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Interview: Steve Vai - The Gospel According to Steve

Interview: Steve Vai - The Gospel According to Steve

“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 party at Winter NAMM 2012 in Anaheim, California. 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 the song.

Let’s talk gear. What’s your main rig right now?
Well I have a new head, the Carvin Legacy 3 VL300.

Is its smaller size designed to compete with the lunch box-type amps that are everywhere nowadays?
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 string types?
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 feels.

Vai gets a natural monkey grip during the 2010 Experience Hendrix 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 those situations?
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 (EP5BP, EP10BP)

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 ClipLock straps

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.

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