Steve Vai is one of the few guitarists in the world who can be called a master. He has played with Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth, and was recruited by Whitesnake’s David Coverdale to replace John Sykes as lead guitarist. Guitar for the Practicing Musician recently spoke with Steve about his life, career, and new album (Passion and Warfare).
GF: You said that you feel like your last album [Passion and Warfare] is your first album. What did you mean?
SV: Well, it’s just that I approached this album differently than any other I’ve ever done. Before this album, I would go into the studio with no preparation whatsoever; no pre-production or anything. We would start from scratch on the record date, which is a very expensive way to make records. It’s an insane way to make records. But I’ve always done it that way because I wanted to have the element of spontaneity in my work; to create stuff in the moment and not worry about what it sounds like or how it’s structured – just let it all hang out.
But with Passion and Warfare, because of all these other projects I was working on at the same time, I didn’t have
Steve Vai is a three-time Grammy Award winner, a popular guitar teacher and author, and an actor. He has also worked with some of the biggest names in music as a session guitarist, including Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper. His solo work includes songs such as “For the Love of God” and “Whispering a Prayer.”
We spoke to Steve about his career, his guitar students, and what it takes to be successful in the music business.
While his resume spans over 30 years, Steve Vai’s live performances are as fresh, as innovative and as jaw-dropping as ever. To understand how he does it is to understand the man himself.
Steve Vai is not a typical guitar god. He’s a well spoken, humble yet humorous man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.
A self-proclaimed “student of guitar” Steve is still learning new techniques and expanding his musical horizons even after all these years. “I’ve never really known what I’m doing; I’m always trying new things,” he says.
Steve’s inspiration comes from many sources: “Any time you see someone performing something that you feel is authentic and unique, it can be very inspiring.” He cites everyone from Charlie Parker to Frank Zappa to Andy Summers to John Coltrane to Miles Davis to Kitaro as having inspired him.
Steve actually began playing piano at age five. But when he saw his brother taking guitar lessons at age fourteen, he changed course and picked up the instrument himself. His first teacher was Joe Satriani and they remain friends to this day.
When asked what advice he would give someone who wants to take up the instrument,
Q: You’ve played with several rock legends over the years, including Frank Zappa. Tell me about your experiences with him.
A: I was 18 when I first met Frank, and he hired me as a transcriber. I was always writing music, and I started playing on his records when I was 19. He gave me my first job in the music business. He is probably one of the most unique people ever born on this planet. Working with him opened up my mind to all kinds of possibilities that were not apparent to me before.
Frank once told me that he thought it would be really good for me to take some lessons, but he never suggested what kind of lessons or from whom. So I took that as a challenge to find a teacher on my own who would unlock the mysteries of music for me. When you’re 20-years-old and you have resources, you can try out anything you want! I went through a lot of teachers – classical guitarists, jazz players, and so forth – but no one could tell me exactly what I wanted to know. It was later that Frank revealed to me that he had sent all those teachers to teach me!
Frank had an incredible sense of humor; he’s definitely one of the funniest
I first played guitar when I was about five years old. My father was a musician and he bought me a little plastic guitar. I had no interest in it at all. I played it three or four times, then he took it away from me because he didn’t think I was serious about it.
I realised at that point that the guitar was something interesting, so I started to play again and never stopped. It was the same with piano and violin too: after my father put them in front of me, I would bang on them for a little while, but as soon as he took them away, I wanted them back.
My first real guitar was an acoustic which my father bought for $100 when I was 12-years-old. It’s still in my parents’ house today – they still live in the same place I grew up in.
The first song I learned how to play on the guitar was the theme song to Hawaii Five-O by The Ventures, which is a surf band from America. That’s what got me into playing guitar: the surf music of The Ventures and Dick Dale.
The “plectrum” is the small, rigid piece of plastic or tortoise-shell that guitarists use to pluck the strings.
If you’ve ever seen a guitarist playing, you will probably have noticed that he or she wore something like a thin, flat coin on one finger. This is the plectrum, and it is used in place of the fingertips to pick the strings.
Plectrums come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny ones used with ukuleles and mandolins to the larger ones of 2 inches (50 mm) in length used by some guitarists. Plectrums also differ in width, being between 20 mm and 50 mm wide. Most plectrums are made of plastic but there are some made of metal such as copper or brass or even ivory.
Guitarists usually wear their plectrum on their index finger so that it doesn’t get lost. The exception is when they are playing flamenco music where they tend to hold it between their thumb and forefinger.
You can’t train your mind not to think. It’s like trying to tell your heart not to beat. It’s a physical impossibility. If you could learn how to do it, you’d be a zombie. You don’t want that, do you?
As I’ve said, I’ve always felt that the mind is the most powerful force in the universe. The real power of the conscious mind is only beginning to be tapped. What we are aware of now is just an infinitesimal portion of what is possible for us as humans.
I know that my mind is capable of extraordinary things because I think about it all the time and have practiced using it in such a way that I can control it. There are three areas of your mind: conscious, sub-conscious, and super-conscious.