Steve Vai

By Lori Smerilson Carson | Photos Larry DiMarzio

Listen and you will hear, could easily sum up this grand, amazing and unique music that comprises Guitarist Steve Vai’s tenth solo album Inviolate. This extraordinarily talented musician has created nine instrumental songs that are not only pleasing to any rock fan’s ears, but also capture his outstanding abilities that have only grown and expanded over the past forty years. Since the start of Vai’s career in the early 80’s, he has worked with many world-renown musicians and even won three Grammy awards for Rock Instrumental Performance in 1994 and 2009 and Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2002. Now, he is bringing his latest concert to Clearwater, FL on October 18th at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, Ft. Lauderdale, FL on October 19th at The Parker then Orlando, FL on October 20th at The Plaza Live, and wrapping Florida up in Ponte Vedra Beach on October 21st at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.

Catching up with Vai just prior to this tour, he revealed some details about the new album Inviolate, the new show, some past experiences and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: Is there anything new or different that fans can look forward to seeing with this new tour?
Steve Vai: Well, through my solo career I haven’t been much of a radio artist, so the people that come to my show have usually been through the music, they followed me. So, when they come to the show and they see this show, they pretty much know what to expect. Some of it will be unexpected, but with all the press I’m doing (he laughed) they’ll probably know, but it’s a show, a Vai show. I’ve got Philip Bynoe on bass, Jeremy Colson (drummer) and Dave Weiner on guitar which is the band I’ve played with close to twenty years. This show will have some surprises. Well, the thing that they’re gonna hear is new music finally, off of this new record, and the difference between the stuff on this record that I’ll be playing and the stuff in the past is, this music poses the greatest challenge for me from any other tour as far as playing, performing ‘cause the materials got some intricacies that just are death defying for me (he laughed).

SFL Music: I did notice the intricacies. It was very relaxing to listen to the whole album.
Vai: Yes, but there’s certain subtilties that you wouldn’t know unless you were like a guitar player following all the little nuances. There are songs like “Candlepower” and “Knappsack” and “Teeth of the Hydra” that are just really challenging.

SFL Music: Is that because of the instruments that you used? Like “Teeth of the Hydra”, the custom guitar you used that you named The Hydra and “Candlepower” had the Strat style guitar.
Vai: Yeah. It has a technique in it that’s difficult. It’s a difficult technique, but you know, I got it (he laughed).

SFL Music: Yes, you do.
Vai: “Teeth of the Hydra” is especially challenging because if you listen to that song, all the bass, the electric guitar, the twelve-string guitar, the harp strings, it’s all performed on the Hydra in one performance, so it’s a very linear kind of piece of music and when I perform it, it requires me to use independence, a form of independence that I’m not very used to. I haven’t really tried this before, but it’s the process of hitting, using all the necks constantly throughout the piece to make it sound like a piece of music and not a gimmick because the guitar when you see it, it could be considered something kind of gimmicky, but it’s a highly technical masterpiece that guitar.

SFL Music: How did that come about (built per Vai with Hoshino designers)?
Vai: Well about five years ago, I was watching a Mad Max movie and one scene where they were going through the desert, and there was this guy strapped to the front of a truck playing this wild looking guitar. I thought, that’s pretty cool, but I can make it cooler (he laughed), and that’s when I thought, I’m gonna build a guitar with multiple necks. I have various guitars with multiple necks. That’s kind of a thing that some guitar players do, but this time, I wanted it very specific and I wanted a twelve-string neck that’s half fretless. A seven-string neck. A bass neck that’s got the E and the A string fretless, but the guitar has all sorts of technical things in it. It’s got 13 harp strings. It’s got a whole synthesizer section. It’s got piezos and sample and hold features. It’s really a behemoth.

SFL Music: It made the song sound very unique.
Vai: I had to compose it linearly because most of the time when you’re listening to music, you hear the bass pumping along and then you hear the guitar on top of it, but I couldn’t do that because I only have two arms (he laughed).

SFL Music: Speaking of that, the song “Knappsack”. The title came from when you had shoulder surgery? Your surgeon called the sling a Knappsack?
Vai: Yeah, because his name was doctor Knapp and he’s one of the leading surgeons for this kind of thing, and he developed this sling of sorts for this specific kind of surgery that I had and he calls it the Knapp sack. So, when I got back from the surgery, I was sitting at the studio and I couldn’t use my right arm at all. There was a guitar that came in from Iban as it was the new black onyx PIA and I was feeling frustrated because I wanted to play, but I couldn’t. Then I realized hey, I know. I’m gonna make a song with one hand.

SFL Music: That’s amazing!
Vai: Lemonade. Lemonade out of lemons. The real challenge was it was COVID and nobody was coming into the studio, so I had set up all the amps and mic everything and create the session and set up the cameras and edit everything and record it with one hand.

SFL Music: Wow! When I heard the song I kept thinking, how did he do that with one hand? I liked the variety of songs like “Sandman Cloud Mist” and “Greenish Blues” had a little bit of a bluesy sound. What inspires you when you write your music? How do you get the ideas for the different songs?
Vai: Well, I don’t put up any barriers to inspiration. It can come to us in any form. Sometimes it’s in something somebody says. Sometimes it’s in finding a band or finding music that has an energy that inspires you, and I might say well, I’m gonna write a song with that kind of energy. Sometimes its compositionally where I sit down and I just compose notes out of my head. And sometimes I pick up the guitar and I just start noodling around and something starts coming out. Whatever method I might receive inspiration, or anybody receives inspiration, there’s always a moment where they have to take that inspiration and put it through their own perspectives, their own intentions and their own unique personal creative instincts, and then bring it into the world. So, we can all be exposed to similar things which is impossible in the first place, but it’s completely impossible for anybody to experience something of inspiration and then create something that’s exactly like somebody else. One of the things that I do that is probably responsible for a lot of the songs on Inviolate is, whenever I have any kind of an idea that I feel has energy in it or it’s got like a thread of interest or excitement, I try to document it. Even if it’s just like one bar or something like that, and I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen. So, I have what I call the infinity shelf which is a hard drive with like thousands of snippets of ideas and sometimes I’ll speak them into an iPhone or something. Then usually at the end of the year, I go through all the snippets and I categorize them. Then when I go to make a particular type of record, I go into those folders and I’ll hear something that was an inspired little snippet and within it is the DNA for the entire piece of music ‘cause that one step that we all have to take in the creative process is visualizing. You know, you gotta visualize. I believe that the greatest tool that a human has in their intension of creating, being creative, is their ability to visualize. So, I rely on that heavily.

SFL Music: How did the album come about? Was there a theme? I love the title Inviolate. What inspired that?
Vai: Well in the past, a lot of my records would have themes and concepts sometimes. For instance my record Real Illusions(:Reflections) (released in 2005) is a triple album trilogy, actually it’s a quadrilogy, but for Inviolate, I really started to feel the pull to get on tour during the pandemic. So, I had some pieces of music that I had recorded and uploaded through lockdown which was “Candlepower”, “Sandman (Cloud Mist)” and “Knappsack”. So, I filled out the rest of the record with pieces of music that I felt worked in the realm of instrumental guitar, and there’s no real concept. There’s no funny little in between noises that I usually do. My main focus on this record was melody.

SFL Music: So, there wasn’t really a theme?
Vai: No, no. it’s interesting to me how the Greek mythology worked its way into the titles of the songs (he laughed). It was kind of accidental, but then I went with it. Very much looking forward to getting on tour and I have to tell you. I’ve been touring for forty-one years and I always look forward to coming to Florida because for some reason, Florida and Texas, the audiences are just really great. They go along with everything and they’re fun and they respond.

SFL Music: What would you say is the key to having such a long successful career?
Vai: When I look back at it, I would like to say I was at the right places at the right time, but I don’t believe in coincidence or chance. I think what sustained me is always when I come up with an idea, an exciting idea that pushes my own boundaries so to speak because I mean, let’s face it. I’m known as a guitar player and the guitar community as passionate as it is, it’s a very small sector in the music business. You know, like the instrumental guitar community, and I do a lot of other things, but this particular record is instrumental guitar. I’ve been fortunate enough to attract an audience that resonates with what I do, so they’ve stuck with me through my whole career. In the early days, I was playing with those big rock bands, and the fans for those bands were more rock and metal fans, and when I left that and started doing my music which, it’s rock. It has some metal, but it’s very different. Its compositional. Its quirky. It’s all of these things. It was a group of people from that larger group that it resonated with and they just stuck with me through my whole career. It’s fantastic!

SFL Music: You’re referring to when you played with Frank Zappa and…
Vai: David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. Yeah.

SFL Music: What would you say that you maybe took from those experiences into your solo career?
Vai: Oh my gosh! If I’ve had any great advantage in my career, it was working with people that were experienced like the people I worked with. I was eighteen when I started working for Zappa, so it was you know, quite an interesting learning curve, and I joined his band when I was twenty because I was transcribing for him. I was too young to join the band, and I could literally write a book based on all the things I learned from working with Frank. But if I was to sum it up, Frank was a free thinker and one of the takeaways from working with him was, if you have an idea that’s compelling to you, just do it. And he was such a free thinker. He was constantly being creative and he gave no excuses. So, when I was with Alcatrazz, it was the first time I was actually in a professional band where it was a band. So, I learned a lot about the dynamics of being in a band. Then when I joined David Lee Roth I mean, Dave Roth was the bona fide charismatic rock star of the eighties. And I learned so much from him about being in shape when you’re on tour you know, and there was business practices I learned. There was how to relate to a large audience. How to project and be a performer. I mean, he was a mentor. It was phenomenal! With Whitesnake, it was more of an opportunity again for me to learn to work with a band on a different level. When I say different level, I don’t mean audience capacity or anything like that. I mean, psychological neighborhood. I had a lot to learn and I did.

SFL Music: What would you recommend to up-and-coming musicians? Guitarists?
Vai: Well, find what it is that you like the most about the instrument, and try to put aside all preconceived ideas of what you think you should do based on what the world says you should do (he laughed), and forget about the future. Abandon all hope of success and focus now on playing and enjoying the thing that you love the most because success is an accoutrement. It’s an effect. It’s not the cause. It’s in the aftermath. It happens naturally when you’re focusing with joy on your true creative passion. I can only say this because that’s what I did. I had no thought, of course I had thoughts of the future, but I didn’t have fantasies that were unrealistic. What I did was focused on what I was enjoying in the moment and then the success is a consequence of that.

SFL Music: That’s great advice. What got you into music as a career?
Vai: Music. Just music in general was the impetus. I was fascinated by it when I was a kid. I just loved it, loved it. Then when I was introduced to the guitar. The first time I saw somebody play, I was six and he was nine. That sealed the deal you know, (he laughed). Yeah, when I was eleven, I heard Led Zeppelin and that’s when I decided, I’m gonna play the guitar. And the thing that keeps me going is a good idea. When I feel a creative idea, I almost feel like I have to live long enough to do it and then when I’m done, I could die and its fine (he laughed). It’s like when the idea for the Hydra came, I mean. I’m you know, exaggerating, but when the idea for the Hydra came, it was so compelling to me and so exciting that it didn’t matter if it was gonna be successful or any of that. I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to do it. Same thing with “Knappsack”. When the idea came, ah. I’m gonna do a song with one hand. It wasn’t because I was setting out to impress people. It was because I knew I was gonna come up with something different for myself and it would be a great challenge. So, this has always been the thing that’s kept me going. An interesting challenge because you can’t figure out worldly success. You can’t say, well maybe some people can say this is a hit song and I’m gonna get it on the radio and its gonna sell a lot of records, whatever a record is these days, and I’m gonna be famous you know, some people might be able to do that, but I don’t even try. And whenever I used to, it never worked. It’s just easier to just do what you want.

SFL Music: Are there going to be any new videos fans can look forward to?
Vai: Yeah, in fact we recently released the song off of Inviolate called “Little Pretty” and I was concerned because I love the song, but it is kind of a different you know, I mean, the whole harmonic structure of it. The feel, but there was something about it that was really intriguing to me, and I’ve been through this kind of thing before where you release something that you think is really great and people go, “this sucks,” but it didn’t happen this time. We released that song and I can’t even believe the response. I’m like wow, people hear what I was hearing! So, I decided to do a quick little studio performance video for “little Pretty” and that’s actually what I’m working on at this very moment. If I’m fortunate and I get the time, I really feel it would be good to do a video of “Teeth of the Hydra” because just listening to the song doesn’t, its half of the story. I mean, seeing it being performed is another whole story.

SFL Music: That’s definitely something for people to look out for. Was there anything else you want readers to know?
Vai: Well, thank you for years of support and if you’re not a fan, but you’re curious, come to the show. They’re always fun!

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