Steve Vai: Passion and payoff


Most musicians have a moment when a song, a piece of music or the sound of an instrument hits them like a lightning bolt. It can lead to a career, or at least a lifetime passion for the profession.

For American Steve Vai, considered one of the best rock guitarists of the past 50 years, it was when he was just 5 years old in 1965.

"The moment I first saw someone playing it they were perhaps [aged] 8," Vai says. "The way it looked and hung on the body, the sound that came out of it when it was hit hard or soft, were some of the things that enraptured me. But mostly I immediately was instinctively aware of the infinite nature of the instrument."

That perception that the guitar wasn't limited to a few kinds of music is something that can be seen throughout Vai's career. Early on, he was recruited by musical maverick and eclectic composer Frank Zappa as the lead guitarist in his backing band.

On Vai's 1995 album Alien Love Secrets he even got his guitars to sound like horses on Bad Horsie, and like the voice of Venusian on Kill the Guy with the Ball.

So how did Vai get a guitar to sound like a horse? Guitarists take note: "You bend the bar down, strike a harmonic on the second fret of the G string, raise the bar and flex the wha wha," says Vai. "Then dip the bar back down, while vibrating the note with your finger so hard that your teeth rattle."

Vai still has the same view about the guitar. He believes there are still new places for the guitar to go in terms of sound and composition.

It really is a big deal, he says. "The evolution of the guitar, as the evolution of any art or anything on the planet, or anything in our solar system, or galaxy, is the way the universe infinitely expands itself and until the universe reaches its cosmic goal and returns to itself.

"There will probably always be someone who will take the guitar into a different direction."

But Vai's own evolution was more down to earth. Like many aspiring rockers, he started a band. He was 13 when he formed Rayge on Long Island.

"How absolutely cool it was to be in a rock band in high school," he says. "It was my favourite band I was ever in. We did everything together. There was a sense of brotherhood like none other.

"When you are in high school, you go through life experiences for the first time. Usually it's the time you start feeling independence from your parents. [There's your] first intimate relationships and perhaps heartbreaks.

"Maybe the first time experimenting with alcohol and drugs [or] first time driving a car. But being in a band, and having that camaraderie and going through that stuff together was glorious."

Vai had a second lightning bolt moment when he was a teenager. He met fellow future guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, who would tutor him. "I was 12 and he was 15 . . . and being an older kid who could play the hell out of the guitar, he was scary."

But Vai is blunt about the impact of that first meeting.

"Joe Satriani has been the most significant musical person in my life."

Vai later studied jazz and classical music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, whose alumni include Melissa Etheridge Quincy Jones, Diana Krall and John Mayer. The college opened him up to many more kinds of music.

"I virtually lived in the music library, which was the place that I first heard all of the Beatles music, all of Stravinsky, Zappa, Maynard Ferguson."

At 18 Vai first worked for Zappa by transcribing music for him. When he turned 20 he joined Zappa's band. "The thing I noticed mostly about Frank was that he was always present. In anything that he did, be it talking to you, writing music, going from one place to another, his full attention was in it."

Zappa's approach to music also influenced Vai.

"When Frank had an idea that was exciting to him he just did it without any excuses, without expecting someone else to do it for him and without compromising his artistic vision. I worked for him for six years at a very impressionable age, so I just figured that's how you do it."

By 1984 Vai had built his own recording studio from money he'd saved from giving guitar lessons. "I purchased a house in Sylmar, California, that had a big workshed in the backyard. We were surrounded by a residential area and farms.

"I purchased what I needed to convert the building into a studio and scraped together whatever gear I could find. I rented the rooms of the house out so the mortgage could be paid and I could just build the studio. It took five months and when I was done I recorded Flex-Able."

Flex-Able was Vai's album debut and the exposure saw him working with other bands, as well as with David Lee Roth and metallers Whitesnake. "It was great to be a ‘rock star' in the 80s," Vai says.

"[Whitesnake frontman] David Coverdale was a wonderful guy to work with, as were all the guys in the band. I enjoyed recording with them and touring because I like their music, but I knew eventually I was going to move on and do the music that was in my head."

That album was 1990's Passion and Warfare. Vai melded jazz, rock, funk, classical and metal, and the enthusiastic response from the music fraternity, critics and listeners, secured Vai's position as a musician. It also got into the top 20 album chart.

"I was finally once again working on music that was truly compelling to me and when I got an idea for something I did not have to answer to anyone, I just did it.

"The amazing thing to me was how some ideas translated into music even more powerfully than I expected they would. That's the biggest payoff."

THE DETAILS: Steve Vai performs at Wellington Town Hall on July 18 and Auckland Aotea Centre on July 20.