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If you've been following electric guitar very long at all, you probably already know about Steve Vai. Whether or not you can stretch your musical mind to encompass his ever-expanding musical horizons, a single listen will convince you he's a force to be reckoned with. Completely unique phrasing, a tongue-in-cheek irreverence, burning intensity, and perhaps the tightest, fastest chops on the planet have been blowing minds around the world since he took on the role of Frank Zappa's "stunt guitarist" throughout the early '80s. From his first solo release, Flex-able, in 1984, through two decades of incredibly creative solo albums, Vai has never ceased to push ever deeper into the musical unknown while taking millions of loyal fans along for the ride. His signature JEM guitars and Bad Horsie Wah Pedals have become required equipment for serious shredders young and not-so young. In recent years Vai has created the Favored Nations record label, which showcases the works of seriously talented musicians' musicians from all corners of the musical universe. Musician's Friend caught up with him at the helm of his Mothership Studio in Hollywood. During this first installment, Steve tells us all about his first lessons with Joe Satriani and his enormous good fortune with Frank Zappa.
Musician's Friend: I'd like to start off with your early years, the pre-Berklee days and how your obsession with guitar unfolded.
Steve Vai: I recall when I was very, very young I was always tremendously excited whenever I was listening to the radio or records. Even back then a peculiar thing happened that still happens to me today. When I listen to music I can't focus on anything else. When there's wallpaper music on the radio it's not a problem but if a good song comes on it's difficult for me to carry on a conversation or multitask. It's always odd to me when I'm listening to something or playing something for somebody and they're having a discussion in the middle of a piece of music [laughs].
So I was always attracted to music and my cousin had a little spinet organ in her house and I used to be amazed by it. Then when I was six years old on my birthday (on 6/6/66) my mom got me a little spinet organ. And I remember when I went to the right the notes got higher and when I went to the left they got lower. So immediately I was able to play melodies. Whatever I heard I could figure it out on the instrument.
I was exposed to a lot of cool stuff. My parents had the West Side Story soundtrack. And that had a huge impact on me. I would listen to it nonstop when I was like seven, eight, and nine years old. Then my sister would always get all these really cool heavy metal records. She was listening to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. I used to sit outside her room and just listen. I remember when I heard Led Zeppelin II for the first time. It was a changing point in my life. I just immediately thought that Jimmy Page was the coolest thing there ever was.
I wanted to play guitar, but I was very embarrassed. I must have had low self-esteem. I always thought that people who played the guitar were either really cool or they thought they were really cool. I never really thought I was cool and I never wanted to come off portraying a person that thought he was cool. So I didn't really start playing until I was 13. I bought a guitar for five dollars from a friend of mine. But I never told anybody I played.
MF: Had you played any other instruments before that?
SV: Yeah, I played the accordion. Because when you're a Long Island Italian boy, usually when you're about 10 years old you get an accordion. So I played that. I loved playing it because I could play melodies, all these beautiful standards and stuff. But finally it was a chore because I didn't like my teacher and my friends were doing all sorts of other things. And, let's face it, the accordion is not the coolest instrument in the world if you want to be a rock-and-roll guy. And I always wanted to be a guitar player.
So eventually I got that guitar and I started listening to all the really cool, great progressive rock stuff of the '70s. I joined a band then when I was 13. We used to play all sorts of great stuff, Zeppelin and Hendrix and Allman Brothers and stuff like that. I got very into the progressive rock scene—Jethro Tull. And Queen was a huge influence. And a lot of that fusion stuff, too. One of my favorite records at that time was Billy Cobham's Spectrum, with Tommy Bolin. This guy was a monster. I couldn't believe how great he played. It was amazing stuff.
But by the same token I really liked the idea of the little black dots on paper. I wanted to control—I wanted to understand music thoroughly. So I studied ...
MF: Would you say that's something you picked up from your accordion days?
SV: No—this is something that not a lot of people know—I wanted to be a composer more than anything else, more than a guitar player. And I would write constantly. I learned how to write music at a very early age.
MF: How early?
SV: When I was about 11 or 12 I started writing songs. Maybe even earlier than that, playing the accordion. But then when I picked up the guitar I started to write a lot. The biggest influence was a music teacher I had in high school named Bill Wescott. He had a music theory class. He taught intense theory. He was very strict and gave me a lot of work. When I was in ninth grade I had to compose a piece of music every single day that he would play on the piano. And it wasn't going to be chord symbols and stuff like that. He played it verbatim.
So every single day I got to write a piece of music that was sight-read by this guy flawlessly. And I got to hear it. Then he would embellish it and he taught me a lot of arranging techniques. Finally when I was in tenth or eleventh grade I wrote my first orchestra score for the high school orchestra. It was called "Sweet Wind from Orange County."
MF: So how many parts was it?
SV: I can't remember, whatever a high school orchestra is, maybe 50 or 60 parts, maybe even more. And that was the thing that gave me the greatest joy. I liked playing the guitar and I played it all the time. But the guitar was more like an extension of my ability to compose. But then after Led Zeppelin and all that it was forget the composition, really, and just be a rock guitar player. I studied that. Joe Satriani, as you probably know, lived in my town. I went to him for lessons.
MF: How old were you when you first went to him for lessons?
SV: I went to Joe with a pack of strings and a guitar. I didn't even know how to string it, nothing. I had never played before. He really was my mentor. He was musical even back then. He was really great even when he was 16.
MF: Is that how old he was when you met him?
SV: He was either 15 or 16. I keep forgetting.
MF: I don't know if you've been reading, but we did a long interview with Joe. He was really great in the interview. I didn't realize you guys were connected that far back.
SV: Yeah, my lessons were everything. And I took a lot of other lessons. I took from a couple of jazz teachers. But I was always very interested in composing. When I was exposed to the music of Frank Zappa it really opened a lot of doors for me. Because here was a guy that was really doing all the things I adored the most. He was writing—composing incredible stuff. He was playing the guitar. There was comedy in his music. He was releasing a lot of stuff. It was great stuff.
MF: How old were you when you first got into Frank?
SV: I think I was 14.
MF: What was your favorite record back in those days?
SV: I had Bongo Fury and Over-Nite Sensation, which was one of the most glorious records I ever heard in my life. Then I had rock bands in high school and we would do all this heavy rock stuff. I was in a band called Rage and we'd do all this really cool metal stuff. But I would bring these songs to the table that were kind of peculiar and odd.
MF: How were you as a guitarist back in your early days?
SV: Well, I used to record every day. I had a little cassette player. And when I listen to those tapes I was pretty hideous by today's standards [laughs]. I wasn't great by any means.
MF: Now is that compared to yourself today or compared to normal people like us?
SV: Compared to a lot of other 14-year-old guitar players today [laughs]. Joe was always great. It was phenomenal how he could play even when he was a kid.
MF: Well now, he said that he sucked when he was a kid.
SV: Oh, he doesn't know what the **** he's talking about. He was incredible. Everything he did was musical. That's where I got it from, really. He was such a big influence. I admired him so much because he was my teacher and he was so good. And he could play the solo in "Heartbreaker" by Led Zeppelin [laughs]. Every time he touched the instrument it was musical. And that had a big impact on me. It led me to believe that I had to be like that. I have a real advantage over a lot of guitar players in the fact that Joe was my teacher.
But also my interests were not very simple. I was interested in complex music. And I wanted to control a giant group of people with little black dots. So I was bringing all these weird songs to my rehearsals. Then eventually I decided to go to Berklee College of Music, where I was totally liberated. There were all these young kids who were like-minded. People like Dave Rosenthal and Randy Coven and Stu Hamm and Eddie Rodgers. We would just sit and play the wildest stuff all day. Eventually I got in contact with Frank Zappa and sent him a tape of my guitar playing with my band.
MF: And you were playing a Zappa song or...?
SV: No, I was playing our songs. And he was very impressed with it. Imagine this. Here's a kid in college. I was 18. I had never even seen my name in print. I picked up a magazine and Frank had done an interview in San Francisco —this was shortly after I'd sent him my tape—and he was talking about me in the interview and saying all this amazing stuff, like "I just got this tape from this kid, he goes to Berklee, his name is Steve Vai ..." And I saw my name in print for the first time coming out of the mouth of Frank Zappa. It was stunning. I was shocked. He said, "I really think he's going to turn into something. He has amazing chops," and all this stuff. I ended up transcribing for Frank for a salary.
MF: How did that come about?
SV: I had sent him transcriptions with my tape. A transcription of his song "Black Page" and some scores that I had Xeroxed from the Boston Public library of some Edgar Verese music that he was looking for. So I caught his ear. As a result he wanted to create this Frank Zappa guitar book. So he gave me this tape to transcribe and it was all this impossible ****. It was fantastic. He wanted to try me out for the band but when I told him I was 18 he just said, "Forget it."
MF: Why would he say that?
SV: Well, 18 years old, touring in a band? I wasn't even legal to go into a club. And Frank's band, that was like the military. You don't put an 18-year-old kid in the middle of that. I guess that's what he thought. But I didn't take no for an answer and I ended up moving out to California when I was 20. So I transcribed for him for a couple of years—a lot of stuff. Because in those days in order to copyright your music you needed lead sheets instead of tapes and stuff.
So I went through his entire catalog and made lead sheets of the things that needed to be done. Then I ended up transcribing more guitar solos with drum parts and then some orchestra scores. I actually created a full score for "Greggery Peccary." He had elements of it and some stuff he just taught the band. Frank used everything at his disposal to create music, whether it was black dots or hand signals. So that was great training.
Then I tried out for the band, I couldn't believe I was in the band. He gave me the gig. I didn't expect it and I didn't even know if I really wanted it.
MF: Tell us a little more about how that came about, you trying out for the band. How did you ask him about it and—
SV: I never asked him. I would never have the balls to ask him.
MF: So what happened?
SV: I went to California when I was 20 and the first thing I did was go up to Frank's house and start recording. He gave me some crazy stuff to do. There was one transcription I had done of a guitar piece and I told him I could probably double it. And I did. It turned into a piece called "Theme from the Third Movement of Sinister Footwear." So I started recording up at the house. He was putting a band together for a fall tour of the states and he wanted me to come down and audition and play with the band.
He wanted me in the band but his manager was telling him, "No, no, no, you can't afford it, bla, bla, bla ..." So the audition was very difficult because he told me to learn like 30 songs. And when I got there obviously he didn't play any of the ones he told me to learn. There's a great little story. He was so tough on me. I couldn't even believe it. He stops the band and says, "OK play this." And Frank would pick up the guitar and kind of like cryptically spit out a line in his awkward style. And he'd say, "OK play that at this tempo." He'd play it one time and you just had to grab it.
I'd play it. I go, "OK," and I play it. And he goes, "OK, now add this note." I thought for a minute and I said, "OK," and I added that note. He goes, "OK, now play it in 7/8." And I thought for a minute and I said "OK," and I played it in 7/8. And then he goes, "OK, now play it in 7/8 reggae." So I thought for a minute and I said, "OK," and I played it. And then he goes, "OK, now add this note." And it was impossible. Nobody could do it. It was just impossible on the instrument. And I look up and I say, "Uh, I can't. It's impossible." And he goes to me, "Well, I hear Linda Ronstadt is looking for a guitar player" [laughs]. F*****' Frank was just so on, man. Everything out of his mouth was brilliant.
And I thought I lost the gig right there. And then at the end of the rehearsal I went up and said, "Listen, thanks for having me down. I'm really sorry I didn't uh—." He was taking the piss out of me and I didn't even realize it. And I'm like, "Oh I blew it, I couldn't play that note." And he goes, "You're in the band" [laughs]. So that's how I got the gig.
Be sure to join us next week for Part II, when Steve Vai tells us about what really drives him as a musician.
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