“No More Amsterdam” features Aimee
Mann, who also cowrote the song. I
understand she was at Berklee College of
Music when you were there.
Yeah, I was going to Berklee and Aimee
lived in the same building as me, four doors
down. We knew each other from saying
“Hi.” My girlfriend at the time, who’s now
my wife, Pia, was very good friends with
her—they were actually in a little band
called the Young Snakes. I had this weird
preconceived idea—because I was very insecure
at that time—that she thought I was
a crazy, long-haired shredder and that I was
doing all this progressive stuff. When you’re
critical and you’re insecure, you think that
anybody who’s not doing the thing you’re
doing doesn’t have any appreciation for
what you’re doing, and the people who are
doing it always think they’re doing something
better than you.
Many musicians feel that way.
Most people feel that way. Aimee wasn’t
like that at all, but I didn’t know that. So
when I was doing “No More Amsterdam,”
I started to write the lyrics and I just
had a really hard time. Pia said, “Well,
why don’t you call Aimee?” I thought,
“Aimee doesn’t want to have anything to
do with me.” But I couldn’t have been
more wrong. She’s way above all that stuff.
It was my own insecurities that kept me
from going to her.
Steve Vai performs
with a band that
includes Dixie Dregs
bassist Dave LaRue
at the Ernie Ball 50thanniversary
Winter NAMM 2012 in
Photo by Marty Temme
You seem to always have a real clear picture
of what you want. Was it hard for
you to make compromises with Aimee?
For the most part, I’m very controlling—controlling in the sense that something
has to feel and sound a certain way to
me. Reaching out to somebody that’s able
to deliver that is part of the controlling
nature. Her contribution fit perfectly
with my control-freak nature, because my
control-freak nature said, “Give it to her to
do whatever she wants with it, because it’s
going to be great.” We talked about it and
she just fit these lyrics in that were just so
much better than anything I think I ever
could have come up with. She also made
some vital suggestions about the form of
Let’s talk gear. What’s your main rig
Well I have a new head, the Carvin Legacy
Is its smaller size designed to compete
with the lunch box-type amps that are
It’s designed to be a lot more convenient—smaller but still packing the 100-watt wallop. It’s a very simple, 3-channel
amplifier. You open up a Legacy, and
you’re going to see some very powerful,
simple wiring. In the process of designing
these amps, I’ve always been a real stickler
for the signal path and the motherboard,
and how many components are going into
it. Because every time you add a channel
or a loop or a master volume, it compromises
the main signal.
Do you use your Axe-Fx II just for effects?
Yes, just for effects. It’s the most transparent
piece of gear I’ve ever heard. With most
other pieces of outboard gear for the guitar
that I’ve played, there’s always a price to
pay—like latency, a roll-off at a particular
frequency, or a noise that happens. Or
there’s just programming that’s completely
and utterly ridiculous and nonsensical and
designed by nerds who want to fascinate
themselves with their intellect and couldn’t
give a shit about the mind of a musician.
There are people who do that because
they can’t play and they’re fascinated with
the electronics and make shit impossible
to figure out. I’m really simple, you’d be
surprised. My music might lead you to
believe otherwise, but I like things to make
sense. The Axe-Fx is the best-sounding
pass-through processor I’ve ever heard.
Tell us about the new pickups you
designed with DiMarzio—what tonal
characteristics were you going for?
They’re called Gravity Storms, and we’ve
been working on them for about a year.
If I were to explain, I’d say they sound
more analog to me than digital. All pickups
are analog, obviously, but you know
how when you hear something that’s
analog? The Evolution pickups [stock
units in Vai’s Ibanez signature models]
are very high output and have a very fat
bottom end and a very bright top end.
What I wanted with the Gravity Storms
was maybe a little less output—because
then I could crank other things. I don’t
know if they actually ended up with less
output, though, because we went through
so many pickups until I heard something
that felt really right.
Is it true you recently changed
I use Ernie Ball, but they just sent me
these new Cobalt strings. At first I didn’t
like them. There was something very
stretchy and slinky about them that felt
uncomfortable. I was so surprised that
somebody could make strings that felt
so different and responded so differently
than what anyone else was making. If
you took any brand of strings and put
them on my guitar, I’d be hard pressed to
tell you whose they are—because a lot of
these strings companies get them all from
one source. But Ernie Ball really processes
strings to make different sounds and different
Vai gets a natural monkey
grip during the 2010
tour at the Star Plaza in
Merriville, Indiana. Photo
by Barry Brecheisen
When I got these Cobalts, I was set
off a bit because of the slinky-ness, like I
said. I told Thomas [Nordegg, Vai’s guitar
tech] to take them off the guitar, but he left
them on. I had them on five guitars here at
the house, and I just started using them—I
don’t like taking time to change strings—and I started to get it. I was like, “Wow,
they’re so much more controllable.” And
the way the notes ring together when you
clang them is very different, so I really grew
into them and I like them a lot now.
You often pit guitar against timbres rock
guitarists don’t usually encounter—like
the orchestras or the gospel choir in
“Book of the Seven Seals.” Do you
accommodate your guitar sounds to fit
Not usually. It’s according to how you
play and how you process your sound.
When I’m doing stuff with an orchestra,
a smoothly distorted melody guitar can
blend in very nicely with a violin or some
other instruments. As an orchestrator, you
have to know, “How does tuba compare
to a xylophone?” They’re very different
instruments—they’re organic instruments,
because you’ve got to blow into one of
them and you’ve got to hit the other one.
There are no electronics involved. That’s
the difference, and that’s the tone quality
difference in the guitar that makes it stand
separate from all the other orchestra instruments.
It is difficult to blend—very difficult.
You have to know how to orchestrate
it to speak a particular way. But this is all
subjective to the composer’s ear. This is my
vision for it.
Have you heard the new Van Halen album?
Yeah, I was really surprised. I thought the
sound was very visceral—very distorted and
very high energy. I was relieved, because I
was afraid Edward was losing his ability to
really play because I had heard rumors that
he had stopped playing for a long time. But
I was really surprised. It sounded like he had
that fire. It wasn’t the shell of greatness—I
was hearing greatness again. What was cool
was the way Edward and Alex can still lock.
They really locked in on hyper-speed stuff,
these grooves. I think I could take like three
or four songs at a time—it’s just so kinetic.
I was really surprised at Dave Roth, too. I
know how hard he works, but he kept working
harder and now his vocal range is much
greater than when I was working with him.
Yeah, I’m not placating. It’s very obvious,
and when I was hearing these notes I was
like, “Whoa.” I know Dave and I know that
he worked really hard. People don’t see that
because they don’t know him.
In your music, you’ve espoused experimentation
and taking guitar to the outer
limits—and, against the odds, you’ve been
very successful. Since you’re involved in
the business side of your Favored Nations
label, do you view submissions differently
now than you would have as just an artist?
If something stimulates you on an intellectual
or musical level but you think it
will have limited appeal, even within this
niche market, will you release it?
Well, I have—but it’s not that easy. For years
with Favored Nations, I plummeted money
into artists that lost a lot of money. Usually,
if you get it in a store, if it doesn’t sell, they
send it back. You can ship a half a million
records and get 499,000 back. So there are
a lot of things that go into deciding whether
to release a record: Is the artist capable of
continuing a career? Are they gifted?
Steve Vai's Gear
Ibanez signature electrics
(JEM7V, JEM77, JEM70V, and
UV777), Ibanez signature acoustics
Carvin Legacy 3 VL300 heads,
Carvin Legacy 4x12 cabs with
Celestion Vintage 30s
Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II, Ibanez
Jemini, Morley Bad Horsie wah,
Morley Little Alligator volume
pedal, DigiTech Whammy
Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball Cobalt .009–.042 sets,
Ibanez heavy picks, Fractal
Audio MFC-101 MIDI foot
controller, DiMarzio cables and
When I listen to submissions, I listen
for people who I feel have a vision of their
own. When I come across things like that,
I think, “What can I do for these folks?”
Because a lot of musicians just don’t have
an understanding of the business—but I do.
I’ve thought, “I can’t put this out, because
it’s just not going to sell at all, so what can
I do?” So I started Digital Nations, and it’s
only digital releases. We have digital distribution
in several hundred stores around
the world. For, like, a hundred dollars you
can sign up and get your music distributed
around the world. In that regard, we’re
more of a service than a label—I have to
make it make economic sense.
Long ago, you said if you were a mailman,
you’d be just as content. Do you
still feel that way?
I feel even more so, because you take who
you are wherever you go. It doesn’t matter
if what you’re doing is wildly successful or
not. What matters is if you find satisfaction
in it. I know that sounds cliché, but
it’s the truth. And I’ve seen it. You know
I’ve been there and back and there and
back again. The bottom line is you can be
playing to 30,000 people and have a hit
single and multi-platinum record, but if you
don’t like the music you’re playing and if
the guys in the band are assholes but you’re
tolerating them because of what’s at stake,
you’re gonna be unhappy and that whole
period of your life is going to have a dark
shadow over it—and that’s going to be your
memory. What’s that worth? It’s not worth
anything. If you can let go of that and find
the thing that excites you the most and cultivate
that, you’re always going to be happy.
And usually that’s the thing you’re going to
be most successful at.