A little over 30 years ago, Nirvana’s second record, Nevermind, delivered an unexpected coup de grace. Pop music critic Kelefa Sanneh provides the postmortem: “According to the conventional wisdom, hair metal died in the fall of 1991, killed off by a single event: the release of a song called ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ by a previously obscure band called Nirvana.” Instant saints, the band provided an ethos of rage and thrift store fashion that was immediately relatable for kids with strip mall frustrations who would never walk the sunny Sunset Strip. Preening and power ballads gave way to quiet/loud dissonance and pawnshop fuzz pedals, a cataclysmic shift that democratized the guitar. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain understood his band’s appeal: “We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.”
Another casualty of the ensuing grunge/alternative movement was shred guitar, a genre that emphasized instrumental pyrotechnics. Its practitioners were virtuosos who embraced technique, speed, and Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini. Players like Vinnie Moore, Tony McAlpine, and Gary Hoey dominated the pages of Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician, magazines that offered lessons on sweep picking and eight-fingered tapping. However, these musicians seemingly vanished overnight as media outlets recalibrated their playlists and rosters.
Yet Steve Vai has endured. Perhaps the most revered of the so-called shredders, he never fit comfortably in the category, which is often recognized as a metal subgenre. Vai is his own genre, crafting a galaxy of sound that is at once polished, idiosyncratic, and often bizarre. His tone is legend, his melodies electric and liquid. His resume is staggering: He invented the 7-string guitar, has played alongside Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, John Lydon, Whitesnake, and Devin Townsend, and appeared as Jack Butler, the devil’s guitar player, in the cult-classic Crossroads. Most notable are his solo records, beginning with 1984’s Flex-Able, followed by 1990’s breakthrough, Passion and Warfare. Since then, he’s released world-building sonic explorations like Alien Love Secrets, Fire Garden, Ultrazone, and Modern Primitive. His latest, Inviolate, refuses conventions and finds Vai once again challenging himself, defying self-imposed parameters and remaining true to a singular vision.
Steve Vai returns to Macon and the Hargray Capitol Theatre on Saturday, October 15th.
CF- I was wondering about your writing cycle. You’re finished with Inviolate, what’s next? Are you able to enjoy a break, or is there anxiety to continue composing, looking forward to the next project?
SV- It’s based on the product and the initial overview and how the goal is visualized. For something like Inviolate, I had other projects going, and I was planning on doing other things, but then with the pandemic and all of these types of things, everybody’s plans changed, so at one point, I just started really aching to get on tour and play again. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a concert. Push was coming to shove in my mind, and I decided, “Okay, look, you got this much time to get a record out and get on tour, so do your best.”
For this record. I put aside a lot of the quirky things that I’d had on past records, the little in-between bits. I didn’t want to make an 80-minute record. I was planning on ten songs– this might answer your question– I was projecting ten songs, and then I was finishing up the last one, and I was about to record the next one, but the record just told me that it’s done. You just kind of know. Sometimes you have to make compromises, not often. That’s one of the interesting things about my career when I look back– I’m kind of neurotic when I’m recording in that I know when it’s the way I want it to be, and then I’ll move on, and I can’t compromise during that process. If the riff isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how long it takes until it’s right. It’s a completely subjective perspective because the only person it needs to be right to is me. My inner thoughts– and I’m probably speaking on behalf of most creatives– you look at it and go, “No, not yet… Yeah, there it is. There it is. I’m done.”
Do you write for the song or do you write for the album?
I write for the song, and then the song speaks to what record it should be a part of, so both are true. The integrity of the song is of paramount importance. If I’m going to create a record, and I know it’s going to have a particular vibe to it, I’m not going to choose a song that I wouldn’t think would fit because you have to serve the song first, at least that’s the way I look at it. And then the song has to be appropriate for another group of songs.
Thinking about your career, when you first started, you were labeled not so much a curiosity, but a virtuoso, a whiz kid, “stunt guitarist.” How did you handle that initial reputation? Was it something you embraced, did you fight against it, or did you keep your head down and not worry about it?
When I look back, there were basically two things going on psychologically. One of them, I was aware of, and the other I didn’t become aware of until later. The one that I was aware of was the little voice in my head that was critiquing, criticizing, or observing the various stages that my career went through. That little voice sometimes had a lot of resistance in it. It would question, “Okay, is this right? Am I doing the right thing? Is this going to fit?” All these questions that artists have. Those kinds of questions come from a place of insecurity, but the other thing that was happening that I didn’t recognize ’til later was that it didn’t matter what the little voice was saying because the creative voice was in there saying, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on in the world, but I’m going to record ‘Little Green Men’ or something like ‘Even for the Love of God’.” And actually even after I recorded it and was listening to it with somebody, I had the discussion, “Is this too much? Is it wank? Is it over-the-top?” All these insecure questions about it, whereas my creative being was saying, “It doesn’t matter what you say, Vai. This is; it’s done. It’s going on the record, so you’d be better off shutting up.” (Laughs)
Did you feel pressure to produce hits, or were you removed from those concerns? Did working with Frank Zappa so early help you embrace your individuality and idiosyncrasies and not worry about appeasing the radio/Top 40 crowd?
I liked hit music; I liked radio, and when I was a kid, Top 40 was a favorite for me. But the whole idea of trying to become famous or trying to write a hit song to fit in just seemed completely off my radar. It seemed impossible, like, “I’m not even going to try that because that’s a wild card that nobody knows, but this I know; my music I know.” At the time, when I first started, I didn’t feel the need to placate stardom or to fit in that way. I didn’t have the talent for it either. I didn’t know how to produce hit songs; I didn’t know what a hit song was. I could write things that mimicked hit songs, but they weren’t “There’s Something Dead in Here”, which is a bizarre track off of Flex-Able, which turns me on more than if I had a hit song, you know?
With Frank, he was just an explosion of freedom, a freethinker. I don’t think any artist would turn down a hit if it was on their own terms. So Frank had some hits, but they were always on his own terms. The way I looked at it was, if I ever have a hit, it’s going to be an accident. The only time I felt, I don’t think pressure, was when I joined David Lee Roth’s band. You had to write accessible music. You wanted to have a hit. I didn’t not enjoy that process; I liked it very much. It was kind of like fishing, you know? There was a pressure there to come up with very accessible music, but accessible rock music was totally in my blood. I could do that, and the record [Eat ‘Em and Smile] turned out pretty good. It was very accessible.
But then from there on, with a band like Whitesnake, I didn’t write any of that material. It was basically recorded when I got there. I just added all the guitars, and then after that, there’s nothing commercial. I’m so lucky. I have zero pressure to have to write a hit song. It doesn’t mean I won’t have one day– maybe, maybe not– but it will have to be on my terms because if Steve Vai goes out to try to write a hit song, what I would do is listen to what’s contemporary, surround myself with those musicians and producers and do it, but I would rather do something else. That’s all; it’s as simple as that. I don’t need to be any more famous. I don’t need any more GRAMMYs. I don’t need any more money. It’s a really nice place to be because frankly, I’ve always been there, even when all of those things weren’t present, like money or fame or any of that stuff. I just loved making the music that felt good to me, and I lucked out because I found an audience– or an audience found me– that likes what I do. It’s not a big audience, but it’s enough for me to be inspired to continue to do it all. I would do it anyway (laughs)!
How often do you revisit your catalog when you’re writing new music? Do you ever feel like you’re competing with yourself?
You’re only ever competing with yourself. It looks as though you’re competing with other people, but that’s impossible; it’s an illusion. You only ever have the opportunity to expand your own creativity, and that’s built into us. That was built into our universal design. Universal intelligence has built into us the desire to continue to evolve our creative joy, so to speak, because that’s what it is.
When I do a record, and I feel like, “Okay, yeah! I like this. I hit my mark!” And I set parameters for myself. I tell myself in every song, “You’re going to do something that you’ve never done, hopefully, something you’ve never heard.” That’s part of the DNA of each song. Sometimes it’s very subtle, and it’s only meaningful to me. But sometimes it pops. On this record, there are three obvious landmark bar-raises for me. One of them is the song “Knappsack”. The whole thing is stuff with one hand. Another one is “Candlepower” where I was experimenting with bizarre techniques I’ve never done, and the other, which is the fucking motherload, is the “The Teeth of the Hydra”. What went into that song, I don’t know if anyone will ever know. It’s beautiful the way it all transpired. So I feel content in that I’ve competed with myself. I don’t see it as a competition. I see it as a joy because when you expand your creativity, it feels joyful.
“Candlepower” features what you call a “joint-shifting” technique. Do you still surprise yourself with the tricks you come up with?
What I like to do is imagine things– visualize them– that I can’t do, but are within my reach if I put the screws to it. If you take something like the “Teeth of the Hydra” when you listen to the song, it’s a little deceiving because all the bass, the 7-string, the 12-string, the harp strings are all performed on the Hydra in one performance, so it’s like juggling chainsaws. When I sat down to do it, I envisioned it. I envisioned myself playing a piece of music on this thing that was seamless, that didn’t sound like one instrument. Everything you hear is one instrument, except the drums and the keyboards, obviously. And the dragons– those were samples (laughs)! When I visualized it, I knew I could do it, so then I just had to carve out six weeks of time and sit down and figure it out.
What was the first trick you learned on guitar, something you heard someone else do but weren’t sure you could pull off or even knew how to?
When you’re beginning to play the instrument, every day is a surprise and delight. You’re always like, “I didn’t know I could do that!” When I would play something like a Led Zeppelin song, that was just amazing to me because I couldn’t believe that I could have under my fingers the same riff or notes that Jimmy Page played. It sounded great to play songs.
One of my first breakthroughs that I remember was when I was practicing a lot in my little teenage bedroom. I washed dishes, and I had a paper route, and I saved up enough money to buy a double-neck guitar because Jimmy Page had one…
The Ventura! Yeah! I used to sit on the floor with it and just play. Because of the way I was sitting, my elbow caused my wrist to be in a particular position that was a tiny bit north of the pickups. All of a sudden I started picking one day, and I was picking fast alternate picking, and I was connecting some of the notes. I was like, “Holy shit! I can play fast!” From then on, it was like an addiction.
I love the backstory about “Knappack”. [After shoulder surgery, Vai was briefly left with only the use of his left hand and composed “Knappsack” while recovering.] Besides that incident, have there been other times where circumstances outside of music have inspired you or forced you to play in a different way? Perhaps COVID, for instance?
The lockdown allowed me time to futz around with ideas and things that I couldn’t when you’re in a normal record touring cycle and you’re under deadlines. But I think there’s things that can happen to us that will affect the way we play or what we play. Some of those things I’ve noticed in myself when I tour– and I’ve been touring now for 41 years! You got to play the show; you got to do your best under all circumstances, and over the last 41 years, I’ve experienced many different circumstances that have changed the way I play. You don’t get enough sleep, and it can change the way you play. You have pneumonia, and it changes the way you play. I’ve gone on stage with slipped discs and all sorts of things.
As far as the studio goes, I set up parameters sometimes when I’m playing in order to force myself to do things that I wouldn’t normally do. For instance, if I tell myself, “Okay, on this solo, you’re going to play with one finger and on one string,” so that’s quite a limitation, but it’s still infinite what you can do. I might say to myself, “Okay, you’re going to do a solo here, but you’re going to skip strings whatever you play. You’re not going to use the B and the G.” This creates different sounds. There’s so many things that you can self-impose that will push you to experiment in ways that you just wouldn’t.
Normally, I would do things like– and I still do this all the time– take a sentence, just a phrase, any phrase, and repeat it in your head and connect notes to it.
That’s a very powerful way to change your style completely in one fell swoop. It connects you to a different kind of emotional conduit because now you’re speaking a line. If you say a line like, “I give you all I have,” you play that on your instrument, and you just keep playing it in different notes, but you speak the phrase, the way that that melody is going to sound is going to be analogous to the way you feel when saying the sentence. It’s a game-changer, and it’s just one.
I wanted to discuss your rhythm playing, specifically on a track like “Avalancha”. When Eddie Van Halen passed away, there were lots of praise for his solos, but not many people spoke about his rhythm playing.
Well, I don’t think Edward’s rhythm playing is underrated. We all know how absolutely genius he was. But my rhythm playing is really based on what the song is telling me to do. Something like “Avalancha”, that required walls of heavy guitars for the rhythm and it’s a bitch of a rhythm part to play.
About the track “Greenish Blues”, you say “This track is my take on the blues. It’s the closet I desire to come to it.” What do you mean? I know in other interviews you said you initially dismissed the blues as being too simplistic…
Well, the first scale that I learned on the guitar was a blues scale, and I applied it to rock. For me, blues just wasn’t interesting when I was a kid. It seemed repetitive and simple, and I wanted virtuosity. I wanted power and intensity and all this stuff. I didn’t listen to country music either; I just went right for the jugular. Later in life, obviously, I learned to appreciate real blues. I loved it.
What happened to precipitate that change for you?
Maturity. When we’re young, we know everything. And we believe that what we know is the truth, and that’s just the way it is. It was like, “Blues sucks,” but, of course, it’s just a completely ignorant perspective. Good music is good music. So I dropped that. It’s kind of similar to back then, if I listened to Bob Dylan, I’d say, “Why does anybody want to hear this crap?” But then you know, when I was maybe 29 or 30, I started listening to Dylan, and then I started listening, and now I don’t go anywhere without his entire catalog.
Your perspectives change, but for me, the approach to the blues was the blues scale as it worked for me in rock music, and it’s always been the case. I haven’t really recorded a blues-type song because I’m not considered any kind of an authentic blues player. I don’t see myself as an authentic anything– blues, jazz, or even rock. I’m authentically quirky. But with “Greenish Blues”, it wasn’t outside of my ballpark; it was inside it. But what I play on it is perhaps different than what somebody might consider conventional blues for sure.
How do you avoid cliches?
I don’t have to try. They’re not in my vocabulary. If I heard myself playing a conventional blues lick, I would stop immediately. There was always an aversion in me… It’s odd because when I was growing up and listening to all my heroes– Hendrix, Page, Brian May– and learning their riffs, there was something in me that said, “Don’t try to incorporate them into you because they’re already being done by somebody much better, and you have other things to say.” Remember at the time, I had no idea that I was going to be known as a guitarist in the future. It was a very innocent approach where I would hear all my heroes, and I’d hear all of those things that are conventional like blues riffs, jazz, bebop, and fusion. There’s definite structures and shapes in those genres that define the genres. I would immediately have a repulsion if I found myself playing something too authentic to a particular genre. I don’t know what it was. It was just like, “Why do it? You don’t want to sound like that. And you can’t! “First of all, I knew I couldn’t sound like them. [I wasn’t] good enough to play blues like an authentic blues player, so [I didn’t] try to learn the riffs. I know that flies in the face of the way most guitar players approach the blues because there’s all those tasty blues riffs. I just always had an aversion to doing something that sounded conventional. So I don’t have to try to avoid it. Like in “Greenish Blues”, if I found myself doing a conventional blues riff, I’d kill myself. “You’re going to destroy this song by trying to sound like something else?”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I was wondering about your relationship with that album. I was a fan of you, Joe Satriani, the whole shred guitar scene, and it seemed to vanish from the pages of Guitar World overnight. Literally. I was wondering what that experience was like for you since I saw it from the fan’s, the outsider’s perspective.
Kind of similar for what it was like for you. It was a surprise because, at that time, I hadn’t really been a part of a generational change as far as being a professional. Of course, I saw it happen in my life when we went from ’60s music to ’70s, from ’70s music to ’80s– but in the ’80s, I was part of the music scene. In the genre that I was focused in– the rock guitar lane– it just kept getting better and bigger and better and you had to play better and faster. That was the trend so to speak. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to play better faster, more tasty, more powerful, more control.
And then all of a sudden, the generational Grim Reaper came in and slashed the heads off of all the shredders. It was time, you know? But it was interesting to see and to be a part of a generational shift, and as far as I could tell, it was kicked off by Nirvana. My A&R guy at the time at Capitol had passed on Nirvana, passed on signing them. They got passed on because the music was so different, and it wasn’t really what was going on. But it was very powerful and obviously, somebody heard that and signed it, and the rest was history. For myself, the difficult thing was whenever there’s a shift like that, a paradigm shift in a music scene, anything that came before it is considered bad. Especially with the press. The press is looking for stories, so they’re the first ones.
It was a difficult period for me for about 3 years, 4 years because I was a poster boy for everything that was “wrong” about playing the guitar. For about 4 years, I could not open up a magazine– literally– and not read hate mail about me.
It was difficult, but it was good for me because I learned humility. When you get beat up like that, you’re wondering, “What did I do?” But I also learned that true artists just don’t compromise, and I just kept making the music that was important to me. There was one little voice that was like, “What is this? Why is it happening? Nobody likes me anymore,” but the other voice was saying, ‘Just shut up and do this right now.'” And then, POOF! You get Passion and Warfare! You get proof. You get my records. Because my music doesn’t really fit into any real pop-cultural movement. I was able to survive because it was offering something to people– a small group of people– who were looking, but it was enough.
A lot of music reviews I read these days almost begrudge the idea that there are still guitar-based bands, like, “Oh, another band with a guitar. How passe.” What’s lost when the guitar becomes less prominent?
Well, I don’t know if I would agree with you. I think you’re correct in that the cachet of the electric guitar in rock music was really high in the ’80s and ’90s, and then as genres and generations changed, the guitar took a back seat…
It feels like the word “guitar” is a pejorative…
This comes from journalists who could also be anchors at CNN or Fox. They’re just opinion-based and they need to create stories. So they say guitar music isn’t popular. Go tell that to people that love the guitar! It never stopped me. I don’t care if guitar is in popular music or not. It’s a force to be reckoned with. It’s more powerful than a genre. It’ll come and go as far as its use in popular music. As a matter of fact, I see it coming back. My wife has great taste in music, and she has turned me on to so much great music over the years because she brings it into the house, and I’m like, “What is this?” She says, “Well, this is a band I found. I really like them. They’re called Ghost.” I’m like, “Yeah, I saw pictures of them. Aren’t they just like some thrash death metal band?” She’s like, “No, listen.” I’m like, “Holy shit!” They’re selling out arenas, full guitar.
So if you’re a guitar player, and you’re reading this, ignore the press; just ignore what they’re saying about these things, whether it’s actually happening or not, and follow what it is you want to do. You start chasing feathers in the wind, and you turn around, and it’s all going to be done. If you love the guitar, play it.
You often talk about the importance of visualization. Could you talk about that for a bit, how it aligns with the creative process?
One of the things I usually say is that the greatest tool that we have in manifesting anything in our lives is our ability to visualize, and we’re doing it all the time. It’s just people don’t realize what they’re visualizing in that they’re manifesting things they don’t want in their lives because their visualizations have resistance and fear in them, so that’s what you’re going to manifest.
If you’re a musician– the visualization process is not just for a musician, but for anybody who enters the creative realm of their mind– there’s various steps that are at play in the manifesting of your ideas. Those steps, they start out with, first of all, having an idea. I’ll use “Candlepower”. The idea for the song was there. I didn’t know what the song was. I didn’t know what the notes were going to be, but there was an overall idea. Now that idea when it came to me had the feeling of enthusiasm in it– like real enthusiasm. There was no resistance because it was a thought of doing something that I knew I could do.
The second step is the visualization of it. Your ability to visualize something with enthusiasm is the engine of creation. The visualization is the second step in manifesting because that’s where you actually are starting to bring it into the world. It’s starting in your mind, and the picture that you create, if it has resistance in it, is going to be derailed. But if it has enthusiasm in it, the sun, the moon, and the stars will be at your beck and call to help you manifest it.