Vai has opined on the difference between composing and shredding, saying the former “never wears thin” because “melody is infinite”.

Speaking on the latest episode of Kip Winger’s podcast, Vai reflects on his musical journey, recalling the moment he recognised composing for what it was.

“If I was to outline the parallel universes of rock music and classical music, compositional music, in my life, it would sound something like this,” Vai began. “I think it was on my sixth birthday and my mom got me a little ‘spin it’ organ. I remember hitting a note and recognising the notes go higher to the right, and they go lower to the left. It was right at that moment, I had this sort of epiphany.”

“At that moment, there were two thoughts that came to me. One of them was, ‘This is music.’ I could see music, knowing that, ‘Oh, I see this is how it works’ and ‘Oh, that’s music…’ It was an instinctive feeling that the creation of music was infinite, and you have all of these colours and things at your disposal, you can do anything you want.”

Prompted on the difference between guitar-wielding Steve Vai and a composing Steve Vai, the musician replied: “I have never really given it much thought, because I usually adjust to the situation. If I’m sitting in with the band, and if I have a guitar on, and I’m improvising, there’s a compositional element to that.”

“It’s changed through the years. At one point, when you’re a developing musician, at least for me, it was all about, ‘Okay, these scales work, and I can play this scale, and I practised it so much, boy, I can play it fast.’ but that gets tired,” he added. “You become just a machine, and it wears thin on you, no matter who you are. But melody never wears thin, and it’s infinite.”

“There’s times, in my earlier days, where melody occasionally would just come out, and I’d never really recognised that. Usually it was, ‘This is the blues scale. It’s got to work.’ But that was when I was a kid. Then, as things progressed, and my interest in compositional music improved – compositional music, or rock music; they serve a purpose. And that purpose is what are you hearing.”

Vai continued: “That’s when the best stuff comes out, when I just shut up, and I listen. Anybody that’s in the moment of inspiration, you back out, you get out of the way. And when I don’t get out of the way, then I’m intellectualising what I’m doing or I’m exercising my hand memory, and I do that too. I’m not an inspired person all the time.”

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