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 outspoken frontman pushes the muse—moving his band’s sound beyond metal by blending vintage and cutting-edge instruments and sounds on their 13th studio album, In Cauda Venenum.
Opeth’s 2011 album, Heritage, marked a drastic stylistic shift by Sweden’s premier progressive-metal band. Within the timespan of a single album cycle, they turned their backs on death-metal-style vocals, high-gain amplification, and blast beats. Opeth focused, instead, on vintage guitar tones, layered clean vocal melodies, and compositions that have more in common with Yes than Dimmu Borgir.
The shift was jarring for fans who embraced the band’s previous black-metal sound, but it opened Opeth’s sonic journey in progressive rock that continues to this day. On their new In Cauda Venenum, Opeth doubles down on their exploratory compositions. While there is plenty of familiar territory for fans to sink their teeth into, unexpected twists like the Broadway-approved middle section of “Universal Truth” and the jazzy swing of “The Garroter” are likely to expand a few listeners’ horizons.
And, according to frontman and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, fans should get onboard with this ever-expanding songwriting, or move on. “Many of the songs are really big, pompous, and epic, which I always liked,“ he says. “Basically, [this music] is what I want to do. If 100 percent of our fans hate this record, well, I’m sorry. But I love it.”
Not only does Åkerfeldt not care what the public thinks of In Cauda Venenum, he even kept his own band (lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, bassist Martín Méndez, drummer Martin Axenrot, and keyboardist Joakim Svalberg) at arm’s length throughout the songwriting process.
Åkerfeldt is clearly intentional about his music. From his iron-fist control of the material all the way to the gear used in the studio, every decision is made quickly, decisively, and with a hyper focus on the details. Yet even with so much of his energy currently focused on his art, Åkerfeldt took the time to talk with Premier Guitar about it all—from In Cauda Venenum’s vast orchestrations to the straightforward death metal of his previous band, Bloodbath. Everything was on the table, and he didn’t hold back. (Sorry Yngwie!)
Evolution is a big part of Opeth. Has that been a conscious direction from the beginning?
I don’t like repeating ourselves. If I find that I haven’t moved on from the last album, I usually hit the delete button and start over. But the most important thing is that it’s good. It doesn’t have to be completely different than the record before. If it’s superb, I'll keep it in. But I want to move forward, much to the frustration of some fans.
How did you move forward on In Cauda Venenum?
This time, I was very selfish and I’m only thinking about myself and what I wanted to present. There were no other contributions from the other guys in the band. I wanted it to be as close to my personal taste as possible. This is how I want to present Opeth in 2019 and 2020. My goal, I guess, is to become more selfish [laughs]. And I think I achieved the goal.
As I was writing, and as the songs were shaping up, my other goal with this record became to make the most emotional record of them all. I wanted to make a record that was tugging on the heartstrings more than the previous ones.
Take me through your songwriting process.
Once I start writing for a record, I work every day, and I don’t get too stressed out if I don’t come up with anything one day. I move forward quickly. I make decisions very, very quickly. Those decisions can mean that I delete stuff because I don’t want to keep shit. If it’s not good enough, it’s gone, and it’s gone forever. I can never go back and see what I did.
I write when I need to write, more or less. This record was a little bit of a different situation because I was going on a sabbatical. I thought, after the last tour, that I was going to take a break from it all and not be the Opeth guy. Just be me. But I got restless. Three, four weeks into that sabbatical, I was in the studio working. The good thing about that was nobody knew I was there. The management, the record labels, and the band didn’t know. I didn’t let them know until I had three or four songs. I wrote it under a minimum amount of stress or no stress at all. It was joyous. I had a great time to the point where I couldn’t stop writing almost. We ended up with the longest album we ever put out, and three bonus tracks.
The album sounds terrific. Each instrument is very distinct, yet they work together as one. Was that a goal when you were tracking?
We were in Park Studios [in Stockholm] and worked with [engineer] Stefan Boman [Def Leppard, the Hellacopters], who is the same age as me. He’s like me. He’s a vintage buff. I don’t like to fake it in the studio. It was a pretty old-school setup with the exception that we didn’t record onto tape. Everything else is a good old microphone in front of a good instrument, speaker, or acoustic guitar. It’s important to us.
We had a nice Hammond B-3 organ. We had a nice original M400 Mellotron, lots of old guitars, lots of amplifiers, and pedals. We even recorded all the effects on the guitars. They’re not added afterwards. That basically ties in with my fascination to make fast decisions. We get a good sound, that’s it. That’s what we’re going to record and then we can’t change it. I like that.
Even at your heaviest, Opeth’s music always maintains a human, rock ’n’ roll feel. Do you guys track live?
We didn’t track live. We’ve done that before, but then my attention seems to be directed in one way. It’s really hard for me to keep control of what two guys are doing. If I focus on the drums, then I can miss something on the bass. I didn’t want to do that this time, because the music was much more complex. So we did this [album] one instrument at a time.
TIDBIT: Mikael Åkerfeldt wrote the songs for Opeth’s 13th studio album in secret. “The management, the record labels, and the band didn’t know,” he says. “I wrote it under a minimum amount of stress or no stress at all. It was joyous. I had a great time to the point where I couldn’t stop writing almost.”
The guitar tones have an incredible vintage flavor throughout the album. What did you use to get that vibe?
One thing that’s been important for me since [2008’s] Watershed, I would say, is to try and get away from the generic metal tone that’s so popular today. I wanted to hear the human behind the instrument. So for guitars, there was everything from a bunch of Stratocasters to a mid-’60s SG with P-90s. There was also a Les Paul Junior on there with a P-90, and a Jaguar. We played the Jaguar a lot, actually. There’s a Flying V on the first song, “Dignity.” Some PRS models, too. I think a Tremonti was on there and one other guitar I can’t remember. Acoustically, I only used a Martin 000-28, which is my favorite-sounding guitar that I have. It’s not too bassy, not too trebly. It’s perfect for recording.
Amp-wise, we had a Friedman. I can’t remember which model. We had a Swedish amp—an Olsson, which is basically the one that we used for most of the record. We also had a plexi, but I can’t remember if it was used. Then there were a bunch of vintage and new stompboxes.
I’m a sucker for spring reverb, so we used a nice spring reverb that was actually made from a box in the studio. We put that on pretty much everything. I loved it. And analog delay or tape echo. We have it all on there.
I love how you allow your acoustic guitars to breathe. I’m guessing that goes back to your love of ’70s-style production.
I’m very peculiar with my acoustic sound. I know what I want. And it’s got a lot to do with how you sit in front of the microphone. You can change the sound of the guitar if you just turn a little bit. But generally, we put a nice Neumann at the 12th fret. That was it.