Interview:Rock Guitar's Top Gun


Steve Vai:

Rock Guitar's Top Gun

For guitar hero Steve Vai (1979 Berklee alumnus), music has to come from the heart and mind . . . with an edge.


Steve Vai, in his own words, is a walking dichotomy. As a former key member of Frank Zappa's band and top-drawing arena acts Whitesnake and the David Lee Roth band, Vai earned his stripes before stadium audiences across the globe in the '80s, coaxing hyper-speed solos and bizarre sound effects out of his guitar while engaging in flamboyant rock-and-roll stage antics.


What might appear (to some) to contradict that history is Vai's sometimes intellectual approach to his own music. For example, for "Down Deep into the Pain" from his 1993 album Sex & Religion, Vai worked with a scale he created which divides the octave into 16 equal divisions instead of the 12 divisions of the equal temperament, to evoke a "divine dissonance" in the tune's final section. With unbridled creative license in his own studio, Vai has consistently produced thoughtful and technically astonishing music on his solo albums.


Vai's dual nature shows up in his personal as well as musical life. He eschews the stereotypical excesses viewed by many as the spoils of rock-and-roll stardom. Today, he is a devoted family man with a wife and two sons, and is quite outspoken about his aversion to drug and alcohol use.


Raised in an Italian-American household in Carle Place, New York, Steve started out playing the accordion, and later played tuba in his high school band. But after the first hearing of his sister's Led Zeppelin albums, Steve was inseparable from the guitar. Even in his teen years, Vai's energy for music went beyond playing cover tunes in Long Island's pubs by night with his garage band. At the same time he composed his first score, "Sweet Wind from Orange County," for his school orchestra.


Vai's thirst for musical knowledge brought him to Berklee in the fall of 1978. His roommate at Berklee got him interested in transcribing music from records - a vitally important development for Vai's future. With his typical intensity, he set about meticulously transcribing some of Frank Zappa's most challenging music. After weeks of work on "The Black Page," Vai sent a copy to Zappa, who wrote back offering him a job as his transcriber. By the time he was 20, Steve was playing in Zappa's band, frequently being introduced by Frank as his "little Italian virtuoso."


Vai's playing and transcribing prowess caught the attention of the editors of Guitar Player magazine, who made Steve's fusion rave-up "The Attitude Song" their premiere soundpage insert and featured his transcription work in a monthly column. Doors began opening, and his first album, Flex-able, sold 250,000 copies. His unforgettable guitar duel scene as "Jack Butler," the devil's top guitarist in the blues-fantasy film "Crossroads," gave Vai even greater visibility.


Notable stints as David Lee Roth's post-Eddie Van Halen lead player, and as the replacement for guitar-slingers Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz and Adrian Vandenberg in Whitesnake, boosted ticket and album sales for each act. In 1990, Vai released Passion & Warfare, a fiery instrumental disc that sold over 800,000 copies and shored up his position at the summit of the rock guitar heap - a spot he has maintained for nearly a decade.


In the years since the Passion & Warfare album, Steve released Sex & Religion, and toured as one third of a hugely successful guitar triumvirate featuring Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani. A live CD from the tour was released in 1998. Steve has since gone back into the studio to polish up some outtakes from his Flex-able sessions for a much anticipated CD.


This interview was conducted back in 1993 as Steve sat on the sun-drenched deck of his Lake Tahoe home thinking about where he's been and where he's headed.


Q: Do you ever play with any of the people you met when you were at Berklee?


As a matter of fact, on August 6, my band was featured playing with Branford Marsalis and the Tonight Show band at the end of the program. I wrote an arrangement of a song from my album so our bands could play together. Branford and his guitarist Kevin Eubanks went to Berklee at the same time I did. They are really fine musicians.


Q: What are your thoughts on musical literacy for rock musicians?


A lot of people like to knock music schools, but I really enjoyed my time at Berklee and got a whole lot out of it. That is one of the few environments where you can go knock on someone's door, whether they are a sax player, flute player, or heavy metal guitarist, and ask them if they'd like to jam.


If a person has the right attitude, a music school like Berklee is a good place to learn. I saw that those with a good attitude got more out of the school than those with a bad attitude.


Q: A lot of rock musicians would rather not learn to read music or know theory.


I would not say knowing theory or not knowing it is good or bad. For me, I like to know the music because it helps my expression. I can sit with manuscript paper and compose music that I couldn't do if I didn't know music. The big mistake some people make is thinking that if you know music you can't play from the heart, but it is all up to the individual. Those statements usually come from someone who has not taken the time or had the discipline to sit and learn. If they did, they would realize that there is a whole other world of expression.


It would be wrong to say that because he understood music, Mozart couldn't write or play from the heart. Those great classical composers' only choice was to write their music down. You can't dismiss what they've done because they knew how to write down the little black dots. Sometimes you find trained musicians who can't really express themselves very well, but can resort to the little technicalities or mathematics. It is easy for some with a very analytical mind to write melodies and counterpoint without breaking the rules. But the bottom line is how it sounds.


Q: You originally came to Berklee to learn arranging and film scoring. Were you hopeful then of making a name as a rock guitarist?


Today I am pretty much what I was back then. My guitar technique has changed, but I was always interested in arranging and playing challenging music. What I did on my Passion & Warfare and Sex & Religion albums is very similar to what I did back then. Actually, my song "Sleep" from the Flex-Able album was written while I was at Berklee. I wrote it for a harmony class that Mike Metheny taught.


Q: Was he an influential teacher for you during your Berklee years?


I had some really great teachers. Mike Metheny was one. Wes Hensel was also a fabulous teacher. Mike Palermo was my ear-training teacher, and he was really into Frank Zappa. He told our class that in order to play with Zappa, first of all you had to be good, and second, there was a two-year waiting list.


Q: What are your thoughts on Zappa's band being a proving ground for rock musicians as the Miles Davis band was for jazz players?


Drummers like Terry Bozzio and Vinnie Colaiuta [1975 Berklee alumni] had innate abilities that go way beyond those of the average drummer, but they may not have gotten the exposure they got if there wasn't a field like Frank's to play in.


Going to work for Frank was an education, but he was really not concerned with educating people. He was interested in having his music played properly by people who are proficient. He really knew how to identify a person's talent. He always found something extreme that he can pull out of a player. In my case, I had the ability to understand and perform difficult rhythms and to make weird sounds on the guitar. He really dragged that out of me in the best possible way. That was his genius.


Q: Do you think there will ever be a musicological value to the rock guitar transcriptions now proliferating in books and magazines, or are they mostly of immediate value?


It is good to have a document representing the music so that someone who hasn't heard it can learn it. The first piece of music I learned how to read was "Since I've Been Lovin' You" by Led Zeppelin. I couldn't figure out the guitar riffs, but I got the songbook and learned it note-for-note from the transcription.


Q: But some of those transcriptions are so rhythmically complex that even the best musicians could never read them without having the record as a guide.


Well, some of the music I transcribed for Frank Zappa's guitar book, I did almost as an art-type project. I didn't expect that something like that would be thrown in front of somebody for sight-reading. That work was like a meditational journey for me. I had never seen anything as complex as that stuff. It was fun for me to notate it and decorate the page with the proper articulations.


Q: With so many musically literate musicians playing popular music, do you think that someday it might be considered more a serious art form than a popular one?


It is hard to say. It is up to the individuals. Some people don't want to have to think about it or work so hard at it. They just want to grab a microphone and do a rap and say, "This is my art." Then, some want to learn enough about music that they could have 120 instruments play their ideas.


I am writing a piece for a 30-piece orchestra and a rock band with me playing lead guitar. It is with a group called Orchestra of Our Time from New York. We hope to do a concert in the spring of 1994. I am in the midst of orchestrating a lot of my past and present compositions. After that I will do a series of concerts in Germany with the Orchestre Moderne. They worked with Frank Zappa on his Yellow Shark album. I visited Zappa at Warner Bros. Studios where he and Orchestre Moderne were recording some music by Edgar Varese. Frank told me to get an amp and play with the orchestra. It was a blast.


Q: How did you end up playing the role of Jack Butler in the movie "Crossroads"?


Slide guitarist Ry Cooder was doing the soundtrack, and he called Guitar Player magazine to get the name of a hot rock guitarist for some sections. They recommended me. Ry called me, and I went down to work on the musical duel section with him. I had to discuss certain aspects of the scene with the film director, and he asked me if I wanted to act out the part. It was simpler than teaching an actor to mimic what I was playing. I guess I also had the perfect "Jack Butler" eyebrow.


Q: Did the film bring you to the attention of David Lee Roth?


No, we met before the film was released. In fact, he went with me to the premiere of the movie. I was bubbling under back then. After Guitar Player used my "Attitude Song" for their soundpage, and then my Flex-Able album came out with a few cool guitar things on it, things began to happen. Dave had heard the record I did with Alcatrazz and liked that too.


Q: There was a lot of media attention focused on Roth's split from Van Halen. Did you feel a lot of pressure as the one who had to fill the spot Eddie Van Halen had carved out?


How do you compete with Eddie Van Halen? I loved his playing and knew I would be compared to him; I was honored to be in the position. I didn't know what would happen at the concerts - whether the audience would accept or ignore me. By the middle of the tour they were chanting my name before I got on stage. It was a thrill. I enjoyed the whole thing.


Q: Was it a big adjustment to shift gears from the complex instrumental material you'd been doing to playing in an arena rock band?


I had always hoped to be able to play in big places. I am sort of a walking dichotomy. I do like playing rock and roll with acts like Roth and Whitesnake, but I also like to expand my horizons. The ultimate would be to go out with a huge band and play hardcore rock with horns and an orchestra in arenas. I don't know if it will ever happen, but it would be great.


Q: Is the new album a synthesis of both the instrumental and mainstream rock music you've been playing over the course of your career?


The album's single, "Down Deep Into the Pain," is a lot more hardcore than anything I did with the other bands I've been in. It is musical, there is tender melody, and bone-crunching thrash. I like high-energy music - whether it is a Stravinsky melody or a 21-year-old kid screaming into the mike - it's got to have that intensity. I like music with an edge.


Q: Will you tour with the band that played on your new album Sex & Religion?


I'm working on it. I don't know if I can get Terry Bozzio, he's got a lot of commitments. He is one of my favorite drummers. [Ed. note: Abraham Laboriel Jr., 1993 Berklee alumnus, played drums for the tour.] The singer, Devin Townsend, is a wild man and really musical. He is also an incredible guitar player. He will be playing a lot of guitar in the shows. With him I can really do some great dual guitar stuff. Between him, [bassist] T.M. Stevens, and myself, there are a lot of possibilities for some cool pyro playing.


Q: Do you think we are seeing the end of the pyrotechnical guitar hero era?


The music scene is groping for an identity right now. You are always going to have people interested in being virtuosos who are really proficient on their instruments. But I love the thrash thing, and some of grunge stuff, if it is inspired. There are kids reacting to the albums with polished guitar playing and production by saying, "I can't do that." So they go into their garage with a beat up guitar and amp and they start slashing away on these grungy sounding chords. The next thing you know, there are some really inspired kids making good music. I can appreciate that, but I like to be able to play fast and proficiently. So if some guitar magazines are saying that shred is dead, and the trend is toward grunge, it gives me incentive to go and shred even more. I try to stay as far out of trends as possible.


Q: Your song "Still My Bleeding Heart" was inspired by your encounter with a young person in a hospital with terminal cancer. How did that all come about?


As an artist, I get requests from places like the Starlight Foundation. I received a request to give this boy a call in the hospital because he was terminally ill. I've done this a number of times, sometimes the kids pull through, but that was not the case this time. He requested me because he was a fan.


It was funny, when I called he didn't believe it was really me. I had to answer a series of questions to convince him. He was a really sweet kid, and I was taken by his bravery - I felt kind of dwarfed by it. He would just lay in bed playing his guitar. I got a letter from his parents a few months later telling me that the phone call helped him in his last months, but that he'd lost his battle with cancer. It was very moving for me. That is why artists write songs - because of significant events in their lives.


Q: As someone in the rock-and-roll spotlight, is it a challenge to balance your professional and family life?


Not at all. A lot of rock-and-roll musicians have families, but it is what they do in their mind or in their spare time when they are away from home that has the most effect on their mental health and family life. I've been exposed to a lot, having come up in the bands I've been with. I have had any kind of vice you can imagine made available to me. I didn't overindulge. I never did any drugs, and at this point I don't drink anymore.


Q: Is there anything else you want to say?


Yeah. I want to tell the Berklee students that when I was at Berklee, I didn't realize how good it was until I left. When you get out into the professional world is when the real education begins. Going to Berklee is a great opportunity to hone your chops, make new friends, and to explore a completely musical environment. You don't have to worry about the daily business affairs that come into a musician's life once he or she has to make a living. So sit back, study hard, and enjoy your time there - it's probably the only time you are going to have to do something like that.


Copyright 1999 Berklee Press


Check out the complete book Masters of Music: Conversations with Berklee Greats (Book) from Berklee Press.