Steve Vai was “scared to death” playing with Frank Zappa’s band: “It wasn’t the kind of band you get into to learn how to perform”

The virtuoso recalls his time playing guitar for one of the most notoriously demanding men in rock.

Steve Vai and Frank Zappa

Image: Gary Gershoff / Getty Images

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Keeping up with Frank Zappa at his live shows was no easy feat, as Steve Vai reveals in a new interview discussing his experience playing the guitar for Zappa’s band.

Speaking to Vintage Rock Pod, Vai says he was hired as Zappa’s transcriptionist before joining his live band – the latter an experience he deems crucial for his career as a musician.

Asked what it was like working with the legend himself – whose reputation for being demanding often precedes him, Vai replies: “I was scared to death. [Laughs] I was very young and it just seemed surreal. Next thing I know, I’m at Frank’s studio, and there’s Vinnie Colaiuta, and Terry Bozzio, and Tommy Mars, and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ And he’s given me all this wild music to record.”

“It was fun because they were fun guys to hang out with,” he adds. “Frank was just kind of amazing just to sit and talk with. He was a great conversationalist. He always had an opinion about things and he always gave you his attention. And he listened when you spoke. And he was always interested and interesting.”

As Vai explains, playing in Zappa’s band was as rewarding as it was challenging, given the complexity of Zappa’s music and his tendency to “write the setlist five minutes before the show”.

[L-R] Steve Vai and Frank Zappa
Credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images
“Being a musician in Frank’s band required certain tools and it wasn’t the kind of band you get into to learn how to perform,” he says. “You learn how to play high-information music under pressure while laughing. You had to keep your attention on Frank at all times.

“I couldn’t really play to the audience, because Frank was conducting certain things. At any time during the entire show, he could give you a signal. He had various signals he would give you that would mean do this in a song. If he went like this, that meant whatever you were playing played reggae. Or he would go like this, and whatever you’re playing, you got to play it and five-eight.”

“Or he had this one… where he’d walk around. He’d go like this, and that meant whatever you were doing play it heavy metal. Big balls. So you really have to keep your eye on Frank.”

“We did probably two shows a night most of the time with long soundchecks, where he would write and record. We had about 80 songs that you had to memorise. He would pick the setlist, he would write the setlist five minutes before the show. And it was different every single night.”

He continues: “It was a real challenge for someone like me, because I had a fascination with playing the very complex lines on the guitar. So Frank finally had a guitar player that he could give all these very challenging, dance, melodic lines and they’re all written.”

As for what a day in the life of a Zappa band member was like, Vai reveals: “So you wake up at 9am and you go to the airport and you fly to the gig. Then you get from the car and you go directly to the gig. You do a long soundcheck, and then you have 45 minutes before the first show. Then there’s 45 minutes before the second show. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was two o’clock, 1 am or 2 am. And I had to practise because I don’t know what songs he was going to call the next night. So I deteriorated pretty quickly.”

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