Steve Vai, James Hetfield and Zakk Wylde Reveal the “Show-Off” Songs of Their Early Guitar Days

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PHOTOS: Douglas Mason (James Hetfield), Alex Moss (Zakk Wylde),

Neil Lupin (Steve Vai) | Getty Images

The “show-off song” represents a major breakthrough in every guitarist’s development. It is a defining moment when the player has reached a level of both ability and confidence sufficient to pull off an attention-getting musical statement in public, onstage, before an audience of potential critics.

So what show-off songs are behind some of our most influential and long-running guitarists? We asked several—including Steve Vai, Jason Becker, Zakk Wylde, James Hetfield, Alex Lifeson and Marty Friedman—to look back and share them with us. Their answers were illuminating...and often surprising.

MARTY FRIEDMAN
“My first band was called Deuce, like the Kiss song. We did a medley of Frank Marino [Mahogany Rush] songs. I was playing solos before, during and after them. Those songs are pretty wild, solo-wise, and that was my favorite type of aggressive lead playing back then.

“We went from ‘Johnny B. Goode’ into ‘Purple Haze,’ so there was a major solo before and after each song. I was kind of the ‘show-off’ vibe, you know? That was probably about the peak of my ability and, to me, the high point of the set. I really got to play some cool guitar, and it was the first time I thought, Wow, I can actually play! So that’s it—somewhere between Marino’s version of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Purple Haze.’”

KIM THAYIL, Soundgarden
“We’d jam and play ‘Wild Thing.’ The thing was that I’d put the guitar behind my head with my arms in back. I’d put my finger in one position and just ‘be-dee-dee, be-dee-dee, be-dee-dee, wee, wee.’ I think when you have a bunch of people who are kind of stoned or drunk sitting around jamming, if one guy whips the guitar behind his head and start playing like that, the other guys’ jaws drop. They go, ‘Where’d you learn how to do that?”

ZAKK WYLDE
“Everyone’s is probably ‘Eruption.’ Kids would say, ‘Oh, man, he knows how to play it.’ You were like a god in the neighborhood. With anyone in my genre, they would say the same thing. That one or a Randy Rhoads solo.”

JASON BECKER
“‘Further On Up the Road’ was my first show-off song. I learned it from the Band’s Last Waltz album, with Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson. I loved the tone of their guitars. I played along with it when I was 12 years old—all day, every day—and I played it for everyone.”

STEVE VAI
“‘Heartbreaker’ by Led Zeppelin. I would play that unaccompanied solo for about a day. Then I would ‘hack’ when it was really grinding, because nobody could really play that solo like Page. It was just a flurry of notes. That was the biggest song for me. It really inspired me to be a guitarist.

“I knew what sound-on-sound recording was, and I thought that solo was overdubbed with two guitars. I thought he had overdubbed it because it was just a flurry of notes. When you listen to it now, with today’s guitar standards, it sounds different. But still, when that song comes on the radio—that or ‘Black Dog’—there is no way I can carry on a conversation with anybody. I’m still stunned.

“The first time that I really felt I was showing off was when I learned how to play [the Beatles’] Michelle’ in a chord solo format, with walking bass line, chords and melody at the same time. I was taking lessons from Tom Sharkey, who was a friend of Joe’s [Satriani]. Tom was an incredible jazz player. He got me into doing a lot of jazz when I was 15 or 16. I was doing these standards. I worked on ‘Michelle’ until I was blue in the face. It was great. It was really impressive. I was listening to record like Joe Pass’ Virtuoso, and Wes Montgomery and Ted Greene. Ted Greene records were too much. They were too incredible to even believe. Then I was listening to people like Roy Buchanan, who Joe turned me on to.”

MICHAEL LEE FIRKINS

“I loved ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ by Montrose. I really dug ‘Sweet Emotion’ by Aerosmith. Those two songs I could play every night, and I waited until the time we played, because it was great every time.” 

ALEX LIFESON, Rush
“I began jamming with Geddy Lee when I was about 15. We met in the eighth grade, and I always used to borrow his amp. We played in local coffee shops in Toronto—for chips and gravy! We used to do a lot of early Cream when we were first playing out, mostly stuff from the Fresh Cream album. In fact, I remember learning the solo from ‘Spoonful’ from Fresh Cream note for note, with all the inflections, the vibratos, and nuances. I was so proud of myself!

“Anyway, later when we played out, we did the song as an extended jam with lots of improvisation. I would pretend I was Eric Clapton and Gedd would pretend he was Jack Bruce. We’d play ‘Spoonful’ for over 20 minutes and go crazy!”

VINNIE MOORE, UFO
“Believe it or not, one of the songs I used to rip over in my very first band, Masque, was Neil Young’s ‘Hurricane.’ I don’t remember how we started playing it. I think the band just fell into it one day. It had the Am-G-F-E chord changes repeating over and over, and I would just solo—for too long! It was one of the coolest songs to play live, because it gave me these long solos—at least two long solos—over that nice minor-key progression.”

JAMES HETFIELD, Metallica

“It was the little intro to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ A friend got a book and figured out the first few notes. We sat there and played it over and over and drove our parents crazy: ‘Don’t you know the next part?’ I recall my older brother saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to be a rock star one day on the stage. Okay, sure.’ Totally putting me down.

“ ‘Yeah—I am!’ ”

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