Vai: Following his path by following his passion.
One of the most important and influential guitarists in the 20th and 21st century, Steve Vai needs no introduction. Vai, who is preparing for a summer G3 tour and releasing a new album, took time from his busy schedule to sit down with Guitar-Muse to talk about the new record (Story of Light), and finding and following one’s path.
When you were a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston did you have any idea then that you would have signature model guitars and signature amplifiers someday? As a related career question, is where you are now close to where you thought you might be someday?
Steve: Well at the time – no not at all. I was actually sort of insecure about my playing. I mean I loved music and I loved guitar and I loved rock and composition, but it was my own little secret so to speak. It wasn’t until later in life that I looked back and realized that I was very confident in what I liked and what I wanted to do. When you look back at the way you used to think and the things you used to do, it masks your perspective on your overview on how things turned out.
To answer your question, there were things I was doing and thinking at this time that leads me to believe that I was very firm on my path. But things like, the success of the (signature model) JEM (guitar)….I would have never expected that. Things like having platinum albums on the wall (laughs) I never really expected it. The thing that was the most important thing to me at the time, my obsession so to speak, was playing the guitar and my love for the guitar. Every day I got up it was like a gift to be able to go over and play the guitar. To not be able to play something and to work at it and to all the sudden be able to play it was like my juice. That was the thing that compelled me to continue to evolve. And everything that I’ve achieved was really a result of my love, respect and passion for the guitar back in the day and it holds true for today. Whenever I would put my energy into something other than that it never felt authentic.
It seems like you’ve had a really clear continuity and evolution of vision that you’ve been following. Even if the steps that you took weren’t necessarily designed to get you from point A to point B, there’s a very specific path that you’ve been on.
Yeah, and sometime you don’t see that path until later on. But like I said, the moment that I picked up a guitar and started to play and realized that it was an infinite instrument. That it was a forever friend….regardless of anything that’s ever come up in my career whatever the challenges might have been or whatever the situation might have been in the back of my mind I always felt that I had the guitar and under any circumstances I could always pick up the guitar and work on something new. The drive for me has always been to evolve my playing, little bit by little bit…And like I say, everything came from it. I never tried out for a band where it was like a dream or a goal or anything like that they all just kind of fell into my lap as a result of my love for guitar. That right there is the core of success. Finding what you really like. Finding what excites you the most and just throwing yourself into it.
Just pursuing it relentlessly…
Yeah. And my pursuit was not to be a famous guitar player, it was to be evolving as a guitar player.
That kind of leads into the next question I have. After working with Frank Zappa, you got a gig replacing Yngwie (Malmsteen) in Alcatrazz and recorded Disturbing the Peace. You then got the David Lee Roth solo gig (essentially replacing Eddie Van Halen in that relationship) and recorded Eat ‘Em and Smile and Skyscraper with him which lead to the Whitesnake gig where you recorded Slip of the Tongue with them and did the supporting tour. What I think is remarkable about each leg of that journey is that you managed to put a personalized stamp on all of those records and break out of the hidden sideman role. Do you have any tips for musicians who find themselves in musical roles replacing iconic players?
Well when I was entering those bands the people who were in charge of those bands, (Frank, Dave Roth, Dave Coverdale, etc.) they were looking for a particular thing and there were large elements of what I did that worked. The worst thing that I could have done was to try to emulate the previous player. Like with Alcatrazz, Yngwie was the guitar player. You don’t emulate Yngwie (or at least I didn’t feel comfortable trying to do that). I have great respect for his playing for what he had done. But I had my own voice. And that voice came from, this is what I was talking about before, my love and inspiration for the guitar. And whenever I would go into these situations, I would look at what was needed and ask myself, How I could I contribute to that in a way that works seamlessly with the situation but also expresses my personal identity. You don’t really have a choice in not expressing your personal identity because it’s just something that happens.
So I would say if you’re in a situation where you’re going to replace somebody that’s a well known player, first look at the situation and see yourself in it and ask yourself, “Am I comfortable? Do I feel like I could contribute appropriately what’s needed?” Then ask, “How could my voice be sort of be amalgamated into this picture?” With Frank it was easy because Frank was giving me these incredibly difficult guitar parts, they weren’t actually guitar parts they were compositional pieces – melodies that he would play or compose that he just handed off. They didn’t fit the guitar at all but I knew I could do them because I thought that anybody could do anything if they started really, really really slow and then just worked on it until they could play it. And with Alcatrazz, Dave Roth and all the others it was the same thing. You know, you don’t replace Edward Van Halen (laughs). Just jump in and do your best. But I was comfortable with the music because I loved the music in all those bands and I knew that I had enough of an accessible voice on the instrument to make it work. I also knew that I could bring something different and I wasn’t afraid to be different.
When I think of guitar players from the 60’s, I think of people like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Unfortunately we’ll never know what Hendrix would have done, but of the remaining guys of that era; Jeff Beck was the most visible one to push boundaries and keeps redefining his playing even today. When I think of guitar players from the ‘80s, you stand out as one of the only guitarists who have managed to stay visible and keep pushing boundaries while evolving your playing and your writing. What advice do you have for players out there regarding longevity and building and maintaining a career?
You need to find what it is that excites you the most about music and about the guitar and then jump into that. A lot of times it takes a lot of courage because what you really want might be different than what you think the public wants – or different than what friends or what the temporary idea of what it should be is. Just find what you really like. Everybody is really good at something. Everybody is strong at something. You’re a musician there’s something about what you’re doing that has a unique nature. You need to find what that is and then exaggerate it…. You need to find what you’re really good at and then exaggerate it. By the way, that’s a Tom Waits quote.
Story of Light continues a narrative that began with 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections. Did you have a pre-conceived idea of how the songs from Story of Light fit into that idea or was it a more organic process?
Well there was a big overview, and the overview was that I wanted to create a story of sorts that expresses my interests. I wanted to do it in a unique way and I didn’t want to do just a regular concept record. So I thought well spread it out over a bunch of records but don’t give the whole plot away. Have the concept get developed over the course of all three records where each record has songs that have to do with the concept. After they’re all released, the plan is to make all of the music and put it in the proper order…and glue it together with stuff in between. That actually brings the listener on a long journey from beginning to end that’s totally understandable. Right now, the concept is sort of secondary and the music is the most important thing. If you’re not interested in the concept, then what I’m getting at here doesn’t matter and then they can just enjoy the music.
I noticed that you’re really cognizant of every aspect of the guitar tone. There are tone control and pickup changes through out the tracks. As a listener, it’s a nice change to having someone park the tone volume and pickup selector and then have that sound for the full recording.
There are a lot of great tones on the new release. I’m assuming that you’re using your new Carvin Legacy 3 signature amp but were there other amps that you ended up using on the tracks?
The Carvin Legacy 3 didn’t come until later in the recording process so I only used it on a couple of things. Other than that the majority of all of the melodies that you hear on the record have tons of amplifiers there’s various textures and other amplifiers like Bogners, Marshalls, Kettners to kind of give it a different tone. I much, much prefer the Legacy over everything. I like it. It’s sort of like home when I plug into it. I don’t have to fight it. It doesn’t sound like all of the other conventional amps.
Story of Light covers a lot of musical ground, and has a mix of vocal and instrumental songs. Do you approach songs with vocals any differently than instrumentals?
Well, yeah because when you’re doing a song that has vocals you have to think about the vocalist’s range…you have to think about the lyrics and how the vocal blends with the track. The thing that’s similar is the intention of the melody. The melody…how it falls on the chords and the picture that it paints is going to be relatively similar whether it’s an instrumental track or a vocal. Melody is the most important thing.
The record opens with “Story of Light” where literally, someone says “The Story of Light” in (to me) an unfamiliar language and then there’s some sound design followed by a giant 7 string chord hit. So my first question is about the text of this track. What is the actual underlying text of the song about?
Well the text of the song is derived from the story, and in the story there’s this one character that a lot of the story is based on and his name is Captain Drake Mason and he’s actually been driven insane. And we see the story through his eyes. It’s a story about redemption and it’s a very metaphysical, esoteric kind of story.
But at one point Captain Drake Mason in his insanity writes this book. The name of the book is “Under it all” and the first chapter is called, “The Story of Light”. In this chapter, he explains what the story of light is in his way, when I say light I’m referring to light [as] more of a line and he writes this paragraph, and that’s what the lyrics are….the story of light. I didn’t want to put them in English so I had someone recite them in Russian. I like the Russian language, it has some sharp edges…it’s not soft.
What inspired the piano and drum backing for the solo section? It was a really interesting direction in the middle of the tune.
The whole first part of the song, I wanted to create this absolute wall of guitars. The seven string guitar allows you to create these really thick rich dense robust chords that you just can’t get on a 6-string. I love the sound of that chorded 7-string.
So I created this whole giant wash of sound you know it’s very dense very thick…but then it needed some release and I thought about melody. I wanted this big long melody where every phrase in the melody…I wanted to do something a little different than anything that had been done before. It’s a lot of work! And then I wanted to double it. And then I wanted to double it and I didn’t want it to sound like a solo or a conventional melody. I wanted to make it sound like a long…almost mechanical…bullet phrasing with a lot of space. Whenever you put dirty rhythm guitar under a melody it sucks up the audio real estate. And I wanted it to be as delicately supported harmonically by piano. But what you’re really hearing there is the chord changes from the whole first part of the song repeated, but just handled by the piano with the melody written on top.
There’s a phrase from the ending melody…..
It’s jump of the 7th and then the second after that …
…the phrasing on that is really powerful and it just grabs me every time I hear it.
Oh I gotcha. It’s kind of like a royal resolve or something.
It’s gut wrenching though!
Oh thank you!
The second track is “Velorum“. I’m assuming this is a reference to the star system Gamma Velorum?
Yeah, Gamma and Delta Velorum.
This feels like it’s a related track to the first track (“Story of Light”). I saw “John The Revelator” and “Book of The Seven Seals“ as related tracks and “Velorum” and “Story of Light” as also being related in a certain way and not just because of the sequencing. Do you have any insights to the relationship between the tracks?
Well I put a lot of though into the sequencing of a record and I wanted it to have a particular ebb and flow. And a lot of my songs end up sounding very diverse on a record and they’re not really genre-specific but they’re diverse amongst themselves. I didn’t want to start the record with too much diversity. So I agree with you. “Velorum” works with “Story of Light”.
“John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals“ worked to a degree because they’re very dense like the first track but they’re really a left curve. They don’t sound like anything that you’d hear on any other Vai record.
The idea that helped me record “John The Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals” was a very powerful compulsion, so I threw caution to the wind.
There’s a interesting compositional device on “Velorum“. The track has a 6/4 feel and goes into a 4-bar ostinato with the guitar and drums when you go into the solo section. The guitar hits come on off beats and when I first heard it, I thought that you had changed the time signature but when I counted it out, it was still in 6. From a writing point of view it was cool how you changed the feel of that up.
- See what we’re talking about here: A Rhythmic Ear Training Lesson With Steve Vai’s “Velorum
Thanks! That’s one of my favorite parts of the record. The idea was to create this very heavy powerful pounding that doesn’t feel like a conventional 6/4 groove but has these juxtaposition of rhythm in the sense of groove. Groove is so important. When we listen to music, the groove of the music it’s one of the things that affects out internal clocks so to speak. I like toying with the rhythms to change the way you feel when you listen to it.
When I listen to that solo section the rhythm guitars over that whole section really creates a nice interesting feel. Then I wanted to put a melody guitar over the top of it.
I briefly mentioned “John The Revelator” and “Book of The Seven Seals” before but I had a couple of additional questions about those tracks. The vocalist Beverly McClennan (from the NBC television show The Voice) is the opening act for your shows. I’m assuming this also means that your going to be doing “John the Revelator” live but in regards to the rest of the tracks, what are the challenges with performing this album in a live setting?
Well there are a lot of challenges because the stuff is really hard to play! (laughs) There are also a lot of layers to it and I have to figure out how to orchestrate it for a rock band. I could have played the entire record, usually you do 4-5 songs from the new record. I’m doing probably 6.
Beverly did such a great job [on the tracks]. She just nailed this performance and if you go to you tube and watch any of her performances and she’s just completely different than anything that I do, but I decided to take her on tour and open the show because she’s captivating. And it’s a tall order for my fans to understand why I would do something like this but I think that people will understand that this woman is an incredible performer and she really reaches out to you. She’s not going to get up there and blow you away with the way she plays guitar, even though she plays guitar, but she’ll also be able to come out and sing “John The Revelator”.
I had some notes about “The Moon and I” and “Weeping China Doll” which I think are some of the best guitar performances you’ve ever done.
Yeah thanks! Moon and I has a pretty ferocious solo it’s interesting that that was recorded live at a soundcheck in Athens Greece many years ago. I tweaked it of course…and then [on] “Weeping China Doll”, I was looking for a melody that had a lot of heaviness and sorrow but also had some redeeming qualities. If you go into composing something and you’re saturated with emotion that you want to create, there’s no way that’s not going to come out of you.
Finally, I’d like to ask you about balancing work and life. You are a spiritual person and at the same time you have a lot of divergent professional responsibilities. Not many people can find balance between the two but it seems like you’ve managed to do it and I wanted to know if you had any insight about how you were able to accomplish that.
Well it’s an ongoing process to find balance. I believe we’re all spiritual. I believe we’re more spiritual beings having a human experience than human beings having a spiritual experience. But I’m no different from anybody else. I go through my day, I look at the stuff that comes in, I chose and then I move forward on things that feel good. It just so happens that because I’m more of a public figure, that the time that I spend on certain things is more public. Like the Berkeley guitar lesson…the Guinness book thing. It would take somebody the same amount of time that it takes to go to the store and go shopping for their family whatever and come home or go and work a half a day. You just move forward with these things and they kind of happen.
But as far as finding a balance. You don’t balance spirituality with reality. You find your spiritual center, and that can be different things for different people. And from that you are able to deal with things with more of an equilibrium. With more of an ability to be powerful and strong in what you do and not be so connected to all the drama and all of the….bullshit.
So really the most important thing is finding that spiritual balance – whatever that means, that’s life unfolding itself. At least that’s what I’ve discovered – and I’m continually monitoring….I’m a work in progress like everybody else.
Story of Light will be available on August 14, and Steve can be found on tour with G3 in Europe and then touring the US and Canada in support of the new release. Information about the tours (and all things Vai) can be found at http://vai.com
Special thanks to Steve Vai for taking the time to answer our questions!