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discover: Steve Vai

By Anthony Garone

Stunt guitarist for Frank Zappa with a solo career spanning over 30 years.

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Thanks To Our Sponsors!

Special thanks to Cory Berg at Software++ and to Carl King Creative for sponsoring this interview.

Cory is a software development and management expert who’s written a fantastic book called Software++: Must-Have Skills for Engineers. There are a lot of software people I’ve met via Make Weird Music and Guitar Circle.

Carl is an expert filmmaker, author, and former musician. His book, So, You’re a Creative Genius… Now What?, has been a huge inspiration for me and many others. He filmed this interview and provided lots of great equipment and expertise.

A Little About Steve Vai

Steve Vai is a forward-thinking, virtuosic guitarist based in Los Angeles. He started his career in music with Frank Zappa in 1979.

What’s So Weird?

A lot of Steve’s work makes use of the following weird music techniques:

  • Time Signatures
  • Composition
  • Virtuosity

Why I Care

In 1996, I heard an instrumental guitar song on the radio (!!) that had the most incredible guitar playing I’d ever heard. It opened my eyes to new potential on the instrument and I had no idea that level of technicality, virtuosity, and musicality. The DJ said, “That was Steve Vai with his track Juice off his new album, Alien Love Secrets.” Immediately, I scrounged up all the cash and change I could, went to Best Buy (when they actually had a good selection of music for sale), and bought it for $9.99.

Little did I know, Steve Vai was–and still is–one of the most innovative, inspired, and ambitious guitarists in the industry. Frank Zappa credited him with “impossible guitar parts” as the “stunt guitarist” of his band between 1980 and 1982. Between solo releases, he played with Alcatrazz, John Lydon/Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd., David Lee Roth, Alice Cooper, Whitesnake, and Ozzy Osbourne.

His solo releases through the 1990s were mind-blowing. Passion and Warfare, Alien Love Secrets, and Fire Garden were in my CD player for months. I bought every used guitar magazine and tablature book I could find to learn those songs. There are enough weird music techniques in these albums for decades of worthwhile study.

Through Steve’s music (especially sheet music), I learned an incredible amount about time signatures, composition, instrumentation, key modulations, humor, crossing multiple genres, experimentation, and virtuosity. He’s been a huge inspiration to my own guitar and composition techniques.

Steve Vai has had a long, incredible history of trailblazing in the instrumental rock genre and he shows no sign of stopping. Every album features intricately planned and executed melodic explorations, rapid-fire blues-based riffage, and new sounds like you’ve never heard out of a guitar. His discography covers all sorts of ground from straightforward blues/rock to completely whacked-out alien noise.

What You Should Hear First

If you’ve never listened to Steve, here’s where to start:

  • For groundbreaking guitar rock: Passion and Warfare
  • For completely weird, Zappa-esque outlandishness: Flex-Able
  • For compositional complexity: Fire Garden

If you’re looking for an album with one genre/version of Steve, you’re not going to find it. He sticks to no particular genre and offers something for everyone. My favorite pieces of his are the extended-length exploratory pieces, like Freak Show Excess, Fire Garden Suite, The Story of Light, and Lucky Charms.

And if you’re looking for something REALLY out there, check out his performance of Fire Strings with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

Want More Content?

There's tons more content in the archives!

Check our previous post: Discover Mike Keneally

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