“I had this idea for many years, which was to create a show with five crazy guitar players and one backing band,” Steve Vai says. That show, which Vai dubbed Generation Axe, became a reality in 2016. And, true to his word, it features five of the most musically adventurous and technically accomplished players to emerge on the rock and metal landscape over the past 35 years. Rounding out the lineup alongside Vai is neoclassical six-string legend Yngwie Malmsteen, Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society axe master Zakk Wylde, and — the new kid on the shred block — Animals as Leaders eight-string wizard Tosin Abasi.
For guitar heads, the chance to see five colossal heavyweights on one bill is reason enough to nab a ticket to a show. But what makes the Generation Axe concept even more special is the fact that, true to Vai’s original vision, not only does each player receive his own solo spotlight, but they all perform in various configurations—as duos, trios and quartets—as well as open and close the set with head-spinningly complex, heavily orchestrated five-man guitar versions of classic rock songs like Boston’s “Foreplay” and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” Says Malmsteen, “It’s really cool when we all come out onstage together. It’s like opening up a comic book.”
In advance of the 2018 U.S. run of Generation Axe, Vai, Malmsteen, Wylde, Bettencourt and Abasi got together to discuss the upcoming shows, the best—and most difficult—parts of the set, and what happens when you put “five crazy guitar players” together on one tour bus.
They also, of course, talked about guitar playing—lots and lots of it.
“Nuno said to me one day, ‘If we were getting paid per note we could all retire halfway through the first week,’ ” Wylde says a laugh. “And buy an island next to Johnny Depp!”
Generation Axe is back for 32 shows beginning November 7. For guitar heads, the chance to see not just one but five colossal heavyweights on one bill is reason enough to nab a ticket to a show. But what makes the concept even more special is the fact that, true to Vai’s original vision, each player performs solo as well as in duos, trios and quartets with their contemporaries. Better still, all five players open and close the set with head-spinningly complex, heavily orchestrated guitar versions of classic rock songs, such as Boston’s “Foreplay” and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.”
What did you guys think when Steve first approached you with his idea of a guitar shredding supergroup?
Nuno Bettencourt: Well I’ve been approached about these different guitar things in the past, and I think people stopped asking me because I always said no. I just never saw myself in that way. So when Steve reached out to me he said, “Look, I have this format that I think you’d be really interested in, where we do four or five pieces together, and then we each stretch out individually for about 20 minutes.” And I thought, Wow, I would go see that. I’m in!
Zakk Wylde: It’s a win-win. You get to jam all night and hang out with friends. The only difference between doing this at a keg party in our buddy’s living room when we were 16 and doing it now is that there’s more people watching us… and I’m 51 years old! [laughs]
Yngwie, what do you like about each of the other players?
Yngwie Malmsteen: What I really dig is they’re all very different — different sounds, different styles. Steve’s Steve, and Zakk is much more bluesy. Nuno is almost funky sometimes. And Tosin is a real interesting guy because he’s got a jazz thing going on like nobody’s business. Then I have the classical thing. So it’s definitely a wide variety. You could take five other guitar players and it’d be not so big a difference, you know? Like when you see these blues jams and everybody just plays the blues. Whatever. This is a much different experience.
Tosin, as the new guy up there, it must be mind-blowing to share a stage with these four players.
Tosin Abasi: Absolutely. These guys are all immense musicians and guitarists, and they’re decades into doing this stuff. And they’re all as bold in personality as they are in their music. Having a conversation with Yngwie, Steve, Nuno and Zakk — the amount of musical history, the amount of influence they’ve had on music, the amount of influence they’ve had on gear, the stories about their touring experiences… I mean, someone should make a documentary just about the conversations on the bus. Because it’s gold.
To that point, you all travel together on the same bus. What’s that like?
Bettencourt: I have to admit, when Steve first told us we were all going to be on a bus together, I was like, “Are you sure about that? You really want the tour to last, like, a day or two?” I mean, you’ve got good people with good hearts but different politics, different religions. So at first it was kind of hairy. We’d get on the bus after the gig, somebody would say something about the election, and you’d see three guys go to bed. “G’night!” [laughs] But then we started realizing, You know what? This is an opportunity to get together and understand each other. And it became the greatest part of the tour, having the five of us talk before going to bed. It became a brotherhood.
Vai: It’s not uncommon to be up two, three, four hours at night with everybody on the tour bus, listening to music and hanging out. These guys have had extraordinary lives, and the stories are unbelievable. It’s an incredible thing to be a part of.
Wylde: You’re hearing everybody’s Spinal Tap stories about the music business, everybody’s war stories about being on the road, and it’s like, “You’re making this up, right?” “No, sadly it’s all true!” It’s just stories where everybody’s crying laughing. Steve even said one night, “Man, if I didn’t book this tour so we could all jam together, this part of it alone would have been reason enough to do it.”
When it comes to the show itself, is there a particular moment that tends to get the biggest response from the audience?
Bettencourt: I think the greatest response comes when people look up and see all five of us onstage. It’s like, “What the fuck am I watching right now?” Because the fans that are coming, they already know us individually. But they haven’t seen us together like this. That’s really where it’s at.
Vai: And then at the end, we’ve all been doing “Highway Star” together. By that point it’s like everybody’s gotten the shit kicked out of ’em, and you’ve thrown every punch you have. The response from the audience there is always nice.
Wylde: I think Steve and Yngwie coming out and doing “Black Star,” that’s ridiculous. And Nuno coming out with Tosin and shredding, that’s silly as well. The whole thing is amazing. It’s like a three-hour show, and for me, when I’m not up there playing, I’m on the side of the stage watching the guys shred. It’s just a blast.
For the songs where the five of you are out there all at once, how do you keep the whole thing so well organized yet make it appear to be so effortless?
Malmsteen: We tend to keep it pretty disciplined… depending on the day! [laughs]
Vai: It’s in the orchestration. Everybody’s given a part, and they respect that part because they know it sounds great when we play together. So the dishing out of the parts is a relief. It gives space, it gives clarity, and it allows the beauty of these guitars in harmony to really sing. That’s the unique thing about the show and the thing we enjoy so much.
Bettencourt: We have a rule when we’re playing that Steve is basically the conductor. When he first put this together, he intricately and masterfully created separate parts for everyone and sent them to us to learn. “These are your parts,” he said. “Do not stray from these parts.” So when we get up there, we’re all in our lanes and it’s orchestral, and it sounds really cool.
You don’t want it to just devolve into five guys shredding over each other…
Wylde: No, that’s what it is! That’s all it is. [laughs] You can’t help it from turning into that. That’s the show!
One of the great things about the Generation Axe setup is that, because you get paired up with one another, you’re sometimes forced to play styles that are outside of your wheelhouse. To that end, is there anything you have to do onstage that is particularly challenging or difficult?
Abasi: For me, I think it’s anything blues or classic-rock oriented. That’s a language that you need to speak authentically, and language is a hard thing to learn later in life. So when I’m trading blues licks with Nuno or Zack or Yngwie, it’s intimidating, but it’s a learning experience.
Bettencourt: The way the show is set up, after one guy plays, the next guy comes up and you have to play a song together before he leaves the stage. And of course, the guy I have to follow is Tosin, so I have to play one of his songs. And I can’t even find where the “one” is on his songs! I thought I was into progressive music — I grew up on Yes and Rush and Return to Forever — but man, his shit is, like, multiple time signatures and stuff at the same time. And then Steve has to jump up and do “Black Star” with Yngwie.
Vai: Some of the lines Yngwie does on that are not really my style. That’s okay, though, because I had the opportunity to work on them, and from that I developed some different chops in that area. But it’s a challenge, for sure.
Every few years there seems to be chatter about the death of the electric guitar in popular music. But Generation Axe demonstrates not only that the audience for guitar music is big but also that it wants to hear playing that is complex and technically advanced.
Bettencourt: Look, guitar playing was really big for a long time, especially in the ’80s. And then it got to a point where I think it became something like the Olympics — it was all about playing fast and outdoing everybody, and songs became less important. It became unattractive. But I think this tour shows that there’s an art form there, and there’s a way to find a balance where it doesn’t have to be just shredding all night.
Vai: The guitar’s just a cool instrument. People love the way it sounds when it hits their ears. They love the vibrations of the strings clanging. And they like to see people who are completely accomplished on the instrument, who own the instrument, who are in touch with their inner creative instincts on the instrument and who are obviously passionate and dedicated to their instrument.
Malmsteen: No matter where you go in the world, the guitar is king, man. There is nothing that comes close.
Vai: People just have a natural pull to play guitar. And in some people, the pull is to play the living shit out of the thing, you know? I don’t think that will ever go away.