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Q&A with Steve Vai

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photo Credits: Steve Vai and Larry DiMarzio

Steve Vai is an American guitarist, composer, songwriter, and producer. A three-time Grammy Award winner and fifteen-time nominee. He played and recorded with Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, Alice Cooper, Mary J. Blige, Motorhead and many more. He is considered one of the best guitar players in music. In July and August, he is touring through The US and Canada, so go check him out!

KB: Did you always want to play the guitar? What age did you start?

I first lit up for the guitar at around 7 years of age when I saw a 9-year-old playing a guitar in the auditorium of my school. It was a moment of clarity. The way the guitar looked hanging on his body, the sound that was coming out of it and the shape of it all slammed me into a moment of recognition of something I thought I always knew. That’s when I fell in love with the guitar. But it seemed an outlandish idea to play it because it was so sacred. But at the age of 11 when I first heard Led Zeppelin II and the solo to “Heartbreaker”, I knew I wanted to play the guitar. I was perhaps 12 when I got my first guitar and started playing it.

KB: Who were your musical heroes growing up and had a big influence on you?

Jimmy Page, Brian May, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Richi Blackmore, Al DiMeola, and Joe Satriani. Joe was my biggest influence since he was my guitar teacher when I was 12-16 years old.

KB: Tell me the story.

A friend who lived a few doors down from me had a guitar and he could actually play the main riff to Aqualung by Jethro Tull. His name was John Sergio. John was taking lessons from Joe who lived in our town, went to the same school and was 4 years older than me. I immediately hooked up with Joe and started lessons at 12 years old. My guitar lessons with him were the most important thing in my world at the time. Joe was always great, even at 16 years old. He shared his knowledge fully and was very generous with his time. At times, our lessons turned into 6-hour jam sessions with just the two of us. Steve Vai the guitar player would be very different today if not for Joe Satriani the guitar player and generous teacher. He was pretty strict too!

KB: How did you meet Frank Zappa?

I contacted him when I was 18 while I was attending Berkley. He allowed me to send him some materials, one of which was a tape of my band. He wanted to try me out for the band but I was too young. But he did put me on a retainer to transcribe his music. I first met him when I was 19 when he invited me to meet him at his hotel in New York to pick up some tapes of guitar solos he wanted me to transcribe.

KB: What is a transcriptionist?

In the capacity I was working for Frank, a transcriptionist is a person who listened to audio music and writes it down in music manuscript form.

KB: How was it playing with him on tour?

Challenging. I was very young and did not have my sea legs. Frank had 80 songs that we needed to know and 60% of them had death defying guitar parts. Frank would write a different set list for every show and present it 5 minutes before we went on stage. I never knew what songs he was going to pick so I had to constantly practice all of them in case he called one of the hard ones, which he did every night.

KB: You toured with David Lee Roth. How did you meet him?

He had gotten together with Billy Sheehan and Billy recommended me.

KB: What is more difficult: playing a solo on tour in a band or recording a complete instrumental part for an album?

Recording in the studio is usually a lot more work intensive than doing a solo live with the band.

KB: If you were to make an album with 7 of your most favorite songs (not your own): what would you pick and why?

My goal is to create a catalogue of music that is undiluted. With the remaining time I have left I plan to only focus on my music for myself and those who are interested in it. I wouldn’t do a covers record.

KB: You won 3 Grammys and was nominated 15 times. Why aren’t you more famous?

I’m too abstract, quirky and eccentric for mainstream. I’m a well-kept secret.

KB: What are you currently up to?

I leave for a tour of South America and Mexico, and then I’m off to China for 9 shows, then Asia, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, The Middle East, Africa, Tel Aviv and India. Then it’s Christmas, so Merry Christmas!

Check out Steve’s website: HERE
Find Steve on Facebook: HERE

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