Steve Vai is one of those rare individuals who have taken musical virtuosity, bent it, hammered it, reshaped it, and made it succumb entirely and unequivocally to their wishes. His guitar playing and his compositional endeavors seem to know no boundaries, obey no laws - at least none that have been discovered by the professors of physics or written by the custodians of commerce.
His career is storied - from his early '80s work with genius composer/social commentator Frank Zappa, to high-profile gigs with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and Alice Cooper, right on through to his own stellar solo recording output. On Zappa's 1982 Top 30 album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, the anti-censorship spokesman, himself a ripping, very non-traditional shredder, credited Vai as "Stunt Guitarist." If there's ever been a more accurate example of truth in advertising, it has never exposed itself 'round these parts.
Vai recently spoke with Guitar.com about, well, a ton of stuff of interest to those of us who either want to cop his incredible licks or possibly duplicate at least of modicum of his success in the music business. Oh yeah, he also analyzed his latest release, The 7th Song, a compilation of tunes - actually the seventh song - from each of his seven solo studio albums (with a few extra bones and bat wings thrown in for good measure). Turns out ol' Steve has been planning for this disc since before Flex-able, the home-recorded 1984 EP that served notice to the world that a new, unassailable guitar hero had arrived. And now, without further ado, we present the Grand Wizard of Impossible Guitar:
Musician.com: The new disc is a compilation of songs from all of your previous efforts, and you've chosen to use the seventh song off each of those discs. Why did you do this?
Vai: Well, you know. Looking to do something interesting, I guess. Whenever I approach a project I try to add some kind of interesting edge to it, or uniqueness. I knew that someday I'd probably do a compilation of sorts, and I didn't want to just go around and pick the "best of." One of my favorite types of songs to play or write are the guitar ballads - the kind that I do - which are usually sweeping melodies and these singing guitar tones. And I knew that it would make a nice record if I eventually had all of these type songs on a compilation. So in the beginning, when I first started making records, I thought it through a bit, and I thought, 'Well, why don't I make the seventh song on every one of my records the sweeping guitar ballad?'
Musician.com: You thought that through right from the beginning?
Vai: Yes I did.
Musician.com: And why the seventh song?
Vai: Well, that always seemed to be the sweet spot on the record, for the ballad. It just seemed to be the right pacing. Sometimes maybe it didn't work as well as I was hoping, but I kind of set out to achieve this particular goal, so I kind of painted myself into a corner. But I just thought it would be an interesting thing on a compilation.
Musician.com: When they're performing in concert, a lot of artists make the third or fourth song in the set the ballad,
Vai: Yeah, I usually do that too. There's usually more than one ballad on the record. I don't totally bring it to a halt on the fourth song, but I usually bring it down a bit. It seems like another break point, but then later on, on a record, the seventh spot just seems right to me. It was just something I tried to construct from the beginning. I don't know if it's necessarily the perfect spot, but it felt good to me. And the whole concept was interesting.
Musician.com: In the notes to this disc you talk about "Spiritual Communion." Can you explain how spiritual communion comes into play in the craft of music making?
Vai: Well, first of all, I think that everybody approaches their spiritual health differently. Some people just don't address it at all, but they do unconsciously. I believe that everything we do in our day-to-day life have some kind of bearing on our spiritual health. I think when a person goes into the creative areas of their mind, you kind of have to reach down into those very personal, private areas.
I shouldn't say you have to - occasionally you'll find yourself reaching into those personal areas. Your mind will gravitate toward those things that interest you the most. And some people are very interested in environmental issues, or political issues, or love affairs, or fast cars. And there's validity in all of that. But I think some people will go into more personal realms of themselves and pull out what's there to create their art.
For me, when I have an opportunity to play my guitar in the fashion that the songs on this particular record are based, it's very liberating as an expressional experience. And usually when I go into those realms, I equate that with some kind of spiritual communion within myself. This is just me, myself, and I. I don't know what the rest of the world does, but for me it's sort of like a cleansing and sort of like a revealing moment for myself. There you have it.
Musician.com: I understand what you mean by this. When I have time to put into my music, it is like a religion to me,
Vai: Yeah. It's very difficult for me to explain it, 'cause I don't like really talking about it. When I do, it's misunderstood, it's very personal, it gets taken and twisted by journalists and it usually comes out sounding either holier-than-thou, or completely stupid. And that's why a person's spiritual experience is completely unique unto them. That's one of the things in this world that you just can't prove, you can't express wholeheartedly. You know what I mean? It's a personal experience, and when you try to talk about these things, you're comparing your experiences with everybody else's. It just leaves you open to a lot of criticism and whatnot. I try to make it as clear-cut and simple as possible, but it's never like that. Everybody's experience is personal and different.
Musician.com: Some of your past releases, such as Passion & Warfare and Sex & Religion almost hint that you are - even though those are for the most part instrumental pieces - that you are in a sense, discussing those issues through your music,
Vai: Well, as we grow we go through various changes in our outlooks on the world, and our own personal makeup. And I think an artist will express whatever point they're at, at the particular time they make a product. So I'm a seeker. I'm also seeking for various things, both on the guitar and in life. Music is a fantastic way to express these things. It leaves you up for criticism and stuff, but what are you going to do? Everybody should find a creative outlet to express themselves, as long as it's not damaging to anybody else.
Things like those records you mentioned, I'm really presenting, as opposed to discussing. I feel like I'm more presenting certain issues. And you know I'm evolving too, personally.
Musician.com: What did you learn from Frank Zappa?
Vai: Well, many things, but one thing: In the face of all kinds of adversity, you should make the music that you really feel like making.
Musician.com: He certainly did that.
Vai: Yeah, he certainly did. And I saw him do it.
Musician.com: On some of your tracks, I've heard his influence. Obviously you sought out to join him at a point in your life. How influential was his music to you, as opposed to his business sense?
Vai: Well I think Frank's business sense has a stronger impact on me than anybody else's. You can definitely hear elements of my music that came directly from Frank. And really that's a result of my love and admiration for him and his music. When I heard Frank's music it really spoke to me in the sense that it had all of the elements that I was always hoping to hear in music. It had great comical value. It was very well arranged, well produced, orchestrated beautifully. Some of it was complex, fast little notes, some of it was extremely simple, mundane stuff. There was a lot of it. And there was this wicked guitar playing on top of the whole thing.
Frank's music had all of the elements: melody, complexity, simplicity, comedy, political and spiritual - or religious, I should say, not spiritual in Frank's case - commentaries. A very interesting blend. And like a lot of Frank's fans, it just spoke to me very heavily. See Frank's fans are - there's like this family. When you get it, you really get it, and it changes the quality of your whole life, his music. And I'm not alone in that. There are very sincere Zappa fans around the world that would do anything for a morsel of his music. And I hope that, in the future, potential Zappa fans have the opportunity to experience these treasures, because they are life-changing experiences.
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