Premier Guitar

Steve Vai: The Man Behind the Icon

September 18, 2009
Click here for a full shot with captions of Steve's guitars.
I was left alone in the Harmony Hut. No, it’s not a corporate family restaurant chain. It’s virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai’s recording studio. It’s where the magic happens—his sanctum sanctorum, if you will.

In one of the rooms, his guitars are lined up against the wall in two long rows, top and bottom. I see guitars that I remember from his Alcatrazz and David Lee Roth years, electric sitars, seven-strings and old Frankenstein Strats. Further back is Vai’s amp rig, locked and loaded. Sitting on a desk, there is a Ted Greene chord book opened to the middle laying on top of a Mahavishnu Orchestra transcription book. Behind his desk and workstation in the adjoining room, a large window reveals a big, beautiful tree situated just outside the studio, a tree that radiates the kind of Zen-like peace and serenity I imagine would be perfect to inspire psychotic guitar riffs in bizarro time signatures. The studio is immaculate.

Steve Vai is in training for an upcoming triathlon. At 49 he’s in excellent shape. He’s taller than my six-foot frame, but then again, he was genetically engineered to look cool on stage wearing a guitar, and I wasn’t. Vai is a very busy yet serene guy who thinks about what he says before he says it. I’m watching him do his thing at a photo shoot just prior to our interview. Vai likes things the way he likes them—purposeful and focused, he’s direct without being surly. He also has a great sense of humor, which is accented by a touch of East Coast edginess. This highly productive, “get it done” side of his personality is offset by the disposition of a very passionate artist and seeker of personal truth and spiritual equilibrium. Vai also meditates.

Vai’s new concert DVD is called Where The Wild Things Are. He’s got new band members and new tunes, he’s reworked some old favorites, and he gets all animated. His fans will eat this up. When Steve Vai enters the room, I feel like I’m meeting Kubla Khan in Xanadu.

How ya’ doin’?

I’m doing great. If things get any better I’m going to explode. [Laughing]

I can tell. You have a lot going on. How do you keep all the plates spinning?

It’s all about time management and keeping a focus on priorities and being able to delegate to people that you can trust. I just finished a DVD. The priority is marketing it…. It’s a lot of work. When I’m creating my music I’m very passionate about it, like most artists. It’s very important to me. When it comes time to have to sell it, it’s very difficult because it’s very personal. I’m much better at selling someone else’s stuff.

Does being a salesman eat away at your musical creativity?

It doesn’t eat away at it, but it detracts from it. When I’m being creative, that aspect doesn’t stifle my creativity, but it’s part of the process. Any professional musician will tell you that you have to let people know that your product is out. Some people really rise to the occasion of promotion and really enjoy it. I do to a degree, but I much prefer making the music... I’ll tell ya’ though, with technology the way it’s evolved, it makes the marketing part a little more creative and interesting. When it’s done, I go underground. I’m not a guy who thrives being in the limelight or hangs out at posh Hollywood openings or parties. I can, but I just don’t.

When you’re in the limelight, you’re in all the way. When you’re out, you stay out… it’s like “Where’s Steve Vai? … none of your business!” [laughing]

[Laughing] The artist has to go make more work. It’s part of the process.

As a musical eclectic do you worry about writing music that strays away from what your base audience expects?

With my fans there is no going away from the base. When it comes from my inner ear, that’s why they’re my fans. That’s why any artist has a core following. What they do that attracts their core following is the most sincere thing they can do. That comes from their inner ear. If I make a song on a Steve Vai record, the audience is going to appreciate it because it comes from me. If I try to make a pop song or something that’s not really me, you can’t fool them. They know in a second. Fans are so much more intuitive than you think. They don’t care what I do as long as I’m searching for my inspiration and not pantomiming somebody else’s music. It’s about honesty. Fans respond to that.

Tell me about the new DVD.

Oddly enough, I don’t have a lot of DVDs out. The first one was an EP that I had done that I made a DVD for. Then I had a live concert DVD called Live at The Astoria. My last DVD was with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. It was a great project. When I was done, I needed to get into the studio to make a studio record, but that would’ve meant that I wouldn’t have been on tour for years. So, I decided to put a band together that was part of a little dream project that I had and just do a little tour. I did a month in Europe and a month in America. We went to South America and it was a tremendous band.

My music is kind of compositional to an extent. I thought, “Let me do something interesting and different that I’ve never done, or I’ve never seen anybody do.” So I thought I’d get a violin player in the band. I started auditioning these violin players. They were all these metal guys and they sounded awful. They really didn’t understand the nuances of music and they were just shredding with bad intonation. It sounded like deranged mosquitoes.

Were they trying to impress you with their idea of what you do, as opposed to simply playing well?

Most people think all I do is just shred. All the classical players I auditioned were too wimpy. So I found this guy named Alex DePue. He came in and blew me away. Unbelievable. He was stunning. I first saw him on YouTube playing “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” This guy was just ferocious. So I felt like I’d found my violin player. Then I started getting these emails from this young girl in the Midwest named Ann Marie Calhoun. I told her I already had my players. She goes, “C’mon! I wanna rock!”

I saw a picture of her, and I thought, “Nobody this beautiful can play well.” I was wrong. This girl just stunned me. Her intonation was stupendous. She just flows with the instrument, gorgeous performing and a very attractive young girl. What a sweetheart. I said, “That’s it. I’m going to have two violin players in the band!” I did, and I could immediately see how I could orchestrate the music so it would work. I like to put a show together that would be something that I’d like to see when I’m sitting in the audience.

What I like to see is really great musicianship, elite musicianship but also emotional investment. I don’t want to be beaten up by somebody’s musical intellect. I like dynamic swings. I like a show to have dimension to it, so you can have an acoustic set. When you see this DVD, it’s got all those dimensions. I like to have the audience feel like they’re part of the secret.





Your shows are known for having lots of dynamics. Does adding violins allow you to push that further?

A violin can be played very sweetly. If you pump it through the right gear, it’s a monster. They play together so sweetly at times. At other times, with the three of us and the other guitar player, it’s just ferocious. It’s very entertaining.

Did you use any new guitar gear on the DVD?

No. My guitar set up is usually good for four or five years, then I switch it up. With that setup I was using my Ibanez JEM, which is pretty standard. It’s like twenty-two years old now. I have a very simple set up. Coming out of my guitar I go into a Bad Horsie Wah or a Crybaby, then into the Ibanez Jemini distortion pedal that I designed. Then it goes in the front of my Carvin Legacy II, which has three channels. Out of the Send, I come out of the main head and I go into a volume pedal. Out of the volume pedal I go into a DigiTech Whammy pedal.

For the DVD, I was going through a TC Electronic G-System, then stereo out of that and returning to the two Legacy heads... I’m rebuilding my system right now. The G-System was very faithful to me for years. Now I’m going into a looping system again. The looping system is really the only way to create pure hard bypasses with the sound and keep it real discrete.

And clear.

And clear. Once you put the signal through a multi-effects unit, there’s such a price to pay.

And that’s a price Steve Vai isn’t willing pay.

Especially when you’re dealing with digital stuff. I’m very fortunate, because I’m in a position where all the stuff that I play comes from my design. I get to work with companies who are interested in what my inner ear desires for particular gear.

It goes without saying that you’re designing amps, guitars and effects for yourself, but from a marketing standpoint, are you at all concerned with how working guitarists or hobbyists can apply them?

Whenever I’ve tried to second-guess, I’ve always missed the mark. Whenever I’ve tried to make music that I thought people would like, I was usually doing something that I really didn’t think was the best thing I could do. When I designed the Jem guitar, at the time it was a unique instrument—the scale length, the neck… twenty-four frets with a whammy bar? There wasn’t anything like that... the cutaway, the pickup configuration was unique, and it was very practical. I like Strats, and I like humbuckers. I wanted humbuckers in both neck and treble positions, but I wanted that really cool, clean double single-coil sound, like a Strat gets on the in-between positions. I had them make the five-position switch so that when it’s between the middle pickup and the neck position pickup, it splits the coils. You get two single-coil pickups. That completely satiated my aural appetite. It was unique at the time, but now it’s pretty common.

Essentially, it was a stage guitar just for you.

It was a stage guitar for me and by the time they made it, I already had that guitar. I had a little guitar shop in Hollywood (Performance Guitars) custom-make me three guitars to suit my style. The floating trem was the first one. It was as simple as, “How can I make the notes go up?” There’s a piece of wood in the way, and I just took a hammer and a screwdriver and banged it out. Then it was floating.

And you desecrated a very beautiful early ‘70s Strat?

I’ve got it in the other room. I can show you. [Laughing]

What’s the story behind the monkey grip?

Just me doing something stupid.

You were just goofing around?

Goofing around… but I thought it would be cool to be able to hold the grip in photo shoots and swing it around. And it was something that I thought no one would have the balls to steal. It would look really ridiculous if somebody else put a monkey grip on their guitar.



Left to Right:
- "Where The Wild Things Are" 7 String Ibanez guitar custom painted by Godard
- Ibanez Jem 77FP ("FLO")
- Ibanez Jem 7VWH ("EVO")
- Ibanez JEM777LNG Yellow 

top row:
- Washburn mandolin
- Ukelele
- Explorer-style custom guitar with "Real Illusions" artwork given to Steve by a fan in Denver on the 2005 Real Illusions Tour
- Pia's '70s P-bass from the Vixen days
- Hollowbody 7-string Ibanez
- Green Ibanez Euphoria Acoustic Prototype
- Ibanez Euphoria Acoustic natural finish
-
Ibanez Euphoria Acoustic natural finish (main 2007 touring guitar)
- Ibanez Jem77BRMR Prototype ("BO")
- Ibanez Baritone 7-string Vai2KDNA
- Ibanez Bob Weir Model
- Wendler 7-string
- Ibanez jem777SK pink baritone custom
- Ibanez fretless bass
- Ibanez euphoria nylon string

bottom row:
- Fender Banjo
- Ibanez Hollowbody blue finish
- Carvin 12-string semi-hollowbody
- The Sticker Strat from Zappa days. '70s Strat
- Ripley Fretless
- Jem Hardtail ("Proto - I")
- Jem 20th
- Ibanez Jem 7VWH ("ROXY")
- Burnt Ibanez UV7MC 7-string guitar from the “For The Love of God” video
- Ynwgie Malmsteen Signature Stratocaster given to Steve by Yngwie in 2003 after the G3 Tour.


I heard you have a new JEM.

The basic aesthetic structure of the JEM always stays the same. There have been some hardware changes through the years, because there are improvements, but for the first time we’re going to be a releasing a JEM that’s going to be a hardtail.

Whoa…

It’s coming out very shortly. I’m also working on an unprecedented concept and design for the guitar. It’s pretty much revolutionary for whammy bar design.

Would you like to talk about this?

I can’t… it’s a real secret right now. It’s going to have a big impact, I believe.

Why would you put a hardtail on a JEM?

For other people, and myself. Occasionally, I’m not using the bar, and I just don’t want to deal with the problems that come along with a bar. Give me that guitar; I’ll record this with it. I don’t use the bar all the time!

Your amp tones are very specific to your tastes, as well.

When I do things after my own tastes, that’s the thing I do best. That’s what anybody does best. If I say that most people want an aggressive, brittle kind of amplifier, and I made an amplifier like that, it wouldn’t be really suited to me. I wouldn’t be really good at designing it, because I don’t play that kind of amp. The kind of sound I like is a warm, fat, non-fatiguing, user-friendly, creamy distortion sound. That’s the thing that excites me, so that’s what I went about trying to achieve. I figured it’s there, it’s a particular sound, maybe other people will like it, and they do.

How is your stage fan hooked up? Word on the street is that your fan is connected to your whammy pedal so that when you move yourfoot up and down, the fan moves so your hair can blow in specific directions. True or false?


Wow. I gotta remember that one. I have it set up to the level out of the amplifier, so the louder I play… it triggers the fan. If I’m playing soft, the hair isn’t blowing so much. Once we rock out, I’m just flailing in the wind.

I bought a fan after seeing you at the end of the Real Illusions tour, but my hair wouldn’t move.

[Laughing] You have to grow your hair longer. The fan is really fabulous on many fronts. First of all, it gets really hot onstage, and when my fingers get really sweaty, it’s a whole different feel. So the fan helps keep my fingers relatively dry. It also keeps my hair out of my face, because I hate when I’m trying to play and my hair is in my face. Plus it looks cool when your hair is blowing back. You have to be careful because if it’s cold, man, you freeze your ass off. I’ve been experimenting with various fans through the years, just like amplifiers…

Do you have a fan endorsement?

No, but sometimes I’ll use two little ones…. It has to be at the right setting because sometimes the voltage at a particular place is different. I have to put pieces of tape on the fan so it’s not so full sometimes. When I use two fans, it blows the hair in two different directions at the same time. There’s an art to getting the right blowjob on stage. [Laughing]

I’m sure when you’re rehearsing your stage show, getting the fan to blow just right is just as important as getting Tony MacApline to get his parts right.

[Laughing] That’s right. You can ask Thomas Nordegg what I put him through with my fans.

You married Pia Maiocco, the bass player from the ‘80s all-girl metal band Vixen.

Wow, I’m very impressed.

Congratulations.

Thank you. I’ve been with her for thirty years. She’s amazing. She’s a woman that I see living life to the fullest. She loved music, so she went to Berklee College of Music where she met me. She got to tour with a female rock band, and she looked incredible. She had gotten enough out of that, she really got into cooking and became a great cook. Then she decided she wanted to make clothes and made all my stage clothes.

Then she decided she wanted to do Tae Kwon Do so she became a second-degree black belt. Then she decided she wanted to play tennis, so she became a tennis player. I bought her a harp, and she learned how to play the harp. Each one of these extravaganzas would take about four or five years, but she’d get the most out of it. She loves traveling, so she became a travel agent and creates all these incredible trips around the world. The fact that she was a bass player in Vixen when she was a young girl is just part of one little chapter in her life. Me, I just play guitar and make music the whole time. She’s living life to the fullest.

That is so cool. You have one of the all-time great marriage success stories in rock history.

I look up to her because she’s smart, incredibly intuitive, she understands me, and she’s been with me through everything. She was with me through my neurotic music years when I was on tour for tremendous amounts of time. We have two beautiful kids who are crazy teenagers now.

What music are you listening to now?

I go through different things. I was listening to the new John Frusciante record, The Imperium, I think it’s called. I really like
STEVE VAI'S GEARBOX

Guitar:
Ibanez JEM7V with DiMarzio Evolution pickups
Ibanez Universe UV777BK 7-string with DiMarzio Blaze II pickups

Strings:
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound .010–.046
Ernie Ball RPS-9 Slinky Nickel Wound .009–.042
Ernie Ball Coated Electric Titanium Super Slinky .009–.042

Amps: Carvin Legacy II

Effects:
Ibanez Jemini Distortion
DigiTech Whammy Pedal
Morley Bad Horsie Wah
Morley Little Alligator
Volume Pedal Dean Vinman 2000

vai.com
that. I discovered this band that’s been around for a while that I’ve never heard called Anthony and the Johnsons. It really struck my heart. Oddly enough, for the past ten years I’ve never gone anyplace with less than five Michael Jackson records.

Really?

Oh yeah. I really thought he was so brilliant. I have Allan Holdsworth stuff, Devin Townsend stuff. I listen to Edgar Varèse… contemporary composer György Ligeti… I just got the new Dream Theater record and was really blown away. I like Jeff Buckley. I got Leonard Cohen’s new stuff…

You listen to a lot of different things, but those influences don’t create conflict within your style. They only help.

This is our 360 here. I’ve discovered that you can’t second-guess. The best thing you can do is just do what feels natural, obvious and simple for you. That’s what you’ll be your best at. That’s going to give you the most powerful product. Obviously, you have to find your audience, because you can be as honest as you want and some people just aren’t going to like it. I respond to any genre of music that I feel is being performed honestly.

The one artist I turn to before I turn to any other stuff is Tom Waits. I carry virtually every one of his records. I am absolutely enamored with that man’s voice, music and lyrics. When I discovered him, it was like I had a new quality of life.

Can you do the Tom Waits voice?

[in the Tom Waits voice] No. [Laughs]