The Master’s Approach: Play Like Steve Vai

While there are countless answers to the question of “How do I play like Vai?”, there is one very unique tactic he employs that can easily be applied to your own playing.
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If you were tasked with playing something in the style of Steve Vai, you might be a little intimidated.

Vai has been pioneering outlandish guitar methods since the early Eighties. The thing is, crazy whammy tricks and squealing pinch harmonics are only surface-level vanity techniques when you look at Vai’s guitar playing as a whole.

In order to play convincingly in Vai’s distinct style, one must get past the flashy maneuvers and understand the intricacies of his melodic mannerisms. This means doing more than just noodling around in the Lydian mode. Breaking down exactly what it is that causes you to instantly recognize a signature Vai lick is the path to revealing the real secrets of his sound.

While there are countless answers to the question of “How do I play like Vai?”, there is one very unique tactic he employs that also can be applied to your own playing. I’m always a fan of being able to harvest approaches rather than straight licks, and this lesson will allow you to do both. The concept I’ll show you is called octave displacement.

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In the lick above, we have a standard line that moves in a linear fashion down the neck. It sounds good, but it doesn’t have any Vai magic yet. Octave displacement is essentially choosing specific notes in a given lick like this one and replacing them with an octave of themselves to form a new, more majestic sound. The video above will allow you to see how I reached the end result, and when you play the original lick versus the lick with octave displacement, you’ll undoubtedly hear the Vai tonality shine through.

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The next time you’re working on a solo or transitional line between chords for an original song, or even just improvising over a backing track, try to infuse one of your own licks with this Vai-style approach. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover something on the instrument that hasn’t been done before, just like Vai has done and continues to do today.

Tyler Larson is the founder of the guitar-centric website Music Is Win. His entertaining guitar-related content receives hundreds of thousands of video views on Facebook per month, and his online guitar courses tout more than 1,500 students with a cumulative 4.7 rating on Udemy. Get in touch with Tyler on Facebook, watch more of his guitar lessons and vlogs on YouTube, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.