“It was great training, but it really psychologically beat me up”: Steve Vai on touring with Frank Zappa

Vai opens up once again on the techniques he employed to cope with the demanding Zappa gig.

Steve Vai and Frank Zappa

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Steve Vai has opened up about the psychological stress he endured while touring with the legendary Frank Zappa.

Looking back on the experience in a new interview with Chanan Hanspal, Vai says he had to employ “certain techniques” in order to memorise the melodies because of the sheer amount of songs he had to learn.

“One thing I used to do is kind of like sight-reading,” the guitarist says. “I tried to get to the point where I could sight-read it slowly. Then I’d record it, and then I put on headphones and go to sleep. And I have a timer on the cassette to turn on in the middle of the night and play these melodies over and over in my head while I was sleeping. Because I figured well, ‘Maybe that’ll reach my subconscious.’”

“And I delivered. I look back at it and I think, ‘How did I do that?’ I mean, I was just a kid. I was 20 years old on the first tour.”

“It was rough,” Vai adds. “Because with Frank, we wake up at 9am, you got to get to the airport, get on a plane, you arrive in a city, and when you’re in Europe… There was still customs at every border and money exchange and all that… Then you go directly from the airport to soundcheck, and you soundcheck up until doors. And during soundcheck, Frank would just change things around and write new music and it was constant. Then you get offstage after soundcheck, and you had 45 minutes before the show.”

“We had about 80 songs, and maybe there’s 15 songs in a show. So Frank would write the setlist five minutes before we went on the stage, and it was different every single night.”

To make things worse, “60% of it was just death-defying guitar parts.”

“Then we’d finish the show, take a break and do another show. A lot of times, it was two shows in one night. And by the time you get back to the hotel, it’s 1am,” Vai recalls. “I had to use any spare time because I had to keep all the songs fresh under my fingers. So I wasn’t sleeping, and I was in a state of stress. I was stressed out because I didn’t know what song he was going to call.”

“We might not play Approximate for a week or something, and then I’ll see it on the list. So I had to keep all the songs fresh. And that was the challenge. It was all about, ‘You wake up and you just work your ass off, and then you go to sleep’. It was great training, but it really psychologically beat me up.”

That said, the virtuoso admits that the experience was “gratifying too on many levels”, adding “it was really nice to be able to play those complex melodies and I played them good.”

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