Vintage Guitar - March 2017 - Open - 60
Vai-tality: Shredding the Stratosphere
By Wolf Marshall
hred - a colloquial term for overt instrumental prowess, ubiquitous across
genres and eras. Consider Bach, Mozart,
Liszt, and Paganini in classical music or the
improvisations of sitarist Ravi Shankar, jazz
passage work of Charlie Parker and John
Coltrane, country pickin' of Joe Maphis and
Albert Lee, fusion exploits of Al DiMeola and
Allan Holdsworth, and metallic blaze of Eddie
Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen. In the
milieu resides Steve Vai, guitarist, composer,
entrepreneur, producer, singer/songwriter, instrument designer, clinician, transcriptionist,
philanthropist, futurist - and yes, shredder.
Vai has come a long way since he was
Frank's "little Italian virtuoso" in Zappa's
early-'80s bands. In retrospect, there's an air
of inevitability to Vai's ascendance. Born in
Carle Place, New York, on June 6, 1960, he
was drawn to music at an early age, grasped
its nature at five via the piano, realized he
was to be a guitarist at six, began playing the
instrument at 12, studied with Joe Satriani
at 13, worked in local rock band, gravitated
to progressive music, and attended Berklee
College of Music at 18. His first serious job
was as Zappa's transcriptionist, precisely
documenting the intricacies of the music.
He gained notoriety in the late '70s with
transcriptions of pieces from Joe's Garage,
Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, and Zoot Allures,
later published in The Frank Zappa Guitar
Book and a complex musical minefield titled
"The Black Page," which secured a salaried
position in Zappa's organization.
Vai moved to L.A. to officially join Zappa's
band in '79 and was soon put to use performing
"stunt guitar" and "impossible guitar parts"
in concert and the studio. In '83, he settled in
Sylmar and built Stucco Blue, a professional
home studio that yielded "The Attitude Song" as well as the Flex-Able
album and launched Vai's solo career.
"The Attitude Song" was an especially
auspicious flight, featuring lead-guitar pyrotechnics in shifting time signatures and
a heavy metallic riff in 7/16 . It remains a cult
classic of the era.
Vai soon became a sideman to the stars.
After Zappa, he filled positions left vacant
by the biggest names in the field. He replaced
Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz (Disturbing
the Peace, 1984), Eddie Van Halen on David
lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile ('85), played
Satan's shredder in Crossroads ('86), and
joined Whitesnake in '89 (Slip of the Tongue).
Between stints, he designed the Jem and Universe seven-string signature guitars for Ibanez
and lent his expertise to develop amplifiers
for Carvin, which would eventually bear
his name as the Legacy line. He also worked
with Eventide on its H3000 Harmonizer, and
DiMarzio on signature high-output pickups.
Vai cemented his solo-artist stature with
Passion and Warfare, recorded between 1985
and '90. Heralded as "the richest and best
hard-rock guitar virtuoso album of the '80s,"
it sold more than a million and a half units
worldwide and reached #18 on Billboard
within a week of release - a staggering accomplishment for an instrumental-rock
In the early '90s, Vai formed a hard-rock
band with Devin Townsend, (vocals) T.M.
Stevens (bass), and Terry Bozzio (drums),
captured on Sex and Religion. He also collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne on Ozzmosis
('94) and won a Grammy that year for his
performance of Zappa's "Sofa" on Zappa's
Universe. Vai returned to his instrumental
format in Alien Love Secrets ('95) and Fire
Garden ('96), then joined fellow virtuosi
Satriani and Eric Johnson for the G3 tour.
Vai founded Favored Nations in 1999 and
subsequently released several guitar-intensive
albums by various artists, notably No Substitutions: Live in Osaka (2001), featuring Larry
Carlton and Steve Lukather, which earned a
Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Vai further stretched with a new band,
The Breed (with Billy Sheehan and Tony
Macalpine), as well as a live concept album
recorded in 32 countries (Alive in an Ultra
World), a conceptual 10-disc set (The Secret
Jewel Box), a trilogy series (Real Illusions:
Reflections and The Story of Light), and the
orchestral work "The Aching Hunger" with
Holland's Metropole Orchestra. The latter
posed Vai's shredding with the orchestra
and yielded Visual Sound Theories (DVD)
Steve Vai: Larry DiMarzio.