Steve Vai: The Hardest Working "Shredder" in Show Business
JAM Magazine Interviews The Wizard Of The Electric Guitar
By Vinny Cecolini
Photos by Joe Lester
Promo Photos Courtsey SteveVai.com
Emerging during the 1980's, the last golden age of axe slinging six-string heroes, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai continues to enjoy an immensely successful career as a solo artist. The Grammy Award winning performer has sold over 15 million albums stretching across three decades of solid performances. His 1990 masterpiece, Passion & Warfare, is a brilliant showcase of his amazing talent. Over the years, Vai has also worked with divergent list of performers including Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz and Whitesnake.
What sets this talented musician apart from his contemporaries, other so-called "Shredders from the ‘80s," is his tireless, unwavering passion for both the guitar and music. Not only has he developed innovative ways to play his instrument, he also designed the breakthrough seven-string guitar that helped usher and define the nu-metal movement spearheaded by Korn, The Deftones, Incubus and similar artists.
In addition to his tireless charitable endeavors revolving around music education, Vai has conducted numerous clinics. Most recently, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest online guitar lesson. He continues to perform with his own band as well as participate in the renowned G3 tours with his friend and former guitar teacher, Joe Satriani. And if that doesn’t occupy enough of his time, the 52-year old guitar master is steadily developing a reputation as a neo-classical composer. Oh yes, Steve Vai is also happily married to former Vixen performer Pia Maiocco, with whom he has two children. In his spare time, he’s an avid beekeeper. He sells his honey and donates the proceeds to the Make a Noise Foundation.
The second installment of the guitarist’s Real Illusions trilogy, Story of Light, arrives online and in stores August 14th. Like most of Vai’s solo work, this recording is mostly instrumental. However, the 12-track collection does feature a couple of surprising appearances. They include Season One finalist of The Voice, Beverly McClellan as well as former Til Tuesday singer / songwriter Aimee Mann.
JAM: A recent press release describes your new album, The Story of Light, as "the continuation of the conceptual and cosmic narrative arc" of 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflection.
Steve Vai - That’s a very colorful way of describing it. The concept was a story I had in mind for a long time. When you’re making your own music, you can do anything you want. I don’t worry about being a pop star, so I don’t have to conform to anything.
JAM: What was your reasoning behind this three-arc production you’re creating?
My idea was to do a concept record, but something a little more unique than a conventional concept record. So I thought the music should span itself out over three records. The songs are based on characters and events in the story, but they’re dished out in no particular order. My plan is for the next installment of the Real Illusions trilogy to have more elements of the story. After that, I’ll take all three records and glue them together to create a comprehensive rock opera. I don’t like using the word ‘opera,’ but it paints more of a distinctive picture of what I’m attempting to accomplish. And if you’re not into the conceptual stuff, you can still enjoy the music.
JAM: How did Beverly McClellan, the season one finalist on television’s The Voice, come to make a guest appearance on The Story of Light?
I was co-hosting an event with Sharon Osbourne for NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), and a lot of great bands performed. I had gone into the audience to check it out when Beverly took to the stage. She absolutely captivated me. Everything that came out of her mouth was great. I knew she was my singer for the track, "John the Revelator," but at the time, I’m sure she had no idea who I was when I approached her. If she did recognize the name, she probably thought I was just another ‘shredder from the ‘80s’. I was very wrong. When I went back to my dressing room she was waiting with a CD. She said, "I’m a big fan of your music. Here’s a copy of my CD. I just want you to enjoy it." I looked at her and said, "Please sing on my record." She was all too happy to do it. Beverly is an amazing talent. She tore it up on the track. I liked her voice so much, I invited her to come out and open up my upcoming tour. As a result, she’ll be able to sing "John the Revelator" during the show.
JAM: That answers the question, how will you recreate the song live?
There are four dates she’s unable to make, so we probably won’t play the song those nights.
JAM: How did you collaboration with Aimee Mann on "No More Amsterdam" come about? Your musical backgrounds seem ill-fitted, yet the final results really work.
I’ve actually known Aimee since college. We attended Berklee (College of Music) together and even lived in the same building. My girlfriend at the time - who is now my wife - was really good friends with her. Through the years, my wife always picked up Aimee’s records. I’d hear them and I really liked what she was doing. There was something about her that was always a bright light. Her lyrics are pure poetry. Her voice is very vulnerable.
JAM: Funny how the term ‘small world’ comes into play during our lives, especially when searching for a missing piece needed to solve a puzzle.
Interesting, huh? I had the track and I had a particular concept in mind, but I was having trouble coming up with the words. I told my wife about the problem and she said, "Why don’t you call Aimee?" Initially, her suggestion threw me off. My perception was we both came from different worlds. The music I perform is so different from what she’s used to doing I had no idea what she would think. I sent her the song and she really liked it. All in all, it was just a glorious project. Aimee came over to my studio and we talked about the song. She wrote the lyrics and we sang them. It was so much fun to work with her. I knew she was not the kind of artist most people would expect me to work with, but the song suited her well.
JAM: You jokingly referred to yourself as a "Shredder from the ‘80s." Aren’t you a bit tired of that term now? At one time it may have perfectly suited you; today it seems out of place when describing you.
There is a stigma attached to it, that’s for sure. A shredder is someone who can "tear it up" on the guitar, but that is all that they do. Don’t get me wrong, I love to ‘shred’. I wear the badge proudly. However, it’s not all I do with my instrument. People who know my music and like it understand there is more to Steve Vai than just fast guitar playing.
JAM: Originally, a shredder was someone whose style of playing flew against the rules of conventional thinking. They tossed out the rule book and proceeded to break the boundaries of what a guitarist was supposed to do.
Well, there you go.
JAM: It’s been more than 30 years since you burst onto the scene as a member of Frank Zappa’s band.
I have boots older than some of my fans. I started working for Frank more than 34 years ago. I was just 18 when I started transcribing music for him. I joined his band when I was 20 and toured with him for three years, which was quite an experience.
JAM: Is the legend true that you were originally a fan who sent Zappa musical transcriptions?
I had his phone number. I got it from a friend who stole a rolodex from a New York City studio. He was giving me all of these names. "I got Mick Jagger. I got this one and I got that one." None of them were really interesting to me until he got to the letter Z, and there was Frank’s name. I couldn’t believe it. The first time I dialed the number, Frank wasn’t there. His wife was kind enough to tell me I could call back. Every six months, I call that number back. When I was 18, Frank actually picked up the phone. I was lucky he was in a very good mood. I told him I was a fan who was going to school at Berklee and I had some scores of Edgar Varese, a composer Frank was fond of. I asked him if I could send the scores along with a cassette of my band. Now I never expected he’d consider me for his band. He gave me his home address and I sent him everything. A few months later, I was reading an interview he did with a San Francisco newspaper and he mentioned my name. It was the first time I ever saw my name in print. Frank was actually saying very nice things about me. It was a real stunner.
JAM: How did that lead to you joining his band?
First he asked how old I was. He wanted me to audition until he found out I was 18. The day after my 20th birthday, I moved out to California. I drove up to his house and he started recording me. Around that time, Frank was putting a band together for a tour. This was 1980. I auditioned and passed.
JAM: After the brazen way you connected with Frank Zappa, you followed Yngwie J. Malmsteen in Alcatrazz for the recording of the band's second album, Disturbing the Peace. You essentially followed the footsteps of Eddie Van Halen when you joined David Lee Roth for the recording of his full-length solo debut, Eat 'Em and Smile. You then followed a small army of renowned guitarists when you accepted David Coverdale's offer to join Whitesnake in 1989. My point is this. A guitarist could be the greatest talent ever, but without supreme confidence in one's ability, you fail. Did you every have second thoughts about joining any of these bands?
Here’s the thing. You have to be in the moment. For me, the number one thing was my love and passion for the guitar. I never felt desperate or panicked. I never thought I’d be famous. I never felt like I needed to be famous. That alleviated a lot of mental noise. Those gigs just fell into my lap. When I got the gig with Frank, I walked around muttering, "How the heck did this happen?" He was very good at identifying with a person’s musical potential, and I fit in relatively well with what he was doing at the time. I felt the Alcatrazz gig would be cool because Yngwie was obviously high profile. But when you go into a band like that, or a band like Roth’s, you can’t go in there trying to emulate what the previous guy did. That would be death. Bands don’t want that. I have my own musical voice. I respected Yngwie Malmsteen and I loved Eddie Van Halen, but I never felt threatened or any pressure. The key to dealing with the long shadows they cast was the simple fact I was fiercely confident in my abilities. Without my instrument I was kind of shy - even when I was in Frank’s presence I was nervous, because it was "him". However, once I started playing, I was fiercely confident I was doing exactly what those guys needed who hired me. That’s what made those situations work.
JAM: Speaking of emulation, many guitarists start out sounding like their heroes before they develop a signature sound. You had a unique sound from the outset.
When I try to put my finger on it, I think back to when I was a kid and I was listening to my heroes like Hendrix, Page and Beck. Although I loved learning their songs, I didn’t want to play like them. Why? They were who they were, and they did them much better than I could ever do them. I had an idea of the way I wanted to play. I liked my style. It was my own little secret. I figured that if I was going to go out into the world and play, I had to keep real what was important to me. That was my own distinct style with the guitar. For instance, when I joined a band like Alcatrazz, I wasn’t going to write or play music that would sound anything like the previous guy ‘cause I’m not that guy. I was lucky in the sense that the music I created fit in with the direction they were going in. I was able to examine the situation and see how I could contribute. Fortunately it worked out great each time.
JAM: You were one of the few musicians who joined an established band and was allowed to alter its sound to an extent.
The guitar was a predominant instrument and a distinct part of the identity of the bands I joined. I know there was a lot of controversy over the Whitesnake thing. They had a really big record when John Sykes was there guitarist, who is great. His sound is stamped all over that self-titled breakout album in 1987. There’s no way I could do that for the follow-up album. Actually, I couldn’t do that. I tried to do what I was hearing in my head. When I joined Whitesnake for the Slip of the Tongue album, the tracks were nearly done. I didn’t write any of that music. I listened to the completed songs and thought what can I do that’s me, but at the same time maintain the band’s integrity? I’ve taken that approach with all of the situations I’ve been in. I even did that when I recorded with Public Image.
JAM: I was ecstatic that Whitesnake leader David Coverdale gave you the chance to perform selections from Passion & Warfare during the band’s live sets.
I certainly owe a debt to David. He was the first person I played the album for, which was right after I finished recording it and joined Whitesnake. When I recorded Passion & Warfare, I had quit Dave Roth’s band. All the big rock star stuff was fun, but I was done with it. I felt it was time to make the music that was bouncing around inside my head. I thought the record would sell ten copies. When I played it for David, he said, "Steven darling, you’re very wrong. This is an excellent record and you’ll be very surprised how well it sells." It went gold (over 500,000 copies sold) in one week.
JAM: How did you come to work with John Lydon and P.I.L.?
Bill Laswell was producing the band’s album. He was good friends with my A&R guy at Relativity Records. Bill was looking for a guitar player and was told he had to get me. So, I went in and had just two half days to record the guitar parts. On the last day, Lydon came in, listened to everything and said, "This is fucking great, man!" Then we went out to dinner and hung out at a bar. It was really interesting. He’s an amazing personality.
JAM: During your career you’ve worked with an array of colorful characters including Lydon, Zappa, Coverdale and Devin Townshend. At the after show party when you and Devin performed at NYC’s Academy in 1993, he mooned a couple of people right in front of members of your family.
That is Devin on one of his mild days. There is an example of a young, hip kid. I think he was a teenager when I took him out on the road as my singer and second guitarist. He had a tremendous amount of talent, but was just discovering it. Devin went on to do brilliant work. I always buy everything he does. We’re still good friends and he’s one of the few guys in the metal industry that I would call a true genius.
JAM: Zappa was a major influence on you, and you obviously nurtured Devin along in his development, especially on his early albums.
Devin didn't need any assistance from me in regards to music. He's one guy who definitely knew what he wanted to do. If he did get any inspiration from me, it was in the studio. It was one of the first times he was in a recording studio and saw someone build a record in a particular way. The Sex & Religion record (which features Townsend on vocals) is heavily layered with vocals and guitars. There is a particular way I did that. Although he does it his own way - just as I did with Frank, Roth and all of these other bands where I picked up things. Devin picked up production techniques from working with me. I also think it was really good for him to get out on the road and tour.
JAM: Have you revamped your band for the upcoming tour?
No. Jeremy Colson has been my drummer for almost a decade. The other guitarists, Dave Weiner has been with me for 13 years. I've also worked with bassist Philip Earl Bynoe throughout the years. This time though, I wanted to bring some different elements on the road. I like the idea of changing things up. My last band had two violinists. During the tour I filmed a DVD titled Where the Wild Things Are (recorded at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota and released in 2009). I wondered what I could do this time. So I was surfing the Internet and I found this really great harp player, Deborah Henson-Conant. She's referred to as "the hip harpist," because she plays a strap-on harp that she puts through these effects. She can play it like a blues player. We just finished three weeks of rehearsals and it sounded really cool.
JAM: How has your record label, Favored Nations, faired during the recent music industry downturn?
When I put the label together, it was a good time for the record industry. I was with Sony Music and I didn't actually release anything through my label. The idea for Favored Nations was to release musician-oriented music. I wanted to have a home for musicians with a very unique voice; those who were very dedicated to his or her art. I wasn't looking to "break" an artist. I wasn't into that game. I just wanted to create a vehicle for talented musicians to get their music out there. When the business took a dive, I was able to hold on to the label and still release music. The people who liked that type of music are very passionate about it. These days, it's very difficult for a label to survive because there are no record stores. No one is buying CDs, but Favored Nations is still going. I release a little bit of product here and there, but I mostly use it now as my own vehicle.
JAM: You’ve refused to stick to any one mold. In addition to transcending musical genres with your playing, you are also a teacher and inventor of musical instruments and equipment.
It’s very simple. I get ideas for things and I’m fortunate to have companies willing to build them. I have ideas for projects and I’m free enough to do whatever I want. I’m fortunate because I have connected with a particular fan base that likes the unexpected, that likes stuff that’s a little esoteric. Also, I still love playing the guitar and coming up with new things. On the new record, there’s a lot of music that to me is an evolution in my playing and songwriting. It’s always exciting. And if you’re excited about what you do, and you keep doing it specifically for that reason, after a while you’ll turn around and say, "Wow! 30 years!"
JAM: Are you a workaholic?
I do it for the love of it. I do have moments of quiet, but when it rains, it pours and you have to keep moving.
JAM: During your moments of quiet, you’re a bee keeper? Aren’t you concerned about harming your hands?
I don’t worry about stuff like that. I just lead a normal life. I’m conscience of what I do with my hands, but a bee sting is not really going to hurt you. And I’ve never gotten stung on my hands. I have been stung other places, however. Bees are fascinating creatures. The only time I’ve been stung is when I’ve done stupid things.
JAM: Albert Einstein said the downfall of mankind will come as the bee population dwindles. The bee population has seriously declined over the last few years.
We don’t know why bees are vanishing. I don’t think most theories hold water. There’s one theory that makes a lot of sense. The directional mechanisms of bees are being perverted. Bees use the sun and the earth’s magnetism to guide them and it’s not that they’re dying off; it’s just that they are not coming back to the hive. But it’s not just bees. It’s also bats, dolphins and other creatures that use the electro-magnetic field of the earth as a directional tool.
JAM: Can it be corrected?
I don’t know. Thanks to global warming and other factors, the earth is just changing. It could very well be the natural progression of the earth. Nature has a way of adapting. As the earth changes, there will just be different things and different evolutions of creatures. Maybe we won’t have bees pollinating, but we’ll have some other creature. I’m really not concerned about any of that.
JAM: Or nature may decide it’s time to shake humanity off its surface like a bad case of dandruff.
That can happen too. I think it’s prudent for all of us to be conscience of the environment. I think that in times of catastrophe and tragedy with the environment, we’re forced to reexamine our activities to change the planet.
JAM: Let’s confirm music and Hollywood legend. During the climatic guitar battle in the 1986 film Crossroads, were the producers and director concerned your "mistake" was not believable enough?
That is absolutely correct. I’m amazed at how much money is spent to make a movie. The filmmakers built this devil’s church on a Burbank lot. They had all of the people in there and we shot this one scene during twelve 15-hour days. After we put it to be bed, they sent the film to the edit suite. There they decided I didn’t lose the battle bad enough. This was a month after principal photography was completed. They called me and said, "We have to reshoot the last part of the scene." I said, "You’re kidding." They said, "Nope, you got to do it." They rebuilt the church and called everyone back in. I was just about to cut my hair and they screamed, "Don’t touch it." I went back, reshot the scene and just lost harder.
JAM: While I watched the film in a theater, members of the audience laughed when you stepped up to battle Ralph Macchio. Did ‘The Karate Kid’ really stand a chance in Hell, pun intended, against Steve Vai?
I actually played the music for both parts; except for the slide, which was Ry Cooder. I knew I had to beat myself, so I constructed it so it worked. Ralph is a great actor and he worked really hard pantomiming the guitar parts. He did a great job. By the end of filming, he was a pretty good air guitarist.
JAM: You give back a lot as a teacher and through your many charitable endeavors. Is it your way of returning the favor for the many opportunities you were afforded throughout your career?
I enjoy doing that stuff because I feel like I can connect with young musicians. I’ve had a lot of experience and I like to share it. Everyone has to go through it on their own, but when I was young, I was really into composition. The soundtrack to Westside Story was one of the first records I meditated to. I loved the idea of being able to write music, being able to control it, to understand it and to really master it. I studied music and fortunately, it came really easy to me because I loved it so much. That’s why it was such a joy to work with Frank. A lot my music is very compositional, and I was actually composing music before I was playing the guitar. I wanted to further my musical education, so I went to Berklee. And I really loved it there. It had a wonderful environment.
JAM: And your future wife!
Yes, that too! First of all, Berklee is in Boston which is a great city. On campus, you're surrounded by other kids who have the same hopes, dreams and wishes you do. You're on your own and you are in college. One of the biggest influences Berklee had on me was being around players who just kicked my ass. Also the school's music library. It provided me with an opportunity to listen to music I never had an opportunity to hear, because I couldn't afford it and no one was playing it on the radio. That was where I heard all of Frank's records, The Beatles, Maynard Ferguson, Miles Davis and Igor Stravinsky. That was where I lived. It was a great experience and I recommend it to people who feel the same way about music that I do.
JAM: Do you believe musicians should learn how to read and write music?
If they're not interested in doing so, I don't think they need to learn how to read anything. It's not going to do them any good. A lot of young musicians are intimidated by music theory and the infrastructure of music. They get defensive. My advice would be to find what you're most interested in and do that. For me, it was understanding music. But it also doesn't hurt to learn the basics. It's really simple and it can expand your playing a lot.
JAM: Do you still dream of becoming a neo-classical composer?
I have composed quite bit. In fact, I was commissioned to compose a symphony for electric guitar and orchestra which was performed in Holland. I was then commissioned to write a second one. That went over so well, I was recently commissioned to write a piece of music for the 2013 Stravinsky Festival.
JAM: If you are successful, will your music cause a riot like Stravinsky’s debut performance of Rite of Spring?
The festival is happening on the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring performance. The concept revolves around seeing if someone can compose a piece of music that is as jarring as Stravinsky’s legendary work. It’s virtually impossible to do that today, but how could I turn something like that down?
JAM: You are venturing into some very complex territory with this challenge, which is what this commission is for you.
You're right, it is. When I was younger, I listened to conventional classical music and I really wasn't a fan. I wasn't a big on Mozart, Beethoven or Bach and never saw myself ever writing anything remotely like it. I was much more moved by contemporary artists like Ligety, Berio, Varese and Stravinsky. Even now, there are some great composers who are bringing classical music to a different level. When I compose, I don't take on any past genres. My goal is to create music that is unique. These tough, very snooty conductors and creative directors are asking me time and again to compose music for them. It's because they feel I've offered them something that is new and fresh, which is a huge compliment. This type of music is for the long haul. You don't get recognized while you are alive.
JAM: That is a way of achieving mortality.
I’m already recognized enough for me.
JAM: What is the EVO experience?
It’s something I started years ago, that I really enjoy. It’s a special package where people can sit with me while I’m on tour and chat. We advertise 15 minutes, but I’m usually there for an hour. They can also attend sound check and get a bag of cool goodies. I really enjoy my time with the folks in the EVO experience, because they’re people who get me. They know my career, they know my potential and they’re interested in what I’m doing. It’s also refreshing because the questions they ask are unique.
JAM: You show no signs of slowing down.
I'm really living the dream. I'm doing everything I have ever wanted. I used to make lists of the projects I wanted to do. As life rolled on, I realized it takes a long time to complete one project. So I've let go of many of those aspirations. Today, I just move in the moment.
Steve Vai Interview on Guitar Gods and Masterpieces (TV Show)