(Cover story to the June 2016 issue of Guitar Player magazine)

Mister Fantastic

With Guitar Supergroup Generation Axe on Tour and a New Double Album on the Way, Steve Vai Finds Himself Stretched Thin in 2016. And He’s Loving It.

BY JUDE GOLD

Guitar Player magazine cover with Guthrie GovanIt’s noon on a Sunday, and Steve Vai should be stressed out. After all, he’s a tad behind on creating the five-part guitar arrangements he will perform with Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi on his 27-city Generation Axe tour. He’s also due to fly to Dubai in less than 24 hours, where he will deliver a motivational speech at a YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) meeting. And, in any spare moment he gets at home, he’s feverishly tracking and mixing songs for his forthcoming album, Modern Primitive [Sony]. On top of all that, Vai is re-mastering his seminal 1990 album Passion and Warfare [Sony], which, 25 years after its release, still represents a high-water mark in the history of virtuoso guitar albums.

If Vai is feeling any pressure, he doesn’t show it. After laughing at an R-rated joke told to him by the great rock photographer Neil Zlozower—who took the photo on this issue’s cover—Vai leads me to his famous backyard studio, the Harmony Hut. But as we approach it, Vai keeps us walking until we come to a garden trellis covered in purple blossoms.

“Check these out—they only bloom only in early springtime,” he says, breathing them in. “Isn’t Southern California great this time of year?”

The guy with the biggest to-do list in guitardom literally takes time to “stop and smell the roses.”

But if those blossoms are heavenly, the interior of the Hut is even more so. Walk into this enchanted wooden studio, and greeting your eyes will be guitars of every species neatly adorning the walls from floor to ceiling (though naturally you’ll find there is a disproportionately high number of Ibanez Steve Vai JEM models in the collection). You’ll also see nearly every breed of amp you can name, as well as shelves overflowing with stompboxes of every stripe. It’s like being on Noah’s Ark—sans apocalyptic flood—if Noah were a feng-shui-obsessed guitar-gear collector.

Stepping into the control room and taking a seat in front of his custom-built recording console, Vai says, “Listen to this.” The Pro Tools session for “And We Are One” (from Modern Primitive) roars to life through two amazing sounding Ocean Way monitors that are each about as tall as Angus Young.

You quickly realize Vai isn’t one of those “I never listen to anything I’ve done after I’ve finished it” guys.

To the contrary, Vai is exuberantly playing air guitar to his own solo—guitar faces and all. Passionately miming each nuance of the lead track, he stops playback only when he wants to explain an interesting technique.

“For this note coming up,” he says, “I’m operating my Morley Little Alligator volume pedal with one foot and a wah pedal with the other, while using the whammy bar. This is how forensic I get. It’s just one note, but it took my entire life to get to the point to where I could do that one note.”

In the solo’s next section, he air-demonstrates a new approach he came up with that marries single-note bar scoops with subtle Flamenco-style flutter-strums on the same string.

“I’ve never gotten as deep with my phrasing as I did on this solo,” says Vai. “It may go right over the head of most people, and others might just hear it as Vai meandering, but, for me, this solo is my ultimate achievement of phrasing on the instrument.”

Like many of the songs on Modern Primitive, “And We Are One” is an old composition—written after Flex-Able (which Vai released in 1984 at age 23), but before Passion and Warfare (the release of which was delayed until 1990, after Vai’s adventures with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake were finished)—yet many or all of the recorded parts are new.

“If you listen to those first two albums, it sounds like they were made by two different people,” says Vai. “Modern Primitive will deliver all this music that that was created between those releases. It’s sort of like the missing link between the two records. It’s Cro-Magnon Vai.”

You could totally win an air guitar contest.

That stems from when I was pre-teen and destroyed several tennis racquets and brooms rocking out in the mirror, jumping from bed to bed like a wild man.

How did you come up with all those new approaches on the “We Are One” solo?

I used this great technique that I would encourage guitar players to experiment with. First, I looped the background vamp. Then, every night, I just soloed over it, because I love doing that. Next, I played back the takes looking for any little unique riff, idea, or sound I’d never heard myself do before. When I found something cool, I’d figure out exactly what I had done and make an exercise out of it until it felt natural. If you do that, before long, that new technique will organically start coming out in your playing.

The only thing that stops people from doing something different, cool, and interesting is the belief that they can’t. But you can, of course—that’s what you’re here for. For example, when I conceived “Gravity Storm” [off The Story of Light], it started out as this song based on some single-note half-step bends. And now, on Modern Primitive,there’s a section on the song “Dark Matter” where I thought, “What if I take a similar bending approach, but apply it to an entire chord?” So I did just that, using a Hendrix-style #9 voicing. It might sound like I’m pulling up on the bar, but I’m not—that wouldn’t be in tune. I practiced bending the chord up with my fretting hand fingers until all four bent notes were in tune. I’m talking about this because it’s a great way to create—you imagine something new, and then break down the barriers until you can do it.

There’s a great fuzz-tone lead part on “Dark Matter.”

That’s a Dunlop Fuzz Face. I like fooling around with Fuzz Faces, because they’re gnarly. They sound like what audio skin would sound like if it was ripping. That’s some heavy distortion. It’s sort of my Jack White impersonation. I think I ran it into the Victoria 80212, because the Legacy is a broader-sounding amp, and I wanted it to be very pointy and clean, yet completely overdriven to the point where it sounds like the batteries are giving out.

When did you write “Dark Matter”?

This one’s actually only been kicking around for five years or so, so it doesn’t sound like the rest of the record. It’s like a bonus track.

So, the G3 tours with Joe Satriani aren’t enough, huh? You have to start a whole other guitar supergroup?

Hey, more is more! And more is fun. And I love playing with various guitar players in all sorts of incarnations. G3 is basically three guys who each do a set and then come out together for a jam at the end, and that works very nicely. But I always seem to have a desire to make things more complicated, so Generation Axe is going to be different. It’s a brand, basically, and with each incarnation, the guitar players will be genre-specific. For this first incarnation, I thought, “Who would be the coolest group of intense rock players I can get?”

Yes, everyone will have their own solo show and solo songs, but the big difference is that we’ll also come out together as a cohesive ensemble of five guitarists, which is different from anything I’ve ever seen or heard before, because with these kinds of players—with all the sustain, distortion, and chops they employ—the challenge is to create something that has organic-sounding harmony.

I’m thinking we’ll come out blazing with a couple of big songs arranged for five guitars—like maybe Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” or Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time.” I did an arrangement of [Deep Purple’s] “Highway Star” for five guitars. It’s f**king dope, man. There’s something so beautiful about huge guitars in harmony.

Yes. I used to take Bach chorales and record all four parts with a lead guitar sound.

Right. So imagine five guitars!

What have you learned from so many years of G3 that you might be able to apply to Generation Axe?

When you play your first G3, you can’t help but wonder, “How will I fit in, and how can I contribute?” But Joe Satriani is like a Zen master. His leadership is powerful but transparent—meaning he never acts like he’s the leader. He knows how to offer space. And then, during the jams, when you’ve got Satriani to the right of you and maybe Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, or Yngwie on your left, you realize they’re all there because of their unique contributions to guitar, and you can’t reach into their bags of tricks. So you end up reaching deep into your own bag of tricks. G3 taught me that being in that environment with those great musicians encourages you to raise your own bar.

Many people think of you as being insanely disciplined, but it would take more than discipline to practice for ten or 12 hours a day as you were famous for doing in the early days.

Discipline doesn’t work. The only way you ever do anything is if you want to do it. Of course, on one level you have to apply your intention, but if you don’t find any enjoyment in it, why do it? And if you do enjoy it, how can you stop? For me, it was always the fascination of hearing something in my head, but not being able to play it, and then working on it until, all of a sudden, I could play it.

You’ve always seemed to have a huge fascination with making guitar parts sound like human voices. What’s the main instrument we’re hearing on “Bop,” off Modern Primitive?

Well, many years ago, when Roland came out with their first guitar synth, they sent it to me and asked me to do some demo tracks. I was into messing with guitar synths back then, so I did four or five songs for them. In fact, one of them—a song called “Essence”—actually received a Grammy nomination when I released it in 2003, which was kind of odd!

But one song I never sent was “Bop,” because it came about when I was just fooling around with the device and I came across this jazz scat vocal patch that goes “bop” when you hit the string. And the syllable would change depending on how hard you hit the note. I was like, “Wow, this is cool,” so I put down a drumbeat and improvised the whole song—just for kicks. Everything else you hear now is new, including the bass part, which was played by this incredible Indian bassist named Mohini Dey. She is a savant. Type her name into YouTube, and you will see some wicked-ass bass playing from this little Indian girl.

Your sense of humor comes through on songs like “Bop.” You and so many other great guitarists—Satch, Lukather, and Jason Becker come to mind—are just hilarious. Who’s the funniest guitar player you know?

Mattias Eklundh. He creates the most comical, impossible-sounding sounds that anybody has ever done on guitar. Check out his latest album, The Smorgasbord. It’s unbelievable. I think humor in music is a way of entertaining yourself. I’m not a heavy, intense, dramatic person. I like things that make me feel great, so when I’m doing things that have that humorous element, it’s like every day is Christmas.

Which song are you mixing right now?

I’m finishing up “No Pockets,” which also originated way back around the Flex-Able days. The natural progression for me then was to learn how to record, so I acquired a Fostex 1/4" 8-track machine and a Carvin console, and then I tracked Flex-Able. But shortly after that, I upgraded to a 24-track 3M machine, and I just started recording like crazy. Back then, I had that band the Classified, and the goal was just to enjoy writing and playing these crazy songs. I never really had aspirations of making records and touring. The idea of figuring out a way to record music and get it on the radio and get a record deal was totally off my radar. Actually, in those days, I had an apprehension about being famous. I think that came from my childhood, when somebody said, “Famous people are crazy. You go insane if you become famous.”

Did appearing in Crossroads in 1986 suddenly boost your fame?

Unbelievably so. You can be in a successful rock band and sell millions of records, but being in a hit movie is very different. People recognize you on the street, and they are always looking at you and saying, “Hey, you’re in that movie!” At first, it’s cool, but it can soon start to feel like an intrusion. But I knew it was fleeting—which is good, because I’ve never aspired to be so famous that I can’t have a normal life. It’s at a perfect level for me now. Every now and then somebody will come up and say, “Hi, Steve,” which is nice, but I can also go out with my family and have fun without being bothered.

Tell me about this cool mixing console you’re sitting in front of.

I designed it, and it was custom-built by Steve Firlotte at Tree Audio. I have an API board, too, which I like very much and I used for many years, but old consoles require a lot of maintenance, so I decided to have a custom, totally discreet, class-A console built. There are two types of mic preamps on here that I really like—API 500’s and Neve 1073’s. The 4-band EQ’s have four Q’s and four sweeps and were custom-built for me. I designed them with Steve, who also made the compressors. The extra-steep slope puts the monitors at exactly the right height for me, and it also makes every knob easy to reach. And the sea foam green paint on the chassis is something I’ve been into since a friend of mine purchased an old Ford Thunderbird in that color.

How are you approaching the re-mastering of Passion and Warfare? That was already a huge-sounding record when it came out 25 years ago. Listening to it now, what do you think the mixes need?

It actually sounded much better before CDs came out, because when I made that album CDs hadn’t fully taken over yet. There were only cassettes and records. So it was a straight analog path through all the best hand-built gear. I remember reading back then that whenever Van Gogh painted—no matter how broke or hungry he was—he always made sure that he used the very best canvas and the very best paint. Thank God he did, because now we have priceless art to enjoy. So I thought, “I want to do that with my music. With Van Gogh as my inspiration, I’m going to go to any length possible to get the best gear, test it to make sure it’s the best gear, and use that.” So back when I made and mastered Passion and Warfare, I had access to all this great gear and the record, to me, sounded really great.

But then digital came along, and in the early days of digital the conversion technology that was available was horrific by today’s standards. So labels basically did one conversion, and that was your CD standard for the life of that record. Now, if you have a record that’s 25 years old, you can take the analog tapes to a mastering engineer like Bernie Grundman—who I’m using—and you’ve got access to the top-of-the-line converters and frequency rates, as well as digital distribution networks that deliver high-end audio. It really makes a difference for people who are looking for that extra quality of sound.

What kind of pedals and accessories are you using these days?

Well, I’ve always got a DigiTech Whammy and an Ibanez Jemini distortion at my feet. I swap around between Morley Bad Horsie and Dunlop wahs, according to the gig. On some songs on the new album, I brought out pedals I’ve had for 40 years. For the frequency modulator sound on “Mighty Messengers”— the Zappa “Ship Ahoy” sound, as I fondly call it—I used a Maestro Filter Sample/Hold pedal.  

I use Ernie Ball strings and DiMarzio pickups and cables. All these builders—I’ve had such long relationships with them, and they’re amazing people. Take Larry DiMarzio, for example—he’s constantly looking for the very best solution. Same with Sterling Ball. No matter how many other things they have going on, there’s always a deep interest in the expansion of their product in a practical, accessable way.

What about the amps?

I have many amps, but I almost always end up using my signature-model Carvin Legacy 3 VL300 head. The Legacy is my home. It just feels right. It has the right amount of sweetness, harshness, compression, bottom end, and top end. But when I’m doing a part through an amp, I always record a direct track, too. That way, when I listen back, if I hear anything missing in the tone, I can re-amp the direct track through another amplifier. I do this most often when I’m not using the Legacy, because the Legacy is just the amp for me.

On Modern Primitive, I also used two tweed ’59 Fender Twins that Joe Satriani lent me. Joe got those amps from Keith Richards, and I just love the way they sound. I immediately thought, “I’d love to take one of these on tour just to fill out the sound of the Legacy a little bit, but I don’t want to drag an old amp around, because old amps can be inconsistent.” So, I contacted Joe Bonamassa—because he’s deep into this stuff—and I asked him to tell me who makes new amps that are very similar to the old Twins. He said, “Call Mark Baier at Victoria Amplifier. He’s the best tweed builder since Leo.” So I did, and now I have a Victoria 80212 that I used a lot on the new record, along with Satriani’s Twins.

For the Generation Axe shows, however, I’m sticking to my usual setup of two Legacy heads and cabinets. With four other rigs up there, the stage will be plenty full already, so I’ll just keep it simple. I run the amps in stereo using a Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX II rack unit that’s placed in the amps’ effects loops—which provides me with crystalline stereo reverbs, delays, choruses, and other effects. I don’t understand having a wet/dry or wet/dry/wet amp setup. That creates the potential for somebody to screw up the mix once it leaves your hands, and not be what you want. I have one instruction for the soundman—pan it hard left and hard right, and that’s it.

I noticed on vai.com that you’ve gotten to a really pure place with a your new hobby—drawing and painting. You’ve gone from doodling to turning out large paintings. Has that influenced your guitar playing?

Well, doing art is really fun, and I highly recommend it. If you go back to the beginning of where I started, you’ll see I had zero artistic talent. But I learned that you don’t have to have talent, you just have to have desire. Then, you grow. So, when I started I imposed two rules. One was, “You’re not allowed to think”—meaning, I was only to follow my impulses. And the other rule was, “You’re not allowed to criticize.” I wasn’t allowed to say, “This sucks,” or “This is brilliant,” or “These are just the doodlings of a madman.”

That’s the place I focus on getting to now with the guitar. It’s a great practice, because it’s freedom. There’s nothing more uplifting, rejuvenating, and benignly peaceful than being content with what you’re doing without judging what you’re doing.

You’re quite the motivational speaker. I remember when you spoke at Musicians Institute a few years ago, you told 500 young musicians not to say, “I want to do this,” “I can do this,” or “I will do this,” but …

… I am doing this.

 

Steve Vai on his “Fantastic Four”

With the immense respect he commands in the world of guitar, Steve Vai could have assembled just about any posse of guitar heroes to join him on his first Generation Axe tour, so why did he choose Tosin, Nuno, Yngwie, and Zakk?

Tosin Abasi

“Tosin represents a new generation of thinking on the guitar,” says Vai. “Everything about him is evolved—the guitar he plays, the amount of strings it has, his choice of notes, and his harmonic ear. And his chops are just freakish. One thing I love about Tosin’s music is that there’s this beautiful, deeply complex, organic quality to it. I really like his choice of harmonies, because I hear contemporary shredders all the time who are just phenomenal with their technique, but use the same scales over and over. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I like it when somebody dives deep melodically and harmonically.”

Nuno Bettencourt

“Nuno is just solid, man. He has great chops, and great tone in his fingers. And when I think of someone who can easily blend with others, I think of him—which is why he’ll be a major player in the ensemble stuff we do in Generation Axe. I hung out with Nuno a bit on the Monsters of Rock/Shredders from the Deep cruise, and he’s an extraordinary guy. Super intuitive. I bounce a lot of things off of him and he always has an insightful response.”

Yngwie Malmsteen

“Yngwie is very colorful. He’s a master. He has stunning intonation and breathtaking virtuosity, and his vibrato is to die for. His tone is all in his fingers, and he was at the forefront of the movement. I know—I was there. When Yngwie hit the scene, we all sh*t our pants, because he was doing stuff we didn’t think was possible, and that’s beautiful, because he raised the bar for all of us. Having Yngwie onboard makes for a great package, because this first Generation Axe is a very metal kind of presentation. Maybe for the next incarnation I’ll invite different people. For example, imagine how lovely this would be with Eric Johnson, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, and Robben Ford.”

Zakk Wylde

“Zakk is a tour de force of testosterone-driven riffage. Make sure you don’t get in the way! His rock and roll attitude—his metal attitude—comes out in his notes in a fiery, fierce way. When Zakk is vibrating a G, there’s a Bb in there someplace, too. He’s authentically metal. And the thing a lot of people don’t know about Zakk is that he also plays beautifully on acoustic instruments and piano, and he can sing.” —JG

 

[Sidebar 2]

Vai on his Mentors

“When I look back at my career, I just can’t believe how fortunate I was to have all the right people in my life mentoring me at the most crucial times,” says Steve Vai. Here, he shares what each of his four great teachers taught him.

Bill Westcott

“Bill was my high school music teacher in Long Island, New York, and every day for seven years I went to his class and learned how to write, read, and compose music,” says Vai. “He also taught me music theory from head to foot. He was tough, and he was my first great mentor.”

[Editor’s note: In July 2010, soon after Westcott’s passing, Vai posted a tribute to him on vai.com: “As I sit here right now composing for a 120-piece orchestra for a special Steve Vai Festival coming up in Holland, every note I write has Bill’s signature on it.”]

Joe Satriani

“I have news for you—Joe Satriani was always great, even when he was 15. For three or four years, I was able to sit three feet from greatness. I call it ‘the Vai advantage.’ Joe was very giving and he shared everything. He was a constant source of inspiration.

“Joe has a brutally talented ear. I cannot tell you how on-target it is. All those beautiful melodies he plays, he’s listening to them from inside of himself—which is where the good melodies come from. The thing that I picked up most from Joe was that every time he put his fingers on that instrument, no matter what he was doing, it came out sounding like beautiful music, even if he was just playing a scale. He always honored the instrument.”

Frank Zappa

“I learned, ‘You can do it if you want to’ from Frank—that was his whole M.O. He didn’t let anything stop him. He never expected somebody else to do things for him, and he never made excuses. It’s a great M.O. to have, because you’re completely raising your own bar each time you do something. I was really absorbed in Frank’s music, because his musical sensibilities really resonated with me. I loved his ability to incorporate composition with fast little notes and odd time signatures. Other people were doing it, too, but not in as melodically, creatively, rhythmically, or harmonically interesting ways as Frank was. There’s no way to quantify everything I learned from Frank.”

David Lee Roth

“Dave came out of the shoot with chutzpah and charisma. When he was the rock star David Lee Roth back then—and even to a great degree now—he was just oozing with confidence and intensity. Nobody knows how intense that guy is unless you’ve worked with him, and he worked very hard with me, because when I joined his band, I was a naïve, awkward, and gawky performer. Playing with Frank, it had been all about playing all the right notes, but there wasn’t the same audience. With Dave, you had to be able to reach the guy 20,000 people back, and he was a great mentor for that. When it comes to being an effective performer, he’s a master.

“So, Dave worked on me. He’d watch me move, and he’d critique me, but he wouldn’t criticize—because he knew there’s no value in criticizing—and I began to improve. At first, I was just a noodle. I looked like an upside down question mark with hair. He kicked my ass. He hired the leading female bodybuilder in the world, Kate Baxter, and he dragged my wimpy ass to the gym three out of every four days for these intense workouts that eventually got me in shape. That helped me develop more of a healthy perspective on my body and my physicality—which I needed, because I was in terrible shape and had barely made it through the Frank tours.

“Dave also taught me about navigating the music business and dealing with the press. He was a master at those things, too. I mean, just think about all of these incredible ingredients I’ve been given from these great teachers. I should be better!” —JG

 

Hear This Interview!

Want to hear this interview with Steve Vai? A complete, unabridged recording of it (including exclusive musical examples) will be available on No Guitar Is Safe, June 24, 2016—the same day Vai’s double album, Modern Primitive/Passion and Warfare 25th is released. You can find No Guitar Is Safe using your iPhone’s Podcasts app, the iTunes store, or any other podcasts host.