“I just thought, ‘I’m done’”: Steve Vai reflects on how “brutal” experience with Frank Zappa nearly made him give up on touring

With a manic touring schedule, a new setlist every night and sometimes two shows in one day, Frank Zappa pushed Steve Vai to his limits.

[L-R] Steve Vai and Frank Zappa

Credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

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While Steve Vai has gone on to become a guitar legend, one of his first big touring opportunities almost put him off touring entirely.

At the tender age of 20, Vai’s stint playing alongside Frank Zappa from 1980 to 1983 was a total baptism of fire. In recent interview with Paltrocast, the guitarist admits that the three years were incredibly “brutal”, with an intense touring schedule.

“We flew every day – there was no tour bus,” he recalls. “So you’re waking up at nine, going right from the airport to the gig, and Frank would do soundchecks as soon as you got there until the doors were open. That’s anywhere between two and four hours of Frank writing, teaching you, recording – we recorded everything he recorded.”

The band had to know every Zappa track intimately, as Zappa would often finalise setlists the day of each show. “Frank would write the setlist literally five minutes before we went on stage – and, in all the three years of touring I did with him, the set was never the same twice,” Vai says. “We had a repertoire of 80 songs, 60% of which were completely death-defying on the guitar… They should never be played on the guitar!”

After the shows, the band would get a 45-minute break… and then put on another show. Even when Vai got home, the day wouldn’t be over. “I’d have to go home and practice because I didn’t know what songs he was going to call for the next night,” he explains.

The intensity did a number on Vai. “After those tours I just thought, ‘I’m done; I don’t like touring. I’m not doing that,’” he admits. “I turned yellow and got jaundice on my first tour! I didn’t know how to eat or sleep. I was just completely disheartened by touring. It was frightening to me.”

Despite Frank Zappa running Vai into the ground, he didn’t call it quits. Thankfully, his next touring opportunity working in David Lee Roth’s solo band was more relaxed. “Now you got a tour bus, there’s no soundchecks, there’s one show, and you just go crazy playing simple rock ’n’ roll,” the guitarist grins. “That’s when I really started to appreciate touring.”

Suddenly, instead of starving and getting jaundice, Vai was able to have a life outside of guitar. “I’d always bring a bicycle with me, or I’d go jogging,” he says. “I just loved touring, I loved seeing the world – I still do. I’d go out… take in the city and take in the people and the culture and the food and everything.”

Vai loves touring so much that he’s hitting the road again this September with his new supergroup, Beat. Vai will be performing 80s King Crimson hits across the USA and Canada alongside Crimson frontman Adrain Belew, Crimson bassist Tony Levin and Tool drummer Danny Carey.

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