“I Could Never Play Like Him”: Steve Vai Talks Jimmy Page, Brian May and Jimi Hendrix

Jimmy Page and Steve Vai during GRAMMY Special Merit Awards Ceremony - February 12, 2005 at Millenium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, CA, United States.
(Image credit: R. Diamond/WireImage for The Recording Academy)

This week sees the anniversary of Steve Vai’s groundbreaking shred album, Passion and Warfare. Though the guitarist was initially unsure about how it would be received, Vai’s 1990 sophomore effort was a turning point in his career.

For many fans, the appeal of Passion and Warfare lies not only in its merits as an outstanding example of virtuosity and melodic sensibility, but also for its unique production (Vai famously fasted for ten days during the recording process to get into the zone!)

A touchstone of electric guitar style, this monumental long-player took the instrument forward into uncharted territory and remains an inspiration for countless guitarists today.

But who were Vai's greatest inspirations?

In the following interview extract from the March 2020 issue of Guitar Player, he reveals his “biggest influences,” along with his “favorite rock song in history,” and explains why Jimi Hendrix’s rhythm playing is “like an encyclopedia.”

Steve Vai 'Passion and Warfare' album artwork

(Image credit: Legacy Recordings)

I know you were a big fan of Led Zeppelin. “The Animal” [from Passion and Warfare] seems to channel some of the Jimmy Page swaggering riff approach and feels a little like “Black Dog” with its rolling, propulsive groove.

Funny you mention that song. I was listening to that today and came to the conclusion that it’s my favorite rock song in history. It’s probably worked its way into a lot of my riffs.

Jimmy and Brian May are my biggest influences. The way Page plays with so much attitude – I could never play like him. No one comes close to him. He had direct access to the greatest riffs of all time.

As for “The Animal,” it was the last song for the album that I recorded, as when I listened to what I’d recorded, I felt that the record still needed something aggressive.

I’d just received one of the first Digitech Whammy pedals and that partly inspired me to come up with the riff.

I always thought I heard a bit of a Hendrix “Little Wing” connection on “Sisters” [from Passion and Warfare]. Was he an inspiration here?

That is absolutely Hendrix. My first chordal influences when I started were in the jazz idiom. I was learning chord-melody solos, but there was something kind of predictable and stagnant in that, to a degree.

There is this unbelievable depth to the chordal playing underneath virtually any Jimi Hendrix song. 

I tried to learn every song on Axis exactly the way that he played it. It wasn’t stiff and jazzy; it was fluid, and I declared that this would be my go-to inspiration for chord playing.

His rhythm playing is like an encyclopedia.

Mark McStea

Mark is a freelance writer with particular expertise in the fields of ‘70s glam, punk, rockabilly and classic ‘50s rock and roll. He sings and plays guitar in his own musical project, Star Studded Sham, which has been described as sounding like the hits of T. Rex and Slade as played by Johnny Thunders. He had several indie hits with his band, Private Sector and has worked with a host of UK punk luminaries. Mark also presents themed radio shows for Generating Steam Heat. He has just completed his first novel, The Bulletproof Truth, and is currently working on the sequel.

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