Steve Vai

1987 Steve Vai Interview

Steve Vai Discusses Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder in 1987 Guitar World Interview
Posted 09/16/2011 at 10:19am | by Bill Milkowski

Steve Vai discusses his influences, Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder and more in this 1987 Guitar World interview.
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Here's our interview with Steve Vai from the March 1987 issue of Guitar World, which featured Vai and Billy Sheehan on the cover. The original story by Bill Milkowski started on page 36 and ran with the headline, "Steve Vai: The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Steve Vai's career, thus far, has been a series of one hard act to follow after another.

First, he replaced Adrian Belew as the resident wang-bar king in Frank Zappa's band. Next, he replaced the incredible Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz. And now, as the lone guitarist in David Lee Roth's band, he has the dubious distinction of being compared to Eddie Van Halen, at least in the mind of the public.

It's a precarious position to be in, considering that there's no love lost between Roth and Van Halen. On the one hand, Vai has undying allegiance to his current employer, yet he greatly admires Edward's undeniable virtuosity. But this is war. The battle lines have been drawn and Vai is caught in the middle, trying to remain neutral during all the gunfire.

As the 26-year-old guitarist puts it, "I don't want to participate in any type of weird media war. I'm not that kind of guy. I mean, I love Edward and I love Dave. I'm happy for their success and I'm happy for our success and I don't really care what goes on between them. Mel I'm just gonna have a good time." End of discussion.

What is it about Italians and guitar? All through the years they have been innovators on the instrument: Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro), Joe Pass (Anthony Jacohi Passalaqua), Pat Martino (Pat Azzarra), Frank Zappa, Al Di Meola ... and now Steve Vai continues that legacy.

Of course, if Eddie Lang were alive today he might not recognize what Vai does as guitar playing at all. The guy has evolved a vocabulary on the six-string that is Plutonian by traditional standards. The hammer-ons, the wang-bar tactics, the fleet-fingered facility, the sheer sonic inventiveness of it all is radical and revolutionary, albeit not without precedent.

Through countless hours of tedious woodshedding, Vai was able to attain a certain adeptness with the guitar, hut he didn't stop there. He continued to push himself, practicing, probing possibilities and searching for new sounds until he took it to a higher level.

Now, after an invaluable apprenticeship with Zappa and an interim period of self-assessment with Alcatrazz, Vai is coming into his own as a fully-realized instrumentalist. At this point, after honing his chops on a string of one-nighters all across America with the Roth band, Vai is at the top of his game. It's as if he thrives on the scrutiny. He knows who he's being compared to up there on stage and in spite of his respect for Edward The Great, he's not about to back down. On the contrary, he's pushing himself even harder. No time to rest now, he figures. Keep working, keep searching, stay hungry.
Consequently, he's improving (if you can believe that). In Zappa's band Steve played all the impossible guitar parts behind Frank's solo excursions, and connoisseurs were impressed. In Alcatrazz, he stepped forward as a strong soloist in his own right, and fans were amazed. Now with Roth, he's evolving to a higher plateau. He's playing like a man inspired, reaching peaks of ecstasy in the process. It's becoming second nature. He's breathing the music now. He's playing more with his heart and less with his head. It's flowing through him. He's finally expressing himself with his instrument.
"Now I'm able to not have to think about what I'm doing and it just comes out," he explains. "It has to do with your own frame of mind and your own consciousness. It's like being at one, expressing myself with my body and my guitar in a synchronized way. It's become a flow, an emotion, where I'll play a lick and my body will just go with it. It's a beautiful, beautiful feeling. It's taken me a little time to get there but it's beautiful when it happens.
"It's a channel and it's hard to induce. The sound of your amps has a lot to do with it because that’ll affect your frame of mind as you play. If everything sounds great, which it does most of the time, then it's easier to go into that void where you're able to just space out and communicate with your instrument and the audience."
To fully appreciate this enlightened stage at which Vai has finally arrived, you have to understand that he went through a very dark, desolate period to get there. It's a very personal subject; one that he doesn't wish to dwell on. But he does offer this:
"I was always a happy guy, you know, I mean, I was working for Frank Zappa, I was making money, I had a gig, I was fairly well respected in the music community, but something came over me. Sometimes you can't explain these things. Who knows what brings on depression' But it got to the point where I was questioning life at the time. I didn't understand what was going on. But nobody knew. I kept everything to myself, pretty much. Although I was a different guy on the outside, I guess. I felt like I had lost my sense of humor. And I felt like my body was deteriorating. It was a very black period in my life. And I realized that if I didn't do something, I would die."
He continues in a contemplative tone. ''I'm sure a lot of people can relate to what I'm saying. Something comes over you, you hit rock bottom ... then bang' You come right back up. You get through it, you figure it out, you learn from it. That happened to me. And I've been on an upswing ever since. I just keep getting happier and happier every day. And now, playing with Dave, I'm just ecstatic. It's the happiest I've ever been. And I thank God that I was able to start to really appreciate life, my friends, music. There's a lot of things I'd like to talk about and maybe someday I will. But right now, at this point in my career, I don't want to say certain things that might give people the wrong impression. Let's keep it positive."

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