The reason nobody plays or sounds like Steve Vai
is nobody thinks like Steve Vai. His sense of harmony on The Story of Light
album is so left of center that no one would ever think in those terms while making a guitar instrumental album. Vai has taken elements from world music, blues, folk and Celtic and applied them to the guitar to create a record that elevates the level of his composing chops to the staggering level of his playing. The Story of Light is the second part of Vai's trilogy that began with Real Illusions: Reflections
back in 2005, a concept record that follows the exploits and adventures of a group of mythical characters.
Like a mad scientist burning the midnight oil in a secluded laboratory, Vai spent countless hours in his newly-built Harmony Hut Studio experimenting with, massaging and executing an arsenal of licks and riffs that are among the most challenging he's ever played. Finding new ways to pick the strings or employ a more subtle depression of the wah-wah pedal, Vai has created his own unique army of textures and techniques. The Story of Light is an album by a guitar player who has truly found his expressive voice to create a 6-string lexicon by which all other guitarists will now borrow from.
UG: On The Story of Light it sounds like your compositional skills and your guitar playing have matched up perfectly. Does that make sense?
I feel blessed because I've been doing a lot of press and the people who have followed my career and know the music have similar sentiments. They think it's my best work and I'm thinking, Well it's about time I brought all those elements together. It's a process and when you're an artist you want to continue to evolve. I think as you get older you let go of a lot of mind and noise and it frees you up. I'm in such a great situation because I really don't have to pander or cater to anything really. I don't have to have hits. And I just thought, You know what? You're not getting younger and these projects take a long time. You've got to give it up, man, and do everything that you always wanted to do. It turned out great.
We spoke when you released the Real Illusions: Reflections album and you said, Vai, you have to do only what you're hearing in your inner ear. You can't fool around anymore and you can't emulate anybody.
Yeah, I kind of feel that way. You know there's this little place that I think we go to when we're being attractive and usually we're attracted to the things that are most interesting and important to us. But a lot of times we put these roadblocks and they consist of things like, Oh well, I don't know what people are gonna think of this or I can't do this or This isn't gonna be accepted. When you can kind of let go of that stuff, I think you can move towards your potential more. It's a continuing, unfolding process and I'm glad I was able to squeak this one out.
When we spoke when you did the Real Illusions: Reflections record, you were already talking about this being a three-part record. Why did you think this music required three records to complete it?
At the beginning of the process I felt a lot of freedom to kinda like express various things and one of them was the music and all that goes into that: the guitar playing; what I want a song to make me feel like; and all that stuff. But another was, Why not give it another dimension and kinda put a story to it? When you're writing about something it gives you a little food for thought.
What you're describing was a concept album?
I wanted to do a concept record but I didn't want it to be a conventional type of concept record. Well here's my concept record and this is the first song and by the end you'll kind of understand what's going on. I thought I'd break it down and add a mystique by not giving it up and chopping all the songs into different orders and put them on different records. So nothing happens in linear fashion. If you want to listen to the music without having to wrap your head around the heady esoteric story that I'm unfolding, that's fine.
Because the music does hold up on its own.
You don't have to follow the story. But the plan is and the plan has always been to do three records based on this story, the Real Illusions story. And then when they're done take all those three records and maybe create a box set and put the songs in the proper order. Take the melody songs and put vocals on em, which a lot of them originated as, and then glue them together with more material to make it a cohesive, linear, beginning-to-end kind of story. And that's where I think the real story behind Real Illusions will be understandable and more accessible. But right now for those people who like to fetish the piecemeal, it's kind of there too.
We talked about how all the pieces have come together on The Story of Light. If you look back at your first record, Flex-Able, how would you characterize yourself as a player back then?
At any point in our life our psychic development is at a particular point. Whenever we create something it's a snapshot of who we were at that time, what was important to us and our skills and the accessibility of the tools because the tools continue to change. I do listen back to my records and I'm actually [laughs] maybe a little pretentious to say that I listen to them a lot. I like my records.
That is very cool.
I do. A lot of times I listen and I think, Wow, man, how did I do that? Who was that guy? How did I take all that time? And then I think, God, I was so intense and so serious about it.
I asked Joe Satriani that same question about listening to his early music and he said he cringed when he listened to some of stuff.
There's little cringe factors but they usually don't have a lot to do with the gist of the music. There's maybe a note here and there where I think, Wow, it's a little out of tune and stuff like that. This is me thinking this and like I say I don't mean to sound pretentious but I listen to my past records and I think, How am I gonna top that? There's a lotta stuff in there that I put a lot of work into. Then I do The Story of Light and I listen to it and I go, How did you do that, man? It was so much work. But then when you're going through it and you have a vision and a compelling idea it takes precedence.
You're consumed by it and you don't count the minutes.
You don't even realize how deep you're getting into it until you take the boots off.
Were you that intent and serious in your very early bands like Hot Chocolate, Ohio Express and Circus?
Yeah, because I was very shy as a kid. Those bands you're talking about were like my early teens when I was 12, 13 and 14. I was really very shy and insecure about my playing and everything when I was with my friends cause they all seemed in my mind so much more accomplished and cooler and they were always older. But if you hung out with me in private and you were like one of my really close friends that I felt very comfortable with? You would know the really quirky, bizarre, silly kid. I mean I was like the class clown.
Flex-Able was the first time that strange little kid had a chance to make his own music?
There was no way that I wasn't gonna make Flex-Able. It's like a reflection of that quirky, funny kid that was in all those bands. A lot of times when you're in a band you're conforming to what you believe a band is supposed to be. So you don't really express yourself entirely because you're learning Kiss songs.
As a guitarist was your style starting to develop in those earlier bands?
If I listen to tapesand I have tapes from back thenI was very experimental but I was a terrible player though. My intonation was for crap and I had no tone because it was all about getting distortion and making it sound good like an ice pick in the forehead. My style wasn't really great but you can hear I think in some of that music, there was just a little thread of something interesting. And I hear it in a lot of kids because you're kind of innocent.
At a certain point did you want to develop your guitar playing even more?
As I grew it became very aware to me that I wanted to develop my own style and it wasn't for any kind of an egotistical reason to separate myself from everybody. It just seemed like fun and it was all about fun. That's like when I would sit and play the guitar in my room forever, it was my own little secret. It was just really a thrill to listen to a Hendrix or Zeppelin song and learn how to play them. But then say, Well that's what they did and I can't do anything really like that. But what is it you would do? And then when you come up with a riff that you didn't hear your heroes play, you go, Oh wow, hey man, I can really do something. I'm somebody.
So trying to create your own style was always there for you?
That was always the impetus of my love for music and the guitar. It was always the thrill of coming up with something that was a little different. Thinking about that I couldn't play and then working on it and then being able to play it. It was like magic and it would give you this unbelievable rush and this feeling of accomplishment and dignity. And that has always been at the forefront of my focus and everything else that ever happened in my career came from that.
It was never a sense of wanting to be better than everybody else?
I never sought the gig with Zappa or Roth or Whitesnake or any band. They always kind of fell in my lap and when I turn around and I think, I wonder how that happened? I believe it was because I kept my vision on trying tonot trying tobut discovering my own voice on the instrument.
How did that vision guide you to record The Story of Light?
Usually when I make a record like this, I build it. I don't cut tracks and overdub stuff. I come up with an idea for a song and I lay down a very sparse guitar part or rhythm part and then I slowly build it. I get the drums on and I got Jeremy Colson on everything and then I'll put a bass on it and I'll put keeper rhythm guitar parts and then I'll kind of build it from there.
You used your touring band to play on the album.
The only people I used from my touring band on the record were Jeremy Colson and Philip Bynoe on bass.
Your touring guitar player, Dave Weiner, played on The Moon and I?
"I felt a lot of freedom to kinda like express various things and one of them was the music and all that goes into that."
Yes, that was a track recorded in Athens, Greece many years ago. I've got this great policywhenever I come into the gig for soundcheck everybody has already soundchecked and my guitar is standing there on a stand and it's hot. I don't know what I'm gonna play but I pick it up and just start playing and we record everything. Whatever comes out the band just follows me. It's really great. Sometimes it's not that inspired and sometimes you get a little gem. I started to play these chords to The Moon and I and I stopped immediately cause the whole song came to me. I showed the band the chords and said, Play this and then play that and in this section go here and let's do it. We did one take, one pass and it was the only time the song was ever performed. Then it got thrown on the shelf with probably 150 other songs that came about the same way. Listening back you go, Ah, there's a little bit of inspiration.
The Moon and I was special?
I took that track and I brushed it off. I edited it and I put a lot of the sound effects and stuff like that and I put the vocal on it. Then I re-did the guitar and it turned into The Moon and I and I thought it was a very nice piece and kind of sweet. I have these releases that I do called Vai Tunes and they're just digital releases of songs from soundchecks and songs that didn't make it to the record. I released The Moon and I as one of those and they don't usually get a lot of coverage and a lot of people don't find them. But I thought this song is too special to me to let it just sit in this little digital domain. So I resurrected it and remixed it with my engineer Greg Wurth and yeah, that turned into that song.
Your vocal on The Moon and I was really good.
Thank you. I enjoyed singing it and the melody was right in my range and it's a pretty melody. The lyrics have a personal meaning to me and that's usually t he best recipe to have when you're gonna deliver something.
The Story of Light opens with the title track and those great majestic chord changes. There's a feeling in that opening piece that you're really introducing the listener to the rest of the album.
A lot of things go into why an artist will do a particular thing and the way other people perceive it is obviously very subjective. When I envisioned The Story of Light, the song, it was a takeoff on the last song on Real Illusions, which is called Under It All where I did these big 7-string chords and I thought I kinda hit the mark there but I didn't quite get out everything I wanted to say. I loved that sound and I knew if I just got the right distortion on the 7-string, I could play these big, thick, rich chords. Because on the 7th string you can do these voicings that you just can't do [on a 6-string.] And I heard just this wall of rich, dense, distorted guitars with these tension-filled chords that resolve and have little melodies in them and stuff. I love long melody and I wanted the melody in the song to not sound anything like the guitar solo. So I worked very carefully on it and sometimes phrase by phrase. Every phrase that I did I told myself, What are you gonna do in this phrase that's differt than anything you've ever done before? There's so many nuances and it's so much fun for me.
Do you think that even the most ardent listener ever hears how much work you put into a song like this?
I don't think anybody gets it. I'm finding out people do respond to those little tiny nuances cause they build up and create an atmosphere. I doubled it so it's almost like a mechanical melody. I loved it and I heard the whole thing in my headnot the notes but the concept: I'm gonna do these phrases and they're gonna be all different. Really what the whole second half of the song is is the chord changes from the first half sprinkled out on the piano for space with this melody just screaming over it. It was all kind of like a concept before I did it and then after I heard it it really fulfilled me. I thought, This is gonna open the record because there's nothing like it and it's glorious.
That's a perfect description for the song: glorious.
A part of mean old part of mewould say, You can't open the record with this, man. This is way too esoteric. People want to hear like a rockin' guitar solo. I said, Fuck that shit, man. I'm too old for that shit. Play what the fuck you want. So that's how I opened it and it's a very idiosyncratic piece to my inner ear. I'm really glad you responded to that.
Velorum has a bit of a rock feel going on in that riff and there are acoustics on this one?
All sorts of different stringed instruments. I do that a lot and have a tendency to overproduce. I always use the sitar and I've used it on every record. I have a 12-string guitar on there; a cavaquinho; ouds; a saz; and I'm not sure if I used a mandolin on that one. Another one that has a lot of little acoustic things coming in here and there is No More Amsterdam, the track I did with Aimee Mann.
Velorum is a pretty adventurous track.
Velorum has a lot of compositional things in it where I would stack some chords a certain way.
Where did that love for acoustic instruments come from?
They're organic and they respond totally differently than electric guitars and they fill the frequency range much differently. And they're a blessed release you know. I remember when I was a kid I played the electric guitar when I started for about two years and then I got my first acoustic guitar. I almost played it exclusively for a year. I'm looking at that guitar right nowit's on the wall. It's a Contessa.
You actually did an acoustic project recently with nylon guitarist Sharon Isbin?
No, actually I played electric. Her last record [Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions] had a piece on it [Allegro] that she had done and she asked me if I would be interested in doing an electric guitar arrangement on it. And I thought, Yeah, this would be a nice contrast.
What was that like working with Sharon Isbin?
I actually composed a piece for her and I that was performed in France. It was called The Blossom Suite and a real pretty piece. It was like 30 minutes long for electric guitar and nylon string acoustic and it was really cool. I have a recording but compositionally it's not quite there yet for me so I want to eventually do some more work on it.
You can play anything on the electric guitardoes that translate to acoustic?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there's a lot of things I can't play. I have to struggle whenever I'm going out of my comfort zone and I never considered myself a good acoustic guitar player. I mean I've released records from people like Tommy Emmanuel, Adrian Legg and Peppino D'Agostino. These guys, that's their home you know. I feel like I'm an acoustic player for texture.
John the Revelator is your adaptation of the old blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. Everybody has covered that song from Sam & Dave to the White Stripes.
Really cool versions too. I was a big fan of that 4-CD set called Anthology of American Folk Music. It's wild. I first heard about it when Tom Waits told me about it. He was telling me about Harry Smith who was this crazy artist that was an archivist and he collected all of these early, early Americana folk recordings. So the record is just filled with all these people expressing themselves very sincerely and very organically. Once Blind Willie Johnson, once I heard his version of John the Revelator it stopped me dead in my tracks.
You thought this was something you could adapt for the album?
I immediately heard all these big fat guitars on it. So I licensed a snippet and built John the Revelator around it. Actually that piece and the following piece, The Book of the Seven Seals, were one piece of music but I cut them in half. If you go and check out John the Revelator and type in Counterpoint Concert Choir, you'll see this high school choir singing this stunning arrangement of John the Revelator. I was so moved by it that I contacted the choir director and she sent me a cassette and said, You can do whatever you want with it. So I took it and chopped it up and built The Book of the Seven Seals. The recording I got for her wasn't very good so I actually hired 10 of L.A.'s best and they came in and sight-sang it and I triple-tracked them so you got this huge contrast between the first part and the second part.
How did you choose Beverly McClellan to sing the track?
In the first part I needed somebody to sing the track and I was gonna sing it myself but I knew I couldn't do justice to it because it was out of my range. So right when I was recording it, I was also hosting an event for The Recording Academy with Sharon Osbourne and there was all these performers. Beverly McClellan performed and she just totally blew me away and I was totally captivated by her. I thought, There's my John the Revelator' singer. Then I wonder, I don't know if she knows who I am? Or if she's interested? Will a lot of these people that don't really know me accept a shredder guitar player from the 80s? They're not so compelled to work with me. But I got backstage and she was there with her CD and said, I'm a fan and know your music and I'd like to give you my CD. And I was just like, Well, would you please, please sing this song? And she just nailed it. I'm taking her on tour to open the show.
On Creamsickle Sunset you made the guitar sound like a koto.
Well you can do that by picking on a certain place on the neck.
The guitar tone is so clean and naked.
You can't hide behind anything. It's a very honest sound especially when it's a Strat directly into a Bandmaster. It's an Eric Johnson Strat. I wanted the sound of a Strat and I thought it was time to do a clean piece because I like those kinds of pieces. I had this silly riff that was like an old exercise for learning chord inversions. It's like an E triad that inverts but it sounded like music and immediately I heard the whole song. I said, I really enjoyed recording it because the guitar is such a receptive instrument that you can touch the strings all sorts of different ways and it sounds differently. Like if you pluck them; if you strum them; if you use a pick. So I thought I'm going to use every single technique I can to recreate this piece of music. I definitely wanted the sound and the performance to have its own identity and I wanted every note to speak. The way I vibrated them, I really studied it to make it feel a certain way. I wanted every note to have its own zip code so to speak. I was really happy with the way it came out because for me that stuff is kind of hard to do.
Creamsickle Sunset was a challenging song for you?
"I was really very shy and insecure about my playing and everything when I was with my friends cause they all seemed in my mind so much more accomplished and cooler and they were always older."
Oh yeah, they're all challenging. What happens is I kind of piece them together and then I learn. It's a great way to expand your playingyou do it piece-by-piece and you kind of do things that you imagine but you can't quite do and then you work on em until they come out. Then when you string them all together and you learn it, you've evolved your playing.
Gravity Storm is the other side of the guitar spectrum with that heavy distorted riff.
Yeah. A lot of people think I played that with the whammy bar but the guitar I used didn't even have a whammy bar on it. All those bends are with my fingers. I wanted to create the feeling of weight without doing the conventional thing like using a 7-string tuned way down and going chugga chugga chugga. So I discovered that by bending these notes down a half-step, sometimes a whole step and sometimes a quarter-step, at the end of each phrase and even the solo and everything, it creates this illusion of weight and it worked out pretty good.
What guitar did you use on Gravity Storm?
That was an Ibanez Strat. The sound of it was directly into a Legacy head but I was using a DigiTech Whammy pedal for the octave stuff. The majority of the sound on that and John the Revelator because I used the same guitar, is the room. I just finished building the Harmony Hut here in my home in Encino and I built this room specifically around ideal acoustics. With really, really odd-shaped walls and a particular balance of wood and glass and fabric. I like the way the room sounds; it turned out very nice.
Mullach A'tSi' features Deborah Hensen on harp?
Yeah, that's an old Irish lullaby; it's like a traditional Irish lullaby. I love listening to cultural music and I love Celtic music and it's another great way to expand your playing. I heard this woman, Padraigin Ni Uallachain, and she sang it with real authentic Celtic nuances and I heard that and I said, I wanna do that on the guitar. Because there's all these intimate and exquisite little slides and bends and it was one of those where I had to take it phrase by phrase. Because in one phrase I might be using the volume knob, the whammy bar, the wah-wah and the Sustainer on and off and bending a note to get it to sound like a particular thing. So it was a lot of work but when I heard it all back and then I learned it, it was really worth it because again it added a different dimension to my playing.
You're taking all those various elements to create that very unique solo sound?
Yeah, and it's finding the right flex in the wah at the right moment in the phrase to make it sound like it's actually speaking.
There are also some acoustics in Mullach A'tSi'?
Yeah, basically there's an acoustic guitar on the left side and Deborah on the right side playing harp. Then it slowly builds and some other things come in like keyboards and vocals to support the melody. I completely re-harmonized the piece from the original, which was like A to Asus to A.
You perform another vocal duet with Aimee Mann on No More Amsterdam. How did that happen?
It's funny because I went to college with Aimee. Yeah, we went to Berklee together and we actually lived in the same apartment building and she just was a couple of doors down. My girlfriend at the time who's now my wife, Pia, was really good friends with Amy and used to play in a band with her at one time. So through the years I've had this connection and Pia would always get her music and I'd listen to it and there was something very beautiful about her voice. Her lyrics are like poetry; she's like a poet. I had written this song and I wanted it to fit into the story a particular way and it required I would sing with a female. But I was having a lot of trouble with the lyrics and Pia said, Why don't you call Aimee? To my surprise she was really interested in working with me. She wrote the lyrics and came in and sang and it was a wonderful collaboration because I don't usually collaborate. I didn't collaborate with anybody else on the recordor my last record or the record before. But I probably should do it more often.
Weeping China Doll has another amazing heavy guitar sound on it.
There's a funny story behind that one. Do you know what a Weeping China Doll is?
It's a flower; a rose. A Weeping China Doll. We had just made this little area and there was this fence surrounding it and my wife had planted these Weeping China Dolls along the fence. I'm looking at these roses on the fence and it looked like music on a staff. So I took a snapshot and I transcribed it. [laughs] And it was a melody.
No way was there a melody.
Well yeah, of course it was a melody. Some of the more outside, esoteric stuff in that song are the Weeping China Dolls growing on my fence. Any means necessary.
The album closes with Sunshine Electric Raindrops.
That's one of those pieces that was just a riff I had and I listened to it for years. It was like a 10-second riff and I kept putting it aside because it sounded too pop you know. But there was something about the melody I always liked and I just broke down and said, Just do it, man. It came out nice.
The Carvin Legacy has been your main amp for many years. Is that why you recently sold one of your Marshall 100-watt JMP amps you used when you were with David Lee Roth?
One of them. I had four and one of them was stolen. Three were modded by Jose Arredondo and you know his story? And one of the ones I had from him was stolen and one of the others was modified by Lee Jackson. That's the one I sold and I still have two Jose amps.
Did you sell the Marshall because you never used it?
No, I break em out now and then. They have a sound but Marshalls are very inconsistent. They have a particular sound and I do like that sound by everybody uses them. The Legacy is like a comfort zone to methe way the amp responds to fingers and stuff, it's just really comfortable. So I'll plug into all these other amps and I'll struggle through getting various textures but then when it comes time to be really comfortable and play, I just compulsively pick up Evo and plug into the Legacy as a habit.
How would you characterize your sound on the Eat Em and Smile album when you were using the Marshalls?
It was kind of visceral and innocent because I didn't realize the amount of people that were gonna hear it. I didn't realize I'd be asked about it 20 years later. So you just do it and you plug in and go. I liked the tone from back then. It represents a time and a band and those 80s were really great times to be a rockstar.
Talking about David Lee Roth, certainly you've heard the new Van Halen record, A Different Kind of Truth.
Yeah, I was very relieved because I thought Edward played really well.
Don't you think so? He played really well. He sounds like the old Edward if not even better at times. And Dave really surprised me too because I've recorded Dave and punched him through a whole record and he punched me through a whole record. There's a lot of notes he's singing on this new record he didn't have back then. It's a very kinetic record.
January 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the Evo Jem.
Yeah, it's really extraordinary because when I designed that guitar, I really designed it around the idiosyncrasies of my playing. I designed it around my quirky playing and these things I thought would be nice to have in a guitar. Here 25 years later, I've been told it's the longest-running and best-selling Signature series guitar in history. The RG, which is like a lower model of the Jem, is the second biggest selling guitar in the worldsecond only to the Strat. Yeah, it's really quite an honor.
You're doing a G3 Tour with Joe Satriani and Steve Morse?
Yeah, we just got back from Australia and we're going to Europe. We did Australia with Luke and it was so great. The G3 Tours are like a vacationit's a great time and I get to hang with Joe and all these great players. I always look forward to them.
Looking back at The Story of Light now that it's finished, was it the perfect follow-up to Real Illusions: Reflections?
I know that when I go through it there's a certain feeling I need to get and I look for that feeling on all the things I record. But I think this is probably one of my best works in the fact that I threw a lot of convention to the wind harmonically. I didn't really adhere to too many strict harmonic ideas. I went more into these harmonies that are in my inner ear and the things that kind of move me a little more. I'm discovering that's what my fans really want.
Interview by Steven Rosen