Photo by Larry DiMarzio

Steve Vai first gained notoriety nearly three decades ago when he joined forces with David Lee Roth after the famous frontman’s split with Van Halen. Almost immediately, Vai usurped Eddie Van Halen’s throne as the king of rock guitar, and throughout the subsequent decades Vai’s continual innovations have distinctly changed the sound of rock guitar. What has always significantly differentiated Vai from other virtuosi in the annals of rock history is that, although he can burn with reckless abandon and fire, he’s also an academic at heart—a passionate player whose mastery of music theory, composition, and orchestration could rival a Julliard professor. While still in high school, Vai wrote his first orchestral piece, an arrangement he called “Sweet Wind from Orange County.” Soon after, he landed a gig with Frank Zappa by sending him a transcription of Zappa’s impossibly difficult piece “The Black Page.”

But even after decades of reigning as one of the world’s most formidable guitar icons, Vai continues to hone his skills as a modern classical composer. In fact, he doesn’t even need a guitar to satiate his musical urges. In some cases, a pencil and manuscript paper are all the man needs. Releases such as 2004’s Piano Reductions Vol. 1 feature strictly piano arrangements of Vai’s compositions (performed by frequent collaborator Mike Keneally), and just this past November Vai premiered an orchestral composition sans guitar entitled “The Middle of Everywhere” that was performed by the Noord Nederlands Orkest (North Netherlands Orchestra). Of course, he has also indulged his inner guitar geek by not only writing for but also performing live with the Metropole Orchestra on releases like 2007’s double-live album Sound Theories Vol. I & II.

For a lot of guitarists, an album like Sound Theories would be their magnum opus—after all, how do you top something as grand as writing for and performing with a symphony orchestra? But not for Vai. His latest release, The Story of Light, is the second installment of a rock-opera trilogy that began with 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections. As you’d expect, Story of Light is much more than just an instrumental shred fest—it features Vai’s trademark genre-busting arrangements and an unlikely cast of guests, ranging from a gospel choir to vocalists Aimee Mann and (The Voice finalist) Beverly McClellan.

We caught up with Vai to talk about his latest epic, his take on the new Van Halen album, and whether he’d still be content if he were just a mailman rather than a guitar hero.

What’s the concept behind Story of Light?
It’s sort of like a rock opera. I hate using that term, because I don’t like opera at all, but basically it’s the second installment of the Real Illusions trilogy. My plan was to do this story, and then at the end I would take all of these records and kind of amalgamate them into the story—and then, maybe, the songs would be put in proper order and there would be new stuff.

If somebody picked up Story of Light before Real Illusions, would the context be lost?
They’re not in a sequential, chronological, linear order. It’s not the kind of record where you have to follow the concept and know the story in order to enjoy the music. I wanted it, first and foremost, to be enjoyable music. Then if you read deeper into it, each song tells a little piece of the story.

The Story of Light spans a variety of styles. Does having such a broad range make it harder to unify things across the three albums?
What I’m setting out to do is just do what I really like to hear in music, which is to create diversity—but with unique dimensions to it. “Creamsicle Sunset,” for instance, is a clean guitar sound and a simple piece of music. Then you listen to something like “The Book of the Seven Seals,” which is like “contrast” with a capital C. A lot of people are comfortable making records that have a musical theme that’s in every single song. It’s like, “Okay, this is our 7th string and we’re tuning down and we’ve got a lot of distortion. We’re going to do some soft parts now and then … but this is us.” You could listen to song number one and song number 10, and it would sound like the same band. That’s what a lot of people do, and that’s great, but there’s no rule that you have to do that. The only time people believe you have to do that is when so many other people do it that they think this is the normal way to do things.

Inside Steve Vai's Harmony Hut home studio. Photo by Lindsey Best

“Creamsicle Sunset” starts off with the simple opening triad and inversions, and then morphs into some delicious dissonances that most rock guitarists probably couldn’t gracefully maneuver.
Yeah, a song like that was like a little gift for me, because it was so simple. I picked up the guitar and I was just playing these triads—like an exercise you do when you’re learning chords—but this particular time I played it, it transcended the exercise and it sounded like music. The whole song unfolded to me and all I needed was that first bar—the triad thing. When I came up with that idea, I had my iPhone and I turned it on and played those first three chords and left myself a voice note, “Create a track that has these inversions that keep building and building, and going higher and higher, and has the really juicy, beautiful chords in between.” The whole thing was done before I finished playing the third triad. My goal was that every note in the song had to have its own zip code, and it had to sound like a little church bell that it owns. When you imagine these things, that’s how you get them to come into reality.

Parts of “John the Revelator” are reminiscent of the scene in Crossroads that’s right before the grand-finale guitar duel—and then it morphs into “The Book of the Seven Seals.” Were the two songs conceived independently?
I came across this version of “John the Revelator” online. The vocal arrangement was done by two guys, Paul Caldwell and Shawn Ivory, and sung by a high school choir called The Counterpoint Singers. I contacted the woman that ran the choir and she sent me a cassette of the only stereo recording they had. I put it into Pro Tools, cut it up, and built the song around it, but it still wasn’t good enough. The piano was dull, so I hired 10 of L.A.’s finest and they came in and sight-read this very intricate arrangement. Then I triple-tracked them, so it’s like a hundred voices.

But as far as “John the Revelator” and “The Book of the Seven Seals,” they were one song. It was a vision. To go from “John the Revelator,” which is heavy guitars and tuned-down octave dividers with these gospel singers—that to me is always the way gospel should be presented, heavy, hardcore guitars playing very musical things—to the second part, with this extremely white-sounding, Republican, Midwestern vocal arrangement. That’s such a contrast.

How did Beverly McClellan get involved on that track?
I needed somebody to sing “John the Revelator” and I thought I could do it, but it wasn’t in my range. When I hosted an event for NARAS [National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences] with Sharon Osbourne, I went into the audience to check out what it sounded like and this woman, Beverly McClellan, took the stage and just tore it up. The moment I heard her sing, I was just stunned dead in my tracks. I thought, “She’s gotta sing ‘John the Revelator’ for me.” I was also thinking, “I don’t know. She doesn’t know me and she probably thinks I’m this crazy shredder guitar player,” which a lot of these people who don’t know anything about me just think. When I got backstage, she was there waiting in my dressing room with her CD and she said, “I’m a big fan. I know your music and I’d love to give you this CD.” I said, “Look, we’ve got to do something.”