Steve Vai has never shied away from innovation.
Since his early days with Frank Zappa who would occasionally introduce him on stage or credit him on albums as "impossible guitar parts," the guitar virtuoso has a proven track record of not only pushing the envelope when it comes to musical composition and what you can do with a guitar, but also his "I can do whatever I want" attitude that lets him come up with new ways of expressing himself with his chosen instrument.
Take for example the song "Teeth of the Hydra" from his latest album "Inviolate." That song features Steve playing his infamous Hydra, a triple-necked guitar which features seven- and 12-string guitars, a four-string, 3/4 scale length bass guitar and 13 harp strings. Steve said it took four years to build and is as high-tech as any guitar out there today.
After he finally saw the finished product, even Steve had to take a step back and visualize how he was going to compose a piece of music using such a one-of-a-kind instrument.
"I had to record that song 'Teeth of the Hydra' on that Hydra guitar. I had the vision for it, and when you get a vision for something that's strong enough, you've just got to do it," Steve Vai said during a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. "It starts with a visualization. An inspiration. Something comes to you and says I want to do that and I know I can if I put the work in," he said. "It was more a visual of performing a piece of music where everything is being played on this one instrument in a synergetic way that is free flowing and it looks elegant. Once you have a visual of that, you just have to sit and start doing it. When I first sat behind the Hydra, it defied 50 years of guitar instinct. Usually, you pick a note and you fret it, but I had to break all that. The independence required to play the Hydra was extraordinary because I had to navigate four different stringed instruments."
And the song is even better when you see it live, as you witness that majestic synergy that is taking place between Steve and that instrument.
"When I look at the video, I'm just as stunned as some other people," he said. "I'm like 'how the hell did I do that?' It is so weird and beautiful. Trying to get the melody on the Hyrda was like Rubik's Cube because when you solve a Rubik's Cube, you say 'Yeah' and you know you've accomplished something."
Millions of fans across the United States have waited for more than a year to finally see the Hydra in action LIVE on the stage, as Steve Vai is still in the midst of his Inviolate Tour, which is set to hit Europe at the end of March.
The tour was postponed when injury beset the guitar prodigy and forced him to push the tour dates back from early in the year to the fall. Steve required two shoulder surgeries and surgery on his thumb after being diagnosed with "trigger finger," which he said was brought on by him holding a difficult chord too long.
"Sports athletes or people who use their bodies realize that at some point, you've got to start navigating different kinds of waters so to speak," he said. "So at 62, parts of what I do are just still on fire. On this last tour, I'm playing and wondering 'how is it that I can even play like this now.' I'm essentially a healthy guy, but my frame has suffered some challenges. I've had some neck, back and shoulder issues. Before the pandemic, I started feeling some funny shoulder stuff. I tried the holistic approach to healing at first. But my shoulder was kind of torn up, so I got that fixed, and it was great. They did a great job. At the same time, I got my trigger finger fixed. Then I had to navigate the healing process."
All the challenges with the healing process did stop Steve from writing music, in fact the inability to not use his picking hand gave birth to a song he composed using just one hand.
"One of the compositions was called 'Knappsack,' which was a piece I recorded when I got back from shoulder surgery. I was in a sling and the sling was called a knappsack because my Dr. Knapp designed and invented it. I had the sling on and picked up a guitar. I just started noodling with one hand and the idea came that I could write a whole song with one hand. I said to myself 'why not' and just did it. When I approached it, I said no matter what limitations I have, the melody had to be solid or at least the best melody that I could write. It was fun, but it was brought on because I had this limitation. I had to figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons. It worked really well."
Steve Vai burst onto the musical landscape as a member of David Lee Roth's band after his exit from Van Halen in 1985. Many can still remember the first time they heard the first chords of "Yankee Rose" off Roth's 1986 album "Eat 'Em and Smile," and the verbal exchange between Diamond Dave and Steve's guitar that kicks off the track is stuff of legend.
Nobody at that time was doing anything close to that and Steve said that is exactly what Dave wanted.
"At the time in the 80s, it was about running around as fast and as hard as you can, wearing ridiculous clothes and playing your ass of. It was a perfect storm for Billy, and Greg and me and even Dave," he said. "Talking with the guitar was just a part of my technique. it was just something funny that I did and Dave really loved it." Steve had just left the band Alcatrazz after a two-year stint and said he heard about what many people were calling "the most coveted job in rock guitar" and knew that that guitarist should be him.
"I was living in a little apartment in Hollywood and word hit the street that David Lee Roth had left Van Halen and he was looking for a guitar player," he said. "The oddest thing is that something told me that this was my gig. It wasn't like in an egotistical way, but it was like it doesn't matter what you do, what you think or what you say, that is your gig. Two days later, my phone rings and it's Dave asking me to come on down. And for the next year, we were secluded down in this basement and we wrote and played and then we recorded."
For his first full-length solo album, Roth put together some of the best musicians at the time in Steve, bass player Billy Sheehan, and drummer Gregg Bissonette.
The album would go to sell over a million copies, but more importantly, it brought Steve's guitar playing in front of American and the entire world and brought him legions of loyal fans that were mesmerized by his guitar acrobatics and his prowess on the fretboard .
"You couldn't escape 'Yankee Rose' back in 1986," he said. "It was on MTV several times an hour. And once the record came out, it was an awakening for me. Life was never going to be the same."
Steve talked with Professor of Rock back in 2020 about how legendary producer Ted Templeton's keen suggestion put the finishing touches on "Yankee Rose."
“When I was playing ‘Yankee Rose’ for them, Ted Templeman made the money-punch suggestion,” he said during the interview. “It’s simple – what I was doing on the verse, a riff, wasn’t quite working.” The producer suggested he just play some open chords instead. “At first, I thought, ‘That’s just a little too simple,'" he said. "That’s me, you know? But I did it and it was a great effort from everybody. We all kind of came together with everybody's contribution."
Steve would stay with Roth for one more album, 1988's "Skyscraper," before leaving and coming to the aid of the band Whitesnake, where he replaced an injured Adrian Vandenberg on the triple platinum smash "Slip of the Tongue."
He joined the band on their successful 13-month world tour before finally finishing what many believe to be his masterpiece album "Passion and Warfare."
Steve would say he turned his back on fame and fortune, playing with established bands like Whitesnake or with David Lee Roth, to finally get to make the music that was inside of him and on his terms.
"When I think about it, 'Passion and Warfare' was such an explosion of freedom for me," he said. "I didn't have to do anything within anyone else's parameters. It really set the benchmark for the kind of compositional rock music that I do."
This album was the culmination of Steve's years of guitar study from his days in Long Island to when a then teenage student at Berklee School of Music was pulled from the classroom and into the studio with the late great Frank Zappa.
"Frank wanted to audition me when I was 18, but when he found out I was 18 he said he couldn't have an 18-year-old in his band," he said. "So he put me to work transcribing. And then when I was 20, I moved out to California and he auditioned me for the band and I got the gig."
Zappa was one of Steve's mentors and one that helped him formulate ideas on his terms and not worry about what the suits in the record company board rooms thought. He was constantly watching and learning from Zappa while working with him on eight studio albums.
"When you're that young and impressionable, you're like a sponge," he said. "I was a teenage kid in my bedroom on Long Island and then here I am in Frank Zappa's basement studio. It was a stunner. Frank was always a free thinker and always in a creative mode. He always did what he wanted without making any excuses or asking anybody if he should do something. That was the most powerful thing I picked up from Frank that you're allowed to do whatever you want and that has stayed with me my whole career."
His first chance at bringing his own vision to vinyl was on "Flex-able," his 1984 debut solo album that shows Zappa's influence on Steve, especially on the track like "Little Green Men" that features the kind of eclectic sonic experience, including alien voices and a 7-note riff that repeats several times throughout the composition.
This is by far light years away from the guitar compositions we're accustomed to from Steve, but this track would be something you'd find on any Zappa recording.
"'Flex-Able' was such an innocent record," he said. "When I was 22 and left Frank's band, I was constantly recording. I was very influenced by Frank at the time and I had a very quirky, and still do, musical sensibility. When I recorded 'Flex-Able,' there was no audience in mind or future dream of success for it. There was a couple of spots on it that had some interesting guitar playing and that is one of the things that people who listen to that record enjoy. I never expected to release any of that music. I was just having so much fun making music for my friends to laugh at. I was just exploring the compositional process. A song like 'Little Green Men' has got some heavy composition in it. That's all composed. I felt that that album didn't necessarily have to fit in any kind of genre. So, I'm happy that I did that and now there is a kind of cult following for that record."
With "Passion and Warfare," Steve's only influence was the sonic vision he had in his head and an intense focus that allowed him to spend 12-15 hours a day crafting the album that would launch the solo career that has carried us through 32 years and nine studio albums right up to "Inviolate."
Songs like "For the Love of God," "The Riddle," and "The Audience Is Listening" became instant benchmarks for guitar players around the world and was complete left field of what Steve composed within the confines of a band dynamic with another voice leading the way.
"I was just writing stuff that I liked and that interested me," he said. "I never thought that this would sell or have the lasting impact that it has had."
In footage of the recording process that Steve released for the album's 25th anniversary, Steve had complete freedom to do what he wanted in his home studio. You can see the guitar virtuoso slaving over every song detail, from the backwards guitar parts for the song "The Riddle," a song he said he started creating when he was 15 years old to playing to near exhaustion at times, but never losing sight of the final outcome.
"It's so beautiful to have an idea and then work hard to bring it into reality and then have it come out better than you could have possibly expected," he said during the album documentary. "Have it come out so powerful that all you can feel is tremendous gratitude."
"I've made more records like 'Passion and Warfare' that were kind of dense and heavily produced and very compositional, but with Inviolate, I decided that I'm going to strip it back down so you get no filler or dense compositions. It's just my way of exploring the guitar."
With "Inviolate," Steve has continue his mantra on this album as he has on every other album he's made.
"Musically, I've got to do something I've never done before."
This time out, we see Steve using a Gretsch guitar on the song "Little Pretty," instead of his signature Ibanez JEM, but he told Guitar Player magazine back in April that "the riff usually tells me what guitar to use."
"I love the tonality of a Gretsch. I guess most of us know that tonality because of Brian Setzer," he said in the Guitar Player interview. "The riff just didn’t work on a solid-bodied guitar, but the Gretsch had the dimension that I was looking for."
As far as his latest tour, Steve said he's come up against challenges he's rarely faced on any tour, especially during last year's European leg.
"It was one of the most challenging tours I ever did, but one of the most glorious ones," Vai said. "There were so many interesting challenges that I had never experienced on tour. I think a lot of that was because all the bands from 2020, 2021 and 2022 all wanted to go out in the same summer in Europe to play all the festivals. You have busses that haven't been driven in a few years and they're breaking down on everybody. Plus, drivers are hard to find because during the pandemic, they all started driving trucks which is better pay and a much easier gig. So it has been a grind for people that are touring, but we got through it.
"But once you get on stage, all that other stuff goes away."
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