Steve Vai

Utter the word “Vai” within the rock-guitar world, and you will hear many definitions. Vai’s first boss, the late Frank Zappa, called him “our little Italian virtuoso.” To fans of the 1986 film Crossroads, he’s Satan’s guitarist—as cast by soundtrack producer Ry Cooder, who was looking for a guitarist “better” than Eddie Van Halen. Perhaps David Lee Roth agreed, as he hired Vai for his own band after leaving Van Halen. Then, Joe Satriani may tell you Vai was his star student. Finally, many associate the name Vai with searing guitar pyrotechnics—small wonder that his family name means, “Go!”

In producing Sound Theories, Vols. I & II [Epic], Vai takes this command to heart, and goes for his long-held dream of recording his original orchestral compositions. Volume I features Vai playing guitar with the Netherlands Metropole Orkest, and bringing new life to Vai classics such as “For the Love of God,” “Liberty,” “The Murder,” and “Attitude Song.” Volume II features the Metropole performing his compositions with the aid of Vai’s ears, but not his guitar.

In a Guitar Player interview from the mid ’80s, you mentioned there was a lot of your music laying around that you wanted to arrange for an orchestra. I guess it finally happened.
Ta da! I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of composing. It was the prime stuff I was interested in besides, obviously, my guitar. I wrote my first orchestra score when I was in high school. When I first discovered Frank Zappa’s music, I realized he was doing all this stuff—composing and playing guitar. What he was doing was very akin to the things I’ve always envisioned myself trying to do. There was a period in the early ’80s where I was pretty prolific when it came to composing. That’s when I wrote “Frangelica Pt. 1” and “Helios and Vesta.”

Do you rely on the guitar to compose these pieces?
Well, it’s according to the piece. But if I’m conceptualizing a piece with a dense harmonic structure, and I want to hear the chords, the guitar is useless. Some of the pieces—such as “Helios and Vesta”—have chords that cover nine or ten notes without any doublings, and you can’t really hear thick chords on a guitar. Occasionally, I’ll play a piece out on a piano, just so I can hear some chords and melodies. Most of the time, I’ll just write it in my head, and then put it down on paper.

Like Mozart.
Yeah [laughs]. Most of the melodies originate in my head. But, sometimes, I’ll fiddle around with the guitar to capture things that I’m not hearing, or to seek melodies that I don’t necessarily want my head to dictate.

The orchestral works on Volume II do not sound like a guitarist composed them.
Thanks. Well, it’s a funny thing. I can only play the guitar, and the guitar—as much as I love it—has always been a struggle. I am not really a natural. I’ve had to work extremely hard in order to make sense out of that thing, and I have so many limitations on the guitar. But whenever I imagine a composition, it’s all crystal clear. Completely. For me to sit down with a piece of manuscript paper and a pencil, and have 70 or 80 people at my control is pure liberation. Once you understand the basic principles of composing for an orchestra, the only limitation is your imagination. I don’t have to play what I write, so I don’t have to be confined to my technique. For example, I can hear virtually any piece of piano music, and see in my head exactly what the performer is doing, but I can’t play the instrument. I can’t even play a Beatles song on the piano. It’s pathetic. So it’s an odd kind of a brain muscle. So when you say the pieces don’t sound as if they were written by a guitarist, it’s because I didn’t approach them like a guitar player. I approached the compositions with a freedom of imagination—although some lines are guitar-like. If you listen to some of the violin cadenzas of “Shadows and Sparks,” you may be able to tell that I picked them out on the guitar.

That’s the nod to Jeff Beck’s “Where Were You”?
Yeah. It’s weird how that happens. I hear things, then I write them out, and I later realize they’re reminiscent of, or even exactly like, something in my head that wasn’t original. But I thought the part was a great way to pay Jeff a tribute, because his performance of that piece is so brilliant.

Did you have to make any compromises between what you heard in your head, and what the orchestra could perform?
Well, you typically have to work within the parameters that are dished out to you. With the Metropole, I was told, “Here’s the instrumentation.” I said, “Well, can I get three percussionists?” They said I could, so I constructed these “percussion ensembles” where each person is using about a dozen different instruments. Some are orchestral percussion played with mallets, and some are just little noisemakers. But for “Frangelica Pt. 2,” I wanted something within the piece that was relatively unique to an orchestra, but that was also organic to an orchestra. Now, to me, there is nothing cooler than the low sound of a woodwind instrument. So I picked the woodwind instrument that creates the lowest pitch, and it’s a contrabass clarinet. It’s actually a very rare instrument, but they found one. The guy who performed the part actually never played the instrument before. When he hits that low note, it’s the lowest note an orchestra instrument can hit, and it just resonates. I had these angelic high voices swimming on top of it, and it was so amazing. I had imagined all of this, but when he did it, it was cooler than I thought it was going to be.

Did you modify your orchestrations based on what you found out during rehearsals?
Absolutely. I studied composition, but unless you do it everyday, there are certain nuances about an orchestra—and about an orchestra performer—that you just don’t get until you really do it a lot. So I had Tom Trapp—a friend of mine from New York, who now lives in Holland—help me out. He’s a great orchestrator. A lot of the stuff on Volume I was worked up from orchestrations I’d done in the past, but Tom would look at them and say, “Well, this is good, but over here you’ve got the brass too much on the face.” I’m like, “What does ‘on the face’ mean?” He said, “It means they’re blowing too much, and you’re going to blow out their lips, so you’ve got to break up the parts.” So when we got into actual rehearsals, Tom really helped me clean up the scores. It was quite an educational process.

Is there a specific reason why you didn’t play guitar on Volume II?
That’s a question everybody has been asking me, and it’s kind of confounding to me as to why it’s such a mystery. It was an opportunity for me to hear compositions, as opposed to having to contribute to them. That’s really it. But then I realize that people think I should play guitar on everything because I’m a guitar player, and that’s all I should do. I understand that, but I feel it’s the duty of a creative person to try to discover what it is they can do best, and what it is that’s really natural to them, and then exaggerate it. The reason I did this record was because I felt as though it was something that was natural to me. I could visualize it, and it seemed very simple. Whether it’s good to the world or not is relative. But as far as the scope of my capabilities, it’s what I can do that’s good.

All through the years, I’ve gathered various kinds of fans—some of them interested in just my guitar playing, and some of them interested in the thread of personality that runs through my music regardless of what the instrumentation is. So Volume II was made for that narrow field of people who are looking for that kind of stimulation—hearing Steve Vai music without Steve Vai playing guitar.