How to Ballad Vai-Style

Steve Vai's ballads are among his most famous works - which brings up the question what we can learn when analyzing them.

Ultimate Guitar

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.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

    What a presumptuous first paragraph lol I came here because I'm a fan of Steve Vai and would love to gain some insight on his technique
    I'm sorry, I'm British. Been a trying day!
    I'll bet. Been quite interested on this side of the pond too. Nothing to do with Vai, but interesting none the less! A day in history, one way or the other.
    Yeah, I wanted to stay in but I think it turned into a vote to oust David Cameron. Some very very narrow minded people over here.I'll be interested to see what happens on your side of the pond later on in the year. Could be 2 men with the same haircut in charge but I hope not!!!
    How to Vai: Step 1. Install a sustainiac pick-up in bridge. Step 2. Make sure to have a trem system. Wank it a lot. Step 3. Have a volume swell pedal. Kick it and wank trem. Step 4. Use well enough reverb and delay. Step 5. Get a stage fan. (the actual blowing one for a change) Step 6. Wear paisley shirts and grow your hair.
    Really? I don't remember a single of his "ballads" getting significant airplay.
    Of course you don't. "epic ballads with a huge build-up over 5+ minutes" are not exactly radio material these days.
    David Sertl
    It wasn't exactly intended as an insult, sometimes I just enjoy writing in a sort of gonzo-style :x Sorry if that came of too harshly
    Useful article, but how about something that's less copying others and more working on your own style for a change?
    David Sertl
    Wow, did you follow my whole career or something? And what did I copy here exactly?
    David, if you write an article called "How to Ballad Vai-Style", it means you are giving advice on how to copy from Steve Vai. My point was about the lack of advice from good musicians about the way they came to their own unique style, which makes them who they are. Vai didn't read articles about copying from others, he worked hard to become unique. Being a professional means dealing with criticism, both positive and negative. I see you wrote a few more of those unprofessional comments, so if you plan to continue writing lessons like this as a profession, maybe you should work on improving you reaction to the feedback you are getting from the guys here at UG. Best of luck. Milos
    David Sertl
    Thanks for explaining. I don't quite see what you're talking about though. If you wanna be original you gotta understand craft - and the fastest way to 'get there' is to analyze other musician's work, right? With that in mind, I wrote an article on Vai's Ballad Style - which, since being highly uniqe, I find interesting to analyze. And given that a lot of people seem to be interested in playing like Vai, I approached it from the angle of someone wanting to emulate his style. Critiquing that the article doesn't do what it doesn't set out to do quite frankly strikes me as unprofessional on your part. Also - your original statement sounds as if you criticize me for being unoriginal, which I take as you not having looked up my music (I can't shred like Vai ) All in all, I kinda don't see what your critique is supposed to be about, since I don't see an UG lesson requirement about people having to be original, making your criticism even more obscure.
    My friend, it is you who is a professional writing articles here, I am just a reader, so being unprofessional for me is not as important as you being professional. I don't want to go into further discussion with you. There is nothing wrong with your article, all I was saying is that there should be more articles on individual development rather than copying other famous musicians. Have a good day. Bye
    David Sertl
    That first part I disagree with, but I respect your wish not to discuss any further. Cheers!
    I enjoyed your article. Thank you. I will check out some of your other stuff too.