Back in the early 1990s, it was almost unheard of for musicians to play anything but six string guitars. Steve Vai’s creative imagination allowed him to design the first mass-produced seven string guitar, the Ibanez UV7, which became his signature model for years. Vai has had many accomplishments throughout his illustrious career and has lived his dream touring the world as a solo guitarist. He has created some of the most sophisticated guitar compositions and continues to influence many musicians.
The music of Steve Vai has compelled artists to refine their techniques and take their abilities to another level. He is well-known for his contribution as a member of G3 (a concert tour organized by guitarist Joe Satriani) to showcase the talents of many virtuoso-style guitar players. Most recently, Vai has formed the rock/heavy metal supergroup Generation Axe. As part of this tour, he shares the stage alongside some of the greatest guitar players, including Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Tosin Abasi and Nuno Bettencourt. This unique combination of astonishing musicians is unlike anything you have ever experienced. They all work together in harmony to captivate an audience with a cultivated appreciation of artistic excellence.
Steve Vai is a veteran of the music industry and he continues to reinvent his style, while maintaining the true spirit of where his musical journey began. His compositions are mesmerizing with spiritual overtones that resonate through the minds of young listeners and future beginners of guitar. I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Vai. He expressed his profound outlook on making music and his appreciation for his loyal fan base. You can catch Steve Vai as a part of the Generation Axe tour, Monday, December 10th at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood FL.
SFL Music: Your Generation Axe tour has just gotten underway. It must be exciting to perform with so many talented musicians at once.
Steve Vai: It is and it always is. We’ve done an American and an Asian tour. This is our second American tour. The prep went very smooth. The first few shows went fantastically and were off and running. It’s been great.
SFL Music: When I was a kid, I purchased Guitar World Magazine with you on the cover and I would challenge myself by practicing your guitar lessons. With artists like yourself and tours like Generation Axe, it’s really what’s keeping guitar music alive. When you originally got started as a guitarist, did you ever imagine that you would be so influential to the younger generation of upcoming musicians?
Vai: I didn’t think much of anything in regards to projecting like that into the future. It all seemed too fantastic for me to consider that I would rise to any form of notoriety. I just knew I loved the guitar and that I wanted to play it. I loved music. I loved writing music and compositing it. In the back of my mind, I had aspirations to be a touring musician and to play onstage. But it always seems out of reach, so I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t my driving force to be successful and it never was. At the forefront was the love of guitar music and everything just followed.
SFL Music: You have been playing Ibanez guitars throughout most of your career. I personally love the RG8 eight string guitar. What is it about Ibanez that has helped you remain loyal to the company for so many years? Is there anything in particular about their guitars that you feel doesn’t compare to any other brands?
Vai: It was the support. Their intense consideration for the instrument. Their ability to manufacture it to my specifications without any compromises and their ability to get it distributed to stores and market it. In the beginning when I designed the JEM, probably thirty-six years ago, I designed it before I had any endorsement deal. I had four or five of them made. When I started to gain some notoriety, guitar companies were interested in having me work with them. I basically sent out the specs for the JEM to all the big ones and whoever gives me back the best guitar is the one that I’d use. Hands down, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was Ibanez on many levels.
SFL Music: Of course you went on to popularize the seven string guitar. Now a lot of musicians are playing it a little bit differently than you did back then. What made you want to switch to a seven string guitar? Was there anyone that inspired you or did it just make sense to want to have the extra low-end B string?
Vai: Well, nobody was using a seven string back then. That wasn’t really on my radar, but with Ibanez they were happy to make whatever my imagination could come up with. When I thought about having a guitar with seven strings, I knew that it would bring a whole different dimension to the kind of music I was playing. And it did. I also knew in the back of my mind that if young players saw the instrument, they would have their own kind of intention with it. When I got it, I did the whole Whitesnake record with it. You could hear it, but that style of music and the way it was appropriate. But I knew that there were going to be young kids that got that guitar and were going to do something fierce with it. I’ll never forget when I was driving my car once some years after the seven string was released. Those kids that were fans of mine when I started playing the guitar, they picked up that guitar, they started forming bands. I remember turning on the radio and hearing this music and I was like ‘What is this?’ I pulled my car over and it was Korn. It was their new record and I just knew ‘Ok, there it is.’ They took it to a different dimension than I did and I also knew that would be the case for other genres. I remember walking into a club once and seeing a jazz player playing the seven string and he was just doing such wonderful beautiful things with it. So it was helpful for a lot of people in various genres.
SFL Music: There’s one guy who you’re playing with on the Generation Axe tour and that guy is Tosin Abasi. His approach is very innovative. What’s it like sharing the stage with Tosin and what do you think of his style with what he has done with seven and eight string guitars?
Vai: Well he’s kind of a phenomenon, you know. He’s a person that came along and has completely different intentions than any trend or contemporary movement. He took that guitar and he just started writing music that he heard in his ear and it had all these incredible depths of harmony, melody and rhythm. His whole rhythmic approach was baffling, but it sounds like music. That’s the big difference. He really utilized his instrument beautifully and playing alongside of him is a charm. When you watch this guy, he is doing things that you can’t even imagine could have been done when you were practicing, learning and listening to your heroes. It’s so interesting because I had a talk with him yesterday. He told me that when he first heard Passion and Warfare, it was one of his biggest records for inspiration. He said the reason why he got the seven string guitar is because he was inspired by me. So it’s interesting to see how you’re always standing on the shoulders of those that come before you, and if you have a unique vision that gets put into the mix. So, you’ve got your influences, but then you’ve got the majority of what you do. It’s your voice, that’s really nice and he’s that guy.
SFL Music: Speaking of Passion and Warfare, which is my favorite record that you’ve done, I read that you said that you really pushed yourself to the limit during the writing and recording process. You said that your fingers were bleeding under the skin. What was your mindset during the recording of that record?
Vai: I was so fortunate in my early years having played with so many iconic artists. I worked with Frank Zappa for six years, I toured and wrote with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, selling millions of records and playing to millions of people. I feel it was because I was able to contribute appropriately in those genres because those genres are really the foundation of my growth and my youth. But just like guys like Tosin Abasi have an inner ear for something that’s very compelling to them, so did I. It waited a long time, but I always knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to make that record. What I had no idea about or really thought about was its success. When you’re driven artistically to do something you become myopic. All the other things, they are important, but they’re not of vital importance. Of vital importance is you expressing your uniquely creative desires that are important to everybody. It almost sounds pretentious. But if it sounds pretentious, that’s the ego. You’re here to be as creative and unique as you can be. There’s nothing wrong with that and you’re here to love what you do. You’re here to do the best you can do and to enjoy what you’re doing creatively. I’m that guy. I love what I do. I love my music. I love a lot of different types of other music, but when I made Passion and Warfare, I kind of turned my back on the idea of ever being successful again. None of them knew about Passion and Warfare, particularly Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake or any of those bands I was with before that. But I knew I had to do it. When you feel that way, there’s a certain kind of creative freedom that you have access to. When you don’t have such unrealistic or fantastic expectations, it creates an opening for you to be wildly unique. Whatever you do, the main reason you’re doing it is to gratify yourself. That’s always the pathway to success because success has some different faces. True success is when you feel creatively fulfilled. Once you feel fulfilled with your music or whatever it is you’re doing, a business, art or writing, you feel fulfilled in that and that energy flows into what you do. It attracts the appropriate audience for you. You’re not trying to capture an audience that’s not in sync with your musical instincts. That never works. You might sell a lot of records and have success that way, but you never feel fulfilled where you could even end up regretting your own success and becoming bitter. You don’t want to be trapped in an image or identity that people made for you that’s not you. So, I’m really lucky because the audience that comes to see me finds great value in it, and they’re the appropriate audience to me. So I win in two ways. I like what I do and they like what I do.
SFL Music: For a lot of people, some of your instrumental records could very well be the soundtracks to their lives. The longevity of artists like yourself and Yngwie Malmsteen is refreshing to see. What can people expect from the Generation Axe tour?
Vai: All these guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde and Tosin Abasi, they’ve done the same thing that I’ve done. They’ve expressed themselves. These guys are not phonies. They’re authentic to the bone and they don’t have a choice. They follow their instincts, regardless of anything that is going on anywhere. Those are the kind of guys that are playing in Generation Axe. When we tour, it’s a celebration of the guitar and you get to see something that you just don’t see normally. It’s not just because we’ve got Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen and Tosin Abasi. We come together as a unit onstage and we create something that’s blended in a way that I’ve never seen. That’s another win-win. The Generation Axe show may not be what people think, for those who haven’t seen it. It’s really quite a wonderful show, not just if you’re a guitar lover. It’s not just an instrumental guitar show. Nuno Bettencourt is an incredible singer. So is Zakk and even Yngwie Malmsteen. They all sing and it’s a wonderful show.
Interview: Joseph Vilane