Come on down to the crossroads—or the CMA Theatre in Nashville—as we walk through the jaw-dropping rig of devilishly talented shredder Steve Vai.
Steve Vai is much more than a great guitarist. The American guitarist has established himself as a key figure in guitar culture, and one of the world’s leading masters of shred. Vai broke on the scene in 1980 as Frank Zappa’s transcriptionist, until Zappa hired Vai, age 20, to join his touring band—Zappa allegedly called Vai his “little Italian virtuoso.”
Bolstering his guitar theatrics with sharp songwriting and producing, Vai went on to conquer the world of guitar music, winning three Grammys and selling 15 million records. PG was lucky to be invited to Vai’s recent show at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theatre in Nashville, where his tech, Doug MacArthur, took John Bohlinger through Vai’s jaw-dropping current touring rig.
Special thanks to Doug MacArthur for explaining this incredibly complex rig.
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Currently on its fifth neck, Vai’s trusty axe has been a constant for touring and recording since roughly 1992. It sports DiMarzio “Evolution Bridge” pickups in both the neck and bridge position, “EVO gold” Jumbo frets, and a cosmo black Ibanez LO-PRO tremolo. Vai keeps this one in standard tuning, courtesy of .009-.042 Ernie Ball Super Slinkies.
Flo III has been Vai’s main guitar since the late 2000s. This Jem was assembled at the Ibanez Los Angeles Custom Shop, where it was fitted with a Fernandes Sustainer, and modified with a lightly scalloped fretboard. It’s outfitted with EVO gold jumbo frets, a DiMarzio Evolution Bridge pickup, and an Ibanez LO-PRO tremolo. This one also lives in standard tuning, with .009-.042 Ernie Ball Super Slinkies.
A truly unique aesthetic. Circa 2001, BO was the prototype for the “Jem 77BRMR” model. You’ll notice the mirror crazing under the finish, on the forearm contour. This was worked out for production models, but Vai fell in love with the sound of this particular prototype, and has kept it in the touring lineup since the early 2000s. The neck boasts blue LED front and side dot markers, which were done by Martin Sims. It’s equipped with Jumbo Jescar nickel silver frets, a Fernandes Sustainer, a DiMarzio Evolution bridge pickup, and a LO-PRO Ibanez tremolo. This one rides in drop C tuning, with a set of .010-.052 Ernie Ball Skinny Top Heavy Bottoms.
This one is a production model Ibanez John Schofield JSM, outfitted in a loud Bonvillain Dip, with gold leaf binding and unique pin-striping on the back. The electronics are stock, although the tone controls have been disconnected. Little Pretty sports locking Grover tuners, and a Tusq nut. Doug MacArthur has also re-radiused the fretboard to 16” throughout, and re-fretted it with Jumbo EVO gold fretwire, giving this guitar a very familiar feel to Vai. Plus, it’s gussied up with a very well-loved fluffy white strap!
Zeus is a 1998 one-off prototype for the Hoshino 90th anniversary Jem model. Only one 7-string with this aesthetic was made, and it has remained stored away in Steve’s collection until recently, when pulled into touring duty in early 2023. It’s got custom chrome-topped DiMarzio Blaze pickups, and abalone dot inlays, mods made by MacArthur to get it ready for its first tour. It has jumbo nickel-silver frets, and hangs in standard tuning with a low A, thanks to .009-.056 Ernie Balls.
Made in the early 2000s by the Ibanez Custom Shop, this unique Jem/Strat hybrid boasts a classic sound while still maintaining the Vai aesthetic. It’s loaded with Fender Fat 50s single coils, a Wilkinson tremolo, and EVO gold jumbo frets over 21 frets with a custom 12” radius.
The Beast With Three Necks
This Frankenstein monster, known as the Hydra, has one body, two headstocks, and three necks, accommodating both seven- and 12-string guitars as well as a four-string bass and half-fretless neck. Pickup combinations include a sustainer, humbuckers, single-coils, and a piezo. Oh, and did we mention there’s also a harp onboard?
The Beast With Three Necks
The Hydra has two outputs. One is an ethernet cable, and the other is midi.
The ethernet plugs into a custom Hydra Brain built by Ibanez, which is mounted in the middle of the rack. The ethernet input distributes the signal for each individual instrument on the hydra, and the brain gives each instrument its own 1/4” output, as well as a master level control for each instrument. The harp, bass, and 12-string 1/4” brain outputs go into individual inputs of the AXE FX III TURBO, for the Hydra Song Patch. These three instruments utilize effects and amp modeling in the Fractal, and come out stereo to the front-of-house mixing console. The 7-string, however, doesn’t utilize modeling at all. Its output from the brain goes into the Little Lehle III A/B pedal on Vai’s pedalboard, which gets routed into his pedalboard and normal amplifier signal path. In other words, the 7-string runs through Steve’s rig just like his normal guitars.
There are 3 small MIDI trigger buttons hidden in various locations on the Hydra’s body, which trigger sound effects featured in the song. The MIDI cable goes into a small custom-built splitter box, which feeds each trigger button into a Roland TD-27 drum module, hard-mounted in the middle of the rack and routed to front-of-house.
Rack 'Em Up
Vai runs a neon green, 60-foot-long custom DiMarzio instrument cable from his guitar to his board. The first pedal in the chain is a Little Lehle III A/B switch, that allows Vai’s team to switch between the Hydra and his regular guitars.
From there, the signal hits Vai’s Dunlop 95Q automatic wah, modded by MacArthur to remove the gain switch and add a volume and Q control on the left side of the wah. Vai runs the volume pot all the way up, and the Q around 95 percent of the way up.
From there the signal hits an Ibanez Jemini Distortion then a Digitech Whammy DT. Vai always has the right side of the pedal set to jump 7 semitones up from the moment the switch is stepped on. He uses this constantly, and its work can be heard on songs like “Weeping China Doll,” “Lights Are On,” and “Greenish Blues.”
Then the guitar goes into the input of the rack unit. There’s a Morningstar Effects ML5 MIDI looper, which has an Ibanez Jemini (seen on top of the rack) in a loop, that only comes on during various points during the Hydra performance, via MIDI.
After the ML5, the signal flows into two Synergy SYN-2 preamps, which are daisy-chained together to allow Vai full use of all four modules that are loaded into them: two Synergy VAI modules, and two Synergy B-MAN modules. The 2 Vai modules are set fairly similar—the first is his main tone, and the second one is set virtually identical, but with the gain backed down a bit. The B-MAN modules are used mainly for their beautiful clean channels, but also for their great ’70s overdriven channels, which Vai occasionally uses throughout the night. The module channels are controlled via the Mastermind LT MIDI footswitch on Vai’s pedalboard.
From the Synergys, the signal exits into the input of a Fractal Axe FX III Turbo. This unit is controlled simultaneously by the FC-12 switcher on Steve’s pedalboard, and a second FC-12, at MacArthur’s guitar boat. Each song in the set has its own patch in the Fractal, mainly utilizing different digital delays, chorusing, and reverbs for each song. Vai runs his rig in stereo, so the signal exits the Fractal’s outputs via left and right.
From the stereo output of the fractal, the left and right outputs now go into the left and right inputs of the Fryette LX-2 Stereo Tube Power amp. This power amp is 50 watts per-side, and both left and right are controlled via one single volume control, which allows Vai’s team to maintain even levels between the left and right guitar cabinets. Vai usually rides the volume around 1 or 2 o’clock (depending on the venue), with the depth control pushed in. A second LX2 powers Vai’s front-stage 1x12 stereo guitar monitors, which were custom-built by CARVIN.)
The main Fryette sends its output to the Carvin Legacy 4x12 cabinets on stage left and stage right. These cabs are each loaded with a quartet of Celestion Vintage 30s, and feature unique “Inviolate” artwork grill cloth, which MacArthur had custom-made by NoiseyHammer. These cabs have been with Vai for a long time, and can be seen in the Where The Wild Things Are DVD, when they were fitted with custom grill cloths from the Sound Theories album artwork.
Shop Steve Vai's Rig
Guitarist extraordinaire Joe Robinson—touring behind his new mostly acoustic album, The Prize—shows PG’s John Bohlinger some of his prized 6-strings, ’60s Fender amps, and effects.
When Joe Robinson was learning to play in the remote village of Temagog, New South Wales, Australia, YouTube was his teacher. Then he discovered Tommy and Phil Emmanuel—Australia’s sibling 6-string slicers—and set out on a path that would lead him to Nashville, where he’s been a part of the city’s guitar cognoscenti for the past 13 years.
At 31, Robinson’s fans include Tommy Emmanuel (who’s been a committed mentor), Steve Vai, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, Steve Lukather, Albert Lee, Steve Morse, and Lee Ritenour. He’s released six acclaimed albums, performed in 40-plus countries, and continues to serve a large online audience through livestream concerts and his own popular YouTube channel. Robinson shared his current touring rig before an October 18 show at his adopted hometown’s City Winery.
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Robinson is equally at home playing fingerstyle on acoustic or flatpicking electric. When he’s on acoustic, Joe plays his 2020 Maton signature model, which features a AA Sitka spruce top, Tasmanian myrtle back and sides, stainless steel frets, and proprietary Maton electronics. It wears Ernie Ball Paradigm or Earthwood sets, gauged .012–.054, but Joe replaces the high E with a heftier .014.
Here’s Joe’s Fender Custom Shop Telecaster styled after a ’53, with 52T pickups designed by Ron Ellis (originally, for Julian Lage), a swamp ash body, and a 9.5" radius neck. It is typically strung Ernie Ball Slinky sets (.010–.046), or, sometimes, Mega Slinkys (.0105–.048).
The “Blessing ’Burst”
This 1960 Les Paul, called the “Blessing Burst,” is being auctioned off for Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds and donates specially adapted custom homes nationwide for severely injured post-9/11 veterans, to enable them to rebuild their lives. HFOT has built more than 345 homes to date, with another 65-plus projects underway nationwide. Robinson played the “Blessing Burst” on this gig, and before that it was on tour with Joe Bonamassa and Marcus King, among others
Fly AER Joe!
Joe usually uses the Udo Roesner Da Capo 75 amp, but on this tour he’s using his tiny but mighty AER alpha because it fits in his flight case.
This 3-dial Fender toughie is from 1967, and Joe uses it for recording electric guitars as well as solo gigs, since it fits, well, just about anywhere!
His burlier amps are a 1966 Fender Deluxe and a Magic Amplification tweed-style. If he needs to get really loud, Joe also has a 1967 Fender Showman that was modded by tube amp guru Kye Kennedy that he runs with a 1x15. Oh, and that’s an Amp RX Brown Box input voltage attenuator out front.
Yes, This is JR’s ’Board
Robinson’s pedals sit on a Pedaltrain Metro 20 with a CIOKS DC-5 power supply hidden underneath. It’s divided into acoustic and electric sides. The acoustic domain houses a TC Electronic PolyTune Mini and a Boss RC-1 Loop Station. For electrics: another TC PolyTune Mini, a Dunlop Cry Baby Mini, a Nobels ODR-1 mini (run at 18v), another Boss RC-1, and a TC Hall of Fame mini.
A Fender Tele Deluxe “Cleaver,” a not-so-golden ’57 Les Paul, a few gifts from Grohl, and a pedal playground help “Shifty” find some sonic space.
When Chris Shiflett left No Use for a Name and joined the Foo Fighters in 1999, he almost had no gear. The band was rehearsing to support their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, and leader Dave Grohl was doing an inventory check on their newest member.
“Dave asked me how many guitars I had, and I said, ‘Well, I have two, but one has a broken headstock,’” recalls Shiflett. “Dave chuckled and said, ‘We gotta get you a few more guitars.’”
The duo ventured down to Sunset Boulevard hitting all the guitar shops and Grohl gifted Shifty a pair of Gibsons (that we’ll meet later). (This story is even more proof that Grohl is one of the coolest rock stars ever.)
“I had been going to some of those Sunset stores since I was a teenager, and they’re never nice to you because they know you’re not buying anything. So, when I went in there with Dave Grohl and his AmEx card, it was a real moment for me. Here I am joining my dream band, and he’s like, get whatever you want … and he really meant it!”
Shiflett’s gear germination didn’t stop there. “When I joined the band, I didn’t have any pedals. And now my bandmates constantly make fun of me for the size of my pedalboard—it’s ridiculously big and there are a lot of pedals on it—but my view has always been, ‘as long as I don’t have to carry it around, bring them all [laughs].’”
But they all serve a purpose and allow Chris to stand out in a three-guitar band. “I do love that my role in Foos over the years has become the color guy with all these pedals.”
His growth as an artist doesn’t stop there. Shiflett’s put out punk albums in Jackson United and for nearly 25 years, he sparked endless good times in the best punk-rock cover band (Me First and the Gimme Gimmes). In 2010, he shifted his creative outlet to busting out alt-country twangers and Bakersfield barroom bruisers as Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants, and then, later, solo. Since 2013, he’s been hosting a podcast (Walking The Floor with Chris Shiflett) that’s featured conversations with Wolfgang Van Halen, Mike Campbell, Greta Van Fleet, Billy Strings, and recent Rig Rundown subject Marcus King. Where does the dude find the time?!
Following Foo Fighters' recent Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert at L.A.’s Kia Forum to honor their dearly departed drummer, Shiflett carved out some precious time and invited PG’s Chris Kies to the Foo’s HQ, Studio 606. The laidback conversation covered his essential live guitars (including a not-so-golden ’57 Les Paul and a few gracious gifts from Grohl), some custom Friedmans, and a pair of unusual AC30 stacks that only he and Sir Paul have … and all his pedals that sting, sparkle, shimmer, and sizzle.
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All That Glitters Is Not Gold
This 1957 Gibson Les Paul started out its long life as a goldtop. Shiflett believes that the rest of the instrument is true to the day it left Kalamazoo. He says in the Rundown that he bargained with himself to sell about 20 guitars on a Reverb shop with the idea of parlaying that scratch for one or two “magic guitars.” They tallied up his credit and started dusting off their most-valuable coffers. He was drawn to this one for its sound and character as a player-grade holy grail Les Paul—with its stripped finish and broken headstock. He originally thought it’d be a studio piece, but fellow Foo Pat Smear told him he had to bust it out for tours … which he now has for years. This one stays in standard tuning and takes D’Addario NYXLs (.010–.046).
Shiflett uses lighter-gauged Dunlop Tortex picks that feature the band’s logo on one side and his husky Lucky on the other.
Meet the Cleaver
Ten years ago, Shiflett was honored with a MIM Fender Telecaster Deluxe signature. A few years later, Chris revisited the Tele Deluxe design with Fender’s Masterbilt team and devised this devilish T. They dubbed it “Cleaver, because it positively slashes through the mix,” he says. Specs include a 2-piece alder body, quartersawn maple neck, 21 medium jumbo frets on a rosewood ’board, a large ’70s-style headstock, Schaller tuners, and the Hattori Hanzō-sharp blade of this beauty is a custom pair of Lindy Fralin P-90 Soapbar pickups that are noiseless and slightly overwound.
Ace Gift from Grohl
This Les Paul Custom (Shiflett thinks it’s from 1989–1991) was one of the guitars Grohl bought him back in 1999. It’s seen a lot of pickup combinations, but it currently has a Seymour Duncan JB (bridge) and a ’59 (neck). Shiflett’s a big Kiss fan, so he threw on the Ace Frehley sticker. He’s put a lot of miles on this stallion, and he says that it gallops and grooves best while in drop-D for songs like “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong.”
The Cheapest Way to a Signature Guitar is…
getting a custom truss rod cover made and slapping it on the headstock, as seen here.
C’s Flying V
This 2002 Gibson Flying V was the first axe Shiflett ordered fresh from a guitar company. He got it just before touring in support of 2002’s One by One (the first Foo’s album he contributed to). In the Rundown, he shared his thoughts on the body shape: “As impractical as they are to play sitting down, god, they’re amazing to play standing up!” The V currently has a set of Fralin Pure P.A.F. humbuckers that are “really musical and clear.”
Dave Does It Again
This prized Gibson Explorer was the first guitar he was gifted from Grohl, ahead of his first tour in the Foo Fighters. It’s all stock except for a Seymour Duncan JB subbed into the bridge position.
Can’t You Hear Me Rocking?
When you play in an arena-filling, three-guitar rock band, you need to bring it. Shiflett toggles between the custom, two-channel Friedman Brown Eye 100W head and the Vox AC30 head. For the heavier, distorted songs, he goes with the Friedman, while the Vox is used for softer songs like “Aurora.” Both 4x12 stacks have a backup head. Shiflett claims in the Rundown that his Vox rep stated that only he and Sir Paul have AC30 4x12 stacks. Now that’s some splendid company to share!
Here’s a closeup of the settings Shiflett’s dialed in for the Brown Eye.
And here’s the recipe for Shiflett’s AC30 jangle and chime.
Chris Shiflett’s Pedalboard
His current pedal playground is home to all sorts of tone toys. Starting in the top left he has an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, a JHS Muffuletta, a pair of MXRs (Flanger and EVH Phase 90), an EHX Holy Grail reverb, a Strymon Deco, and a Klon KTR. The next row starts with a Boss CE-2W Waza Craft Chorus, a couple of Strymon TimeLines (one for each amp), and down below is a trio of Xotics—an EP Booster, SP Compressor, and an XW-1. Utilitarian boxes include a Lehle Little Dual amp switcher, Palmer PLI-05 Dual Channel Line Isolation Box, Boss FS-5L footswitch (to toggle between clean and dirty on the Friedman), and a TC Electronic PolyTune that keeps all his guitars singing on key.