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Last week the firebrand guitar slinger told us about his early days with Frank Zappa, this week Vai gets down to the real essence of his music.
Musician's Friend: When I first got into your music I was totally blown away by your technical virtuosity, and I remember finding it very strange when I read an interview in which you said, in effect, that you were still unsatisfied with your technique. At first I thought that was false modesty. But later I thought how else would a guy get the best technique in the world other than by being obsessed by it? Would you say you've been obsessed with your technique?
Steve Vai: I was obsessed with playing the guitar. And I gotta tell you something—and I'm not trying to be modest, here—I'm really not a natural player.
MF: [Laughs loudly].
SV: I'm really not. I mean I had to work extraordinarily hard to be able to master the instrument, so to speak. And I use that term loosely. I have my own views on what I do. And I still try to improve and I'm still reaching. I'm still trying to do things that I've never done before. It never ends. And I knew it was never going to end even when I was a kid. It's almost like a prison with golden bars on it. Because I always feel compelled to explore.
So I had to work extremely hard. And the funny thing is I think inherently I would have been or may still be a really great composer. Because I can hear things in my head on any instrument. I can compose for a harp, for a piano, very complex, accomplished things. And whenever I hear piano music, or any music, I know what they're doing. I can see it on the instrument. But I can't even play a Beatles song on the piano. I can't play the piano at all. I can pluck chords and stuff and that's how I compose. But I can't play any instrument but the guitar.
I had to work very hard at playing the guitar. I set certain parameters for myself. And one of them—when I look back it was a seed of a transformation at a very early age—I told myself, 'You're going to play the guitar, but you're not going to play what anybody else plays. You're going to find out what's interesting and cool to you and work on it.' So I started right then and there to develop a unique style. I would just play until something weird came out and then I'd work on it.
MF: Frank said that your phrasing was very vocal in orientation, like speech, the spoken word.
SV: Frank said that?
MF: Yeah, I think I read that Frank said that.
SV: Well, yeah. There were times when I actually transcribed his vocal parts of him talking in sort of a sprechgesang [spoken song] effect and doubled it on the guitar. It was a piece called "The Story of the Jazz Discharge Party Hats" and "The Dangerous Kitchen" where I do it. It's quite extraordinary. I've never heard anything like it. It stands on its own as an accomplishment of mine that few people really know or care about or would ever care about or understand, the complexity and the depth of what it took to do that. But I did it.
One of the things you very rarely hear me do is a blues thing. Because my idea of blues is very alien. And if you're not playing like Stevie Ray Vaughan—or whatever—people usually don't associate what you're doing as blues. I always tried to stay away from things that I had heard, although I incorporate influences. And there's a lot of great inspiration that I pull from other guitar players. But as a matter of fact the record that I'm finishing up right now, virtually every solo and everything I play I sat and said, 'You're going to do something that you?ve never done before.' So there's some cool stuff. Obviously it's me all over the place.
But that makes every day like Christmas when you set yourself up with that. It's a challenge and it's fun. And when you come up with something new it's a great surprise and it's a great honor and it's cool and I love my music. I really do. I don't want to sound pretentious, but I just adore my music. And I listen to it all the time [laughs].
MF: Well, so do millions of the rest of us out here.
SV: Well, I don't know about millions but I know there's a few other people that get a kick out of it.
MF: "For the Love of God" is one of the only songs I've ever heard that literally brings me to tears almost every time I hear it.
SV: Oh, thank you, that's very sweet.
MF: I understand that you went through quite a thing preparing for that song.
SV: I do try to push myself into relatively altered states of consciousness. Because in those states you can come up with things that are unique even for yourself. It helps you explore different realms. I don't use substances to do that. So I had to figure out other ways. At the time and even now at least once a year I do a fast. Because I've learned a lot about fasting and how it cleanses you and clears your mind. So I would do a 10-day fast once a year. And at the time that I was recording "For the Love of God" I was in the middle of one of those 10-day fasts.
Interesting things happen to you when you go through that kind of a thing. You change physically; you change mentally. And as a result I felt like I was in a very pure state, or at least to my ability to be pure [laughs]. We all have the ability to listen to that little voice within us. It takes shutting out everything else. But if you can get to it, it kind of tells you what to play. And if you have a particular emotional state of mind that you put yourself in and you listen for that voice, the right notes will come out to portray that emotional state of mind.
I just told you about my musical interests and whatnot, but for the most part even at a very early age I always felt deep inside that the most important thing for me to do—and I'm not alone in this—is to maintain or seek out spiritual balance within myself. I'm a very profound seeker after spiritual truths, so to speak. And that song is more or less my audio depiction of an intense yearning, wanting for spiritual balance.
I just worked on some stuff on this record, (we're tentatively calling it Real Illusions). And there's a song that frightens me every time I listen to it. It is so absolutely intense. It's called "Dying For Your love." It's a vocal song. And I will guarantee you you've never heard anything like it. I was going through something a couple of months ago and this song came out. This record is part one of what will hopefully be a trilogy, a huge story—a play, so to speak. And all the songs on this record have a place. That's all I can say about it right now.
I think when a person goes to create—I mean anybody, you, me, a painter, anybody—they gravitate to the thing that interests them the most. Some people write songs about fast cars and love or politics or whatever it is. Whenever I get into that writing space I always seem to gravitate towards my spiritual seeking, so to speak. But on the other hand I have all this intense technical ability and knowledge. And my brain just sort of mixes those two things together. And that's how I get the music I write.
MF: When did your spiritual yearning first manifest itself?
SV: Well, I've talked about this in the past and I leave myself open for real harsh criticism. But you're asking. I remember an experience that happened to me when I was almost an infant—maybe four years old or so—and I was sick. I was lying down on my stomach trying to sleep and my attention became very focused inside and I started feeling myself getting pulled. And I kept pulling back. And there was this sound. And other things happened that I don't really want to get into. But I think it was somewhat of a spiritual experience. I didn't know what spirituality was. I didn't know what anything was. But that was the first seed of a desire to return to that frame of mind. Since then many things have happened to me. But I think we're all searching for something. And we express it in our art and music and other creative outlets—really in everything we do.
MF: Was your spiritual yearning tied up with your music at an early age?
SV: Not necessarily. They just started to merge. I realized that music is a great vehicle for expression. To this day I discover things about myself. This record I'm working on, I'm learning to let go of a lot of things that hold me back from discovering myself musically.
MF: That's great, I'm sure we'll all be blown away by the result. Thank you very much for sharing your time.
SV: You got it, buddy.
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