Steve Vai just released a live DVD and his Naked Tracks series of play-along CDs. He's doing his Alien Guitar Secrets seminars all over the world. He’s also working on his next opus, and he still practices every day. Is there anything this man can't do?
From the day his decadently warped harmonies and unabashed virtuosity blew readers’ minds via the October 1984 premiere of Guitar Player’s Soundpage, Steve Vai has been idolized and revered around the world. Soon thereafter, guitarists quickly snapped up his first solo album, Flex-able, and thrilled to a budding talent whose work revealed both the compositional and humoresque influences of his former employer, Frank Zappa, as well as an exhilarating freshness not heard in the rock world since the release of Van Halen’s “Eruption.” Two years later, Vai brought that same tongue-in-cheek attitude to his first GP cover shoot, where he rocked a Gumby T-shirt and a plastic guitar.
Of course, Vai’s playing was anything but a joke. Eddie Van Halen may have been firmly ensconced as the God of Rock Guitar, but the Berklee School of Music grad’s jaw-dropping performances that year on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album, Eat ’Em and Smile— including the finger-torturing unison solos with bassist Billy Sheehan on “Elephant Gun”—proved more faith-promoting for most guitar nuts than the newly synthedout Van Hagar. And the achingly gorgeous, supremely confident, and multifaceted ripping on the “Blue Powder” Soundpage that accompanied that second GP appearance virtually canonized Vai overnight as the new High Priest of Guitar.
Since then—from stints with Whitesnake to more than ten acclaimed solo albums—Vai has surprised and awed fans with his ambitious projects. Passion and Warfare (1990) was an orgy of soaring layers and textures— including the climactic tour de force, “For the Love of God”—while 1993’s Sex & Religion found the guitarist paired with an equally eclectic rock vocalist, Devin Townsend. He has also released heady concept albums (2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections), and 2007’s Sound Theories, Vols. 1-2 featured one disc of him playing with Holland’s Metropole Orchestra, and a second disc with the orchestra performing his compositions.
It was the exhilaration of the latter experience that prompted his latest project—a live DVD titled Where the Wild Things Are—that brought dueling violinists Ann Marie Calhoun and Alex DePue into his kickass band, adding a whole new dimension of virtuosity and attitude to his catalog. But Wild Strings isn’t just about the master shredding with a couple of fiddle players. Vai went to great effort to make sure the two-and-a-halfhour show recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, reflected everything that makes him such a compelling figure. Besides offering glorious reminder after glorious reminder of the holy mantle he still holds, it also reveals a calm and comfortable Vai conversing with the audience between tunes, sitting down for an acoustic set, and engaging in endearingly entertaining banter with band members—such as when drummer Jeremy Colson joins him center stage with a marching- band kit decked out with lights and a talking, mechanized skull that blows smoke.
Even better, Vai has also gone to the effort to placate those aching to jam along with his genius by releasing the five-CD Naked Tracks, which features pristine versions of some of his most celebrated work—minus the lead parts. He’s also conducting his Alien Guitar Secrets master class workshops across the globe. GP was offered first dibs on viewing and covering Wild Things, and Vai joined us via telephone from Amsterdam in mid-June to talk about these latest projects, and those yet to come.
How did the Where the Wild Things Are project come about?
I had just finished a project with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, and that took me two years of sitting in a chair and composing, orchestrating, rehearsing, recording, editing, and mixing. By the time it was released, I was ready to start a new record, and it was like, “Geez, do I really want to sit in the studio for another year?” So I said, “Let me throw a little band together and get out there and play.” So I took the opportunity to put together a band that would evolve my sound. A lot of my music is pretty orchestrated and thick, so I decided to get a violin player—that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But when I started auditioning them, I was scared to death, because most of the people who were coming in were these metal players who had awful intonation and didn’t understand how to read music. They just thought I was looking for shredders—which was about the furthest thing from the truth. And then, all the classical players who could read the music didn’t have any rock sensibility at all. Once I turned my amps on, they all ran for the hills. I almost gave up, and then Alex DePue came in the room and tore it up. I mean, this guy is the right balance of everything. He’s ferocious, he’s unbelievably professional and respectful, and he’s capable of playing impossible stuff. After I found Alex, I kept getting calls from this woman in the Midwest named Ann Marie Calhoun. I told her, “Thanks, but we’ve already got our violin player,” and she was like, “Yeah, but I want to rock out. Please check out my tape.” So I did, and I was completely and utterly blown away. First, she’s gorgeous—but she can play really well. Her intonation is stunning, and her dedication to the instrument and her confidence are just amazing. She was classically trained, but she also toured with Jethro Tull and Dave Stewart, so we knew she had some rock sensibility. And it was the absolute perfect combination of players. I was able to have the devil and the angel onstage, and I was just the lord of purgatory [laughs].
Other than the incredible musicianship that everyone expects of you and your bands, one of the great things about the DVD is how you guys made the performance so intimate and so humorous.
Yeah, I don’t take everything so seriously. You’ve got to be a serious player to play that music, but it has to be fun to listen to. Because there’s enough music going around now where you just get the crap beaten out of you by how miserable people are with the world and themselves. When I put a show together, I try to think of the things that I like to see when I watch a band. And what I like, first of all, is to feel good. I want to feel like I’m part of the show, and that I’m in on the secret. I want to see astounding musicianship, but I don’t want to be beaten up by somebody’s musical ego. I don’t want to feel like the player is so introverted that I can’t understand what’s going on.
A lot of your live work is very theatrical, but one of the highlights of the DVD is “The Murder,” which is as remarkable for its ethereal, sustaining intro as it is for the way you play it. It looks almost like there’s a breath controller you’re blowing into near the armrest on the guitar. Or is that just a pad to prevent knocking your teeth out?
There are a lot of things that I do on the guitar that are easily explainable, and some that are really difficult and innovative. But there’s a portion of what I do that I want to make seem almost impossible and magical. That’s part of what I like to do as an entertainer—to take you beyond just, “Wow, he can play!” to “What was that?” What that is, really, is me trying to imagine things that are interesting and cool to watch. And that whole segment of “The Murder” is a visual thing that I depicted in my mind before I put it together, and it involved me wielding the guitar with all these sounds coming out of it that were completely in-sync and harmonized and moving all over the place with the feedback of the guitar and all these special effects. That particular moment where I’m blowing into the guitar is something I did in a dream I had. I was holding the guitar a particular way, and I blew on the surface, and it created this sympathetic resonation with the strings and sent them into this vibrational state that, with the whammy bar and sustainer and all, actually sounded like a flute. It’s all trickery, and I could tell you how I did it, but why?
That same guitar—a white Ibanez Jem marked “FLO”—has some sort of modification on the treble sides of the neck and bridge pickups. Is that to prevent the pick from getting caught on the edge of the pickup?
Sometimes the string gets stuck under the pickup, so I put tape there to keep it from doing that.
What can you tell GP readers about the Naked project?
I’ve had that going for a long time. Every time I’d mix one of my records, I’d mix most of the songs without the lead guitar so I could play along. It’s a great way to kick back and enjoy playing with these thick, rich tracks. It’s karaoke Vai. And then, I put them all in this beautiful five-CD set that’s available at Guitar Center. I was seeing so much of this being done on YouTube by young guitarists playing to my stuff that I thought, “Well, let’s give them something to play to.”
And the tablature or sheet music is available separately?
Yes. I’m not sure if it’s up yet, but you can get it all online.
On top of that, you’re also doing master classes all over the world. As you travel around, do you notice a difference in musical attitudes and the types of questions guitarists want answers to?
I actually keep the questions to a minimum, because I don’t want to talk about things you can find out about me anywhere. But if I allow five questions, some are expressed kind of intellectually, and some are pretty mundane—and this is all around the world. But everyone is at a different level of understanding, and I’ve got to do my best to cover all the bases. So, no matter how many times I answer the same question, I do my best to make the answer fresh and interesting.
What are the most common things attendees ask about?
The three main things people want to know are: “How do I make a record and get it released into the world?” “How do I discover my own unique voice?” “How do I know whether a life of music is for me?” I could fill three volumes of Guitar Player with the answers. But if I gave it to you in a nutshell, I would say if you think you need to make a decision about being a musician, don’t do it. Musicians never make a decision— that would mean there was an option. People who are musically inclined with all of their heart have no option but to be musicians in their life. And being a musician means making a living in the business any way you can. If you follow that inner conviction, it doesn’t matter so much what you’re doing—you’re playing music and you’re satisfied. Having said that, I think everybody should play an instrument. Playing an instrument—especially the guitar—is one of the few real senses of freedom and liberation you can experience. And you don’t have to be great to do it, you just have to believe that you can, and start doing it. The only time people don’t do it is when their expectations are too high, or all the negative voices tell them they can’t do it or that they’re not good enough. As far as finding your unique voice, it’s all about exploring your inner ear—identifying the unique things about the way you play, and then cultivating them. And as far as making a record goes, all of these goals need to be broken down into small ones and then assimilated. First, you have to be able to play your instrument, then you’ve got to have the songs— whether you write them yourself or with other people—and then you’ve got to get them recorded. These days, it’s much easier to do that than ever before. And to get them out in the world, there’s the obvious conventional route of trying to get signed by a label, or you can simply upload them to a place like TuneCore.com to make them available for purchase at places like the iTunes Store, Rhapsody, and Amazon.com.
Although many guitarists would want to take a long break after all these big projects, something tells me you’ll move onto something else big pretty soon.
I’ll have to see how things turn out, but I’m hoping I can use the band from this DVD on my next record. When I do a new record, I try to challenge myself to come up with something musical, interesting, somewhat different, and entertaining. I came up with this great idea, but it’s too early to talk about it. I’m hoping to start working on it at the end of the year. And, next year, I’ll probably get out and do a full-on world tour.
Is the new idea you can’t talk about a thematic one, or is it related to instrumentation, or something completely different?
Well, I have this thematic thing going on with the three-part Real Illusions project, but that’s a very time-intensive project to complete. My plan is to do that in phases, but with a record in between each phase. This next one would be an in-between record, and the instrumentation would be the band I have in this video, but it would have all these other elements coming in. It would be more like a concept record of the ’70s, where it’s just like one long piece, but it would interweave with another element that you can’t print. [Ed. note: We’re sworn to secrecy, but trust us—true to Vai form, the idea behind this next project is epic, smart, and cinematic.]
What artists are you listening to these days?
I look for music that’s performed with sincerity and honesty, and I can find that in many genres. As far as things I’ve downloaded to my iPhone recently, there’s the new Mastodon record, which is pretty cool. I also just got the Ry Cooder album I, Flathead, and, oh my god, it is so good. I haven’t heard a record that rich, warm, and beautiful in so long. Devin Townsend just released an album called Ki, and I buy everything he does, because what he does is very real. He has discovered himself, and he’s exercising his potential at what he’s good at—as opposed to somebody who’s doing a brand of music they feel they need to do because there’s an agenda. I’m also really moved by the sincerity of this band called Antony and the Johnsons. Antony Hegarty is a transvestite who sings these very soft songs of love and pain, and he’s just inspired. It moves me down to my core, because there’s so much music that fakes being artistic. It’s like when I heard Tom Waits, and I said, “That’s it. That’s the real stuff. That’s as artistic and inspired as you can be.”
Speaking of creating inspired music, at this point in your career how much of your songwriting evolves from the chord and scale theory and dexterity exercises you studied all those years ago at Berklee?
I use the chemistry of theory occasionally, but I really use my ears more than anything to build melodies and songs and try to find the right chords with the right melody. And once I do, I can recognize what it is and why it sounds a certain way. Most of the time when I play by myself, I just play, and look for things that sound unique. I try to sit for at least an hour each night—when everybody is gone and everything is done—and just improvise. That’s my favorite part of the day. I look for things that sound like my own voice on the instrument, and I usually record it. Once I’m able to capture one of those things, I cultivate it and exaggerate it until it’s a unique riff that I’ve never heard. When you do that, you’re expanding your own vocabulary. In that process, I sometimes have to make an exercise out of it. For instance, the other day I was doing a trill that was a whole step apart, and then I brought the tremolo bar down a minor third to do another trill a whole step apart, and then I brought it back up and pulled on one note until it went up a minor third. When I did it, it was an effect that I’d never heard. It was very hard, because trilling to a particular pitch is devastatingly difficult—your ears have to be so in tune. So I made an exercise out of it, and I just kept doing it all around the neck so when I go to perform it, it comes out right.
How much time do you typically spend on uniqueness-cultivating exercises like that?
Sometimes, it doesn’t come in one day. Sometimes, I come up with a riff or a concept that will take weeks and weeks to kind of chip away at before it sounds like a piece of music. And, sometimes, I just come up with something right away, and it’s small enough that I can work it out, and it opens up many doors.
So it sounds like you still practice quite a bit.
I am very satisfied, happy, and content with the way I play, but you’d be surprised at how unaccomplished I feel. In my mind, I’m never good enough. I’m always trying to get better. There’s no end. I’ll be lying in my deathbed, crying, “Just…one…more…chord!”
The Wailing Machine
Click to Steve Vai’s Web site (vai.com) and you’ll see picture after picture of customized guitars and refrigerator-sized rigs from his days with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and others. There are root beer-colored Ibanez Jems, lightning-bolt-themed designs by Joe Despagni, and a cobra-adorned 7-string Conklin. There are walls of Carvins and Marshalls from his Alcatrazz days, Bogner and Soldano stacks from the Sex & Religion tour, and an Egnater head and a VHT power amp from the Fire Garden tour. And there are plenty of Eventide Harmonizers, Roland reverbs, and Bradshaw switching systems. And though bird’seye camera views on Where the Wild Things Are show a plethora of pedals and switchers at the base of the powder-blue Persian rug on which the Shredmeister spends most of the gig, he says he has cut way back over the years.
“You’d be surprised how simple my rig is. For the DVD, it was a TC Electronic G-System, a DigiTech Whammy pedal, a Morley Bad Horsie wah, and an Ibanez Jemini distortion pedal.”
Vai commissioned the Jemini, released in January 2008, because he was tired of having to switch between two or more pedals to get the right overdrive and distortion tones.
“I thought, ‘Why not have a pedal with two pedals in it?’ So we based it on a few pedals that I liked—Tube Screamers, a Boss DS-1, a Silvertone pedal, a Big Muff Pi, various Fuzz Faces, and a couple of oddball Danelectro devices. We changed the gain structures and some of the capacitors to add a little more bottom end and compress it a little more on one side, so it’s pretty much two different flavors in one pedal.”
Asked what new gear discoveries he’s excited about, Vai cites two.
“This Swedish company called True Temperament has discovered a way of twisting the frets so that note temperaments are more in tune than when you have straight frets,” he explains. “The tempered scale is sort of out of tune with itself. If you tune a piano to a C chord, and then play an F chord, one will sound out of tune. So I’ve had them make me two necks, and I’ve put one on FLO and one on EVO [Ed. note: FLO and EVO are Vai’s two favorite Ibanez Jem guitars].”
His second source of sound-toy nirvana is something a little more practical for the average guitarist jonesing for a slice of the High Priest’s sonic juju.
“The most interesting new thing, gear-wise, is my new Carvin Legacy II amp,” he says. “I got with Ben Fargen—who is this fantastic, brilliant amplifier designer in northern California— and he lent his expertise to what the Carvin engineers had done. We added another channel—although it’s not really another channel as much as it’s the clean channel with a boost. With a lot of amps, the clean channel goes from 1 to 50 in gain, and then the dirty channel goes from 80 to 100, so there’s this whole middle ground that’s missing. So we designed this boost on the clean channel, and it gives you that very warm, breaking-up, pushed-but-not-quite-distorted tone.” —SH
Vai on Dave Weiner
FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS,STEVE VAI HAS RELIED on guitarist Dave Weiner to back him up on the road. Weiner is a graduate of the Guitar Institute of Technology, an artist on Vai’s Favored Nations label, and proprietor of the Riff of the Week channel on YouTube. How Weiner got to where he is today is one of those success stories that ambitious young guns dream of when they head off to a place like Musicians Institute. As the story goes, Weiner came to know Vai through an interning gig while he was enrolled at GIT. Eventually, he got a call to come over to Vai’s studio and learn a bunch of songs so he could tour with the man. Weiner has evidently kept his boss happy over the years, because Vai is effusive in his praise.
“Dave is like a product of my good music karma,” he says. “Because there’s nothing more gratifying when you’re a bandleader or a songwriter than having a musician who loves what they do, takes it very seriously, is respectful, and has a great sense of humor. Dave is 100 percent that person.”
As one would guess—and as Where the Wild Things Are so thoroughly documents—laying down rhythms and perfectly harmonizing with Vai’s riffs is a terrifying undertaking. In Vai’s estimation, the key to Weiner’s success is his attitude and persistence.
“It’s fun and interesting to work stuff out, because he really wants to get it,” says Vai. “My style is so particular sometimes, and we work out phrasing things that are so exacting. Some of the things we’ve done over the years he has been with me are astonishing. Listen to ‘Freak Show Excess’ or ‘Incantation’—even the simple melody parts—and you’ll hear that every single note is phrased to sound and feel a particular way. Dave has intense patience, and he works on the stuff until it’s perfect.”
As both Weiner’s YouTube channel and his solo spotlight on Where the Wild Things Are prove, he has a musical vision far removed from Little Green Men territory when he’s not on the clock for Vai.
“Dave has his own musical vision that he creates and records,” explains Vai, “and, for a lot of people who can do that, they choose to only do that. And if they do something else, they don’t put their heart in it—even though they’re capable of it. But Dave is so respectful of my music and his job that the stuff comes out great. He’s solid as a rock. I listen back to the tapes of any live performance, and it’s always solid Dave.” —SH
Ibanez and Steve Vai have offered GP readers the chance to win a fabulous JEM7EAFX valued at $3,466. This gorgeous guitar includes a basswood body, a five-piece maple/walnut neck with a rosewood fretboard and 6105 frets, a Tight End bridge, DiMarzio Breed pickups, and pearl/abalone vine inlays.
To enter, send an e-mail with your full name and mailing address to guitplyr@ musicplayer.com. Be sure to include the words “Vai’s JEM” in the subject line. Good luck!