Steve Vai is two musicians—a virtuoso guitarist who approaches his art with deep reverence and mysticism, and a heavy metal rocker willing and able to share arena stages with the likes of David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. His fascination with all types of music manifested itself at an early age, and his parents encouraged it by sending him to accordion lessons. At the age of twelve he announced his preference for the guitar and bought himself one at a garage sale. Although his parents initially dismissed this as an adolescent phase, they bought him a good instrument when they realized that he was serious about switching. Soon noted rock guitarist Joe Satriani, who lived near the Vais, had become Steve’s tutor.
At the age of fourteen, Vai began to have extremely vivid dream experiences relating to music. He described them to Joe Gore in Guitar Player: “I saw myself playing the guitar, but I handled it in ways that made totally abnormal sounds. I would touch it a certain way, and it would make a squeak, or I’d scream into it. There were no barriers—even my movements were beyond gracefulness…. That event was the beginning of my realization that I had an identity on the instrument, and it was the single most important event in my musical career…. It’s where I got most of my musicality from, I believe, or at least that’s how I discovered it.”
Working in a home studio, nineteen-year-old Vai wrote, performed, and produced a wildly experimental recording called Flex-Able. He undertook the project simply to teach himself more about music and studio techniques, but it was eventually released by Relativity and sold some 250, 000 copies with no promotion whatsoever. After attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Vai joined Frank Zappa’s band. This was a dream-come-true for him, because Zappa had been his hero ever since he’d taken up guitar. Zappa’s music, full of high-level technical and theoretical eccentricities, was both challenging and satisfying for the young guitar prodigy. He played on many albums and went through many tours with the group.
Despite his success, Vai found himself sliding into emotional problems. He told Matt Resnicoff in Musician: “I was hanging out with Zappa, and he’s an extremely cynical character…. I had an identity crisis and I started to take on Frank’s cynicism and his disgust for the world…. I entered this really deep depression, for about a year-and-a-half, where it was just complete anxiety…. I couldn’t smile, I couldn’t laugh. And I just started deteriorating … physically and mentally, spiritually.” Eventually, this downward spiral was broken when “mysteriously this book appeared in the mail, and it was called The Magic in Your Mind by U.S. Anderson. It was a pretty simple book—it
Born in 1961 in New York; son of Johnny (a liquor salesman) and Theresa Vai; married, wife’s name, Pia; children: Julian Angel. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music.
Lead guitarist. Has performed and recorded with Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz, Public Image, Ltd., David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake. Contributed “Martian Love Secrets” to Guitar Player, February-August, 1989. Appeared in the film Crossroads, Columbia, 1986.
Addresses: Record company —Relativity Records, c/o 18707 Henderson Ave., Hollis, NY 11423.
just talked about the ego and certain beliefs—and I started to connect with things in the book that filled the yearning in my heart. I decided I had to change my life, because I had hit rock bottom. I became a vegetarian, I quit smoking and basically I cleaned up a whole lot.”
Eventually Vai moved on to a gig that was diametrically opposed to Zappa’s intellectual satire: he became the lead guitarist for David Lee Roth’s solo revue. Hard-rock fans used to seeing Roth perform with hot-shot guitarist Eddie Van Halen were surprised to find that Vai was more than capable of filling in. He even toyed with audiences’ expectations by cockily reproducing some of Van Halen’s best known solos—and adding a little extra flash by playing them with his teeth. While touring with Roth, Vai worked up some stunning solo turns, such as “Sunspots,” which Resnicoff called “six gripping minutes where [Vai] sailed over a spacey groove, eventually laying the instrument on its back and continuing to play as he sprawled on his stomach behind it and pushed across the stage, finally slumping over it, drained, in a corner as the last strangled notes echoed into the hall. It was incredible.”
When the time came to part with Roth, Vai set to work on a musical project based on the visionary dreams of his adolescence. He told Resnicoff: “I locked myself into a room and said, To hell with everything—I’m doing this and it’s a complete expression of what I am. I’m not concerned about singles, I’m not concerned about mega-platinum success, I’m not concerned about record companies.’” To prepare for one track, entitled “For the Love of God,” he stopped playing the guitar altogether for several weeks and fasted to purify himself for the performance. When he finally picked up his instrument to lay down the track, his “fingers were totally out of shape, and they got trashed—they all had blood clots under the skin,” he reminisced to Gore. “It was extremely painful to touch anything…. I needed to be in that state of mind to record this song.”
Gore stated that the completed album, Passion and Warfare, is “likely to set new technical, compositional, and expressive standards for the instrumental rock guitar LP. [It] captures all the paradoxes that have made Steve’s playing so beguiling…. Grand, yet funny; flashy, yet substantial; spiritual, yet dirt-earthy; it’s music to satisfy the head, heart, and crotch.” Soon after completing this deep spiritual statement, Vai received a distress call from the band Whitesnake. Guitarist Adrian Vandenberg had been indefinitely sidelined with an injured wrist, and Vai was the band’s first choice for his replacement. He readily accepted the offer, going on to tour and record with the band.
Switching gears from art to metal left Vai quite unruffled. He explained to Resnicoff: “I’m still at a young age where I like to go out and play in big arenas and run around and exert that kind of rock ’n’ roll attitude and energy…. There’s a certain energy and a certain experience you feel when you’re on a big stage with a singer like Coverdale screaming. I enjoy that feeling, and I enjoy not having the pressure of being the one whose up front all the time…. There will be a time when I’ll sit back and be the total musician, but right now it’s a lot of fun to run around and play simple rock songs on stage.”
Passion and Warfare, Relativity, 1990.
With Frank Zappa; on Barking Pumpkin
Shut Up ’N’ Play Yer Guitar, 1986.
Shut Up ’N’ Play Yer Guitar Some More.
Son of Shut Up ’N’ Play Yer Guitar.
Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.
The Man from Utopia.
Them or Us.
You Are What You Is.
Tinsel Town Rebellion, 1990.
With David Lee Roth
Eat ’Em and Smile, Warner Brothers, 1987.
Skyscraper, Warner Brothers, 1988.
(With Alcatrazz) Disturbing the Peace, Capitol.
(With Shankar) The Epidemics, ECM.
(With Whitesnake) A Slip of the Tongue.
Guitar Player, February 1983; October 1984; October 1986; May 1988; May 1990.
Musician, September 1990.
"Vai, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 13, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/vai-steve
"Vai, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/vai-steve
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