So anybody coming here for the title is probably familiar with Steve Vai's famous "7th songs," which are usually songs appearing on the 7th slot on his albums and usually are epic ballads with a huge build-up over 5+ minutes; if not, I don't know why you're here. So in the interest of analysis and learning from Vai - let's dissect his "Ballad Formula" if you will.
For reference, I will specifically talk about elements from "For the Love of God," "Tender Surrender," "Whispering a Prayer" and "Lotus Feet" (as the last one interestingly enough deviates a little bit).
So let's talk about common elements in all of those - and following up on my article on Satriani's Debuts, let's look at formal aspects first. In 3 of the mentioned pieces Vai works with a formal loop - a fixed harmonic progression within a (for the most part) fixed rock rhythm, over which he plays his melody. The only piece deviating here is "Lotus Feet," which actually has different formal parts and an accompanying orchestra that builds up and swells down instead of only building up, as well as having some variation going within that - the overarching theme of one big build-up is still there though.
Secondly, we have the actual guitar parts, which, while not being the exact same melody each time, pretty much all have the same structural function - Play "slow" theme first (plus potentially repeat it), then slowly increase density with passing formal parts (say another slow melody over the first time the progression is being played, a few more eigth notes the second time, some legato the third time, and so on) until some "upper limit" of density has been established, at which point the "shred" sequence of arpeggios, patterns and scales can be executed at maximum speed (maximum speed that can be pulled off that is). After that climax, the original theme is usually repeated again, sometimes proceeded by some low-energy intersection (see "Whispering a Prayer").
And with those two aspects, we pretty much have the set-up for coming up with a ballad "Vai-Style." I would go as far as saying that aforementioned formal elements probably make up more of the style and impact of those pieces than Vai's unique brand of whammy-legato-nuts, which most analysis seems to focus on. It's also noteworthy that the impact and feels generated are again a mixture of form and technique - the great impact of a Vai-ballad does come from presenting intense technique in a context that milks it for its contrast (and then follows it with the "slow" theme again). This specific way of songwriting is (sometimes in variation) also employed on other tracks by Vai, notably "Liberty" and "I Know You're Here" for example. This approach also seems to be not "Vai-exclusive," since some tracks by Satriani can also be described this way, most notably "Always With Me, Always With You."
In short, writing a Vai-Ballad is like binding your technical skills formally, as in presenting them in a formal Sequence where ideally each part increases or decreases density and speed. If you're looking for some specific Vai-way, then build a let's say 8-bar diatonic harmonic progression with some added tensions for fun, loop it over a rock rhythm section and then gradually speed up and dense out your melodic playing over each repetition.
More generally speaking, again it seems very important to have specific formal set-ups going in order to make the most out of your melodies and shred for your audience.
About the Author:
David Sertl is a composer and guitarist based in Vienna, Austria. He also runs David's Music Guild, the Youtube channel telling you everything you (n)ever wanted to know about music. For more information you can visit his website.