Interview:Steve Vai Makes His Musical Illusions Real

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Steve Vai Makes His Musical Illusions Real
Photos and Interview by Lisa Sharken


What can you say about Steve Vai? He plays like no other, and is considered by many to be one of the most talented musicians on the planet. Yet even so, Vai continually strives to better himself as both a player and musician. To stay on top of his game, Vai remains on a constant hunt to seek out new challenges. He regularly experiments with different sounds, instruments and musical styles, always searching out ways to raise the bar and introduce something unique. checked in with Mr. Vai just prior to beginning rehearsals with his band. Vai will be embarking on a headlining tour supporting his new release, Real Illusions: Reflections [Epic]. Always friendly and eager to chat about his work with fellow guitar players, Vai discussed the concept of this album and explained the various ways that individual tracks came to actuality. We also got the rundown on his main set up for the recording, as well as his stage gear. And of course, Vai generously offered his words of wisdom for those players who are working to realize their own musical dreams and want to know Vai's secrets for becoming a better player, composer, and musician. We've got all the answers right here, direct from the source.


When you're finished reading and are ready for the live experience, go out and catch Vai in concert! Vai plans on spending the majority of 2005 out on the road with an itinerary that spans the globe. Be sure to check his official website for the most up-to-date tour information and news, and don't miss the chance to see this incredible musician perform when Vai plays your home town!


Steve Vai Makes His Musical Illusions Real Tell us about the music on Real Illusions: Reflections. How were the songs conceived?


Steve Vai: My last studio record, The Ultra Zone, was done five or six years ago. Since then, I released a lot of material, but none of it as focused as this record. I originally wanted to recreate a musical that had all these characters and a story, and it became such a robust story line and concept that I decided to try to spread it out over several records. So this is basically the first installment of a series of about two or three records - depending on how things unfold - that expands upon the story and the concept of the music.


But all of that aside, because a lot of people may not be interested in digging that deep, there's just the music. And with the music, I've got to bring the things that I enjoy. I've been doing this for 25 years, and you come to a point where you've got to pick a lane and drive. I've had all the big success that you can have as far as playing in big rock bands and all that stuff, and whenever I've worked in the past, there have always been times when I felt that I needed to create something acceptable or accessible, and deliver what people wanted. But you just get bored of doing that because you're undermining yourself, and you're not really giving them what they want. I'm talking about the people who are "in the club," that get a particular artist. You're not really giving them what they want unless you're giving them what you want. So with this record, I decided that I'm 44 and I've done a lot of things in the past, and now it's really time to use the opportunity to make a record, to be as expressive as possible. And I do that by incorporating things like a story or by listening to that little inner voice that tells me what the melody should be and the chords.


When it comes to playing the guitar, I make conscious efforts to try to introduce something a little unique and special to each song or to each performance. That's one of the exciting things about the guitar - it is boundless in its potential. It's only limited by your own imagination, so that's what makes it such a glorious challenge to play. You can be as expressive as you can, and still, there's just a whole plethora of elements you can apply to express yourself. So I made a conscious decision to pick up the instrument every day and try to come up with one thing that's a little different and new. That is what builds your musical vocabulary - coming up with a concept or an idea, even if it's just three notes that have a particular bend to them, or if it's an entire solo or new technique or approach. Because this way, what happens after a while is it becomes more comfortable to enter that space. The next thing you know, you've created an aura or a catalog of riffs, songs, and techniques that are really you. It's one way to explore your own uniqueness. And on every song on this record, I tried to introduce something like that.


For instance, on the opening song, "Building The Church," there are these wild hammers going on through the intro and the middle section. It's a very difficult technique and I'm not just satisfied with doing something that's flashy and just technique-oriented. If you listen to those hammers and break them down, and listen to the notes and how they affect the track with their harmonic structure, there's a lot more to them than just a funny, fast technique.


On the song "Dying For Your Love," the whole chord concept is very rich, and the melody in the beginning is all about phrasing. Phrasing is one thing the guitar offers that's so unique to itself. It's different from a piano because the dynamics are so much more exaggerated. And with the use of effects, it's a tool for really deep expression. Then there are songs like "Yai Yai," which is this bizarre little tidbit where I created a piece of music around an effect. I built a patch in the Eventide DSP4000 that's basically a modulating filter program. As you hit a note, it takes the frequencies and it modulates them so it sounds like the note is going "yai, yai, yai." Then I just played a melody around it.


For "Under It All," I wanted to use the 7-string, but didn't want to pick it up and go "daga-daga-daga-daga" [imitating a heavy metal rhythm pattern] and tune it down. How often has that been done, and done very well? So I challenged myself to do something different. The 7-string can create chord voicings that the conventional 6-string can't. I heard the rhythm guitars for "Under It All" in my head, which is a very thick, rich, tensiony cluster of chords banged together, and the way that I produced the guitar parts, those notes actually speak, so you hear all the notes in the chord with all that distortion and those low strings. Do you write on a daily basis?


Steve Vai: It's part of my responsibilities for the day, and I'm constantly trying to come up with things that I consider inventive. The other day I picked up the guitar and started playing something that was just one of the most beautiful and interesting things I've ever played. I had recently been in Paris for a couple of weeks and I performed with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin. I wrote a piece for us that we played at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris. I'm not a solo guitarist. I don't sit with the guitar and kind of just play by myself. But I created a piece of music that I thought was beautiful and interesting, and it's unique. It came, just like that, in one of those little moments that an artist just pines for. It's not like some other people I know, where I just sit down and all of a sudden can be inventive. It's just one of those things where it has to come and you have to capture it. That's the way it's always been for me. Do you have a recorder running whenever you're working?


Steve Vai: Yes. I always carry something. Is there one track that best illustrates where you are as both a writer and player?


Steve Vai: As a player, there are songs that are different than what I would point out as a songwriter. But I'm not considered a songwriter, and in many respects, I don't even consider this "songwritten" music. They're compositions. And if I was going to point to a particular guitar piece on there, I just really like "K'm-Pee-Du-Wee." It really is very "Vai," and there are people who like that stuff. It's the most naked track on the record. Basically, I used Evo in the neck-position pickup for the entire piece and plugged directly into a Carvin Legacy amp. So if there's any piece of music that I can point to that's "the quintessential Steve Vai tone and musical sensibilities," that's the song. What was the greatest challenge you faced in making this album?


Steve Vai: There are always time constraints, but my big challenge is this: Most of the time, I conceive a piece of music in my mind before I even touch an instrument. Then I go about realizing it. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with these intuitional flashes of music. An entire concept or an entire idea for a piece of music will just come to me like that. For instance, "Dying For Your Love" and "Freak Show Excess" were just there in a moment. But making it real is unbelievable work, and many times, it's not fun because I never compromise on any of this stuff. Everything is exactly the way that I wanted it. Where did the title for that song come from?


Steve Vai: If you hear it, that's what it sounds like the guitar is saying. It's also the nickname for a child in the story. The song itself is a lullaby that the mother is singing to the child who she's named K'm-Pee-Du-Wee. The child is actually named Lucas Mesa, but she calls him K'm-Pee-Du-Wee. You definitely have to read the liner notes to understand the story. Was there much material written and/or recorded that did not make it onto the album?


Steve Vai: Yeah, sure there was. There are at least 15 other pieces of music. Will any of this music or the ideas be used in the future?


Steve Vai: Some of it will. But the thing with this record is that it came from a particular place - for better or for worse. But it definitely is much more melodic than anything I've done in the past, and there are certain things about each song that I was responding to which worked within the concept of the story. Whenever I came across something that didn't, I just threw it away - unconditionally, I just got rid of it and took it off the record. And as a result, there are only 11 songs on the record, but I think that the statement that they're making is in line with what I was trying to achieve, and what I have achieved. In what ways has your style and approach changed?


Steve Vai: I'm paying a lot more attention to phrasing. Phrasing on the guitar is everything. I think phrasing and any kind of a melody is everything. Phrasing is as important as the way we speak and the way that we understand people when they're speaking. If I speak in a totally monotone way and don't use any punctuation, it just doesn't make any sense. But a lot of people play the guitar that way, and a lot of people write melodies that way. But when you phrase things, like the way I just emphasized the word "phrase," which are also things that people sometimes don't pick up when they're reading, unfortunately, phrasing has a way of having it affect the listener more. They're more drawn in because what they hear is making sense. I try to construct my solos like they're sentences in a paragraph or part of a book, and every comma, and every crossed "t" and dotted "i" are the things that make it what it is. Now that's not to say that you can't pick up an instrument and start slashing away at it and not make any sense, yet have it be affective. But what I've been focusing on more these days is just phrasing and dynamics, and if you listen to the record and listen to songs like "Lotus Feet" or "Freak Show Excess," it's all about phrasing. It's all being performed like it's being sung or spoken. What did you use to record your guitar tracks?


Steve Vai: I mostly used my Carvin Legacy amps. I usually use a stereo set up with a head and two 4x12s, but you have to let the song dictate. I also used a Strat through an older Fender Professional tube amp. But there are some tracks where I ganged a lot of amps together. You've got to do that very carefully when miking and amping things, especially if you're mixing them with dirty DI sounds because you'll lose everything in phase cancellation. For "Under It All," to get those notes to speak like that, I used two guitars through about 10 different amplifiers.


I used my main Jem guitars, "Evo" and "Flo." Flo has the Sustainer pickup. Another Jem I used was a floral model with a Roland guitar synth pickup to trigger midi information. I also used a plethora of other stringed instruments, including the Jerry Jones Coral Sitar which you can hear on "Freak Show Excess," a new acoustic that I designed for Ibanez called the Euphoria, and a 7-string acoustic made for me by Emerald Guitars in Ireland. The entire guitar is one piece of carbon-fiber and has this unique sound. When you amplify it and put a mic on it, you get this nice balance between electric and acoustic atmospheres. Then I used a saz and an oud, which are these Turkish instruments. The saz has eight doubled strings, it's fretless and it's small with a teardrop-like body that's impossible to hold, and you pick it with this huge piece of plastic. The oud has a very long neck. I also used my '77 Fender Strat on a couple of things like "Firewall."


For effects, I used the Eventide DSP4000 and T.C. Electronic G-Force - my main workhorse. On the floor, I had my Morley Bad Horsie wah and Little Alligator volume pedal. I usually use a Boss DS-1 for distortion, but occasionally, I use a new TS-9 Tube Screamer reissue. I also used a Sobbat phaser/flanger box on "K'm-Pee-Du-Wee."


I know this may sound sacrilegious to some people, but I'm not really a guitar collector. I don't pine for vintage and eclectic instruments. I'm very unconcerned with owning vintage instruments unless I have a real application for them. I just keep things that I play. What's the coolest new or old piece of gear that you've recently acquired?


Steve Vai Makes His Musical Illusions Real Steve Vai: I'm developing my style more and more around the Sustainer. I really feel like I've made inroads into exploring the device. I have the Fernandes Sustainer in a couple of my guitars, and you can hear me using it to its potential, as far as I'm capable of delivering in songs like "Whispering A Prayer." I created a piece of music using the Sustainer that just came to me in seconds. It was a piece that I played with Sharon Isbin. This piece of music is just so haunting and beautiful, and it involves the Sustainer and whammy bar, and playing these chords. It's so pretty. The Sustainer is like a whole new world when you're using it. The Digitech Whammy pedal has endless potential, too. It's just that most people grab it and go "wee, wee, wee." But if you listen to "Midway Creatures," there's some beautiful use of the Whammy pedal on there. I'm using it to create all these harmonies that come up all over the place. Tell us about your new Ibanez "Bad Horsie" Jem signature guitar. What are some of the features that make this one different?


Steve Vai: The Jem is coming up on 20 years now. I really don't have to make it evolve, but it's fun to have the ability and the means to do it. So it's difficult to come up with new ideas, though it's not very different. I mean, it's still a Jem. But the new "Bad Horsie" model has got a whole different look to it. It's black and the front of it is a mirror. That was the difficult thing - getting a some kind of a reflective material that is not necessarily a mirror, because you can't really bend mirrors like that for a guitar. But it's not the same material as was used on Joe Satriani's chrome guitar. I'm really not sure what they ended up using, but the result is pretty stunning. There's one song on my DVD, Live At The Astoria, where I'm the new guitar so you can see it on the video. DiMarzio recently introduced a revised set of your Evolution signature pickups. What's different about these compared to the standard Evolution neck and bridge models?


Steve Vai: I've been using the Evolution pickups for years and I've really grown accustomed to their sound. And like all pickups, they really sound a little bit different in every guitar. Now while playing live, I've been experimenting with playing at very low stage levels because I think you have more control. So I was looking for a pickup that can allow me to crank the amp a little more and pull back on the guitar, because there's definitely a tradeoff there in tone on most pickups. So I was talking to Steve Blucher at DiMarzio, and we designed a new Evolution pickup that has a little less output and a tighter bottom end. So that's basically this new pickup. I think we're calling it the Evolution 2. In what ways does your live rig differ from the set up you used in the studio?


Steve Vai: I'm not combining amplifiers together when I play live. Otherwise, it's basically the exact same rig. I'm using the T.C. G-Force for years, and this time I'm taking out the Eventide, but it's basically the same thing I used on the record. How many guitars do you typically take out on tour?


Steve Vai: That varies according to the songs we end up playing. I've got to bring at least four - Flo and Evo, and their backups, which are "Flo's backup and "Evo IV" - I've given away II and III. But if I do an odd tuning or anything like that, I've got to bring out more guitars. We're going to be designing an acoustic set for this tour, so there are going to be some various acoustics to bring. What are some of the odd tunings you use?


Steve Vai: There's a song on this album called "I'm Your Secrets," and it's tuned, low to high, C, G, D, G, A, D. That's an odd tuning - and hard to remember. I'd better write it down! Which of all is your favorite guitar for playing live and for recording?


Steve Vai: Evo. What are you currently listening to for enjoyment and inspiration?


Steve Vai: My favorite artist is Tom Waits and I listen to his music when I have any free time. But there really is a lot of stuff that I listen to. I like the new Mars Volta CD, and I have this box set of Pierre Boulez doing Webern, which I'm addicted to. I also listen to my new record endlessly - it's pathetic! Right now it seems like I have no life except for that record! Do you ever listen back to a completed record and later have feelings of having been able to do something better?


Steve Vai: No, because I don't release it unless it's finished. I don't finish it until it's done, and when it's done, it's done. There can't be anything different. Obviously, there are some things that are a little out of tune a bit and maybe… There's no maybes! When I'm done, I'm done! I really like my music, and I listen to it a lot. I probably listen to my music more than I listen to anybody else's music. I'm telling you, I live in a little box. I'm trying to create a catalog of music that's unclassifiable. I'm not a pretentious guitar player from New York! [Laughs]


But honestly, I do listen to everything. I really buy a lot of CDs that I listen to, but so very few have sticking power with me. There's a lot of hip-hop that I like and there's some that I just think is dreadful. I'm not into music that is un-listenable, unless it's Edgard Varese, because then it's just beautifully dissonant. But as far as contemporary pop goes, I can't stomach so much of the stuff that's out there. It's just not my taste, and just not my style. I guess I could say that I like the new Green Day record. It's ok. If I was going to point to anything that was released that's just my taste and has all the things that I like to hear in music, it's the new Tom Waits record. It's not even because I'm impressed so much with the production or anything in particular about it - it's everything. It's his honesty and his sincerity, and he's compelled to be artistic because he has no choice. There are other artists like that who I listen to. If you listen to Real Illusions, you'd be so surprised to hear me say that I enjoy P.J. Harvey and some of the real things that are very earthy and raw. There are some people that are really raw, they have no choice but to be real. And sometimes when things get really glitzy and overproduced, that can be a coverup for a lack of that rawness, and I've been guilty of that quite a bit. But then again, I use heavy production to express myself and that's just why my records have a particular glitz to them. Would you consider putting out an entire record of material that was just raw and earthy?


Steve Vai: Yes. There's a song on my record called "I'm Your Secrets," and it's kind of a very pretty vocal guitar piece. I have tons and tons of stuff like that, and I'd love to do a record like that one day - one that's very earthy. What advice would you offer to others on becoming better players?


Steve Vai: If you want to be a virtuoso, it's easy. Just practice excessively. But if you really want to discover yourself on the instrument, you have to be able to identify with things that you do that are unique, and don't be afraid to do them, and then work on them. Like I said before, if you just work on one new thing a day, you'll develop a vocabulary of who you are. Article Archive
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