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“It All Starts In the Mind”: Steve Vai Shares Some Words of Wisdom for Guitarists

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)

A phenomenally talented electric guitar prodigy, Vai joined Frank Zappa’s crew in 1978 aged just 18. Having played in Zappa’s band throughout the early ‘80s he then went on to pursue a highly influential solo career.

Raising the bar for guitarists the world over, Vai continues to push the boundaries of possibility.

He has also been known to take some pretty extreme measures in preparation for an album. For example, in order to get into the zone for a track on his 1990 classic Passion and Warfare (opens in new tab), he didn't eat for four days!

And while we don’t recommend starving yourself, we would encourage readers to dwell on some of the following wisdom Vai generously shared with Guitar Player back in 1999 soon after the release of his sixth studio album, The Ultra Zone (opens in new tab).

1) Getting in the Zone

"It all starts in the mind. I wanted to see if I could bring my mind into certain emotional states. I would focus on an emotion – like tenderness – and try to touch the instrument as softly as I could and still get the notes out.

“If you can stay focused, it gets easier to feel what you're trying to express. That's how I coined the phrase the 'Ultra Zone.' It's a frame of mind where there are no distractions.”

2) Head First

"I prefer to start from the emotional side of things, rather than the mechanical. That's why I don't really come up with melodies by noodling. It's possible to write great melodies that way, but I'd rather hear it in my head first.

“But when we create, we tend to go to parts of our psyche that we're attracted to. For some people, that means politics or race cars or whatever. I'm sort of a seeker. I'm always questing for spiritual balance. On the other hand, I've got this intense technical ability, and my brain always seems to marry the two together."

3) Love Your Instrument

"As far as being a good student, first and foremost you need to have a love for the instrument. Once you've got that, you need to pick a goal and slowly and methodically work toward it.

“If that goal is to play a Limp Bizkit song, great. Find an instructor to help you learn that. If, on the other hand, your goal is to be a devastating, virtuoso guitarist, then you have a different set of priorities. But the way you achieve them is the same: through love and respect for your instrument.”

Steve Vai 'Inviolate' album artwork

(Image credit: Favored Nations)

Steve Vai’s latest album, Inviolate, is available to order here (opens in new tab).