While the word "virtuoso" gets used a bit too generously at times, it truly applies to guitarist Steve Vai.
But don't just take my word for it: He was called the "little Italian virtuoso" by no less an authority than Frank Zappa, who hired the young Vai to transcribe his guitar solos and play in his band.
After his time with Zappa, Vai played with David Lee Roth — that's him doing the talking guitar at the beginning of "Yankee Rose" — and with Whitesnake. He also released various solo albums, including 1990's Passion and Warfare and 2012's Story of Light, has been a guest artist on recordings by many artists, and has toured with fellow guitar virtuosos like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen as part of the G3 concert series. You might also remember him as the Devil's guitarist Jack Butler in the movie Crossroads.
Vai answered the following questions by email; the full interview is available by clicking here.
• • •
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming show in Ventura?
Steve Vai: When I put a show together, I think of some of the things I would like to see and how I would like to feel when I go see a show. People spend their time and money, and if they are coming to one of my shows I feel a responsibility to give them the best show we can. I look to present amazing musicianship, musical dynamics that can go from extremely powerful and dense to very refined and intimate.
There is an acoustic set, a spot in the show where I come out with an alien light suit on with lasers shooting out of my fingers while playing a guitar that looks like something an alien dragon threw up.
There is a part of the show where I invite a few people up from the audience and we build a song right there on the stage by letting them sing the parts. This is always engaging and fun for the audience, and you never know what’s going to happen. I like to create a set list that has a nice balance of new music (usually seven or eights songs from the new record, The Story of Light), older stuff that has never been performed and some expected favorites.
The band has been playing as a unit for over 13 years and we powerfully resonate together. But mostly I focus on being hyper aware of every note I play. I allow my body and face to move with the emanating sound from my guitar and the band. I’m dwelling in that illusive state of mind of being in the moment and taking in the totality of the entire event and sharing this with the audience. This creates a sort of ethereal bond with them. It also gives me an opportunity to act a little kooky!
All in all, our goal as a band is to put on a show that have people leaving with the sensation of feeling good, uplifted and with the impression that they have experienced something unique that will stick with them for a while. But don’t take my word for it, I’m the artist trying to sell myself! I recommend typing into Google “Steve Vai concert reviews” and click the Ticketron link for fan reviews.
JM: Could you tell us how a stolen Rolodex led to you working with Frank Zappa?
SV: One day when I was 15 or so I was sitting in my Long Island, N.Y., teenage bedroom practicing my guitar and a friend came in and showed me a Rolodex he had stolen from a high profile studio in New York City. It had phone numbers for all sorts of artists like Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Rod Stewart, etc. It was fascinating, but none of the artists were anyone I was interested in calling.
Then he got to the Zs and had Zappa’s home phone number. I nearly broke a string! I couldn’t believe it was really Frank’s number, so I called and his wife, Gail, answered. I told her I was just a fan and if it wouldn’t be an imposition I would like to talk with Frank. She was very kind and told me that Frank was on tour and I could try calling back in a few months. I didn’t want to impose so I waited six months and called back but he was on tour again. This went on every six months for about two years, and then one day while I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston, I called and Frank picked up the phone.
I was lucky because I caught him in a good mood. I asked if I could send him a transcription I had done of a very dense and complex piece of music he wrote called "The Black Page," and also a tape of my band and some Edgard Varese scores I had access to from the Boston public library. He agreed and actually gave me his home address.
He liked my tape and wanted to try me out for the band, but when I told him I was 18 he said forget it, but hired me to transcribe music. A day after my 20th birthday I moved to Los Angeles and started going up to his studio and recording. Later that year (1980) he was putting together a band and I auditioned for it and got the job.
After getting to know Frank and Gail and seeing how guarded they were with their privacy, I was stunned that they made themselves so accessible to me. I couldn't quite understand it, but I’m sure glad it ended up the way it did.
JM: What was the good, the bad and the ugly about the "hair band" era?
SV: The good was that being a rock star in the '80s was perhaps the best era for that kind of thing. We got to wear the most outlandish clothes, have a massive stage show with tons of lights and props. We got to run around on the stage like maniacs, we got to throw totally outlandish parties every night, and we played our asses off.
There was no bad or ugly for me.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.