Steve Vai has a new album, which should make every guitar player excited. When I first heard Inviolate, I wanted to walk up to my music room and smash my guitars. After speaking with the man for a half hour, I wanted to walk up to my music room to practice and create. In a previous life, Steve Vai may have been a motivational speaker. His words in this interview are incredibly inspirational.
Throughout his storied career, which started with Frank Zappa, made pitstops with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, and continues with his slew of solo albums, Vai has always stretched the limits of the instrument and raised the bar for millions of aspiring rockers.
This was a very uplifting chat. He talks at length about Inviolate, the mastery of Bryan Beller and Billy Sheehan, turning technique into music, Youtuber Tyler from Music Is Win, and so much more. This was a very special interview for Let’s Rock. I hope you enjoy it.
Steve Vai: Hey, how you doing, Ken?
Let’s Rock: Good! How are you?
Good to see ya!
Good to see you. Thanks for the interview.
My pleasure. Welcome to Let’s Rock!
All right. Good to be here.
The last time we talked you were on your way to Korea…
…With Generation Axe actually. And then you were on your way to Norway for the Starmus convention to give a speech.
Ah, yeah. That was great.
I watched that the other day, actually. For a dude who does most of his talking with his fingers a lot, you’re pretty good with words.
(laughs) Well, I’ve had to make part of my living doing interviews, so I’ve had practice. (laughs)
Yeah, no kidding. Lots of it. Congratulations on the new album, Inviolate. It is fantastic
So, it’s called Inviolate. Why?
It’s a word that I kind of came across some years ago and I just like the way it sound and I really like the meaning of it. The word inviolate basically means unable to harm, you know, unable to violate. Something that’s kind of pure, untouchable, nothing can alter it or change it. It’s inviolate.
How does it feel now that it’s dropped?
It’s nice. It’s always great you know. Release day, historically, it’s been a little nerve-racking. You never know how things are going to go. But through the years, I realize, after I release a record, the reaction to it is is usually kind of on par with the level of quirkiness I’ve added to it, you know what I mean? But this record was pretty straight ahead and it’s been a while since I’ve focused on guitar. My last record, Modern Primitive, it was very Vai, in that it had the density and the quirky stuff and that kind of thing. And a lot of my projects are pretty diverse, you know. I do orchestra your work, I do some film work sometimes, but there’s any kind of a record I could make when I sit down to go and make a record. For instance, before the pandemic I was working on the third instalment of a trilogy of records called Real Illusions, and that was going to be a pretty robust project with vocals and a lot of musicians and this kind of thing. And I laid it all out and then, you know, you wake up and it’s like lockdown. So plans change and eventually I wanted to get on tour and I had a couple of tracks that I had created and released live for the fans during lockdown and that was the beginning. So it took about a year to make the record and I just wanted something really straight ahead, relatively for me.
Is that possible with you?
Right. Not usually. (laughs) Whenever I do something to straight ahead, there’s this little voice in the back of my head that goes ‘why are you doing this? You don’t do it good and also everybody else is doing it…better.’
Well, let’s not say that. It was nice to hear a few things: number one, I mean the guitar playing is fantastic, but I was really impressed, maybe this is just me, but the sound the rhythm guitars is something that really stood out to me, more so than on previous albums by you.
Well, one explanation of that might be the majority of the amp system that I used for Inviolate was my new Synergy module, it’s a signature module. It’s this really great company, Synergy, well, the company is Boutique Audio, but they have a division called Synergy and they make these module preamps that are, in many cases, licensed by companies that actually built various amplifiers. So you get, like a Friedman module, and it’s actually tubes you know, and it’s the preamp section of a Friedman amp, or tons, they have tons. Some of them are fashioned after, like the Bassman or Plexi. But it’s just amazing because you have all these amplifiers at your disposal, just by clicking a switch. So naturally, I was approached to make a module, a custom module, because my ear usually is attracted to guitar tones that are kind of smooth, a little compression, you know, and just have an ease to the playing. Like, if I plug directly into a Marshall, you know my style, of course I can get through it, but I just don’t resonate with the feeling of it. So I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to work with great companies through the years to design things based on the way I’d like to hear them. And Synergy came along and they made this module and it’s just fantastic. It’s kind of like a Legacy but we altered it a bit and I use many different apps on Inviolate, but every time I would record any guitar parts, I always record a DI, the direct signal and then I re-amp it through various other amplifiers. So you record a guitar part through one amp, you take the DI and you send it through a re-amp to other amplifiers and then you record those and you can blend amplifiers. What I discovered was, I just went right from my Synergy most of the time and there was a couple of tracks where I thought, ‘okay, I can’t use the same amp. you know, I gotta to mix it up for the main guitar sound.’ And I would try another amp and I would re-amp it through the Synergy and make that the main sound. So maybe that has something to do with the sound of the guitar obviously on the record. There is sort of a crispness and a heaviness there that I found in that module.
Yeah, It’s definitely different than the stuff I’ve heard before. The other thing I liked about it was Bryan Beller and Billy Sheehan. It’s funny. When I was listening to, sorry I’m forgetting the name real quick, the Bryan Beller track.
I didn’t know who was playing on the album…
Yeah, I don’t think they sent that out.
But I knew it was him.
Absolutely. I love The Aristocrats. I could tell, and even in my review I wrote that sounds a lot like Bryan Beller.
Yeah, he’s a bad boy, man. I had that track, and because of the lockdown, I had the opportunity to send tracks out to people you know and have them do their part. Bryan actually came to the studio, but when I recorded Little Pretty, I put the bass on it you know just as a guide. My bass playing is good for certain things, but certainly not a track like that.
No, he was all over the place.
He was all over the place, and we had a great time recording it. He’s one of the guys that can really navigate a song like that, cuz it’s it’s a tricky song. That whole solo section, trying to play bass through that solo section with those chord changes? When I thought of that, I said, ‘it has to be Bryan!’
He’s special. And Billy Sheehan is another one that you can just tell right away right away that that’s him.
Right away, and that track, Avalancha, was from the recording sessions for Real Illusions, and when I was pacing and sequencing Real Illusions, I had to make a choice between Building The Church and Avalancha. Now, the only thing I had recorded for Avalancha back then was the bass and the drums, and that was Jeremy Colson and Billy. And I knew it was on the shelf you know and I knew I had to finish it one day cuz I like the heaviness of it, and frankly, Billy’s part, what he played on that track, I just love it you know. It’s so Billy and it fits that tracks so well. That was one of the reasons I wanted to unpack that track. So for Inviolate, I decided to put it on the block and unpack it
Unpacked it was. Yes. It’s been a long time with Billy, hasn’t it. What was it, 36 years ago that you went back to Eat ‘Em And Smile?
Something like that. Yeah, I mean I was aware of Billy obviously, because at the time, when Billy hit the scene, there was nothing like it. Every now and then, a monolith appears in some genre or in some business or some place, you know, and they just have this unique ear and approach and creativity, and they just have this bulletproof confidence in what they’re doing. And that’s Billy, and he never veered. He never dropped character with his playing and he’s one of our greats in what he does. There’s nobody who does it, and I fell comfortable saying that, you know what Billy does.
Yeah, he’s one of a kind.
He’s one of a kind, really. I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen anybody try to pantomime him. (laughs)
I don’t think you can. It’s amazing. You know, it’s hard to come up with questions that you’ve never answered before. today I was thinking I’ve got it I got him with one that he’s probably never had.
I’ll give you a dollar if you can.
(laughs) How’s this one? You’ve talked a lot about this new guitar, the Hydra, so I’m not going to go into all the details about the Hydra because you said enough.
It’s an amazing looking guitar, by the way. But my question about the Hydra is, and I think this might be the one you’ve never had before, how much extra are you paying your guitar tech to take care of this beast?
(laughs) I’m sorry, but I’ve been asked that three times already.
(laughs) You were close though. I respect your creativity.
I was going for it.
Well, you know, it takes a special person to wrestle the Hydra when it comes time to change those strings and that would be one Thomas Nordic.
He’s a brave man.
Yeah, he’s a brave man.
Absolutely. So, I’m guessing this must feel extra-special, this new album, because of what you’ve gone through in the last couple years, with the surgery and you know it must feel extra-special to overcome that and gotten everything down. Did you have to re-learn anything?
The surgery didn’t concern me really. I wasn’t in fear. Once you mention something like this, the press grabs it and next thing you know, you’re the guy that ripped his arm off with a pizza oven, you know, Hey, it’s drama, right? So, I…wait, what was the question again?
Ah, I was basically just commenting that it must feel good…
Oh, yes. Amazingly, I try to approach things by first accepting what is. And that’s big, because for instance, when, we’ll use my shoulder…when I knew I had to get it worked on, that’s what is. So, I’m not going to complain about it, because I try to look at the positive aspects of it and the positive aspect was this is good because I need it, and I’m going to get fixed, and that’s it, you know. And if something happened, well then I would deal with it when it happened. But I would first accept things as they are and when you do that…okay, I’ve got an injury, I got to do this, then you you have the ability to make quality decisions about things, you know. There’s a clarity there when you’re not in panic mode or feeling desperate, or anything like that, and this is, I call it your center. You’re in a state of relative stillness, in the face of challenges. And those challenges take on a different form when your perspective of them changes, and your perspective changes when you allow them to be as they are and then you look for solutions. If you are in a state of panic, ‘oh my God! My shoulder! What am I going to do? I can’t go on tour! What if it never comes back? Shit, what am I gonna do?’, how can I make a valuable decision in a state of disarray. So that’s a practice though. It really is a life practice to be able to police your reactions to events and things. But it’s the secret to freedom, liberation and happiness.
Wow, that was a little deeper than I thought it would be.
Well you know I have a tendency to go there so…
Go for it. I was reading a YouTube comment, you left on a YouTube video by a guy named Tyler, on Music Is Win, who’s amazing. He was teaching your joint shifting technique and it was an amazing comment, but what struck me is, you were pushing him to inspire people and learn new things and you talked about how you were inspired by so many. I’m wondering, now, who pushes you, the current crop of guitar players?
All of them, because whenever I watch a guitar player, regardless of their ability, their technicality, what they’ve accomplished, I just love watching people play guitar, you know. If I’m at a bar mitzvah and there’s a band, I’m the guy sitting in the corner watching the guitar player. It doesn’t matter what they’re playing, I just love it. So anything that you see changes you somehow, you know. We’re always more you know, From one moment to the next, we become more. So all the guitar players that I’ve been exposed to in my whole life have had some kind of an impact and obviously some more than others. And these days, I’ve been able to watch over the years, two to three evolutions of guitar playing, you know, in the realm that I play, you know real guitar kind of playing, whether it was rock in the 80s, grunge in the 90s, djent in the 2000s. I watched these things evolve. And it’s really great to watch because, in any field, when new people are born and they come into the world and they’re interested in that field, they wake up and they look around and they go, ‘okay, well this is where things are at right now. This is where I basically have to start.’ Cuz when you see somebody doing something, whether it’s an athletic feat or musical feat ,artistic, business, anything and they’ve really raised the bar, you don’t know they raised the bar because you’re coming in at that spot and you’re able to see what’s possible. And being able to see what’s possible is vital in you learning and taking it someplace else. So I’ve seen these guitar players coming along that kind of taken what myself and my peers have done and escalated it you know. And even when the 90s came and grunge came, the guitar evolved differently than shredding or anything like that, but there was some really great stuff, you know, and I was inspired by that, to some extent. If you listen to Linkin Park, those bands, really heavy. I love that and then there was this strong, kind of, pulse for virtuosity and that is really prevalent these days in those underground movements. And I see these incredible players. I see styles really evolving. Like when Polyphia came out, you know Tim and Scott, what those guys were doing was…the moment I saw it seemed like an evolution and it inspired me. It pushed me, as you say, not in that direction, I don’t do, I can’t do that, I’d have to relearn the guitar, you know. (laughs) And then they spawned all of this other movement of these guitar players now that are even taking what they’re doing at another level. And then you got guys like Tosin Abasi and some of these young Italian guitar players. Daniel Guitardo and Matteo Mancuso. I mean they’re just doing extraordinary things, so they inspire me.
The other thing you said in that comment was, I’m going to read this cuz I don’t want to mess up the quote. ‘Doing things for technique sake usually come out sounding that way, like a technique.’ How do you get from a technique to musicality?
The technique aspect of it has to do with your academic mind and you’re thinking, you know what I mean? When you’re developing anything, whether it’s driving a car or building a business or creating a recipe or learning how to play the guitar, there’s periods that you go through where you’ve got to hone your craft, you’ve got to focus in an analytical…this is where your intellect can be helpful and also you are learning. So that’s a different brain muscle, you know. But to make that technique that you’ve applied your academic, intellectual skills to, to make it sound like a piece of music or to sound musical, that requires a different kind of a brain muscle. It involves zero intellectualization, meaning you’re not thinking about it anymore in your mind. You’re not negotiating it, you know. You’re listening now with your inner ear in a different way and after you get through the… okay so for instance there’s a song song on the record called Teeth Of The Hydra, and it was new for me because it involved this, you know multi-neck instrument and I’m playing all these necks, you know what I mean? And I’ve never been one to have any real independence you know. I can write, transcribe, compose the most complex piano and drum part…whatever. Any instrument like drums for the greatest drummers, most accomplished players. And I did that with Frank (Zappa). I was transcribing Vinny Colaiuta drum parts. But if I sit behind a drum set, I sound like a drunk falling down a flight of stairs. I just can’t. I don’t have it. So I had to really first apply my academic skills, my intellectualization to get that going and then once you get the hang of it, it doesn’t sound great, but you just keep doing it, you keep doing it, you keep doing it, you keep doing it and you keep doing it. And the more you do it, you have to transcend having patience, you know what I mean? Having patience means that you’re doing something that you don’t want to do. You have to transcend that. There’s a joy and a deep satisfaction when what you’re doing starts to sound like music and then it starts to develop this effortlessness Like with the Hydra, I would have to do that one bar at a time you know what I mean? And then finally I get through a section and I can get through it, but is it really…does it sound like music or is it just a new technique I’m fooling with. I know that it’s a new technique but I want it to sound like music, so I have to just keep doing it. And then the magic…it’s just miraculous. You become the music. That’s the shift. You shift out of your intellectual mind and your academic thinking, any thinking, you transcend above, so to speak. You go above thinking and you’re just completely present and in that presence, now remember, you’ve already got the skills, whatever the technique is. Once you don’t have to think about that, then there’s something else that allows you to craft what you’re playing into an elegant sounding thing, you know, into music. And it could be really heavy, it could be jazz, whatever it is, there’s that ultrazone that…you can see it when you watch Tiger Woods swing a golf club, you know what I mean? It’s like there’s an unconsciousness there, but it’s pure consciousness. And that’s how you turn your intellectualization and new techniques into something that sounds like music. Does that make sense?
Yeah, actually it does.
Now, I also want to add something. Music Is Win. I love that site and I love Tyler. He’s great. You know, guys like that really serve the community in a tremendous way, you know. Because he loves the instrument and he’s frenetic about it. And he offers things that are interesting, entertaining and informative. A guy like that is like the glue that helps us all to kind of like evolve.
Right. And he teaches in such a nice way that even a beginner like me can get it. I can’t do it but I can understand it.
Right. And he’s excited.
He loves it.
That’s the key ingredient.
Exactly. So much passion for it. So, the last two years have been pretty crappy for everyone. I’m not going to get into that either but…
They weren’t crappy for me.
Well, that was my point. It afforded you a lot of time to do some new stuff. Could this record have happened if you had your regular touring schedule and, you know, if you were out on the road all the time? Would this record have happened or would it be a completely different thing?
Well, as you know in your life, once the pandemic came all bets are off. Everything changed for a lot of people and they changed for me. You know, I say that I was okay through the pandemic… Of course, I had my challenges, you know what I mean? My biggest challenge was just trying to find sober information because American TV is just…fucked up. (laughs) And I just felt like okay this is what is. How can I make lemonade out of lemons, you know? How can this serve me? How can this pandemic somehow serve me? Many people don’t ask that question and it sounds almost ludicrous for me to say something like that when there’s people that are suffering. Suffering and even some of them losing their lives.
Right. But not everybody is losing their life and not everybody is suffering to that degree and even in that condition, saying a sentence like, ‘how can this serve me?’ just sounds ridiculous. But in many cases, for a lot of people, there is the potential to ask that question: How can this serve me? There’s a situation that’s happening, so you see, you have to be authentic in your asking . And then the answers will come. For someone like me, that question directed me to do various things that worked out. So the answer to the question is, if I had a tour scheduled in lockdown, that would have meant I had a record completed already. I was done touring right when the lockdown hit, so I didn’t have to move any tour plans, but I did have to move three times, these orchestra recordings that I’m working on. We’re going to be doing them in May now in Holland, with the Metropol Orchestra. It’s like four hours of my orchestra music. So that had to move, but then I just got a very good at some point during the lockdown I got a very clear picture: Book a tour. I want to go on tour. I’m going to book a mega tour. It’s going to be 250 shows. I’m gonna go around the world and I’m going to be gone for like a year-and-a-half. And boy, I can’t wait. And that’s what I want to do. So obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen because of the situation, but you put your best foot forward and we booked a tour and we booked it in modules you know. And basically, everything was going well. I had had the shoulder surgery last year and it healed and then I made the record so everything was fine. But I had another injury over the summer. I did something stupid. As mentioned, pulling a pizza (laughs) out of the oven. I just did it. I was still kind of healing and I just whacked it. It was brutal, but it wasn’t to the point where it couldn’t be healed but then, the Hydra ,you know. And certain things just kept making it worse and there was no way I was going to be able to do 250 shows. But I will be able to because I want to. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Do it. Hopefully Canada is on that tour as well.
I’m really trying to do a a massive tour and when I do that,usually I’ll hit North America twice and do like 55 shows twice. And I always end up going into Canada for a few shows and then back out of it, and I love Canada you know. So I decided, I told my booking agent, this first run, no Canada dates. The second run, I want to go to every place in Canada, cuz going through the borders and stuff like that, can be a little bit of a hassle. So, then the second leg of the North American tour is many Canadian dates. Cuz every tour when I go to Canada, I don’t get every place. And this time, I’m gonna plant myself in Canada for a huge run, and hit all those great places..
Nice. One more question. The first time I saw you was with David Lee Roth in Ottawa. He recently retired which is kind of the end of an era.
I think that era may have passed a while ago.
True. But how did your time in that band make Steve Vai who he is today?
Oh, it was vital, because when I had joined Dave’s band, I’d never been on a big stage. Well, I was on Frank’s, but Frank’s stage was all about watching Frank and standing there making sure you’re hitting all the right notes. Dave Roth was one of the most enigmatic, charismatic performers in rock, you know. And he taught me a lot. In Dave’s band, I learned how to emote to a large group of people. I learned more how to be a performer, because we were all hams, you know what I mean? We loved running around, wearing crazy clothes and doing all that stuff, and I learned a certain bit about discipline, you know. Dave was very professional. I know he’s got the persona, but if you needed to be someplace at 11, you better be there at 10:30, you know what I mean? So, I learned that. You do the job, you do it right and you do it fast, you know It was great you know. I got a lot out of that. That formed who I am today.
That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for this. Congratulations on the album. It’s fantastic and best of luckand hopefully we’ll see you in Ottawa at some point on that massive tour.
Yeah, I hope so I’m sure all right thank you very much, Ken
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