ONE OF TODAY’S PREMIER POWER GUITARISTS, STEVE VAI KEEPS LOOKING FORWARD WHILE STILL ACKNOWLEDGING HIS PAST. LAST YEAR, HE RELEASED A 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION OF HIS SEMINAL PASSION AND WARFARE. CURRENTLY, HE HAS CONTRIBUTED THE 7TH INSTALLMENT OF HIS 10 DISC RELEASE “SECRET JEWEL” BOX, TITLED MODERN PRIMITIVE.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CATCH UP WITH STEVE VAI. WE CONVERSED VIA EMAIL. I HAVE BEEN CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS FOR 10 YEARS, AND NEVER HAVE I HAD SOMEONE RESPOND TO MY INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AS QUICKLY AS HE. AS WITH HIS GUITAR PLAYING, HIS ANSWERS WERE RAPID, CLEVER, ORIGINAL, WELL THOUGHT OUT AND PROVOCATIVE.
YOU TOOK GUITAR LESSONS FROM JOE SATRIANI. WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HE TAUGHT YOU?
S- Every time you touch the instrument make sure that what comes out sounds like music.
YOU TOOK TIME TO TRANSCRIBE WORK BY FRANK ZAPPA, WHICH ULTIMATELY LEAD TO HIM HIRING YOU. WHAT IMPRESSED YOU ABOUT HIS WORK?
S- I focused a lot of attention on ear training while I was attending Berklee and would transcribe all sorts of things from Charlie Parker solo’s to… whatever. But Frank’s music held spectacular mysteries in it regarding composition, rhythmic counterpoint, textures, etc. It was not the norm.
YOU STAYED WITH FRANK ZAPPA’S BAND FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS. WAS THERE ANY ADVICE THAT HE GAVE THAT IMPRESSED YOU AT THE TIME, OR IN RETROSPECT?
S- Once, when I was like 18, I asked Frank for some advice on being a musician. I thought he would perhaps go into realms of esoteric wisdom regarding being your own person, etc. etc. but what he said was… “Keep Your Publishing”. I didn’t even know what publishing was so he gave me the name and number of his attorney. I went to see the guy, Gerry Rosenblatt. Gerry explained publishing to me and set up independent sub publishing deals around the world for me over 30 years ago. He’s still my attorney. I took Frank’s advice and under virtually no circumstance did I give any of my vast publishing catalog to anyone. That simple answer from Frank was worth perhaps close to $10 million dollars to me through those 30 years.
WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF ZAPPA WHEN YOU FIRST MET HIM? HOW ABOUT OF DRUMMER VINNIE COLAIUTA?
S- He was Frank Zappa, I was an 18 year old kid fresh out of Berkley. I was a bit stunned through the whole thing but focused all my time on Zappa work. Frank was present. He was totally in the moment and constantly creative. We would just wait to see what came out of his mouth on any subject because it was sure to be powerful and usually very funny.
To me Vinnie was the crème de la crème. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to transcribe a ton of his playing, stand 1 foot from him for a whole tour and watch him take off. He was always in the zone.
One of Frank’s most inspired insights was his ability to see a musicians potential in doing something unique, even more so than the musician. After he helped you to discover and cultivate those unique skills he would then use those in his music. But he was always in control of how it would be used.
YOU’VE PLAYED IN BANDS RANGING FROM FRANK ZAPPA TO STRAIGHT-AHEAD ROCKERS LIKE DAVID LEE ROTH AND THEN MATERIAL LIKE ALCATRAZZ. HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR OWN STYLE IN THIS WORLD OF ‘GUITAR HEROES’?
Changes in approach from Zappa to Roth or Alcatrazz? How develop own style in a world of guitar heroes? When you do a song such as “The Attitude Song” how do you decide to do a “technique” as an “accent” or a style all its own. You like playing with time signatures on pieces; why does so little of modern playing keep with the basics?
S- With Frank I was focused on my hands and the music. With Roth, Alcatrazz, White Snake, there was more of a focus on performance.
I believe my style developed from the fascination I would have when I found myself playing something that didn’t really sound like my heroes.
WHEN YOU DO A TUNE SUCH AS ‘THE ATTITUDE SONG’, HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHEN TO DO A TECHNIQUE AS AN ACCENT OR A STYLE ALL IT’S OWN? YOU LIKE PLAYING WITH TIME SIGNATURES, SO WHY DOES SO LITTLE MODERN MUSIC CHANGE FROM THE BASIC RHYTHMS?
I never felt good enough to play authentic jazz, blues, rock, classical and I used to think… why? Why try to emulate another style when there are so many people doing it so well and better then I ever could. I used them as inspiration and then would look for things to play that were comfortable for me. I was lucky in that I did not have any expectations of being considered a great player. On the contrary. I never thought I was good enough, but I still loved the quirkiness in the way I played. I just took quirky to a new level, ha.
When I wrote “The Attitude Song” I recorded a drum machine playing one groove, then improvised a bass part over it from beginning to end, (still can’t figure out how I did that) and then decorated it with the most absurd guitar playing I could think of.
WHAT ARE YOUR ULTIMATE ‘GO TO’ GUITARS, AND WHY?
S- My Ibanez Jems and especially “EVO and FLO” because they know all my secrets.
IN A DAY OF A GAZILLION GUITAR BUTTONS, KNOBS AND PEDALS, HOW DOES A GUITARIST DEVELOP HIS OWN PERSONAL SOUND AND STYLE?
S- The best way to discover and cultivate your own sound and style can go something like this.
- Cultivate a desire in yourself to find your own true unique voice on the instrument. Some people do not want this and would prefer to copy their heroes or sound like their heroes and it’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with that at all. You’re the boss and should follow any direction your intentions desire, but you asked me about developing your own style and the first thing is to desire to develop your own style.
- It’s important to understand that you are unique and you do have the ability to find your unique voice. It’s in there for sure, unequivocally with no exceptions. It’s in all of us. You need to align with the inner truth that you have a unique voice and you want to cultivate it now.
- Find moments of stillness, moments of thoughtless attention. Stop the little voice in your head that is constantly criticizing, egoically fantasizing, labeling everything and projecting into the past or future and become present in the moment. Once you have stilled yourself, then listen for melodies and look for flashes of inner visions, realizations, ideas that feel unique to you. Then throw yourself into them without any excuses why you can’t do it. It’s impossible to not find unique things in your playing if you can do this. Soon it will become your natural state of expression.
Another great thing to do is visualize yourself in your minds eye doing things that are beyond your current ability. Actually see yourself playing in a unique way. Create a picture in your head and also, most importantly, imagine what it would feel like to be playing uniquely, effortlessly, totally inspired. If you can align with this vision it must happen.
YOUR ALBUM ‘FLEXIBLE’ IS A TRUE GUITAR CLASSIC. LISTENING TO IT IN RETROSPECT, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
S- I had just gone through a difficult mental time, around 1980-81 and I was writing very dark music. I needed to lift myself up so I started searching within myself for feel good, silly music. I had no expectations of even releasing that record but instead did it so me and my friends could have a laugh. It was a time of real freedom of expression. I was also enamored with Frank’s music and his influence flowed into Flex-Able. I felt very innocent and naïve at the time and you can hear that in the music on Flex-Able, Flex-Able Leftovers and Modern Primitive.
BESIDES YOUR ‘REGULAR’ ALBUMS, YOU DID A LOT OF PERSONAL RECORDINGS BACK IN THE EARLY 80’S THAT WERE NOT INTENDED FOR RELEASE. WHY WAS THAT, AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO EVENTUALLY RELEASE IT?
S- I was always fascinated with the process of recording, engineering and producing so I was constantly experimenting with sounds, recording etc. It was a way of honing my chops so to speak.
THERE WERE SIX YEARS BETWEEN YOUR ALBUMS ‘FLEXIBLE’ AND ‘PASSION AND WARFARE.’ WERE YOU MORE INTIMIDATED, PRE-OCCUPIED OR GAME-FACED WITH OTHER PROJECTS DURING THIS TIME?
S- Those six years were spent recording Modern Primitive, Passion and Warfare, Eat Em and Smile and Skyscraper with Dave Roth and doing 2 world tours with him, recording Slip of the Tongue with Whitesnake and doing a world tour with them… so I was pretty busy.
Everything is always evolving. Some things seemingly faster than others, and Jazz- rock guitar is no exception. I’m a bit of a sucker for the stuff I grew up on, Mahavishnu, DiMeola, etc. etc. But these days I see less fusion except by it’s original innovators. But it’s there, just perhaps buried a bit but it is evolving.
YOU’VE PLAYED WITH AL DIMEOLA AT TIMES, A FEW YEARS AGO YOU JOINED HIM ON STAGE FOR A JAM AT THE CANYON CLUB IN CALIFORNIA. HOW MUCH AS JAZZ INFLUENCED ROCK AT THIS STAGE, AND VICE VERSA?
S- Not as much as it did when I was younger it seems. The fusion of jazz and rock seemed to have started back in the late 60’s and 70’s. I’m sure it has some influence on contemporary players but I don’t see much of it these days, in a contemporary way, but it’s in there.
How did “The Classified” get together? Did it have any major musical goals?
S- I had just released Flex-Able and thought it would be a good idea to put a band together and play some new music. I just started calling friends and before you knew it I had a band. I was writing and recording as much as possible and much of that stuff is still on the shelf, and some of it was released recently on Modern Primitive after I finished it in 2016.
YOU COMPOSE MUSIC FOR ROCK, FUSION AND FILMS. DO YOU WRITE DIFFERENTLY FOR THESE VARIOUS GENRES? WHAT INITIATED YOUR INTEREST IN ORCHESTRAL SCORES? DOES THIS STYLE OF COMPOSING INFLUENCE YOUR PLAYING, OR VICE VERSA?
YOU’VE RELEASED THIS MEGA DISC JEWELL BOX SET. WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION BEHIND SUCH AN ENORMOUS PROJECT.
S- When I was young, like 6 years old, I was exposed to The Music of West Side Story because that’s what my parents had in the house. I loved this music. It was compositional, had a story, historical melody and lyrics, incredible dynamics and theater. That’s when I came alive musically and was fascinated with the idea of composing.
My fascination with orchestral composition has seeped into my playing in various ways but not so dramatically. When I’m playing I’m not thinking of any of that stuff, just searching for truth in the melodies at hand.
Writing for films is a completely different brain muscle than writing for a solo record. With a film you need to outline the intention of the story, the characters and it all has to work with the director’s vision. There’s not much, if any, of that when writing for a solo record.
The Secret Jewel box was originally a project I put together to release music that was not on most conventional type solo records I was releasing. It’s a box of odds and ends but has some unique things in it.
We have released 7 out of the 10 titles for the Jewel Box with Modern Primitive coming out on July 7th 2017 as the 7th installment.
WHAT GUITARIST DO YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE EITHER SEEN IN CONCERT OR HAVE TAKEN A LESSON FROM?
S- I have been given lessons by every guitar player I have ever played with or have seen perform.
YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED MANY MUSICAL AND PERSONAL GOALS. WHAT INSPIRES YOU, PERSONALLY, MUSICALLY AND SPIRITUALLY?
S- Everything. It’s all around you, you just have to look for it and at it.
Being aware, conscious, is my biggest inspiration. We are creative beings. We have come here to feel the infinite freedom of our creative thoughts, the expansion of manifesting those creative thoughts into the world and the purpose is for the joy of it. You know this because in your inner being, Freedom, expansion and joy are your true essence.
IS THERE ONE TEACHER WHO HAS IMPRESSED YOU THE MOST?
S- Eckhart Tolle
HOW DOES YOUR SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS OUTLOOK AFFECT YOUR CAREER AND PLAYING, OR VICES VERSA?
S- When a person decides that they want to better themselves, that they want to feel more peace in their life, when they want to feel as though life is good, when you want to feel well being, clarity, appreciation and all the things that make life the phenomenon that it is, then you are inevitably turning your attention to your own spiritual being.
Finding peace enables all your creative endeavors to not only be more effective, more powerful, more fulfilling, more enjoyable to others, but it’s really fun and adds to the quality of life on the planet.
Finding your spiritual center gives you access to a clarity in life that surpasses understanding. You have to go there to understand what it is and how it effects your life and the life of others.
There are many things in your life that you might see as being important. The relationship you have with others, how you are going to put food on the table, how you are going to be the best father, mother, sister, brother, co-worker, friend etc. that you can be.
These are all important but they are of relative importance. Of vital importance is that you find who you really are. And who you really are is not the thoughts in your head about who you think you are, or even what you think about the world. Who you really are is unconditioned, pure, absolute consciousness. Another way of putting it is, the true essence of who you really are is love.
In your essence you are indestructible and that’s one of the things you discover when you touch your spiritual essence. Of course your body is destructible, but your consciousness is indestructible. When you find this then the quality of all the other things that are of relative importance is improved greatly.
IF YOU WERE ON A SPIRITUAL PATH, AND WERE INCORRECT, WOULD YOU WANT SOMEONE TO TELL YOU?
S- No one is ever incorrect. Everyone is on the path that is right for them at any given time in their development. Everyone is in a process of evolving from where they are now. Everyone is doing just fine and one of the last things they want to hear is that they are wrong about anything they believe.
The World will give you the right things at the perfect time for your deeper understanding of who you are, even if at times those things are painful, but everyone brings on their own experience based on what they believe. It’s much easier to be confident in your own spiritual path and allow others to be comfortable with theirs then to try and change them. That never works.
All anyone really wants is to be accepted for who they are. There’s no better gift you can give someone.
If we can do this the world will be a much easier and better place, and it is happening right now, but you would never get that impression if you watch tv, the news or read the papers.
We are all headed towards the same goal but there are just different ways to get there.
Having said this, if you feel as though you are seeing someone believing or doing things that are hurtful or detrimental to themselves and others, the best way to “tell them they are incorrect” is to set a good example yourself by living it. Inspiring someone to raise their own bar because you have raised yours is much more effective than telling them they are incorrect.
IS THERE ONE SPIRITUAL LEADER YOU’D LIKE TO ASK MAJOR QUESTIONS TO IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME?
S- No need to go back in time. The really good ones are here now, and I have asked them. But you are enough. You are all you need. You have all the answers and all the spiritual leaders that have ever lived and are living are within you. Or I should say, the thing that was in them is also in you. As a matter of fact, they are the same.
YOUR SPIRITUAL QUEST IS AN INSPIRING ONE, AND WITH FRANK ZAPPA HAVING A REPUTATION FOR BEING PRETTY OUTSPOKEN ON HIS BELIEVES, I’D LIKE TO KNOW IF YOU HAD ANY DISCUSSIONS WITH HIM ON THIS LEVEL.
S- Frank was outspoken about organized religion, not spirituality. I rarely discussed spirituality with Frank, if ever. I didn’t understand it at the time. But spirituality does not need to be named “spirituality” in order to find it.
Everyone is spiritual and no one is any more spiritual than anyone else because who we all truly are is spirit itself.
DO YOU HAVE ANY DREAM PROJECTS THAT YOU HAVE YET TO ACCOMPLISH?
S- Too many to mention, but if I died tomorrow I would be content in knowing I’ve accomplished more than I ever expected, and I am grateful.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE AS YOUR LEGACY?
S- “Here lies… what was his name? “
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS REGARDING BEING NAMED GUITAR MAGAZINE’S ’10TH GREATEST GUITARIST’? WHAT MAKES A ‘GREATEST GUITARIST’ OR ‘GUITAR HERO’?
S- It’s always an honor to be recognized for your contribution and I’m grateful and appreciative for the recognition I’m given, but I don’t create an identity for myself out of it.
What makes a great guitar hero is someone who loves the instrument and loves what they are doing on it. That’s what the audience responds to most.
YOU’VE RECORDED BACK IN THE ANALOG DAYS OF VINYL UP TO PRESENT MP3 DOWNLOADS. WHAT ARE THAT MAJOR CHANGES IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY THAT YOU’VE HAD TO ADAPT TO SINCE YOU FIRST BEGAN YOUR CAREER?
S- Technology, and it’s been a great gift. I always look at technology and say to myself, “How can this serve me?” Then if I become still, quiet inside and just listen, the answer comes.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING GUITARISTS?
S- Identify what it is that you love most about music and throw yourself into it with no excuses and not expecting anyone to do it for you. And use the feeling of enthusiasm as your guide.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE COMPOSITIONAL SKILLS THESE DAYS.
S- It’s only important to those who are interested in it. There are other things that are interesting and important to others and they will inevitably be drawn to those things to enhance their skills, so… you’re doing fine. You don’t need to labor over things that are not interesting to you. Find your strengths and focus on them. Within your strengths will be some weaknesses and when you focus on them it’s tremendously rewarding when you improve them.
THERE ARE TONS OF GUITARISTS OUT MAKING GREAT MUSIC THESE DAYS. WHY DO SOME GUITARISTS ‘MAKE IT’ AND OTHERS THAT SEEM JUST AS MUSICALLY DON’T?
S- It’s your perspective on the world that puts you in any situation.
“Making it” needs to be defined a bit.
There are several types of success. There’s worldly success where you may find a steady income or even wealth, recognition, adoration, etc. etc. But if your goals are egoic you will never be satisfied. There is never enough money, fame, sex, etc. for the ego. You take who you are wherever you go.
I have had this kind of success and although it seems “easy for you to say Steve Vai”, happiness does not come from worldly success. It can bring a false sense of security and happiness for a little while but if you are relying on it for your sense of joy in life, you’re in trouble.
On the other hand It can be very nice or it can introduce intense challenges.
The other kind of success is in the fulfilling of your creative visions with freedom, expansion and joy. That’s very penetrating and satisfying.
But the best kind of success is when in life you discover your true nature which is peace, well being, creativity, appreciation, enthusiasm, joy.
That’s real success.
YOU LOOK EXTREMELY HEALTHY, ESPECIALLY FOR A ROCKER!! WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BE A VEGETARIAN?
S- When I was younger I seemed kind of sickly and physically wimpy most of the time. My mental state was not good either. It always felt a little out of place for me to eat meat so when I was 22 I became a vegetarian, along with doing some other things for my mental health, and it worked very well for me. I don’t criticize others for eating meat or anything like that. Everyone has to find what’s best for them and their body and for me vegetarianism works really well.
DO YOU KEEP A STRICT DIET?
S- Nope. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want without any fear and my body knows what to do with it because it told me what to eat.
HOW ARE YOU WITH TEAS?
S- I’m a sucker for a warm chamomile tea.
DO YOU HAVE AN EXERCISE REGIME?
S- Yes, I run and lift weights perhaps 3-5 times a week. And I chase the queen, (Pia).
WHAT ARE YOU OPINION OF THE VARIOUS FAD DIETS LIKE “PALEO”?
S- I have no idea what that is. Everyone needs to find what’s right for them not necessarily what’s right for someone else. Your body knows and has natural inclinations towards the foods that are best suited for you, but you have to be able to listen to what your body is telling you.
What you eat is not nearly as important as how you feel about what you eat. Our bodies are phenomenal chemistry labs that can convert virtually anything to whatever is needed. But it does this based on the way you feel about it. If you think that chocolate or cheese is bad for you, it will be. I like chocolate and cheese, and so does my body. But I also like organic fresh produce.
YOU ALSO HAVE A HOBBY WITH BEES. WHAT WAS YOUR ATTRACTION TO THIS?
S- They are fascinating little creatures. They are gorgeous… and they make honey!!!!
DO YOU EXPERIMENT WITH FLOWERS FOR FLAVOR? WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THE WHOLE IDEA OF HONEY?
S- The bees will gather nectar based on what’s in bloom at any particular time and then they make honey out of it so if you pull honey from the hives at particular times during the year it will carry the quality of the flower it was harvested from. We can get Eucalyptus honey, wild flower, lavender, clover, etc.
And, I enjoy chasing my queen!
NEVER ABLE TO BE CATEGORIZED, VAI EXPLORES ‘STRANGE NEW WORLDS’ WHILE FINDING FASCINATIONS WITH PARTS OF LIFE AS BASIC AS GOD’S CREATION AND THE EXISTENTIAL MEANING OF LIFE. FOR THE ETERNALLY INQUISITIVE NATURE AND DELIVERY OF HIS MUSICAL VISION, WE SALUTE STEVE VAI. CHECK OUT HIS RECENT RELEASE AND BECOME PART OF HIS LISTENING LEGACY.