Interview:Steve Vai- Totally Vai-able
Steve Vai is an artist who needs little introduction. As one of the few players who is truly deserving of the title "virtuoso," Vai is not only a gifted player and musician, but also a talented composer and proprietor of his own record label.
Guitar.com caught up with Vai shortly after the conclusion of the 2003 G3 tour with Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Vai reported on this year's festivities and described all that made the tour so unique.
During our conversation, Vai detailed his live set up and gave us a preview of his upcoming CD and DVD releases, as well as his upcoming performance schedule and musical activities for 2004 and 2005. We also got the inside details on some of the noteworthy new releases that will be coming out through his Favored Nations record label. Here's the scoop...
Guitar.com: What made this year's G3 tour different from previous tours?
Steve Vai: Well, it was very different. First of all, when we were trying to find another "G," Joe was doing an instore and there were about a thousand kids. They sent out a questionnaire and put a bunch of names on it as to who kids feel they would like to see with Steve and Joe. It came back virtually two to one that they wanted to see Yngwie. He was someone we had thought of in the past, but for one reason or another, it never came together. This year those particular stars seemed to line up. So it turned out great and the energy level was just higher. It was a different kind of an energy level. Yngwie is always on 10, if that's the most anything can go.
Guitar.com: Had you ever toured with Yngwie in Japan in the past?
Vai: No, we had something planned at one point, but for one reason or another, it fell though and I'm not exactly sure why. But not knowing what to think beforehand, I had some concerns. I have known Yngwie for 20 years and I've always liked him. I always felt like I sort of understood him a bit. But I didn't really know if he would be happy, given the parameters of what G3 is about and I just have to say that this tour was one of the most fabulous experiences. Having Yngwie out there really gave it the kick in the ass it needed. It was just fun. I got to really know that guy and to know him is to really like him, and to appreciate his artistry, what he has brought to the guitar. I respond to people who do creative and innovative things and have the courage to do those things because it takes a lot of courage to stick to your guns, and he's one of those guys. In the face of all the adversity and the changing genres, he stuck to his guns and did what he does. One of the things I noticed about him is that he's a real lover of the instrument. His whole day is executed around that instrument. We became very good friends and the three of us bonded very well.
Guitar.com: In what ways has the G3 audience changed over the years?
Vai: I've noticed that it's going in all directions. Fathers are bringing their kids. These are guys in their 30s and 40s who have been fans for years and years, and they want their kids to have the experience of seeing real musicians playing instruments. So I've been seeing a lot of young kids from the ages of anywhere between 10 through 16, and it's amazing because all of them are very dedicated to the instrument. They all have their tapes that they give us and their parents say that they've seen us play many times. It's fascinating. And I've noticed that the female audience is a little more robust than in the past. That was nice to see because on my tours in America, there are very rarely any women there. But the G3 tour has more couples. Joe has an older demographic, in a way, and he has couples that come to see him. But I was surprised on the G3 tour at how many women were there as fans, and not just on dates.
Guitar.com: What would you consider to be the best shows of this tour?
Vai: It's hard to say. The House of Blues in Orlando, Florida, and the show in Chicago was really nice. Sometimes things just happen where all the equipment works good, the monitors sound good, and everybody's playing well and relaxed. Usually that's in a city that isn't too high profile. I have a difficult time having a great show in L.A. or New York because there's always a lot of press and always a lot of family. Although I've grown thick-skinned to that stuff when I get onstage, I think it kind of lurks in your subconscious. But when I'm in a place where I don't have a tremendous guest list and there isn't a lot of pressure, everything usually flows nicely. I've had some special shows on this tour where I just felt like the instrument was doing everything I wanted it to do. Sometimes it's like an ESP game that I play with the guitar. Sometimes it's very forgiving and sometimes it's brutal. But for the most part, we've become very good friends and she gives me a lot of what I'm looking for. I would have to say that maybe the Chicago show or the House of Blues in Orlando were probably the best shows. But the best show that I can remember having in a while was in Barcelona. We did two two-and-a-half hour shows in one night and the second show that night was great. Maybe it just took me a whole show to get started. But for the whole second show, it was sort of like I was in another world. It was just magic. I was like on a cloud and I just had total control and confidence. I felt like a wizard and whatever I thought became a reality. I wish I could do that every night. It only happens occasionally.
Guitar.com: But most players would think that's how it always is for you when you play guitar.
Vai: Well, I think we do that in elements or portions of it. But to be 100 percent in the moment for an entire show, at least for me, that's rare. There are moments when I feel totally in the moment. The second show in New York felt pretty good. There were some beautiful elements in that show, but one of the songs got a little derailed. It was a piece called "Whispering A Prayer," in the beginning of the show, and that has a tendency to kind of bring you down a couple of notches. There was a time in my life when a mistake onstage would throw me back for the rest of the show. But I'm way too smart for that shit now. I don't let it happen anymore because it's bullshit. You just blow it off and you continue. It's really cowardly to have a mistake throw off your night.
Guitar.com: Many times the audience doesn't even realize that there was any mistake.
Vai: Yes, that's true, and I've come to realize that, too. There are things that definitely bring me down when I'm performing. One of them is when the monitors are so bad that you can't function. You can't hear the PA and you can't communicate well. It happens occasionally. And another is when there's something intermittent that just keeps going wrong with the equipment. But on this tour, I didn't have any of that.
Guitar.com: Were there any other types of disasters or funny things that happened onstage during this tour?
Vai: During the first show in New York, the strap broke on the triple-neck that I play. As soon as I stood up, it broke and I was wondering how the hell I was going to carry this 50-pound instrument while playing a melody and switching necks on all this stuff. There's no way I was going to stop. My tech came out and he just showed me that the metal rod that holds the strap had broken in half. The metal rod holds the strap out from the guitar because I can't attach the strap to the guitar itself since it's too unbalanced with the three necks. But it broke and I had to lean the guitar up against my leg. Then the quadracept muscle in my leg started to burn from being in that position too long while I was trying to sing and switch necks. I was playing very sloppy, but I got through it.
Guitar.com: What do you feel is the best part of touring together in a package like G3 with several guitar greats on one bill?
Vai: A tour is like a snapshot of a particular time in your life and it's something that you remember when you listen to music you create at that time, when see photos, or when you think about the tour. So it's very important to me to be set up in situations where I really am going to enjoy the experience because all you have at the end is your memories. After this particular G3 tour, I'm going to be left with a beautiful memory. I've done it enough times, so I definitely know the routine and I know the ins and outs. I'm a real road dog in the sense that I know how to tour hard and I know how to enjoy it. I sleep enough and I eat well. The icing on the cake is that I have such a good band with Billy Sheehan, Tony MacAlpine, Dave Weiner, and the new drummer Jeremy Colson. They're really great performers and great players, and we have fun. I used to say that we have fun, but in the earlier days of solo touring, for me, it was really a chore. It was a lot of work and the shows were work. It's really all a frame of mind and the more you go through it, the more you realize that you're in control of how you're going to experience this thing. I have decided to just really kick back and let my instincts just lead me and guide me, and that's how I get through these tours. I've become very confident and excited to be there at the same time. So now it really is fun. Then playing with Joe and Yngwie at the end was a hoot — especially playing with Joe this time. We've reached this new level of communication on the instrument that we never had before.
Guitar.com: What's the greatest challenge of a tour like G3?
Vai: Being onstage and feeling like I'm raising my own bar when I'm standing next to Joe and Yngwie. These guys are musical giants. They're the elite of the elite. They're doing their thing and they're doing it really hard and strong. Whatever criticism you can give to Yngwie for the way he plays, he's still unique, and he's doing what he does as good as anyone on the planet has ever done it. The way that Joe plays and what he's doing is unique to him, also. He doesn't play like Beck, Santana, Page or Hendrix, or anyone else. He's Joe Satriani and when he digs in, it's serious business. Mountains to the left of me and mountains to the right of me, and my job is to find that uniqueness that I have as a player and spit it out there, just like these guys are doing. You can't compete with them. You're a fool if you do. How do you compete with Yngwie? That's a classic mistake that I've seen people sometimes do when they get onstage with us. He'll eat you. And the same thing with Joe. You don't compete. You try to raise your own bar and they're the best inspiration for that. I'm way beyond trying to compete. Competing is sort of like you're saying you're on their level. You're on your own level, just like they're own their own level. To go into their world and try to play like them to beat them out at what they do is not only idiotic, selfish and egotistical, but it's downright crazy. If you're not confident in your own abilities, you're going to feel like you need to compete, and that's the classic mistake. But you know how long it takes and what it takes to be confident in your own abilities? Some people never get there. It's a lifetime of study and it takes a lot more than just practicing. It's a whole mind set.
Guitar.com: What made you select Tony MacAlpine as part of the band?
Vai: I had heard that Tony played keyboards, and I needed a keyboard player who could play guitar. Tony obviously knew how to play guitar, and when I spoke to him, he was interested in doing it. It was a money punch, man, because he's a phenomenal artist.
Guitar.com: It was great to see Tony step out a bit during the set and trade solos with you.
Vai: In the full-on show, he gets a lot more time than that.
Guitar.com: Billy's role seemed to be a bit more laid back on this tour.
Vai: On the last G3 tour, he and I had a lot more trading stuff worked out, but on this tour I opted to give him an unaccompanied solo with just drums and bass. We also worked something out with the entire band during that song, "I'm The Hell Out Of Here." That's the song where we all reach over and play each others' instruments. I had to make choices and what we turned out with this time seemed to be what worked best.
Guitar.com: Besides John Petrucci and Neal Schon, who both performed with you in New York, who were some of the other guests who participated in G3 throughout this tour?
Vai: You know, there were not that many this time. Neal came to four shows. Johnny Highland, who is this amazing chicken picker out of Nashville, he came up and played there. I had invited Zakk Wylde down, but he never showed up.
Guitar.com: Did you vary the selection of jam songs at different shows?
Vai: Not really. We used "La Grange" at one point, when we had four jams songs, but it got to be a bit much and a lot of the union halls just wouldn't allow us that much time. So by the end of the tour, we had bumped it down to three jam songs.
Guitar.com: What were you using in your live rig? Has your setup changed since the last tour?
Vai: It's simple. For guitars, I used Evo and Flo, which are my main Ibanez Jems. The cable out of my guitar goes into a Boss DS-1 Overdrive and Bad Horsie wah wah, then into a Carvin Legacy amp, then the send goes into a rackmounted Digitech Whammy pedal, then I went into a Morley Little Alligator volume pedal, out of that and into a TC Electronic G-Force which was split in stereo and returned into the main Legacy and another Legacy, and out to power two Carvin 4x12 cabinets. For the triple-neck, there are three separate outputs. The fretless neck went into the jam rig, which is just a Legacy rig with an MXR phase shifter and some delay, and then a Bad Horsie and an Ibanez Tube Screamer. Out of the effects loop in the back of that rig, was a Boss digital delay pedal. The fretless 6-string neck was tuned to an E2 chord — E, B, F#, G#, B, E. The middle neck, which is the main neck, went through my regular rig and was tuned standard. The 12-string neck went direct into an Eventide H3000 with a setting I had built which had all these reverse clustered harmonic overtones with delays and stuff. That just went stereo into the console. The 12-string neck was tuned to an F# major chord.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Vai: I'm using Ernie Ball .009-.042 and I like the action kind of high.
Guitar.com: What type of picks are you using?
Vai: I've got these new picks that Ibanez is making that are just a little sharper and have a slightly more of an elongated shaped to them, and I'm finding that it helps me to grab the notes better. Yngwie gave me one of his guitars and I gave him one of mine. His set up is very unique with those deep scallops and he explained it all to me. His guitar plays like butter. You can just slide and grab the notes because of the scalloping. It was a bit of a culture shock for me. Now one of the things I'm thinking about doing is changing my frets to giant frets and maybe not scalloping the fingerboard like his, but maybe dipping it a little bit because it really has a different feel and you can grab the notes better.
Guitar.com: How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally to go onstage?
Vai: If I don't get enough sleep, I'll usually take a nap before the show. Regardless of what I'm doing, an hour and a half before the show, everything stops. I go backstage and nobody is to disturb me. I go through all of my guitars and play for about an hour. That seems to be the sweet spot for me — if I play for about an hour and I don't do too much. Because if I warm up too much, I find that my fingers are too loose, and when I get out onstage, I end up overplaying. I like to fight a little bit, so I always raise the action a little bit before I go out. So I sit and play for about an hour and I have some tapes that I jam to. Then about a half hour before the show, I just get my head together. I change, shower, shave, then stretch a bit. Right before we go out, the band does a huddle and we all say a little prayer. A different guy leads it each night. Then I walk out onstage. That's one of the nicest moments right there — just taking those walks out onto the stage. It was especially cool this tour because I took a different approach. I knew that Yngwie's show was going to be over the top and I had thought about opening our show with a high-energy piece, but then thought that wasn't going to work because people were going to have come from a whole set of tremendously high-energy stuff and I need to bring it back down. So what's the ballsiest thing that I could do after someone like that has taken the stage? I thought I'd just sit there naked with a guitar and play solo. I'd walk out with no lights, no pomp, and just sit down and start playing. It seemed to work.
Guitar.com: Starting out with that piece on the triple-neck definitely made an impression, too.
Vai: Well, I thought why not do something interesting? I didn't want to just bring the guitar out there for show, so I composed this piece which is primarily improvising, and it uses all the necks. It's unique, too, because the sound of that fretless coming in and then the 12-string with that effect on it, I've never heard anything like that.
Guitar.com: Tell us about all of your upcoming CD releases and your DVD. We hear that you have a lot of new stuff in the works.
Vai: Yeah, we do. I've just had Archives Vol. 3 come out, which is for the box set. Vol. 4 is coming out next year, but it's available on my webpage now. They're compilations of various tracks and there's some cool stuff on there. Archives Vol. 3 is a very good record. It has some of my better playing on a couple of tracks. I've got a DVD out, Steve Vai: Live At The Astoria London, which is my first full-length live concert DVD. It was shot on our last European tour at two shows at the Astoria in London. That came out at the end of November. The CD for it will be a single CD and it will be chopped down. That will come out at another time for this special bootleg series that Sony has. It's just catalog stuff that they pump out. Sony also released a double CD that's a compilation that's called the Infinite Steve Vai: The Anthology. I selected the tracks for that. Sony had sent me a very impressive selection that I worked from. But at the end of the day there were a lot of things that we couldn't get, like "Shy Boy," "Big Trouble" from David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em And Smile, and a Zappa track that we couldn't get permission to include. So there was stuff that made it and some stuff that didn't make it.
After that we have the G3 CD and DVD coming out. I think they're coming out at separate times. The Denver show was the one that was filmed and the Kansas show was the one that was recorded, but there may be some other stuff on there. Both shows were recorded, but only one was filmed.The Epic G3 DVD comes out in February, then in March the CD comes out.
Guitar.com: What were the highlights of the performances on the G3 DVD and CD?
Vai: I think they were in line with all the other performances throughout the tour. I think with the cameras running, people have a tendency to act differently or maybe focus differently. So there were times for me that maybe I was doing something a little better or maybe a little more focused on the execution, but all in all, they just felt like two pretty good shows. During the soundcheck for the Denver show, the monitor console blew out and we had to have a new one brought in for the show. But besides that, the shows went very smoothly.
Guitar.com: What else is coming out?
Vai: I have Archives Vol. 4 coming out. In April the live CD from the Astoria shows comes out, then in June, I'll have a new studio record. In May, I'm going to Holland to work with the Metropole Orchestra there. I was commissioned to compose a small musical for a 50-piece orchestra and a rock band. That will be happening in May and I'll be recording that, too. In June or September, the new CD comes out. Then in June I go on tour in Europe, probably with Joe for a handful of shows. Then I'll be doing some solo stuff in June, July and August. In September, I start preparing for another solo U.S. tour and I'll be out in the U.S. during October, November and December. But in November, there are two CDs coming out for the box set. One of them is a solo piano CD by Mike Keneally with arrangements of about 11 or 12 of my songs. Then there's a CD called Panic Jungle, which is live Alcatrazz stuff we did in Japan during those early days. Then come 2005, hopefully February, there's a compilation DVD coming out. Then that May will be a release of an orchestra record with "Fire Strings," which is a piece that I performed and recorded with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony. It's a piece written by a contemporary Japanese composer called Ishiro Nodaira. He wrote a piece for 100-piece orchestra and electric guitar. It's like 80 pages of sheer terror. That was filmed and recorded. Hopefully, the Holland stuff will be on that CD, so I'll have a CD of orchestra stuff. Then during that summer, there will be a European tour, and in the fall, I'm hoping to do a tour with orchestras.
Guitar.com: How is Favored Nations doing?
Vai: Things are going well and we've got some great stuff coming out. We recently released Eric Sardinas' new record, Black Pearls, which is doing very well. It's a great CD. We have a Cab CD and a live Allan Holdsworth CD that came out. The Holdsworth album is unbelievable. He's a freak. Then next year we have a new disc coming out from this band called the Dillingers, which is some instrumental surf punk stuff. We'll also have a new Johnny A CD coming out, and a new CD from Mimi Fox, a girl from San Francisco who plays jazz and is a really great player. There's a really cool Vernon Reid CD coming out next April, a Reeves Gabrels CD which is very heavy and very cool, a Tommy Emmanuel CD, and a new CD by John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess. There you have it. There's some good stuff to look out for.
Guitar.com: Who are some of your favorite new artists?
Vai: It's hard to say because all these guys that I'm releasing on Favored Nations are not necessarily new artists. Maybe Johnny A or Eric Sardinas as far as new. But I haven't really discovered anyone new in the last year or so.
Guitar.com: What do you listen to for inspiration and enjoyment?
Vai: Tom Waits. And actually, since I've been working on the project for the Metropole, I got into this compositional stage and I broke out all my Stravinsky. I was looking for real stimulating classical stuff because I'm not a big Bach or Beethoven fan. I mean, I like that stuff, but I really like intense musical composition. So I got the Stravinsky stuff and then I bought some John Cage [American experimental composer] CDs. Then I got into Anton von Webern [Austrian composer] and I got some Aaron Copeland stuff. But as far as rock stuff, I hate to mention it, but it's true — I bought the White Stripes' new record Elephant, and I really like it a lot. I couldn't stop listening to it for a long time. It's just so stark and out of time, out of tune, and beautiful, all at the same time. There's just this simplicity to it that reminds me of the Shaggs, and I just found it beautiful. But Tom Waits is what I listen to when I have some spare time. I don't know what it is about his music, his lyrics and his voice. It just touches me very very deeply. For music to be inspiring does not necessarily mean that it needs to be stripped down or it needs to be complex. I am being blown away and torn to pieces by the Stravinsky stuff that I'm listening to like "Petrouchka." It's fucked up, man. It is so intensely beautiful and just complex. But it's divine in its complexity, and it does the same thing for me in a different but similar kind of way that the White Stripes does — and the White Stripes are two people just pounding away at it. So inspired music is inspiring, regardless of whatever package it comes in, and that's a fight that I've been fighting my whole career. My music is not simple. It's not packaged nicely and neatly in a little box with chorus and verses, and stuff like that. It's occasionally very intense and it doesn't conform to normality. It's not inaccessible though. It's very accessible and it's very listenable, as far as I'm concerned.
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