INTERVIEW: Steve Vai

steve vai the story of lightSteve Vai has been a frequent visitor to Australia over the past decade. He’s been out here for a few G3 tours (first with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci, and then with Satriani and Steve Lukather), he’s been a guest of Dweezil Zappa during the first Zappa Plays Zappa tour, and he even shared some pretty deep musical insights during a masterclass tour. But in that time we’ve only had one Vai solo tour, back in 2004. And you really don’t get the full Vai experience from a short G3 set, a guest appearance or an admittedly amazing masterclass. No sir, for the full Steve Vai experience, you have to see a full Steve Vai show. “The live performance of my show is very different from any of those things and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to bring it there,” Vai says. “If you’re expecting that you’ve seen me already with those other formats, you’ll be disappointed! When I’m on my stage doing a whole show of my music I feel very different. I get to be a little more in touch with myself and the band, and the show is more elaborate and more involved. I feel a lot more confident and freer, and it’s very entertaining!”

Those who have seen previous Vai solo tours will recall the pure stagecraft that permeates every tour, whether it’s the heart-shaped triple-neck guitar on the Ultra Zone tour, the guitar-smashing antics of the Fire Garden run or the lasers-and-fog presentation of Bad Horsie on the 2004 tour. “First and foremost, I feel it’s my obligation to create a show that’s entertaining,” Vai says. “I’ve always tried to put my shows together with the things that I like to see in a concert, so I try to strike a balance of great musicianship, some crazy guitar playing that I know some people are really interested in, some beautiful and some really ugly melodies, and a connection. The goal is that when people leave, they feel good. They feel uplifted somehow, they feel like they’ve experienced something that’s brought them some satisfaction, you know, they just overall have a feeling of good energy.”

Steve Vai

Vai has contributed a lot to the vocabulary of the electric guitar: he pioneered or popularised the back-routed whammy bar setup, the split-coil superstrat sound and the use of harmonisers. But perhaps the biggest impact he’s made has been with his development with Ibanez of the seven-string guitar. Surely he must feel a sense of fatherly pride at where the seven-string has ended up? Ask any guitar or pickup manufacturer and they’ll tell you that the seven and eight-string market is becoming a very important one. “Well, more a sense of gratitude than of pride,” Vai says. “There are people out there who don’t even know my connection with the seven-string. I did an interview the other day where the guy asked me ‘So with all these bands playing seven-strings, do you ever get the desire to try one?’ Haha. And I didn’t feel like educating him, so I just said ‘Well, y’know, sometimes…’ But the seven-string created a whole subculture of music and it’s nice to see it being expanded upon, which was only natural. “When it first came out, I was the only one playing one aside from Uli Jon Roth. They weren’t available commercially. And once it became available I think there were some people that gravitated towards it because they were fans, and some people gravitated towards it because they saw the potential in it for something new. And they sure did do it. When the Passion and Warfare and the Whitesnake albums came out, which I used the seven-string on, there was a surge in sales. Then I switched back to the six-string for the most part, but I told Ibanez ‘Y’know what? Just keep manufacturing it. Even if you have to only make a few each year. Because the youth that was listening and buying these seven-string guitars hadn’t matured yet, and I knew that once they did and once they started making music on it, there was potential there for a whole different sound. I didn’t realise it was going to be as powerful as it turned out to be!”

Jem

Vai’s latest seven-string model is the Ibanez JEM7V7. All of his previous sevens have been Universe models, so this is the first ever actual seven-string Jem, complete with all the features that players associate with that model: the ‘lion’s claw’ tremolo route, the monkey-grip handle, the vine fretboard inlay, the scalloped 21st-24th frets. “The Jem was something that was always special unto itself, and we always tried to keep it that way,” Vai says. “And push came to shove and we started looking at all possibilities, and the seven-string Jem just came on the radar and we said ‘Sure! Let’s do it!’

At the 2012 NAMM Show, Vai hopped up on stage at the Ernie Ball 50th Anniversary party to play a few tracks (including the most powerful rendition of Tender Surrender I’ve ever heard from the man), and aside from his usual ubiquitous Jem, Vai also played a Gibson Les Paul that night. It was an unusual sight, but it made perfect sense. “It must have looked kind of odd, huh?” Vai says. “It looked odd to me, but it didn’t feel so odd. I like Les Pauls and I like Strats but I don’t usually play them because they’re infinite instruments unto themselves but the way that I’ve developed as a player requires what the Jem offers. I don’t really chase after the Les Paul sound, and I’m a little uncomfortable with total convention. But I played it on a Led Zeppelin song – we played Dancing Days – and I thought it would be a nice tribute to pull out my sunburst Les Paul and play that song. It was really fun!”

Speaking of unpredictable choices, perhaps Vai’s most controversial album is 1993’s Sex & Religion. The follow-up to Passion & Warfare, it found Vai releasing an almost made up of mostly vocal tracks at a time when everyone probably expected him to go even deeper into the instrumental shred realm. And it also introduced to the world a young vocalist named Devin Townsend. It divided the fan base, with some (such as myself) absolutely loving it and others not quite being able to connect with it. Today, 20 years later, Steve is reflective about the album’s place in his canon. “Well, y’know, you go through different perspectives on your catalog. And my perspective right now is that anything that I’ve done is where I was at at the time, which is the perspective I have on anything that anybody does. Whenever you’re moving forward on something, you’re moving forward on the now, and you can only do what your awareness and your capability and vision is at the time. And that holds true for any record I ever made. And when I did Sex & Religion, y’know, I came from more of a conventional background, of rock bands with lead singers, and I had done Passion & Warfare which in my eyes was a statement of pure freedom. It was the music that was in my head and I didn’t have any expectations that it would be accepted, because it was so different. But when it came time to do another record I got tied up in the success of Passion & Warfare and I was hearing a lot of whisperings from other people that I should do a rock band with a singer. Now, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t really want to do it, and I’m very comfortable being on the side. In fact, I never toured on Passion & Warfare because I couldn’t understand how I would get up there and front a band with an instrumental album. I like having a lead singer and I’ve been fortunate enough to be in situations with really great frontmen. So I wanted a really great frontman, and I found Devin, who at the time was a teenager. It was a stroke of luck, because he really is brilliant, and his real brilliance and genius wasn’t quite developed yet. He was still finding himself because he was so young. I knew there was something there but he was confined to my rules at the time. So it was a challenge doing that record, because I was dealing with other musicians that were band members, and I was pretty much a control freak. And the music was very different. Like most of my records it didn’t fall into a category. It was a rock record but it wasn’t a conventional rock record. And that’s what I wanted. When I listen to that record now, I feel what I was thinking about then. I’m happy I made it.”

I suggest to Steve that the people who that record resonates with, it really resonates with them – me being one of them. “Well, oddly enough, it took a lot of flack, that record. It was highly criticised. And what I notice is that in some places in the world, as far as my category and my fans, it’s a huge record. As a matter of fact, it’s very telling that it’s my best-selling back catalog record. It keeps getting discovered. At the time it came out, as I said, it didn’t fall into a particular category. It was a very aggressive record, and back then that kind of aggression wasn’t as popular, but it found its place and it still does.”

Steve Vai Australian tour dates:

July 10, Perth, Concert Hall

July 12, Adelaide, Her Majestys Theatre

July 13, Melbourne, Palais Theatre

July 14, Canberra, Canberra Theatre

July 15, Sydney, Enmore Theatre

July 16, Brisbane, QPAC Concert Hall

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of an interview originally conducted for Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]

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