G3: Steve Vai: 'I'm A Composer More Than Anything Else'

artist: Steve Vai date: 01/16/2007 category: interviews
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G3: Steve Vai: 'I'm A Composer More Than Anything Else'
In the final instalment of Ultimate Guitar's exclusive G3 Down Under series, Joe Matera sits down with Steve Vai to talk G3, finding the right musical chemistry and composing for orchestras. Ultimate-Guitar: When it comes to the creative process, how do you go about accessing that spark that will provide the impetus? Is it through noodling on the guitar or jamming with other musicians or just some personal experiences in life? Steve Vai: We all have the ability to be inspired. It is just a matter of letting down certain defences and letting inspiration come in and then acting upon it with courage. I think for people, who are like geniuses, it is always there. But when it comes to people like me, I kind of have to wait for the gods of inspiration to sprinkle some fairy dust on me or something. But once it's there, it is quite liberating. You've been performing For The Love Of God during your G3 set. Watching you perform it, you're still able to call up the same feelings as you do on the original recording. Is there some sort of technique you adhere to in order to access that same spirit that you captured when you first put it on record? I think when ever we go to create something we enter that creative element in our mind. And it is a place we can return to. If you think about the state of mind you're in when you're doing your tax returns or state of mind you're in when you're cooking or when you're making love or when you're playing an instrument, they're all very different. So when I go to record a piece of music, I try to put my frame of mind within the emotional dynamics of the piece of music. And For The Love Of God has always been sort of the same. You know there is all this mystique surrounding how I prepared for that song.
"When I go to record a piece of music, I try to put my frame of mind within the emotional dynamics of it."
Yeah it's documented you spent many days preparing for it both mentally and physically. It's a little like the whole ten hour guitar workout you're famed for. Well some people are natural on instruments. To be quite frank, I'm not a natural. I had to work very, very hard. I have friends that can virtually go to any instrument, and are able to play and get a tune out of it. But I just can't do that. The thing that is natural for me is my sense of the absurd or my flow. My flow is natural. I can't play other instruments but I can write for them. I can imagine how they're played, I know no other composers who have that. They're not gifted on performing on an instrument. When I started to play guitar, I had all of this drive and energy and I focused it all on the guitar for years. And I really enjoyed it and as a result of all that dedication, came my chops. There are guys who have twice as many chops as me, I mean technique. But it's the age old adage, it's what you play and that is the thing that stimulates people. How do you go about picking your G3 set list from your vast catalogue? It is really difficult because my catalogue is filled with music that is not necessarily guitar hero stuff. I don't consider myself an instrumental solo guitarist. I do stuff like that but my last record Real Illusions, I mean though there are some instrumental guitar pieces on it, it's more of a compositional record. So would you rather call yourself a composer then? I like to. I used to have a hard time calling myself a composer because it sounds pretentious, but you know what? I'm a composer more than anything else. There, I said it. So when I'm in the G3 format I enjoy it very much but I really have to pull together a certain side of myself to flourish in the G3 environment but it works. But in reality there is a huge percentage of my catalogue that would never go over on a G3 show.
"Some people are natural on instruments. I'm not a natural."
Having the right chemistry with your backing band is obviously a vital component when it comes to performing live for you. How do you go about picking the right members so that chemistry can flourish? I've been touring for 26 years now and it's been a real challenge at times to find the right people. First and foremost a tour is like a piece of your life and when you look back at that, it doesn't matter how many records you've sold or how successful the tour was or how much money you made or how big or small it was, what you'll have is a snapshot of that piece of your life and the people who were in it. And they are going to have a big effect on your memory. So the first thing I look for is a cool person, somebody who is a good person, likes to have fun in a good way but isn't crazy out of their mind. If you go out on a tour and there is one miserable son of a bitch, he's going to be the one that screws up the whole tour and then when you look back at that experience, you're soured and who wants that? And the guys have to be good players as they have to make me feel comfortable when I lay in the musical bed that they create. You have a lot of companies interested in working with you on creating gear that is catered for your needs? Yes I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to do that where I can work with companies who are interested in making stuff that is designed specifically for my ear. I've embraced that concept from the very beginning. When I was a young kid, madly in love with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Joe Satriani - who was my teacher - I felt that there was a voice that I had that I wanted to express and that was very different. So I purposely went out of my way to avoid ripping off licks as such. Then as the years went on and my playing style started to conform to who I was, I had the opportunity to create instruments and amplifiers that resonated with my ear. And the first big design was the JEM guitar which was a unique instrument in the realm of rock guitar. When it came out, I can mention five things about that guitar that you could not find on a guitar. But now they're pretty common which is nice but the JEM itself is still built around my idiosyncrasies so it is a great thrill to be able to have that opportunity. When it came to amps, I never was really comfortable with any of the amps I used to use. I mean Marshalls are fantastic but why do I want to play an amp that everybody else uses? Plus there was always an edge to them that I was uncomfortable with. Then I found these Bogners and I kind of liked them so I used them for several years because they had a little bit more of warmth to it, there were still things that were still not quite right. So when it came time to design an amplifier, I had every company in the world willing to build whatever I wanted and Carvin were the ones that really stepped up to the plate. They were willing to work the way I wanted to work and to reflect the kind of sound that I like.
"The thing that is natural for me is my sense of the absurd."
Speaking of sound, you use two distortions pedals as the basis of your distinct guitar tone, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Boss DS-1? Yeahbut I've just finished designing a pedal with Ibanez called the Gemini that is coming out sometime next year. It is two pedals in one, two distortion pedals that are both voiced differently. And the volumes are voiced differently too. It's really great because now I can set the distortions completely differently where if I want a little bit of a kick or a particular sound, I kick one in and then I can kick the other one in for a more distorted sound and it especially works great if you use a clean amp. Finally what is coming up for Steve Vai? Musically, I'm working on finishing a record that I did with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. It was a tremendous project where we did five sold out shows. I was commissioned by the Dutch government and NPS Radio to compose two hours of music - they only wanted an hour - but I did two! [laughs] So I'm currently working on the editing aspect and mixing right now. It's going to be a double record set and will be called Steve Vai's Sound Current. It is part of a series of records I've released that have been orchestral. One of the records in the double set will be made up of new compositions for the orchestra while the other record will feature older compositions of the guitar and the orchestra. It is a very different side to me and something that my fans will either get or not. 2006 Joe Matera
Listen to Steve Vai (photo) greeting Ultimate-Guitar.com at this location.
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