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.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
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
The legend talks gear, almost jamming with Prince, guitar heroes, melody, fear, swapping technique for passion, his hydra guitar, why he chose the players on his latest album, and his true superpower.
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The True Story of Steve Vai Jamming (Almost) With Prince | Wong Notes Podcast
The maestro invents a new instrument, recovers from two surgeries, and releases the barn-burning Inviolate—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as he reveals the source of his seemingly limitless creative power.
About halfway through my call with Steve Vai, I’m brimming with enthusiasm and feeling energized and inspired. Sure, it’s fun to talk to Vai—he’s a hero to so many of us, so it’s naturally exciting—but there’s more to this: He’s giving me a motivational pep talk.
“There’s a huge secret,” he says, and I’m all ears. “Everybody is inspired within themselves with unique ideas that are perfectly suited for their unique creativity in the world. That is within everybody. When you receive that inspiration accompanied with the feeling of enthusiasm and the belief of ‘I know I can do this, I just gotta put the time in,’ that’s an inspiration that’s tailor-made for you and there’s no way that it’s not gonna happen. The universe gave you that so that you can manifest it. That’s what it wants you to do.”
This empowering rap comes with a warning though: “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t find it because their minds drift into fantasy about the future and basically create these fictional desires that are impractical and not really right for you. It’s like people saying, ‘I want to be a world-class virtuoso guitar player,’ but they have a completely tin ear. It’s like me saying, ‘I’m going to win Wimbledon.’ It’s a fantasy. And within a fantasy, there’s always a feeling of resistance. You might believe you can do it, but you don’t know you can. So, there’s a huge difference.”
Steve Vai - Little Pretty (Official Visualizer)
This is the kind of stuff that Vai has put out there in his Under It All YouTube series, which includes about 14 or so hours of esoteric content that sometimes veers into self-help territory. But getting the scoop direct from the maestro himself feels even more enlightening when I realize what he’s saying isn’t just a positive-mental-attitude/self-realization fest. It’s the foundational core of Vai’s ethos, going back to his earliest work.
Even casual fans know the story of how young Steve Vai so impressed Frank Zappa with his transcription of the exceedingly complicated rhythmic brainteaser “The Black Page” that Zappa hired him. It goes without saying that the rhythmic and conceptual chops necessary for handling a work like “The Black Page”—or, really, most of Zappa’s catalog—takes a rare kind of brain. But the stars had to align to help the young upstart realize his destiny.
Everybody is inspired within themselves with unique ideas that are perfectly suited for their unique creativity in the world.
While he was a fresh-faced Berklee student, Vai met keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson—a former Zappa side musician—at a concert by Jobson’s band, U.K. “He started to explain to me what polyrhythms were and how Frank would write polyrhythms over whole bar lines,” he remembers. “I could immediately envision what a tuplet was, what a nested tuplet was—it all just made sense with regard to the timing of a bar or whatever you place that tuplet over. I was placing tuplets over beats that included tuplet timing in them.” This crucial info helped set Vai on his course. “I had an epiphany and then that just launched an intellectual forensic study of the division of time in musical notation.” Inspired, Vai took on the monumental challenge of transcribing Zappa’s work, and the rest is history.
Nowadays, at 61, Vai has fine-tuned his sixth sense for the whims of the universe and is maintaining an uncanny level of creativity. His latest album, the astounding Inviolate, is a straightforward—inasmuch as that’s a thing for Vai—barnburner, and it’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. But as straightforward as Inviolate may be, the path leading to its creation was a winding one. Vai simply followed the cues that presented themselves.
Vai poses with the gargantuan steampunk-inspired Hydra on the cover of Inviolate. It’s a heavy instrument that requires a waist strap. Still, he says, “it gets to your legs after a while” and “throws off your equilibrium completely.” Good thing it looks and sounds so cool!
In early 2020, he decided it was time to make the acoustic record he says “was one of those fantasy projects that I had written down through the years.” With “tons of material” to draw upon and a Paul Reed Smith Angelus acoustic, Vai posted a video of himself playing his song “The Moon and I,” his debut as a solo acoustic singer/songwriter. It’s a revealing performance in which he patiently builds tension in the strum-heavy intro and makes way for the sparse verse. His voice sounds strong, but slightly rough around the edges as he adds a little grit near the end of the song, exposing a different side of the virtuosic performer we’ve become accustomed to hearing play with only the most exacting precision.
Bolstered by the warm response the video received, Vai got to work recording 15 acoustic songs, all, he says, chock full of “beautiful, lush vocal melodies” and “rich chords.” But playing so much acoustic guitar posed some new physical challenges. “There’s one song where I have to fingerpick and I’m just not good at that,” he explains. “I was holding this obtuse kind of a chord way up high on the neck and there’s a lot of pressure on your thumb to hold your hands in place when your fingers are stretching. I just sat there meditating on this, holding the same chord while I was getting my fingerpicking together, and when I took my hand off, it felt like I sprained my thumb.” About a month later, his left thumb froze—a condition called trigger finger.
That wasn’t the only injury he sustained during the recording process. “There was one song that required strumming that was so fierce, so fast, that it would take me three weeks to build up to be able to get to the right tempo,” he says. “I worked on it, worked on it, worked on it, just about got it to where it needed to be—and I would have 14 guitar parts in the can and about three vocals. Unfortunately, that was as far as he’d get because his shoulder, which he’d injured a year prior, “just blew up.” He tore two tendons, which required surgery.
I had an epiphany and then that just launched an intellectual forensic study of the division of time in musical notation.
In December 2020, Vai underwent corrective surgery on his right shoulder, and surgery on his left hand followed in January 2021. Through his recovery, Vai wasn’t content to watch Netflix and chill. He simply couldn’t keep his hands off a guitar. So, with his right arm in a sling called a Knappsack—after Dr. Thomas Knapp, who performed his surgery and invented the device—and his left thumb still in a bandage, he got to work on a new one-handed guitar piece, “Knappsack.”
It was a simple idea. “I’m just gonna write a song with one hand,” he says, and insists “it wasn’t that hard. I just knew instinctively that I could get a tune out of just my left hand.” Donning his sling and bandage, Vai made a play-through video for his YouTube channel. It’s a dramatic look that does indeed contribute to the performance, but “Knappsack” retains the musically thrilling hallmarks of the maestro’s personal style, and its singable melody is bursting at the seams with expertly executed legato arpeggios and scale runs.
Once fully recovered, Vai was itching to get a tour booked. He decided to keep his acoustic project on ice and leaned into the idea of a new electric album. With “Knappsack” in the can, he created a series of musical challenges to overcome. He “set up parameters with the guitar that were somewhat out of my comfort zone” by using a hardtail Strat with a clean tone and playing without a pick for “Candlepower,” and he grabbed a Gretsch 6118 Anniversary on “Little Pretty,” which includes a difficult set of solo section chord changes. “It put up quite the fight but achieved what I was looking for.”
Steve Vai’s Gear
"Who else would do a three-neck guitar like that? I’m a total ham and I love it."
Photo by Michael Mesker
- Bruno Urban custom 6-string
- Fender Stratocaster
- Gretsch G6118T-60 Vintage Select Edition ’60 Anniversary Hollowbody
- Ibanez Hydra
- Ibanez JEM “Bo”
- Ibanez JEM “Flo III”
- Ibanez JEM “Evo”
- Ibanez PIA
- Ibanez Universe 7-string
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball super Slinky Cobalt (.009–.042)
- Ibanez heavy
- Ampeg SVT Classic
- Carvin Legacy
- Lazy J 80
- 1980 Marshall with high-gain Jose Mod
- Marshall JCM2000
- Marshall JMP
- Paul Reed Smith Archon 50
- Synergy BMAN Preamp
- Synergy Vai Signature Preamp Module
- Victory V130
- Digitech Whammy
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- Fractal Audio FM3 Amp Modeler/FX Processor
- Ibanez Steve Vai Jemini Distortion
- MXR Phase 90
Despite his one-handed post-surgical musical opus, Vai says the biggest challenge on Inviolate can be heard on “Teeth of the Hydra,” where he debuts his newest creation, the steampunk-inspired Hydra, a three-neck beast that includes a 12-string neck that’s half fretless, a bass neck that has fretless E and A strings, a 7-string neck, harp strings, and a guitar synthesizer. Vai says the instrument, a five-year collaboration with Ibanez, “was a downloaded inspiration that came specifically for me because when it came I knew I could do it.”
When the Hydra was delivered, “I opened up the case and it was awesome and it was intimidating,” Vai says. “It had a big gnarly smile on its face. I propped it up in the studio and walked past it probably 20 or 30 times a day for a year, year-and-a-half, and every time I did it, it would go, ‘You know, you gotta play me. You gotta write that song.’ Finally, I carved out six weeks and I sat behind the Hydra and thought, ‘What was I thinking? What was wrong with me? What have I got myself into? People are gonna see me with the guitar and say, ‘He can get any guitar made he wants, but it’s all a gimmick.’’
But the Hydra was the product of his own brain, so Vai knew he could rise to the occasion. “I’m sitting there thinking ‘I’m in trouble,’” he admits. “And then that other voice came in and said, ‘You got this, you knew you had it all along, shut up and do it.’ And I sat down behind that thing and started motoring away slowly. I put a beat down and I started imagining.”
In late 2020 and early 2021, Vai had surgery on his right shoulder and left thumb. Injury is nothing new to the guitarist: “Through the 41 years of touring that I’ve done, you could probably name anything and I’ve had it. I’ve toured with slipped discs in my neck, right out of neck surgery. I’ve toured with slipped discs in my spine and had to get surgery … structurally I might be a little compromised because I grew up hunched over a guitar.”
Photo by Larry DiMarzio
The biggest challenge Vai created for himself wasn’t just to use the Hydra for a song, but to do so without looping or overdubbing. Although he learned he needed to record the harp strings separately because of how sensitive they are, Vai otherwise tracked “Teeth of the Hydra” in a linear fashion, performing one section at a time. “‘Candlepower’ and ‘Knappsack’ were probably two of the most challenging things I’ve recorded in my catalog, and they’re a walk in the park compared to the Hydra,” he says.
Any skeptics who might think that the Hydra is a gimmick should quickly be silenced by just how rippin’ “Teeth of the Hydra” is. Yeah, it’s a complete shred-fest, but it’s also tuneful and fun. That said, Vai is realistic and grounded about the concept of the song and of the instrument. “I’m an entertainer. It’s in my blood,” he says. “I love performing. Who else would do a three-neck guitar like that? I’m a total ham and I love it.”
When you’re engaged in those perfectly constructed inspirations that came to you for you, you’re in a state of enjoying what you’re doing right now, and life is only a series of right nows.
When we spoke, Inviolate was finished and Vai had an approaching tour (which has now been rescheduled). But he was planning to complete his acoustic record while travelling. In the summer, he’ll be heading to Holland to spend a month recording orchestral music with the Metropole Orkest. “I’m still keeping that side of my career going, because I love it,” he says. “I don’t expect my fans to go crazy for it, but some people will like it. At the end of the recording date with the orchestra, I should have about four albums in the can of new orchestral music. So, I’ll be balancing that with the acoustic record.”
And if that’s not dizzying enough, he just received a completed mix of an archival record from around 1990. “It’s my answer to the kind of music that I’d like to listen to when I’m out riding my motorcycle—when I was a teenager,” he says. “It’s kind of like ’80s rock with a biker edge. I found this singer, his name’s Gash, and the guy could sing like I never heard anybody. I wrote this stuff in a stream of consciousness and recorded it in about a week.”
Vai with Evo, the Ibanez JEM he’s been playing since before he recorded 1993’s Sex and Religion.
Photo by Larry DiMarzio
As we get off the call, my head is spinning just thinking about how Vai is going to split his time between a full-on rock tour, producing an acoustic record, and recording hours of orchestral music. It’s mind-boggling on a technical and creative level—not to mention his time-management skills must be seriously on point. Plus, he’s maintained this high level of activity for so long, sustaining his drive, motivation, and quality of work.
When I inevitably find myself wondering “how does he do it,” I keep coming back to this one nugget of wisdom he shared: “When you’re engaged in those perfectly constructed inspirations that came to you for you, you’re in a state of enjoying what you’re doing right now, and life is only a series of right nows.” If that’s the case, Vai seems to be making the most out of every one of them.