Few guitarists in the history of rock have a resume quite like Steve Vai. From Frank Zappa to Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and his own solo work, Vai has continually advanced what can be done on a guitar. He is now releasing his tenth solo record, Inviolate, and recently took some time to talk about it. Since this interview was recorded, Vai has announced that his spring tour is postponed until fall due to shoulder surgery.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws.com Conversation with Steve Vai:
On his physical issues leading into the record – Well, you know, it’s funny, I’m a very healthy guy, I believe, and through the years, I’ve luckily suffered little challenges physically, except I think growing up hunched over a guitar. Actually, when I was in Dave’s band, I had two spine surgeries on my neck and lower back and they worked excellently, I have never had a problem. I think when I was working out and I do these chest flys and I wasn’t listening to my body and I kind of tore these ligaments, there was three of them, and I have them fixed last year, and they were great, but I happen to tear another one, kind of taking it one step at a time, but it’s alright. These things happen to all of us. :50
On changing the direction of the record as it was coming together – Well, you just said it begs to be played live, a lot of times when I make records when I compose or make songs, they’re not so practical to play live. They’re kind of dense and over-produced perhaps, but to reproduce them live is difficult. Before the pandemic, what I was gonna do was work on a record that was gonna be the third installment of the Real Illusions trilogy, sort of this series of records that are creating a story. But that was gonna be a big project, very dense, a lot of vocals and this kind of thing, and then the pandemic hit and I really couldn’t. Musicians had to kind of figure out different ways to navigate, and a lot of good things came out of it like our Zoom meeting right now. Everybody’s zooming and trading files online, and I don’t really think that was gonna work for that record, so I kinda shelved it and started just fooling around with the time that was available to us during the lockdown, and it really was nice because it gave me an opportunity to do some things I wanted to do. I think that was probably the case with a lot of people. One of them was to post these live streams. I had two kinds of series going on, one was called Under It All, and that’s where I kind of just answered questions from folks, more esoteric principles. Then there was one, Alien Guitar Secrets. That’s where I would take questions from people about guitar and music, and that was nice. I really enjoyed that. I think I did about seven of each, and then I started posting stuff. I paid very little attention to social media in the past. I’m an old-timer in a sense, 61, so I like to embrace new technology, but then it was made apparent to me how valuable it is in reaching people that are interested in what you’re doing. So I gave it some focus and I got this really great team together, Steven and Stephanie Bradley just did miraculous things with my social media for me, and one of the things I wanted to do was complete an idea that I had for a song that consisted of a clean guitar tone, a non-Gem, a no whammy bar. I like to set up parameters sometimes because they force you to discover things that you wouldn’t otherwise, sort of like the pandemic. It was really great because I recorded that song, “Candle Power”, and it gave me an opportunity to fool around with some techniques I had wanted to. So I released that and the response was really good, and then I did an acoustic version of a song of mine called “The Moon & I”, which is solo, acoustic and vocal, which is very rare for me. I don’t sing in public very often. I like singing and I like my voice a lot, but it’s extremely limited on a rock and roll thing, and it has to have the right song. I did that ’cause it was just something to do that I wanted to do and I got a great response. So I thought, “Hey, you know what? With this lockdown, why don’t I make a record of acoustic solo, acoustic and vocals?” I have a ton of songs that fall into that category that they don’t sound conventional, as far as the chord changes and stuff like that, plus my voice doesn’t really sound like a conventional pop or anything all that. So I started working on that and I really was really enjoying it, and then the shoulder thing hit, and I had to go get the surgery. Then after that, you’re recovering, but even then, I always try to see any challenge as something that’s in my best interest. That’s a perspective, and it serves a person really well, because when you look at situations that way, and instead of complaining in your head about them or why they should be different, or what people should have done or any of that stuff, you just ask yourself, “Well, how can this serve me? Something in this is for my best interest, I don’t know what it is, but I wanna find it”, and if that’s the perspective, you will find it. So here I am, I was wearing the sling, that’s called a Knappsack that my doctor actually invented, and his name is Dr. Knapp. So I was wearing this Knappsack and I got this new guitar from Ibanez that we were working on for years, it’s the Pia. It was so beautiful, and there I was with one hand going, “I wanna play! I wanna play this thing”. So challenge, challenge, but then, “Wait a minute, I could play it”. If you have a legato guitar style, you can make notes sound. So I thought, “I know I’m gonna make a song with just one hand”, and I called it “Knappsack” and released it. My fans got a kick out of it.
At that point, I just had to get on tour, but it was years, and I’m a touring machine, so I had to make a choice quickly as to what to do to get on tour. The Real Illusions trilogy record wasn’t gonna do it. I didn’t have time and an acoustic record with vocals was something I would never tour, well you never know but it’s very unlikely. So I thought, “Okay, I just wanna make a record that’s got a handful of what I might consider good songs for me, and get out there and play my ass off”. I wanna get on tour. Touring for me is such a great experience. I didn’t think I would miss it so much because in the past, preparing for a tour can be pretty heavy. You gotta get your fingers in shape, you gotta take care of all the logistics, you have to plan, you rehearse, and then you’re out there and you’re away from home, and all the things that a lot of people can complain about touring. I complained about them in the early part of my career, but then I really started to enjoy it. But it wasn’t until this lockdown that I kind of felt almost like a burning desire to get out on tour, so I said, “Okay, I’m gonna finish this record”, and I want a record where I can go out and play every song. We’ll see what happens because some of this stuff is death-defying. 2:19
On how he develops new techniques and guitar styles – Well the way that we get inspired, the way that we receive inspiration, it varies. Sometimes it’s from things in the outside world, and sometimes if we see people doing things that really are cool and we wanna emulate it and add our little touch. Elements of what I do contain all of that. Usually, the good stuff, or at least the good stuff that I’m capable of delivering, my best stuff comes in the form of what I might call a psychological download. What I’m referring to is when you get it, an idea hits you and it’s almost complete. It’s like a complete idea, and it’s all of the aspects of a project can be contained in just one download. So I can’t force these things. I think people who are like geniuses and stuff are constantly connected to that flow of inspiration, and guys like me have to wait until the gods of inspiration sprinkle fairy dust. When it happens, I capture it somehow. I capture the DNA of it. So for instance, on this last record, I just explained how “Knappsack” happened, the moment, the very moment that my hand hit the guitar and my other hand was in the sling, the entire song became clear to me in one download totally. I saw the whole thing, and here’s the engine of creation, the engine of creation is your knowing that you can do it. Now, that’s not a belief, to believe that you can do something means, “But I really don’t know. I believe, but I don’t know”. An inspirational download that a person receives that carries with it a knowing that it’s possible. It’s tailor-made for you. It’s like the universe tailor makes an inspiration for you and downloads it to you. If you are clear enough, you know., “Yeah, that’s for me, I can do that”. Fantasy, on the other hand, has a lot of resistance in it because it’s egoic projection into a future where you believe you’re gonna be considered great or successful or wealthy and find some kind of security in what you’re gonna do, but those kinds of fantasies always have resistance in them, somehow. There’s always like, “But it might not happen”, and then there’s fear. So anyway, I look for those ideas that tell me, “And you can do it, too”. You gotta put the screws to it, you gotta focus. So like “Knappsack”, when the idea came, I didn’t pick up the guitar and was able to do it, and I was like, “I get it, I know where it needs to go, I know what I want, I want a beautiful melody because if there’s no melody, it’s a novelty. It’s like, “Hey, the guy playing the guitar”, whatever it is, it has to stand on its own as a piece of music, however tricky or cheeky or weird or quirky, I might execute it. So the same thing happened with “Candle Power”. Bam, all one download, saw the whole thing, didn’t know what the notes were. “The Hydra” was like a hernia. When that hit me, I was like, “Oh!”, because that’s what happens when you know that you can do it, you get really excited. So that’s kind of what I look for. The thing is, at least for me, I can’t force that stuff when you try to force inspiration, it has a distortion in it, it’s not yours, it doesn’t fulfill you entirely. 11:18
On whether he felt stifled creatively playing other guitarists parts in bands – Not when they are Eddie Van Halen songs. He was a genius at guitar part construction. Every one of those Van Halen songs is a joy. With Frank Zappa, it’s not like you’re playing somebody else’s music, you’re hired to play Frank’s music. It’s somebody else’s music, but I liked it, and I wasn’t playing somebody else’s guitar parts. Frank would compose these obtuse, abstract things for me to play. It’s not somebody else’s part. He wrote it for the song, but he’s giving it to you because he believes you can do it. So then with Alcatrazz, that was probably the only time where I was thinking, “How am I gonna navigate this because it’s Yngwie?” I can’t play Yngwie tracks, of course, I can and I did, and you just add your own flavor to it, but it would be foolish of me back then to try to emulate him because nobody could. So that was a challenge, I just made it my own. The same thing with Dave, and then with Whitesnake, I wrote all the guitar parts. When I got into Whitesnake was, the record was done basically. Adrian (Vandenberg) had laid down sort of guide guitars because he was suffering with an affliction, which later we found out was actually in his neck, but it compromised his ability to do the guitars on the record, so I did those guitars. But I wasn’t playing his part per se, I took his sketches and completely made them my own. I’m trying to think after that, then it was all me. All my stuff. I don’t have a problem with playing anybody’s parts. Sometimes, they’re very helpful, educational for me because I’ll engage in doing something that’s not quite normal for me. So I’ll do that if I’m gonna go do a gig and I’m gonna jam with somebody. When I did the Big Mama-Jama Jamathon, I had 100 songs, and I’m not a cover player type of a guy, I’m not the guy at the party that goes, “Oh yeah, this is how that song goes”, and everybody sings along. I’m like, “Hey, this has no whammy bar. What do you want me to do?” So sometimes when I have to learn those kinds of songs, they’re very helpful, but there is no way that I would ever make a career out of playing anything of my own music now. 16:59
On if he will ever put a “traditional” band together – I like the ability to flow through different people, I have no intention of putting a band together conventionally. I’ve done all that, I’ve been in incredibly good bands and I’m done. I wanna do what I’m doing. So having said that, it’s not impossible that I might take on a project that requires something like that, but I’m very fortunate that I’m in a position where I can choose anything that, everybody is in that position, by the way., you can choose to do whatever you want. Realizing that is, it’s a sense of freedom, you’re not bound to do anything that somebody else is asking you to do less want to. So the band that I have has been with me for a long time because they’re just bulletproof, they’re fantastic people, which after 41 years of touring, I’ve discovered that that’s of the utmost importance when you go on tours, that you have people that are fun, trust me, it matters. There are no secrets at sea when you’re living on a bus with somebody for 13 months. So I think maybe your question was about the choices of musicians I have on the record or a band…
It’s interesting. I very rarely have taken the route where I’ll get into the studio and I’ll get the band in the studio and we play in play until we get the right take. I usually don’t do that, I know what I want, and I layer stuff. There are times when people are playing together obviously. On this record, I was very fortunate, and even on past records where I could reach out to others that I think would be perhaps more appropriate for a particular part. For instance, when I recorded “Candle Power”, it was really a lockdown thing and I just threw a drum loop on it, but I didn’t wanna release it like it was unfinished in a sense, so I listened to the track and I’m thinking Jeremy Colson is a drummer that’s been with me for 25 years or something, and he’s just fantastic at a particular thing, and he has a very wide breadth of abilities, but when you take someone like Terry Bozzio, he’s a uniquely inspired artist that has a sound. For that song, that’s what I needed, so I reached out to Terry and I was fortunate enough that he was into it, and I just love what he did. Terry Bozzio is a thoroughly artistic person, people don’t know. They think, “Oh, Terry, he’s a great drummer”, but that guy… Then there was a couple of songs on the record where… Okay, “Apollo In Color”, this is a fusion, almost fusion type of song, very high speed, it requires the kind of sensibilities that throw away the bar line, and Jeremy is the hardest hiding, most consistently strong in the pocket drummer. I don’t think he’s dropped a beat in 20 years, I’m serious, stunning. But “Apollo in Color” is just not his gig, not his juice, it’s not his color. I wanted Vinnie Colaiuta, I know what the song needs and I know what Vinnie does. I used to transcribe his drum parts, I played with him with Frank for years, and I was lucky enough that he accepted it and he did a couple of songs on the record. Then a song like “Avalancha” that required a beast, a beast of a bass player, someone that is unbridled and that’s Billy Sheehan. I was compelled to finish that song simply because the bass part was so cool. Philip Bynoe, my bass player, he’s my favorite bass player to play with because he has the best ears of any musician, perhaps any musician I’ve had in a band. He has perfect pitch, he is a real bass player in that he listens and I feel like when I’m playing with him, I feel like no matter where I fall, there’s a comfortable bed I’m falling into. He’s got me, and that’s really nice when you’re playing. It’s always correct. My ear goes to Philip in my heart goes, “Whaa”. Then there were some other musicians, I usually like to produce, engineer, record, mix all of my records, and I do the keyboards too unless it requires any kind of real playing, I don’t play I just plunk. So I’m really lucky that one of my dearest friends is Dave Rosenthal, another freakazoid of an incredible musician, and he’s been Billy Joel’s musical director, I think like 25 years. We met in college and we had a band together. I was fortunate and I was in the pinch, so I would just send a bunch of tracks to Dave and I said, “Do whatever you can, whatever you want”, which is rare, really rare for me. That’s one of the hardest things for me when I’m recording a record, as I spend days trying to find patches and stuff. With Dave, I just don’t have to worry, it’s all done. It’s done right and it’s done so much better than I could do. Dave Weiner, who’s the other guitar player in my band, he’s about as consistent as anybody I know. He has incredible retention for parts, a great ear, and another guy that listens and he’s a happy camper. On this record, I sent the track out to him to lay a rhythm down. I said, “Just do whatever you want. Let me just see what you got”. The lockdown, for me, as a musician helped me to venture into territories that were usually outside of my comfort zone, like sending out, sending out tracks, and going, “I don’t know what you’re gonna do, but just do something”. I never do that. 20:37