[Rare Photo from 1984 by Marco Llanos.]
Steve Vai turns 50 today.
For those of you who don’t understand my obsession, here’s Why Vai.
In the early 80s, Frank Zappa recorded an album called The Man From Utopia. He asked his transcriptionist and stunt guitarist, Steve Vai, to transcribe one of his live improvised vocal tracks and double it on guitar — perfectly copying every syllable, word, and inflection. The result was a song called The Jazz Discharge Party Hats. Maybe it wasn’t Vai’s idea, but I doubt Zappa would have assigned the task to anyone else if he didn’t have His Little Italian Virtuoso around. Listen to it.
All of that nuance that Steve attuned himself to while working as a transcriptionist for Frank went into his music. The dynamics, the little flourishes, even the bizarre burps and squeaks — every musical phrase is decorated and emphasized in its own unique way. Personalized in excruciating detail. Frank Put Steve Through Hell On A Daily Basis. And it shows.
A few years later, Steve used that same wacky vocal-guitar-doubling technique on his own album, Flexable. This time around, he used a recording of his friend ranting about how happy she always is (could this be a mockery of Los Angeles, where he was living at the time?). It was called So Happy. Why would someone want to do that again, but at a faster tempo? It’s crazy.
Speaking of Flexable — he recorded the entire thing himself in his garage and it made him millions of dollars. Can you argue with that?
Then, In the late 80s, he went on to be the co-designer of the Ibanez JEM series of guitars, and in the early 90s, the Ibanez Universe, which was the first modern, commercial seven-string electric guitar. This started the trend of metal bands tuning or stringing their guitars lower. Along with Mike Patton, you can blame Steve for Nu Metal.
Around that time, he did a lot of work in developing patches for the Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, which played a central role in the creation of his concept album, Passion & Warfare — more of a paranormal soundscape than an encyclopedia of licks. How many different sounds can come out of a guitar? Listen to that record and find out.
Recently, he was quick to adopt a crazy (but apparently very practical) way of fretting guitars called True Temperament. He’s having all of his guitars redone with those squiggly frets. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing them everywhere in a few years.
What It All Meant To Me
Passion and Warfare had deep personal meaning to me. As an alienated and severely-tortured high school kid, I clung to that record as my only friend. I was rejected by everyone, bullied constantly, my family exploded, my world was falling apart around me, but somehow Steve Vai understood and gave me a way out. I believed that if I sacrificed everything else, I could be like him. So that’s what I did. I failed every class in school, ignored every responsibility, and practiced guitar every possible moment of my day. I even went to bed silently practicing, after the lights were turned off. My mom was smart enough to sign me up for two guitar lessons a week, because I probably would have committed suicide if I didn’t have something to be good at.
Playing guitar was only a “gateway drug” for me, and I eventually realized I wanted to combine audio, video, design, and writing into one creative medium. My point is, music is only one way to be creative. Even if I was originally inspired by a guitarist, it was his artistic concepts that always hooked me. It’s easy to get trapped in your instrument and not realize it is only a tool to make sounds, and a concept album like Passion and Warfare is a perfect example. It’s not just scales and chords — it’s a fantastical microcosm inhabited by supernatural beings. (What, you don’t hear them?)
His Music And Playing
From an analytical standpoint, Vai’s own music and playing are unusual for a rock guitarist. Here are seven examples:
- He often slides down to a note instead of up. Eh?
- His vibrato is circular, combining both horizontal and vertical into one smooth technique.
- He emphasizes dissonant notes in his solos, such as resolving to a b5 at the end of a phrase – or even moving drastically out-of-key, giving it a cock-eyed sound.
- In the style of late-1800s composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Vai will move in non-diatonic sequences or stacks of intervals, and harmonizes them in parallel, with unexpected layers of instruments. It’s strange architecture, pointing off at unexpected angles, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
- He’s an expert showman, and has his own vocabulary of bizarre hand signals and dance moves to communicate his ideas. What’s wrong with that? Why is music the only way to tell a story?
- He uses the whammy bar as a melodic tool, not just as a thing to yank on when he’s nervous and running out of ideas during a solo. For example: on the song Frank, the entire guitar solo is played using only harmonics and whammy bar.
- His early albums are full of symbolism, numerology, and subliminal messages. His melodies often have secret words to them, and you can sometimes catch him mouthing them when playing. If you listen closely, you can find a lot of things buried in his mixes — or if you listen to them while asleep, which I did every night.
Other people have done those same things, but Vai really made them his own.
In His Own Words
I’d like to end this tribute post with some excerpts from an email Steve sent me just over 3 years ago, shortly after I auditioned to play bass in his band. He has always been very supportive of my creative career… and coming from that guy in the David Lee Roth video who first inspired me to take music seriously, that was the highest honor.
“It takes a lot of courage sometimes to stretch outside of the box. Sometimes we have to put aside public and even fan approval and search ourselves for our own honesty when it comes time to enter the creative mode. I struggle with this too. All those little voices that tell us it’s not good enough, it’s going to be criticized, no body understands it, etc. You’re not alone. We need to make choices on many levels when it comes time to create. I wish you could have had an opportunity to work with Zappa. He was a master of focus and confidence. It did matter to him what people thought but he still did what his inner convictions dictated. If anything, this was what I saw most in Franks brilliance. He just did it the way he envisioned it with no excuses. That’s real courage.”
On Being Misunderstood
“There will always be brilliant music and art that will never be experienced or appreciated by someone other than the person who created it. I believe that the cathartic process of creating the work is the point more than having the rest of the world get to hear it and adore it. I believe that when we are dead it won’t matter to us so why worry now. If we can be satisfied with just going through the process of making it with our best foot forward then we have won the game. The ironic thing is that if we can approach our work with a relatively detached attitude of the desire for it to be appreciated in perpetuity, then every bit of appreciation we get is a bonus. Trust me, I’m not an authority on these things and I hope to not be coming off preachy but these are just the things that make sense to me, even though I look at my shelves that are covered with literally thousands of hours of music that I know will never be heard. That music is my treasure and perhaps is not meant for the world.”
About My Audition For His Band
“I appreciate that you came down to auditions but was a bit surprised. Listening to your music it’s obvious to me that you have a special vision and need to march to the beat of your own drummer, both figuratively and literally. You have a unique musical vision and I would encourage you to explore that and not be confined in a band like mine where my musical vision would stifle you. I only say this to perhaps inspire you because there are people who want Sir Millard Mulch at his most creative. It would be difficult for you to follow your musical aspirations if you were confined to playing under someone else’s direction. Plus, I am a fierce band leader when it comes to my music and I settle for nothing less than what I want and it will never be ay different. Musicians that are in my band understand this and this allows them to contribute enjoyably. Part of that vision is to allow them, at times, to rise to the occasion for their own potential as creative people, but not all the time and they get that. They are cut out for it. For the most part my goal is to create a catalog of music that is undiluted by outside influences. It’s a struggle but it’s just the way it is. I understand your feelings. Please don’t worry. You are very creative at the things you do and being fiercely creative comes with a price and part of that price is the frustration we experience when we feel that what we are doing is important and vital and is not being appreciated. You’re in good company. I say this with respect for your work and hope to encourage you to continue to search yourself for the music within you that you know you are capable of creating. Just go for it my friend!”
Thanks, Mr. Vai.
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