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Interview: Steve Vai - The Gospel According to Steve

The revered prophet of the 6- and 7-string parts the shroud to reveal the mysteries of his tones, compositions, and gear on "The Story of Light."

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.”

“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.

YouTube It
For a taste of Steve Vai’s quirky brand of virtuosity, check out the following clips on YouTube:

Vai performs “The Attitude Song”—one of his seminal classics—with the Metropole Orchestra in 2008.

Three necks are better than one, as Vai demonstrates during this 2003 G3 concert (with Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani) in Denver. From 4:34–4:40, Vai plays the most insane 5ths-based sequence ever.

Vai and bass god Billy Sheehan perform “Shy Boy,” the unison-filled shredfest that symbolized their respective instrumental powers during their stint with David Lee Roth in the mid ’80s. Here, Sheehan takes vocal duties.