Steve Vai Talks Through His Solo Career, Legendary Guest Sessions and Regular Spot on the G-3 Team...


Steve Vai might be revered and reviled in almost equal measure by guitarists – for some he’s the god of the custom-designed seven-string/triple-neck guitars. To others he is an example of the excess of the shred movement from the late 1980s through to the 1990s. I understand him as both – I grew up with, in particular, his Passion And Warfare album. Loved it. Not going to lie – still love it. Not anywhere near as often as when I was 14 – but I still have a lot of time for that album. In recent years I’ve enjoyed Vai the composer and arranger. And of course there is all the great session work he has done. 

In that sense Steve Vai can be quite baffling – there’s a good chance that for many of the people not interested in his music something like PiL’s Album appeals. And that features Vai. There might even be some PiL fans that don’t know they’re enjoying Vai’s playing.

He was groomed by Frank Zappa, serving a crucial apprenticeship. He played with David Lee Roth and was a member of Whitesnake.

And you may remember some of his film work. He played guitar parts on Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, has composed film soundtracks and perhaps most famously played the role of Jack Butler in the movie Crossroads. The finale features Butler – a devil’s henchman who can really wail on the guitar – taking on The Karate Kid. (Vai plays both parts of the final duel for the movie’s soundtrack, composing the piece known as “Eugene’s Trick Bag” which sees the blues-loving Karate Kid digging out some classical gas to spray in Butler’s face).

Only Eddie Van Halen has had more of an influence on a generation of shredders, for work ethic, dexterity, intensity it’s Steve Vai all the way. He not only stood on the top of the mountain during the 1990s – when it came to that kind of guitar playing...he also built himself a wee hut and practiced guitar 10 hours a day while standing atop the mountain.

So I’m unsure which Steve Vai I will be speaking to on the phone. I want to talk to the Steve Vai that worked with Roth and David Coverdale and Zappa; the Vai that recorded the guitar parts for a Public Image album in one day; the Vai that was (and probably in some way still is) Jack Butler. And the Vai that recorded Passion And Warfare. I’m definitely interested in the Vai that is now recording albums and performing shows with orchestras backing him; performances where he’s responsible for all of the arrangements and orchestrations – fortunately I find out that these are all (still) parts of the same Steve Vai.

We start with his tour plans and how he puts a show together.

“Oh yeah, all the old stuff, all the material that fans will want to hear. With G3 it’s great, we’ve got a short set each – and then we come out and do some stuff together; I won’t spoil that – we’re still working out exactly what we’ll do there”, I can almost feel the smirk behind the words. Vai knows full well what they’ll be doing. But he’s an expert in the PR-interview. He knows how to make it work for him – and he sells it well.

“So for my set, let’s see, we’ll be doing a few things off Passion, obviously. And also Alien Love Secrets and maybe Fire Garden too. There might be a newer piece or two, but I’ve really been enjoying just delivering the songs that I know people will want at that sort of show. And no vocal cuts”, he adds with a laugh.

“The really great thing about Passion And Warfare is that its audience refreshes itself, you know? I mean all three of us, me, Joe [Satriani] and Steve [Lukather], we’re going to be pulling different audiences – one of the great things about G3, definitely. But I’ve found for my set, with Passion, it’s an album that people seem to keep discovering and even rediscovering. So for me there’s a lot of reasons to play something like For The Love Of God – I get a lot out of exploring that song, still. And to the people still holding on it’s just as exciting, as interesting and intense as any new song, maybe more so.”

We talk about the hours of practice Vai puts into his playing – I recall his 10-hour guitar practice described in precise detail in an issue of Guitar World from 20 years earlier.

There’s a big laugh from Vai, and then, “wow, yeah – that’s it. Ten hours! Well, I don’t think I get close to that anymore but I still like to practice. Now it’s more a case of making mental notes, sketches to fill in my day. Music is like getting into a boxing ring – the song is the opponent and you have to show it who is boss; get it to spit blood.” He pauses for a deep chuckle, then explains that for him, nowadays it is about “songwriting, composing, using the guitar as a compositional tool. The possibilities are endless. So a lot of time is spent thinking about what I will play, where I want to go, where I haven’t been, where I’ve enjoyed going.”

So with his interest in harmonic guitar lines, in creating his own symphonies; in composing and orchestration, is the influence of Frank Zappa still a huge force in his life?

“Oh yeah – definitely. I think about Frank every day. Absolutely. And it changes – there’s just so much with that guy. Such a deep and amazing experience to have been touched, musically, by Frank Zappa. I mean he’s a god to so many people and I just think about how blessed I have been for that association. And just how much he gave this world. It’s staggering. I still listen to his music. And I’m always finding something new. That’s an example of how vast his catalogue is – just how much there is. I mean, just the other day, I was listening to Civilization Phaze III, you know it?”

I confirm that I do.

“Yeah, and I mean, maybe in the scheme of Frank’s work this one wasn’t that important, maybe some people haven’t heard it or didn’t like it but you know I’m listening to it now, again, I’ve just rediscovered it, been pulled back in by it – and it’s just a work of genius. This blueprint for so much that was to come after, and that’s just all composed on the synclavier. I know that period of Frank’s work, toward the end of his life, was polarising – but that’s great. He was always following his vision. And he was extending music out towards what it could be. The big thing for me with Frank is that he was always thinking of the possibilities. That’s a big lesson.”

He’s clearly on a roll talking about Zappa. I’m happy. He’s happy. I ask for the Ham Sandwich Story.

Another chuckle from Vai to start his story. “Well, I hooked up with Zappa, it’s 1980 and I can play pretty good I guess. But I had terrible tone. I mean, mechanically, I can play. But the tone is just horrible. But I could play weird and wild and I got the feeling that Frank at least liked that. It took me a while to learn that tone is in your fingers – I thought it was in your amplifier!” There’s a mighty laugh here – timed as punctuation.

“So I remember that after our first show we’re having breakfast the next day and I had to ask Frank how it went, I said ‘so Frank, how was my playing then?’ and Frank said that I needed to work on my tone. He told me my tone was like an electric ham sandwich. And this was not a good thing. He also described my playing as being like a deranged mosquito. But it was from Frank that I learned that tone was in your hands – it’s in your fingers, it’s in the way you’re playing. It’s in everything you do to approach the guitar.”

It seems a good point to ask for Vai’s thoughts on Zappa the guitarist.

“Oh yeah, phenomenal player. Frank was very humble and very sure that he needed other players around him to realise his vision. But he was a great player and he had confidence in his playing, lovely use of space; very thoughtful. The thing with Frank though is that he was very direct. Frank had his own way of speaking – both in his voice and through his guitar. And in both cases Frank told you. And you got it. Or you didn’t. That was it.”

Vai remembers with some fondness his work with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake – and says that part of the fun of G3 for him is the chance to go back to jamming, to “just being in a band”. The chance to play at the end of the show with Satriani and Lukather is “a reminder of the days of being in a band – something I miss. But something I get to revisit in this way. But Whitesnake was great fun – really great fun. It was nice to just thrash out rock songs.

So to Public Image’s album – called Album. How was that day of work?

“I’m only interested in doing things that I can contribute to artistically”, Vai says, setting up a thought. “I mean, let’s says a young pop star wants a guitar solo – they’re probably not going to call Steve Vai! But if I can do it, and I think I have something to offer, something to add to the experience and it’s maybe something that will challenge me then I’m in.”

Vai says that Bill Laswell called him for the PiL project. “And I was interested. I knew what he did and I was keen to work on the project. I spent one day doing all the solos for that record, all the parts and then that was it. I was done. But it was great. I still think about that record – and about how John Lydon came in when I was done, they were playing a track back, and he made a grimace and said ‘fookin’ great man!’ in that way of his. So that was funny. I’d obviously done okay.”

I couldn’t talk to Steve Vai and not ask about the movie Crossroads. You never want to bore interview subjects with the same old questions – but Crossroads is a movie I’ve seen more than just about any other film. And it was my introduction to Vai. I’d heard of him before I saw the film – but I went out and bought Passion And Warfare straight after my first viewing of Crossroads. I became a fan then and there.

“Well playing Jack Butler was great”, Vai says, rolling into a chuckle to set up his next line. “I mean, I get to play a guitarist – with an ego. How unlike me, right? And I guess I tapped into a part of me to play that – but I just had a blast with it. And it’s funny, you know, there are kids out there, people out there, say my son’s friends, and they know me more for that movie rather than as Steve Vai. I mean they know who I am – but that’s the thing they’re impressed with. That’s how they know me. Which is great, it was a happy experience making that film and it’s gone on to last. It’s a film that still has an audience and to be recognised for that – to be recognised for anything – well that’s just terrific. But I’m very happy to be recognised as the guy from Crossroads that plays the guitar at the end. Absolutely”.