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Tuning Up: The Phone Survey According to "Steve"

I guess the thought that I was putting one over on people who usually treated me like I’d just barged in on a make-out session was somehow cathartic

Even back in 1986, when Vai was first getting attention for his new gig with David Lee Roth and his appearance in the blues fable Crossroads, his unfettered creativity and uncanny fluidity was in clear evidence.

When I was 17, I worked at the Wirthlin Group in Orem, Utah, as a telephone surveyor. A bunch of bored-out-of-our-mind teens and I sat at computers that automatically called numbers all over the country, and when someone picked up the line we recited a script that typically sent people into a profanity-riddled rage and/or made them slam the receiver down.

Hi, this is ___________ with the Wirthlin Group. Today we’re conducting a short survey on ___________________, and we were wondering if you could answer a few questions … .

One of the few ways I found to combat boredom at “the Worthless Group”—other than chatting about Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan with my pals Loa and Lupe between calls—was to use pseudonyms during that opening script. Don’t ask me why that made a difference to my summer-job doldrums, but it did. I guess the thought that I was putting one over on people who usually treated me like I’d just barged in on a make-out session was somehow cathartic— a subtle “Oh yeah, you think I annoy you? Well I just lied to your face!”

Yes, 17 is a mature age.

I was pretty deep in my shred phase at the time, so my main go-to persona was “Steve Vai.” I think I settled on being Vai as much for my guitar-nerdness as for the fact that I thought it sounded believable— Steve is an all-American and totally mundane-sounding name. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that people probably thought the teen voice on the other end was a prankster calling himself “Steve Eye.” That would explain a lot of the swearing and hang-ups.

The only time someone caught on to my ruse, though, it actually almost worked out in my favor and netted me a respondent.

Hi, this is Steve Vai with the Wirthlin Group … we were wondering if you could answer a few questions …

Steve Vai, huh? Can I have some guitar lessons?

[Nervous laughter on my end.]

Uh, sure—if you take the survey.

Alas, the bastard was too young to answer whatever lame-ass questions I was going on about anyway.

The man gracing our cover this month got a kick out of this story years later when I shared it with him during an interview. I was out of my shred-centric phase by then, but one thing has always stuck with me about the dude who wowed me back in 1986 as Satan’s axe slinger in Crossroads: As proven by his live performances and the unflappable singularity of his recorded music, few players in any genre have a relationship with their instrument that’s as seamlessly symbiotic as Vai’s.

Back in 1996, a few years after I’d moved on from idolizing Vai to a multi-year phase during which I worshipped at the altar of Eric Johnson, I purchased the G3 Live in Concert [cringe] VHS tape of the first G3 tour, which featured tour founder Joe Satriani, Vai, and Johnson. Though I still had tons of respect for Satriani and Vai, I bought the tape for EJ. But I’ll never forget how, after watching the whole thing through, what struck me more than anything was how Vai was one with his guitar—they were like a single organism. I was reminded of that again when I watched 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are DVD in preparation for our interview. The guy and his Ibanez Jems are the freaking Penn & Teller of guitardom!

Regardless of how you feel about Vai’s genre, tones, former bosses, etc., I think that oneness with your art and medium is something we should all aspire to. It’s not about chops or gear or trends. It’s about knowing who you are and what you want as a musician, and then sticking to your vision and your artistic aesthetic no matter what anyone outside your creative circle thinks.

Our interview with Mr. Vai this month provides plenty of evidence of his musical steadfastness, but we’ve got a lot more where that came from. When you’re done here, click to to watch two exclusive PG videos that give you an unprecedented look at what makes him tick. One is an in-depth Rig Rundown detailing the setup he’s taking on tour in support of The Story of Light this year, and the other is an engrossing, behind-the-scenes peek at his Harmony Hut studio—which is stocked to the rafters with something like 263 incredible guitars, a $120k set of monitors, and tons of high-end vintage recording gear.

See you online!

Shawn Hammond