“I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I didn’t know you can do that’”: Steve Vai reveals studio trick he learnt from Frank Zappa

“Frank just looks at me and smiles and goes, ‘Yep. It makes every day like Christmas.’”

Frank Zappa and Steve Vai

Image: Frans Schellekens / Scott Dudelson / Getty Images

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Steve Vai has looked back on a studio trick he learned from the great Frank Zappa that “opened up a world of possibilities” in his young mind.

In a recent chat with Chanan Hanspal, the guitarist – who played in Zappa’s band from 1980 to 1983 – opens up about a special moment he shared with the late music legend in the recording studio.

“The whole period with Frank, I was carving my teeth,” Vai begins [via Ultimate Guitar]. “And I’d watch him and hear how he would be very specific about beats and timing and how he would colour things.”

“And I remember once I was in the studio, and he was mixing something – and it was just him and me. I’m watching him mix… and then he stops the mix. And he mixes it down to two-track, and then he stops, and he goes back to the console, and he makes some changes, and then he mixes. He continues mixing the rest of the song.”

“Then I see him get up and walk over to the two-track machine, and he takes a razor blade, and he takes the tape, and he puts it on a little splicing block,” the guitarist says. “And I’m like, ‘What is he doing?’ And he cuts the tape. And I’m like, ‘He cut the tape! You’re not supposed to cut the tape!’ And then he’d skew it.”

“And I’m so fascinated by this – I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I didn’t know you can do that.’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s the kick drum right there.’ He’d get right in the right spot, mark it, and then he’d cut it – and he glued the pieces together. And I’m thinking, ‘What is he doing?’”

Vai continues: “There was that moment where he played it back and the tape went across the head… and I got it. And I was stunned. Because this immediately opened up a world of possibilities in my mind, because I always thought, ‘You get one shot, you record it, and that’s it.’ And whatever it is, it is. I didn’t know about that you can splice tape and stuff like that.”

“That’s how innocent and naive I was. And when that happened, I just went [gasps]. And Frank just looks at me and smiles and goes, ‘Yep. It makes every day like Christmas.’ I discovered what editing was.”

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