Is Yngwie Malmsteen the Greatest Rock and Roll Guitarist Since Jimi Hendrix?

By Andrew Catania

The historical archives of the heavy metal rock speak for the sheer class of Jimi Hendrix. As soon as his fingers came in touch with the metal chords, it was as if he was magically squeezing out tones that poured into the ears as profound musical fantasies that humanity had never heard before. It was as if his riffs, shreds, and chord pulls came out of a parallel world and evolving a musical plane out beyond the restriction of the physical dynamics of the contemporary music world. This is why, he is undisputedly worshipped as the God of heavy metal rock, and apparently, with the milestones, he had already established, no wonder it demanded a lot from his successor musicians to achieve a class even close to his grandeur. 

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A look over the post-Hendrix era of music, we see a couple of names like Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Steve Vai and Eric Clapton. But if observed in the retrospect of an extremity of pulls, the non-conformity to contemporary technique and experimenting with the tones and chords, is it Yngwie Malmsteen who stands as the most eligible and deserving heir to the ‘Hendrix Legacy’And would it be an exaggeration if we sum up Malmsteen’s career in a single statement as “he came, he saw, and he conquered?

Comparing the career hallmarks, mastery at hand and the technical blueprints of rock and roll musiciansYngwie Malmsteen seems to have made a loud and explosive mark in his musical career, straightaway challenging his fellow musicians of the neoclassic, heavy metal, rock and roll genre, right from the start. The mastery he held over his six-stringed, personalized instrument is a worthy testament to his in-born brilliance. The new hard rock and heavy metal sensation took the world by storm, jolting the musical status quo of the 1980s, Malmsteen eventually turned into a name that you would love, or hate, but could not possibly ignore.

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His music had this lightning fast, jolting hard and literally exploding-ontotheeardrums kind of effect. Despite his nerve-wracking tones pulled out of the fusion of metal and classic, he was not exactly the pioneer among the neo-classical maestros to have tried and aced the forte. But still, it might be hard to deny that his tones are addictive and unbearably beautiful for their explosive audacity and keep the audience hooked and bound in an exceptional phase of musical ecstasy. 

While the rock and roll world was experiencing Eddie Van Halen’s hyper-fast electric, Eric Clapton’s virtuosity, Jimmy Page’s finesse and Steve Vai’s Zappa, Yngwie Malmsteen made his presence felt through his fiery, fanatical and deviant tones, giving birth to his very own neo-classical, heavy metal genre. And this, precisely, would suffice as a reason why he could be considered a competent, potential descendant to inherit the towering throne of the legendary Jimi Hendrix and his legacy of rock and roll magnum opuses.

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Vinnie Moore: Still Shredding

By Andrew Catania

Vinnie Moore is one of the most influential and important guitarists to emerge out of the guitar god boom of the mid to late 1980’s. Boasting nine studio albums, he’s one of the most recognizable artists on the Shrapnel record label.

Beginning his career at the tender age of 12, Moore played clubs and bars until Shrapnel big wig Mike Varney discovered him through a magazine article. His connection with Varney led to a Pepsi commercial in 1985, which give him enough recognition to record his first solo album, Mind’s eye. His debut led to several awards from Guitar Magazine’s and sold over 100,000 copies, bringing him direct into the spotlight of the guitar world.

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The virtuoso craze of the late eighties led to more well received releases on Shrapnel, and soon he began to perform with other bands in the hard rock scene. He joined Alice Cooper’s band for a tour and the ‘Hey Stoopid’ album, and released two very popular instructional videos on playing guitar.

He secured a tour with Rush for his solo material, then turned around and had a guitar clinic that spanned several continents. His dedication to teaching his craft has brought him much praise in musician’s circles. Although the nineties saw a decline in the popularity of solo guitar music, Moore survived the downward trend due to his popular guitar clinics and quality playing.

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Standing tall with fellow guitar heroes Al DiMeolaSteve VaiMarty Friedman, Tony McAlpine, and Joe SatrianiVinnie Moore has enjoyed a successful working relationship with Shrapnel records. Moore released a solo record in 2015 called, “Aerial Vision”, and is still touring with the band UFOVinnie is still considered one of the ‘elite’ shredders still today.

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Steve Morse: The Introduction

By Andrew Catania

There’s not much that hasn’t already been written about Steve Morse. A storied career, Steve has done such phenomenal things as being involved in bands as the Dixie Grits, to playing with shredders Steve Vai and Joe Satraini.

Morse’s career took off slowly, often culminating in abrupt junctures where most musicians would simply give up. However, Morse was adamant on driving through these rough patches. A remarkable attribute common to most of Morse’s works was a personified use of melodic rhythmic patterns, intense merging of rock, classical, folk and country elements, and typified stress on experimental arrangements in the compositions. Throughout most of his early career, Morse’s music was meant for only a certain class of experimental music enthusiasts and largely avoided commercial acclaim.

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In his early 20s, Morse enrolled in the University of Miami (School of Music), one of the most prestigious music schools of the time. It was here for the first time that his compositional skills were noticed by some of his close friends such as Andy West, with whom he would later form the Dixie Dregs. In 1975, Morse and West began work on a few records under the Capricorn Records label. Most of the works produced would entail jazz, hard rock and fusion elements, with vocals added only very late as a result of commercial pressure. After the releases of Free Fall (1977) and What If (1978), Morse’s compositional ability became widely known and as a result, he was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival of 1978. However, despite the constant efforts of Morse’s mangers to introduce vocals in to their tracks, albums such as Unsung Heroes (1981) and Industry Standard (1982) still had mixed reviews overall. In spite of some regrettable failures in the commercial context, The Dixie Dregs days did manage to bring out some of the best compositions for Morse.

After the band’s separation in 1983, Morse embarked on his own venture, the Steve Morse Band. During this time, albums such as The Introduction (1984) and Stand Up (1985) saw a return to his initial passion to produce instrumental music. Soon after, Morse joined another band, called Deep Purple and collaborated with them on five of their albums, while also occasionally filling in the role of lead and rhythm guitarist in their live sessions. One of his first efforts with the band was the 1996 top charting album, Perpendicular, with Morse taking writing roles on songs like Sometimes I feel Like Screaming. His performances of the song featured some outstanding guitar techniques, with soothing arpeggio arrangements and an impressive use of harmonics. Some of Morse’s recent projects have included bands such as Living Loud, Angelfire and Flying Colors, with whom he has experimented with a number of genres. Morse’s legendary vision, conceptual framework, song writing skills and guitar arrangements are a few factors that have contributed to a long-lasting and successful music career, with artists like John Petrucci and Shawn Lane often regarded as guitarists following in Steve Morse’s footsteps._cover

In terms of guitars, Throughout the 1980s Morse was using a custom “frankentele” guitar, made up of a Tele body with a Strat neck, a Gibson trapeze-style tailpiece (coming from a twelve string guitar) and four pickups in HSSH configuration. At one time, the guitar had a fifth pickup, a hexaphonic pickup with a separate output for each string; it provided the signal to drive a 360 Systems Spectre guitar synthesizer.

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Morse was then approached by Music Man Guitars to create a signature model to his specifications; he is now one of the longest endorsees of the company. In particular, he’s been using prototype n°1 of his Steve Morse signature guitar for more than 20 years (the guitar has been refretted eight times). He now has two signature models with MusicMan guitars: The first one is an exact replica of his n°1 guitar which features a poplar body with maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, 4 pickups (a DiMarzio Steve Morse bridge and neck model Humbuckers, and two DiMarzio single coils, a DP 117 and a custom wound Steve Morse single coil in HSSH configuration) volume and tone controls. The switching is also particular: it features a three-way selector that changes between the bridge humbucker, the neck humbucker and the first single coil (aligned with the Bridge Humbucker), a mini switch that adds the bridge pickup to any configuration and a third switch that adds the second, slant single coil to any configuration. This switch also allows for independent single coil selection. • The second one, the Steve Morse SM Y-2D, is an updated version with quilted maple top same neck & body, three pickups (the slant single coil has been eliminated) and a 5-way super switch.

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Morse has gone on to release 47 albums as a solo artist and as a member of the Dregs, Kansas, Deep Purple, the Steve Morse Band and other groups. And he’s guested on 64 other recordings by artists ranging from Pavarotti and Liza Minnelli to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Morse’s latest studio releases are Deep Purple’s “Now What?!” in 2013, a self-titled album by Angelfire (which combined folk rock, pop, classical crossover and New Age textures) in 2010, and the Steve Morse Band’s “Out Standing in Their Field” in 2009.

To keep up with Steve please visit: stevemorse.com

Eric Johnson: #1 Guitar Hero

By Andrew Catania

Eric Johnson began playing guitar at the age of 11. He played with his first touring band in 1968, a psychedelic group called Mariani. The band shared the bill with ZZ Top and Bloodrock in their home state of Texas. Johnson was trained in classical music but was heavily influence by the guitar styles of Jimi Hendrix and hard rock rhythms of Led Zeppelin. In 1974, he joined a rock/jazz fusion group called The Electromagnets. The Magnets shared the stage with bands like Kiss and Mahogany Rush.

 Eric Johnson recorded Seven Worlds his first solo album after the band’s break up. Johnson later became a highly sought session guitarist working with legendary artists Cat Stevens, Carole King and Christopher Cross to name a few. In 1986, his critically acclaimed album Tones landed him on the front cover of Guitar Player Magazine. The cover story about Johnson heightened his credentials in the music world and brought the virtuoso critical praise. The album’s track “Zap” was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

 It was in 1990 that Eric Johnson broke out of cult hero status among simply guitar cognoscenti and nabbed those two universally recognized standards of success in popular music: Eric sold over 1,000,000 copies of his Ah Via Musicom album and won a Grammy Award for 1991. Cliffs of Dover currently has over 9 million views on YouTube.

 For the first twenty-five years of his solo career, Eric Johnson was famous (or notorious) for disappearing into the recording studio for years at a time, but since his albums Bloom in 2005 and Up Close five years later, he’s been recording on a more continual basis.

 In 1996, Johnson joined Joe Satrani and Steve Vai for the G3 Tour. And even back then, you wondered just what Johnson was doing on the tour with the hard-rocking Vai and Satriani, because he’s always been a calm, kind of introverted guitar hero, coaxing mellow-toned beauty from a Fender Stratocaster. Usually shredder types have those funny-shaped instruments, wild hair, 437 pedals and a grimace for every note. Johnson stands and plays, with a sound that calls upon blues, pop, even veering toward (shudder!) jazz. It’s usually instrumental, for the same reason that operatic tenor Placido Domingo doesn’t play piano at his concerts: that isn’t why you paid your money. The fans want to hear Johnson play his guitar, which is what he does. The surprise here is that Johnson does it in service of the music. Now, we won’t lie and tell you that there won’t be solos galore. He is a guitar hero, after all, so the mostly male audience, squinting as they try to figure out some complicated run up and down the neck, will be getting served by a genius.

 Johnson is best known for playing his stock Fender Stratocasters Signature Series and Gibson ES-335 electric guitars through a triple amp setup that consists of Fender, Dumble and Marshall amplifiers. Johnson has also played other guitar brands such as Robin, Rickenbacker, Jackson and a Charvel, which appears on the cover of the Ah Via Musicom album. In 2001, Johnson added a Gibson Custom Shop ’59 Les Paul Reissue to his guitars of choice.

Lots of guitar players are instrumental geniuses, but — hero worshippers are going to quibble here — Johnson performs songs, that he actually sings. He’s a smooth, more-than-passable vocalist, who is also unafraid to play unplugged. The acoustic guitar is daunting, in that it offers no place to hide, being usually devoid of pedals, effects and other things that can serve to make a plugged-in guitarist seem even more dynamic and virtuosic.

 Johnson will pull up a chair, hunker down and get to pickin’. It’s then you understand that he’s more than one of those guitar hero dudes. He is that, and most assuredly, as the notes often come in a dense blizzard. But he rarely crosses the line into silliness, even when he performs extended versions of his signature, Grammy-winning “Cliffs of Dover.” And he offers one of the most important signs that he’s a musician, not just a guitar hero, in that he performs the music of other players (he’s fond of Jimi Hendrix) as interpretations rather than covers. It’s cool to watch, and hardly ever boring, which is something that music lovers would have a difficult time saying about most guitar hero shows.

Have a look at our Current Issue “American Guitars”

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Featured Interviews with Joe Bonamassa, and Greg Howe as well as  Luthiers Gabriel Currie from EchoPark Guitars, John Monteleone, and a look at Benedetto Guitars after 48 years by CEO Howard Paul. The Photographers Vault by Derek Brad of his shoot of Joe Bonamassa at the State Theatre.

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Joe Satriani Interview: Joe vs Shockwave

By Aman Khosla

Joe Satriani needs no introduction, folks – but here it is anyway. The biggest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time, he’s had two platinum and four gold albums and received 15 Grammy nominations. He’s hit the billboard charts and actually had his stuff on the radio. Yep – instrumental rock guitar on the radio. He’s played and performed with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, co-founded the supergroup Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith, and is the mastermind behind the epic G3 guitar extravaganzas that have featured Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Steve Lukather, Brian May, Robert Fripp, Steve Morse … need I go on? And, of course, as if all this wasn’t enough, Joe spent part of his early years as a teacher and mentor to some of these great players – notably Steve Vai, Andy Timmons, Charlie Hunter and Kirk Hammett – and has carried his teaching legacy forward to create the G4 Experience camps.

But above and beyond all this, and perhaps the reason for his tremendous success, Joe is a masterful musician with an immaculate sense of melody. An absolute inspiration and a wonderful guy, I had an insightful conversation with him in anticipation of his upcoming album, “Shockwave Supernova,” that’s set for release later this month. The album is incredible, and – as you will soon find out – deeper than it seems. Our hero’s journey begins.

GC: I heard the album a couple days ago, and I loved it. It’s retained the “Satch” vibe that you have, and yet feels so fresh and alive. On that note – has the reason you make music evolved over the years? Do you still feel the same about creating and making music?

JS: Yeah, it’s kind of unexplainable. I have this urge when I get up everyday to write new music – to pull something out of me that needs explaining in a musical way and well, (laughs) I can’t even explain that! I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. What’s going on with me? What’s happened to me? What am I dreaming about? What am I wishing for? The way that I express that is with melody and harmony and rhythms, and the instruments that allow me to do that best are the guitar, the keyboard and the bass – so that’s what I do. I don’t really ask questions about it; I just blindly go ahead and write whatever comes. Afterwards, I sit back and see what I’ve done and try to pull it all together so that it’s cohesive for the audience.

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GC: I suppose that’s the purest form of inspiration there is, and you’re not questioning or digging into it – you’re just letting it be. I just talked to Steve Vai a couple of months ago, and it’s a similar sort of thing that we were chatting about – the source of inspiration. He mentioned a Bob Dylan interview he said he’d heard where people kept trying to ask him where his songs came from, and he kept saying, “I don’t know, they just come out!” In terms of the thought process that goes behind the inspiration, whether you’ve been stuck with it or you’ve chosen it, you’ve had this whole “science fiction” theme going on for a while. Are you tied into the meaning and the stories related to it, and that’s what inspires you? Or are they more like conceptual afterthoughts after you’ve gone in cold and made the music?

JS: Well, I think there’s been a lot of funny happenstance, like with anybody else’s life, you know? Sometimes things happen, and you scratch your head thinking, “Wow, that’s really funny that that happened to me again.” Just like the other day, somebody here at the camp was remarking about how I came out with the Silver Surfer on an album cover and then years later lost my hair and started shaving my head (laughs) – some sort of poetic justice or something! So I explained to him how it was purely by accident that we wound up with “Surfing With the Alien” as the title of the record, and then again, simply by coincidence that somebody at the record company was a fan of the Silver Surfer and knew somebody at Marvel and so on. So, before you know it, without my planning any of it, I’ve got this image tied in. But, you know, I have to say, I was into science as a kid, and I’ve always felt that the term “science fiction” really doesn’t do it justice. It makes people suspect science. To me, it was pretty plain very early on that we live on a spinning ball that’s part of a solar system, and we’re in a galaxy that’s part of this thing that we call the universe. Diving deeper into this stuff is more like waking up and seeing reality for what it really is, so every time that I would dip into that, it seemed to me like I was being more open – I wasn’t trying to be “spacey” or unusual or extra-scientific or something like that. It is actually just the reality of the world, and all you need to do is look around. NASA has a really great Google+ feed that gets updated everyday, and you can check it out to see what’s going on. There are people in space right now as we speak, there are people preparing to go into space, there are pictures of our planet floating in space – I can’t imagine how people would think that’s unnatural, unusual or somehow connected to science fiction. It’s absolute reality, you know? So anyway, besides that – if you look at the titles of the songs on this record, very few, if any, refer to that science fiction, in any case. The title track is really just a silly name concocted by an alter ego to try and make something of himself. (laughs)

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GC: (laughs) Well, I just thought it was interesting, because the thing that is reminiscent of it on this record is the thematic continuity in the sense that, well – it starts with “Hello” and ends with “Goodbye,” and I didn’t know if there was a deeper arc or journey – a sense of story to it.

JS: You’re absolutely right, though. See, I made the realization that the real Joe is shy and retiring and doesn’t seek out crowds, but I just happen to have this job where I seek out crowds. (laughs) So after I take a deep breath and get the courage to walk on stage, somebody else takes over. And I was having this thought process: “What if that was a real alter ego? Let’s say – as if I were making a movie in my head about this crazy alter ego that just gains power – and that leads to an internal struggle in the performer’s head. Sort of like “Joe vs. His Alter Ego.” And, of course, this guy calls himself “Shockwave Supernova,” which is a silly name but – why wouldn’t he, you know? It’s merely to draw attention to himself. So I felt that it would be interesting if there’s a struggle, and eventually the real artist convinces the alter ego that he has to evolve into something better. He has to stop playing with his teeth and doing all sorts of show-biz stuff and concentrate more on the music. The movie (album) would then be about Shockwave going through all of his memories of all the things that he did, and then coming to the realization towards the end of the record that “Okay, Joe is right – I’ve got to evolve into something better.” I put that theme into the songs and especially as you get towards the end of the record – in my mind, anyway – he really starts to fall apart and then rebuilds himself during the breakdown section of the last song. And, finally, he gets the courage to stand up and become something better. I left that unanswered – what does he become? Does he vanish? Do they merge into one? Is he going to turn into something else? I don’t know about that – I thought it was nice to leave that open as a question.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: That sounds incredible. I like the fact that you left it open-ended because I feel that’s part of the beauty of putting out work like this. You’re expressing a thought and the music is there, and then there’s this deeper journey to it – if you’re interested. And even deeper beyond that, there are these questions – if you’re interested.

JS: Yeah, yeah.

GC: You know, it’s funny that you mention this “shy side of Joe Satriani” – I know that’s something that’s been quite an important part of your persona over the years. How do you, as that entity, deal with the way that one interfaces with fans these days? It’s turning into much more of an interactive thing where people are connecting with artists on a deeper level and they want to know more of the “everyday” – Twitter and Facebook and the like all play into it pretty strongly, too. Does that figure into your life at all? Does it bother you, or do you play to it?

JS: Funnily enough – I have really benefited from the birth of social media on the Internet because of the kind of music that we do. There aren’t a lot of doors open to us in the media that, let’s say, a young pop artist would have. They get TV and movies and that kind of stuff. Instrumental rock guitar? (laughs) That’s a sub-genre, you know? So when the Internet revolution happened, it was a wonderful thing because it allowed us to talk directly to fans everywhere around the world at exactly the same moment. Certainly playing into my natural state of not wanting to be in front of crowds all the time, communicating with millions of people through the laptop was also a lot more appealing (laughs). We’ve used the social media to create our own community, and I actually really like that because you get direct feedback from the fans that’s not filtered through anybody else’s angle on any particular story or release. It’s simply been what I would call an additive thing. In other words, it’s really added to the experience of moving the music around, and since I’m a live performer and I get a charge out of just being on stage and being in the moment, crowds withstanding (laughs) – social media has opened up the world of touring for us, too. When I started out – I remember telling people and it was hard for them to believe – when “Surfing With the Alien” was hanging out high on the charts at top 40 for a very long time, my first European tour consisted of four shows – entirely. And one of them was an unannounced add-on because we had nothing to do and somebody canceled! That’s a direct explanation as to how we weren’t trusted in the entertainment world. Now, this is pre-Internet, so it was all based on what people were reading in magazines or what they heard on the radio – it really wasn’t what the fans were saying. They didn’t have so much of a voice back then. And now it’s completely different. We could literally stay on tour every day of the year and just keep circling the globe because the Internet has brought me close to all of them around the world. The Internet destroyed and built at the same time (laughs). So, on the positive side, it did, in a very backwards way, help expand my audience and make it easier for me to deal with, in terms of that shyness.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: That’s so great to hear. It seems to me that, actually, if you put aside the shock of the sudden changes the Internet has brought about, I think it’s a really positive evolution for the industry. There’re just certain things that we need to get on board with, but other than that it seems to have done so much good for music, objectively, as a whole. Talking about connecting with your fans, by the way – my dad is a huge fan, and I think he just wanted me to tell you that!

JS: That’s great! Well, tell him “Thank you!”

GC: (laughs) Well, you know, that got me thinking – your music appeals to such a wide demographic. There are kids and then there are older people, and then – girls are listening to instrumental guitar now, how’d you manage that? (laughs) Have you ever tried to identify what it is that people connect with in your music, or is that a stone best left unturned?

JS: (laughs) Good question! Well, I think I’ve asked that question of other composers and artists. The stone is certainly left unturned when it comes to myself – that kind of introspection, to me, is somewhat narcissistic. I think it would ruin it all, somehow. It would jinx it if I thought I could analyze myself and come up with a bunch of rules and guidelines to continue down my path. But, as a student of music – of course. I had a great music teacher where I went to school at Carle Place High School in Long Island. His name was Bill Wescott, and he taught me the history of music, along with music theory in those few years, and I looked at the works of the contemporary and classical composers with those questions in mind. What is it that makes people still want to hear “Moonlight Sonata”? What is it about Beethoven that infuriates some and puts a smile on others? Why do some people prefer Brahms over Wagner? It’s very interesting – as students of music, you go in and you analyze, and as lovers of music, you just turn that part of your brain off and you listen, and you try to feel the composer’s emotion behind the piece. So, I always identified with that and thought that there was more voodoo to it than science, and there’s no way to predict what we, as people, are going to respond to. So much of it is what’s happening in our hearts and in our minds when we hear that piece of music. Having said all that, I do approach it in the way that we should always look at our melodies and make them as strong as possible – edit them down to their barest possible components. If there’s anything I learned, from studying great composers, it’s that. That’s what they did. They just had this thing about economy that allowed them to hit an unbelievable sweet spot with the melody, and that would make every song so different because that editing process means that they’re just whittling it all the way down to “this song is about the color green and no other color,” you know? (laughs) And that leaves all the other colors for all the other songs! For instance, just an analogy that I’m using, if I would write a song called “Cryin,” then what am I really talking about? What’s the story behind it? Don’t stray – don’t play any other stuff that has nothing to do with it. Even though I could impress and put a section in the song that’s purely promotional, I don’t – I just never do that. So, sometimes the songs come out pretty simple in the technical department, and sometimes they come out very complicated and difficult – but it’s purely based on what I think is going to tell the story properly.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: You know, your melodies are my favorite thing. Of course, you can really play and you’ve innovated and done so many cool things, but I think if I were to analyze you, I would say your melodies are what grab people. Matter of fact, I’ve just got the melody from the opening track stuck on loop in my head.

JS: Oh, great! (laughs) I’m sorry about that, but –

GC: Yeah, well, (laughs) you shouldn’t complain about that! That’s really insightful stuff, though – so if you’re so true to your melodies, do they come to you? Do you just hear them in your head, or do you find them on the guitar or …?

JS: Well, you know, they just pop into my head, I guess! They accompany a feeling or a picture, or an internal movie. I could be fantasizing about something that could never happen, or maybe I’m remembering some big event in my life. Or something very simple that just took my fancy that one moment. I remember once I was on tour – gosh, this is going back a long time ago! I was standing in an airport somewhere in Europe, waiting for bags, and I was just gripped with this sadness and foreboding. This melody is coming out, and I’m thinking, “Why would I be doing that? There’s no reason for that, everything’s going well.” And then I realized that I was being inundated with these tones that were coming from the conveyor belts of the baggage carousel! Machinery makes noises, right? So there’s this lovely minor chord hitting me, and I just start hearing this melody that I guess just brought on that feeling. Of course, I wasn’t set up for any of this and suddenly had no awareness of what was going on around me at all, and I was with a representative who turned me and said, “Are you ok?” (laughs) But that’s how it is – sometimes it just comes to you!

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: I guess that’s the beauty of inspiration – it just kind of hits when it hits and you’ve got to eat it up, I suppose.

JS: Yes – you hold on to it. I always tell people it’s sort of like a snake that’s trying to get out from your grip. You’ve just got to hold onto it because it’s going to get away eventually. Like a dream you’re trying to remember, it fades – it dissolves.

GC: Well, I use my iPhone for that – it’s something that’s usually around, so anytime I have an idea, I just pick it up and go. You can’t always capture the magic, but you can capture the notes that make you feel the magic or remind you of it, at least.

JS: Yeah, anything that works. Use your iPhone, scribble on a napkin, dial your own number and leave a message. (laughs) It’s always great if you’ve got your guitar strapped on and you’re in front of your Pro Tools, though.

GC: Somehow that never happens. (laughs) Well, not never, but – I suppose it’s a question of inspiration doing its thing when you’re most open to it. I always find it fascinating to hear people talk about the source of their inspiration. There are never really any “answers,” per se, but there’s so much to be gained from it. It’s inspiring, if you will. And speaking of being inspiring, I believe you’re in the middle of one of your G4 camps?

JS: Yeah – this has been really great! It’s our second one – we’re back at the Cambria Pines Lodge and it’s a beautiful, idyllic Central California coast setting. Beautiful sunny days and rolling hills. And so, if you walk around, you hear Guthrie over here, and Tosin and Javier over there, and Mike Keneally over there in the gazebo, and Stu Hamm and Bryan Beller over there, and Marco and Matt, our drum tech and – you know what I mean? (laughs) We’re all jamming early in the morning all the way up to about 1 a.m.! The vibe is really great, and every night there’s a concert by one of the bands, and on the side of the stage all the other guitar payers are there just staring (laughs) because we’re just loving it! We never get a chance to do this where it’s such causal hang and, at the same time, because it’s all guitar players, everyone’s showing just everything. Everybody’s an open book, and we’re all learning from each other even while we’re putting on these clinics for the campers, so it’s really been a wonderful experience.

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GC: It’s pretty fantastic that you can put this kind of stuff together. The education thing is kind of taking off, don’t you think? Everyone is getting into master classes and clinics and such, and I think it’s pretty great. It just adds to that communal sharing of knowledge and expression and creativity. 

JS: Yes, well, as the arts get somewhat clipped from school programs, it’s been thrown into the private sector! I mean, that’s kind of what’s been happening, and I was surprised a couple of years ago when I saw these things coming up as offers. I’ve usually resisted clinics unless they were for some promotional purpose where they seemed to be the best fit, so when I got together with my manager and the promoter, Danny Hughes, we said if we’re going to do something like this, it’s got to be better than anything that’s been done before. We have to create a really comfortable, friendly atmosphere, and I don’t want it to be show-biz oriented. Sometimes the rock ’n’ roll fantasy camps can be that way – it’s a bit more of a celebrity angle. That’s really not what’s going to be good for the student – they need to hang out with us. They need to jam with us; they need to see us up close and telling the truth, pulling the curtain away from the wizard, and they’ll get so much more out of that. And then we had to figure out a way where they would make connections with each other. That’s something that is sometimes lacking. There should be a community. There should be connections made and friendships maintained, because that’s part of the artistic process – to have people to collaborate with. It’s something I’ve always liked doing, so I wanted it to be part of the G4 experience. So I think we’ve been able to do that, and the location has really helped in finding that together as a group. You know – putting on a clinic is a daunting task, especially when you’re providing room and board and meals and all that for 200 people! Then you invite these bands – we have Animals As Leaders, The Aristocrats and then my band, as well as Mike Keneally’s solo band, and it’s – well, it’s a show! It’s spread out over four days, but it’s a show. So it’s great that it’s come off well, and with all this big stuff it’s still very intimate. When we do our little concerts at night, there’s just about enough room for 200 people to slip into the dining hall. We’ve got a little stage – there’s no production, we’ve got a small PA. (laughs) The cool thing is that you can carry on a conversation with the audience almost while you’re playing, and that’s what it’s all about – it’s not only the lessons during the day and the jam sessions late at night, but it’s also sort of a more open and inclusive type of live performance where campers can feel that they’re really part of something. This sort of real world experience is invaluable, and you can’t really describe that kind of thing on Internet lessons. One-hour lessons in a small room once a week are also a different kind of a thing. So we try to accomplish both – the one-on-one lessons, including the clinic situation, as well as the live performance and the jamming. I guess that’s more like three or four things …(laughs)

GC: Well, that’s what you want, isn’t it? Combining that connection and the intimate feel with the grandiose nature of the live performances, and then have them experience what it’s like on your end. It’s a feat to be able to put it together, so kudos to you guys!

JS: Yeah, we’re enjoying it!

GC: It must a blast with the guys you’ve got out there, too. Actually, the band you’re playing with is fairly fresh, isn’t it? Tell me a little bit about the whole changeup.

JS: I don’t know – I guess I’m always looking for new ways to flesh out the music, and as I come towards the end of a touring cycle, I’m already in that phase where maybe I’ve written half the record. And so I start to get a feeling about what I’m writing and whether or not it’s going to sit well with the band that I’ve just been touring with. I found myself in that situation towards the end of the “Wormhole” record, and after doing the 3D concert movie, I was thinking “Wow, I think I’m moving in some other direction.” I didn’t really know until just about two weeks before I got to the studio! It was pretty sudden, but I had to eventually put my foot down. It was going to be kind of disruptive to the guys I play with and am close with, but it’s just something that had to be done. And, interestingly enough, I knew when I got Vinnie and Chris to come to the “Unstoppable” sessions that I wasn’t going to be able to tour with them. So I just put that out of my mind, and using Marco and Bryan for the tour didn’t really come up until Mike Keneally and I were doing some of the overdubs towards the end of those sessions. I just said to him, “You know what, I have no idea who’s going to go on the road with us,” and he brought up Marco and Bryan. That’s how I got introduced to those guys. I’d known Bryan for a couple of years because he’d been playing with Steve, but I’d never actually met Marco, and that turned out to be such a fantastic moment. It turned out that we were musicians that really enjoyed playing with each other, and there was such a connection that it invigorated the whole thing. They did the tour with me, and we’ve been playing together since, and they’re on the record.

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GC: Yeah, I think it works really well – it’s great how connections like that inspire and invigorate, isn’t it? Plus it must be fun to be on tour. Marco’s one of the best goofballs that I know.

JS: Yes! We’ve always got a great sense of humor and he’s an extremely creative guy – you know he’s got 14 solo records out? I mean, it’s insane! It’s just really nice to go out with people who can play like crazy – he’s such an advanced player – but he also has such a playful attitude towards music, so the doors open for everyone to try something new, and that’s what keeps us laughing and excited about hitting the stage every night.

GC: That’s the sweet spot. It’s nice to hear that you’re still invigorated night after night! I look forward to the next run of shows. Now, we’ve talked about a good few things, and it’s been a real pleasure, Joe, but before you get back to camp, let me just ask you real quick – have you heard the new Jeff Beck record?

JS: Has it just been released?

GC: It was released maybe a couple of months ago – it’s called “Live +.”

JS: No, I guess I haven’t! I didn’t even know it came out!

GC: Yeah – they’re mostly live tracks, but there’re two new studio tracks at the end of the record and – boy, oh boy – that’s all I’m going to say!

JS: Oh, that’s great! He is one of my heroes – I’ve always loved watching him play live and it’s amazing. If there’s anybody for guitar players to look up to, Jeff Beck is one of those guys who becomes more Jeff Beck-like and better and better every year – it’s just uncanny! Most people kind of fade and relax – they start to sit back in the lounge chair and enjoy their success, but Jeff just keeps innovating. He’s such an inspiration and he’s always fun to listen to. Always.

GC: Absolutely. Somehow it always sounds brand-spanking new – and yet he’s just so strongly Jeff Beck, there’s no denying it.

JS: Yes – that’s so great. Well, I’ll definitely take your recommendation and go listen to that!

GC: And with that, off goes Joe Satriani to his campers for what I’m sure will be another tremendously successful G4 camp experience. But has the master of melody finally overcome his powerful alter ego? Find out for yourself this July – stay tuned.

To see what Joe Satriani is up to please visit: satriani.com

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The “Steve” behind the “Vai”

by Aman Khosla

This interview was originally published in our “Holy Grail Issue”

So, Steve Vai – most every guitar player knows that name. In a league of his own, Vai has been a major icon and most certainly a household name in the world of guitar for over three decades and counting. Nine studio albums, Eight live albums, several special releases, collaborations and compilations, philanthropic endeavors, countless accolades, three Grammy Awards along with seven nominations…need I go on? And you know what? I could sit here and tell you all about his incredible years with Frank Zappa, or I could write about his rock star haze that was David Lee Roth and Whitesnake and tell you that he’s played with the likes of Alice Cooper, Joe Jackson and Les Paul, or perhaps I could get knee-deep into dissecting and understanding his illustrious solo career – but the truth is that all of this stuff has been written and talked about for years and years, and it’s not what I want you to take away from this piece. See, I’ve been a huge fan of Steve’s for a while, and that extends well beyond just his music. Every once in a while someone comes along that represents more than just the art that they make, and Steve has inspired and influenced generations of musicians and guitar players – including myself. To me, there is something special about his work and what he embodies and I think I owe that to the purity of his expression, his charm and genuine nature as a human being above and beyond his sheer virtuosity or his image. And that is what I want to touch upon with this interview – the oozing lava that is the creative core at the center of this guitar-shaped cake we all know as Ste-ve Vai. We had a wonderful chat about life and the like, traversing from touring and the econom-ics of making music to inspiration and the meaning of our creativity as human beings, and for those of you that are interested I hope this read will shed some light on the person behind name, the human behind the alien – the Steve behind the Vai.

Steve’s been up to some really cool stuff –  he took his Alien Guitar Secrets masterclasses to Spain, Canada and Brazil, snagged a couple of cool festival spots and held his revolutionary Vai Academy guitar camp in Colorado. When we spoke earlier this year, he’d just played a really kickass show with the Brazilian metal powerhouse Sepeltura at Rock in Rio 2015 and was plan-ning said masterclasses, but I was most interested in his new live DVD that came out in April, ‘Stillness in Motion’. In particular, there is a wonderful little bonus feature called ‘The Space Be-tween the Notes’. I was on tour at the time and hadn’t had the chance to check it out – so come along and get involved in our little conversation as Steve kicks off and tells us all about it.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

Steve Vai: The ‘Story of Light Tour’ was a long tour we did that spanned two years, and we had 253 shows in something like 52 countries. It was glorious. So, the 49th show was in LA, and it was recorded and broadcast live by AXS. They’d given me all of the tapes, so I had this beautiful 9 camera shoot of the show and it was relatively easy to put together – only took a couple of weeks of editing, and I do all the editing because I just really enjoy it, but then I always like to add something that’s a little unique to anything I’ve done before. It’s a wonderful challenge too, because I ask myself ‘what’re you gonna do that’s different, interesting, entertaining, engaging’ – you start setting up this frame of mind and all of a sudden an idea will come. And the idea was to create sort of a tour diary, because we went all over and around the world twice, and even visited places that I was told no American artist had performed –

Guitar Connoisseur: Wow. One for the books.

SV: – yeah, I mean we spent a month in Russia! We started out in Vladivostok where you can see Japan and just went all the way, through Siberia, on trains and planes and cars and vans and buses and everything – and we ended up in Ukraine during the war that was taking place –

GC: Oh wow! Now that must’ve been a little crazy!

SV: Yeah – we didn’t really see any action though, thankfully. But anyway, the idea was to cre-ate this chronological tour diary where every city we visited is represented in order by either a photo, a barrage of photos or some video footage. So it’s this very intimate look at what it’s like to tour with us in this situation and to visit all these places, and it was a really intense project. It took months and months, I don’t know, maybe four months of 10-15 hour days. I had to gather all the footage because nothing was shot professionally. We had one guy in the crew who had a really nice camera but these days iPhones can give you pretty good quality film and photos, so I just went to everybody in the band and the crew and my family, and then there was my stuff and I reached out to some fans that I knew took shots and videos, and to fill in certain little spots I visited the internet. It’s easy – all’s I gotta do is type in the show date and the venue and my name, and there’s hundreds of videos! So I collected all this data, which was a monumental task in itself, and then laid it all out in chronological order on a timeline, edited it and cut it up into something I felt would be really fun, interesting, engaging – all the things that I’d set out to do. And when I was done, I have to tell you, I felt like it was part of my best work. It’s just so intimate y’know? If anybody is interested in what myself is like – what Steve is like in normal life, this is where you can see it (laughs). You get to just see a band in which everyone really appreciates each other and is very grateful for the opportunity to be there. We have a great time and you get a look at what it’s like walking down the streets of Croatia or playing to an audience in Spain and Iceland and, my gosh, China – there’s one little clip from a TV show in China where I was playing to 2 billion people! I would highly recommend it, even if you’re not a fan because it’s kind of a fun thing to watch.

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GC: Yeah, that kind of thing would resonate well with most people anyway. I feel like music and, well, all forms of art are moving into a phase where it’s all a little more interactive and people are more interested in what artists are like and who they are as people. That mystique and that ‘barrier’ exists in a very different way.

SV: Yeah, totally. The whole process can be so fun because there are so many ways to com-municate with people, and as a fan you can really see what goes on with artists and see what’s in their minds – it was never like that.

GC: Interesting that, isn’t it? And what you’ve put together must really be something to see too. The fact that you guys were on tour for 2 years – that’s pretty intense!

SV: Well we took 5 months off in the middle because I had to write a symphony and then have it performed. Throughout ‘The Space Between the Notes’ and during the tour, I played with 5 or 6 different orchestras and there’s little pieces of all that in there.

GC: Oh is that the stuff you did in Europe?

SV: Yup – I performed with the North Netherlands Orchestra in Holland, orchestras in Russia and Poland, and did a 10 show tour with the Evolution Orchestra throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. Then I also played with the Chinese Beijing Orchestra, and actually, the only American orchestra I worked with on the tour was in Denver, Colorado.

GC: Well it’s way cool that you have the ability to go ‘let’s do an orchestra tour’, that’s quite a thing –

SV: Yeah (laughs), it’s pretty ambitious.

GC: Given that you’re traveling and touring so much, how’re you keeping up with your fitness? Are you still running and doing all of that kind of stuff?

SV: Oh yeah, yeah. I go through phases and usually, at the least, I’ll exercise a couple of times a week. When I’m preparing for a tour I’ll probably go out 5 or 6 times a week and I’ve got a little routine where one day it might be weights and then one day it might be biking, and another day running. But you know, you’d be surprised – it’s all in your head, the touring experience. There are a lot of interviews I do where I say ‘oh I’ve been out and I did 253 shows’  and people say ‘how do you stay on tour like that’ and ‘oh my god it must be so hard’ – it’s not hard at all! It’s easy, it’s vacation. Touring is the easiest thing for me because there’s routine. I can sleep as much as I want really and it’s sort of like a traveling family. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 35 years and there are a couple of ropes you’ve gotta learn y’know? You’ve got to learn when to sleep and when to eat – but that’s it really.

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11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: Yeah, well I think that’s the challenge many people face. I’m on tour in the UK right now and the band I’m playing with isn’t, well, let’s just say it hasn’t been touring for 35 years (laughs). So there are those few little things, and sometimes, depending on where you are, the challenge of the day is getting enough food and sleep – ‘where are we sleeping tonight’ and so on. But I feel what you said about it being a little family – that’s the best part about it all, because if you’re with the right people you’re just going to have a great time.

SV: Well, you said it – you’ve gotta be with the right people. Touring will exaggerate a person’s personality traits. There are no secrets at sea, y’know? If you’re with somebody that’s a prickish, unhappy person, when they get on tour they become really big a**holes and that can really poison the entire environment. But, if you’re with people that are really fun-loving, generous in spirit and just good people, then they become really fun on tour. And that’s probably the number one thing that I look for in a band. What are these guys going to be like on tour? Touring is a piece of your life, and I’ve toured in very many different configurations. There’ve been tours that I’ve done where the advances were huge and the money was great and all these other things were wonderful, but they’re just dark experiences when I look back at them because of the atmos-phere on tour. There were similar tours that were just as big that were really wonderful, little tours that I did in little clubs that were just the best and then tiny tours in tiny clubs where that wasn’t the case. It can vary so much, and with all of this it wasn’t really because the backstage area was a wreck or because the stage was too small or it sounded like sh** – it wasn’t any of those things. It was the atmosphere that’s created amongst the collective of the people on tour. That’s the most important thing to having a good experience and when you’re the leader, you can shape that more powerfully than anyone else.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: Yeah I think there’s definitely a strong responsibility with someone driving the tour –

SV: If they want it (laughs).

GC: (Laughs), yeah – well actually on that note, that’s assuming in some ways that there’s a role that’s being fulfilled, y’know? I mean, well, let me ask you this – did you do any tours back in the day without any sort of a tour manager where you kind of just did a DIY thing? Or was that not really a part of the process since you were just getting off the Frank years and you had enough access to all sorts of people?

SV: Well, after Frank I put my own little bands together but we never really toured. We would do a gig here and there and I had sort of a manager that would set them up. But as far as going on tour, it sounds to me like you’re discovering some of the economic challenges with touring. The expense of bringing the right people – it would be lovely if you could have a dedicated tour manager, a dedicated stage manager, a dedicated monitor guy, lighting guy, guitar tech, bass tech etc, but in reality, unless you’re making a lot, to get the numbers to work a lot of times it starts off with just the band. It’s not totally uncommon for a band to just go out and do it them-selves, and it’s all according to the members of the band, what they feel their strengths are, how they work together as a unit to allocate responsibilities and how each person responds to those responsibilities. Are they looking out for themselves or are they really rising to the occasion for the group as a whole? If that’s the case, then one guy can be the tour manager. He can, to a greater or lesser degree with some challenges, sort of do what a tour manager would do if the rest of the guys in the band respect that position he’s taken. You can even be carrying and set-ting up your own gear if necessary – that’s really ‘touring 101’ y’know? After the band itself, the next thing you usually need is a really good touring manager that usually doubles as either a lighting guy or a FOH or monitor guy. Then as the tour progresses and your economics change you can start filling it out with more guys to help, and you’ve just got to find the sweet spot. The important thing for a band, before they go on tour, is to understand the economics of what it’s going to take and what it’s going to cost, and the most vital element in that is an agent for the gigs that you book. The hardest thing to find in the business when you’re a new act is an agent. It’s easier to find a record contract – agents are the ones who book the shows and have to call up all the venues and promoters and sell the show to them, and the promoter is taking a huge risk on a band that doesn’t have any pull in certain territories. So, I always advise a band to be a band. Be a unit – a cohesive kind of a mastermind where the four guys or five guys or however many members of the band just sit together every day, maybe before and after rehearsal, just sit with each other and discuss and build a positive momentum in a particular direction. There is nothing – nothing that you can’t accomplish as a band if you have that, because all of your crea-tive elements come into alignment and in that process you learn how to accept everybody for who they are. For their strengths, and their weaknesses. You learn not to criticize, you learn to allow. You learn to allow everybody to be who they are, and that’s how you build a really powerful unit that has lasting longevity Because the energy that’s created by that collective master-mind is not like four guys, it’s like a hundred guys, y’know? It’s exponential. But it’s very rare that bands do that because most people are focused on themselves –

GC: – rather than the unit.

SV: Yeah, and that’s pretty common – so there I said it (laughs). If you get it, then you have a great tool in your arsenal.

GC: That’s really well put. And actually, just piggybacking off of that ‘economics’  train of thought, there’s something I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on. Creative freedom is an incredible thing, and as an artist myself I’m wondering what you think about the monetary future in the arts, given the current industry climate. To me, it seems in some ways that we’re moving back to a ‘patronage’ model that supported the arts until the mid-20th century came along with the whole ‘record deal’ thing. I mean that’s still going on, but what are your views on where the money comes from? I know creativity and inspiration will continue and persevere, but how does that manifest considering the economics of it all?

SV: The economics are going to evolve too. As a musician, if you want to take advantage of that you just have to be aware of it. You have to know that the economics of it all, the way you’re going to make money, the way that you make music, the way that you record, the way you mix it, the way it’s reproduced, the way it’s distributed into the world, the way it’s listened to – it’s all going to change. It’s always changed and it’s constantly going to change. The mistake that most people make is that wherever they are at any given point they say ‘well we’ve arrived and this is it’, but I guarantee you it will continue to evolve. So knowing that, you keep your eye on it and it works to your advantage. For me – it would be when the digital age came in. Right now is the very best time for an independent musician to be able to create a career that can be sustainable and lucrative even. It’s just understanding your economics, and there’s one simple rule of thumb that I always mention to any musician – don’t live above your means. As a musician, you can eat good for a while and then there’s nothing. You can have a hit and have a lot of money and it’s just got to last a long time. But you know, all of these things – the economics, how you make your music, where you get the funds to do it, how you’re collecting your funds, the people you turn to, how you protect your intellectual property – this is all important stuff, but it’s of relative importance. It’s not the most important thing. There is something that’s more vitally important that comes before all of that stuff, and that is the quality of your inspiration. The quality of your inspiration is like your product, or rather that’s what’s going to create your product. Everybody has the potential to be uniquely creative, and that’s the first thing you have to focus on – your own, uniquely creative potential. That’s number one all the time, it’s of absolute importance. And, to take it to an even deeper level than that, it’s the condition of your consciousness. How are you letting your inspiration flow into the world? What’s stopping you from being and becoming your truly unique potential? Usually what stops people or cuts at the root of their ability to be truly fresh, unique and productive, is their own mind. Their own limitations that they put on it, and their own freaked out concerns about the things that are important but are of relative im-portance. So once you start cultivating the thing that is of primordial importance – your creative process – then you’ve got something that is of real value. And then, and I know this sounds ex-traordinary, everything will fall into place (laughs). It will all fall into place much easier.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
20121119,Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: I honestly think that’s the only way of describing what happens ‘next’. I think this is pretty important stuff so it’s nice to hear how your gears turn when you think about the-se sorts of things. Well alright (laughs), let me just flip things up and get a little less heady on you –

SV: I don’t know if that’s possible (laughs) –

GC: It’s hard for me too! 

SV: Well, why bother? This is the important stuff! You know it – talking about scales and sh** like that is useless (laughs).

GC: Oh I’m so with you – I went to Berklee and we had this little inside joke whenever we’d go to clinics. Anytime someone came in and did one, we’d go in and ask stuff like ‘what kind of strings do you use’, and there was always THAT moment –

SV: (Laughs) yeah, well you know there’s a place for that though. I don’t have any problem answering any academic questions at all, because to some people that’s really important. They think that if they have your strings or your amp or your kind of vibrato they’re going to sound like you, but that’s not what I teach. What I teach is that the only way to sound like me is to sound like you. I only have tried to sound like me, and it’s the same thing with any of the great players. I just listened to this new Jeff Beck cut that’s on his new record that’s being promoted and it’s SO Jeff Beck, y’know? I mean it’s so incredible, he’s like the chosen one and it’s just so obvious to me that he’s doing what everyone wants to do – not the way he plays, but the discovery of themselves as their unique potential. He’s 71 and he’s still doing new stuff!

GC: Yeah it’s crazy! And he doesn’t exactly let off that he’s inspired or anything, he’s kind of inward about that but it’s just so full of inspiration.

SV: Well that’s the way it is with most geniuses. They’re just conduits. Whenever you ask any of these guys ‘where did you get the inspiration for that’, the best answer they can give you is ‘I don’t know, it just came’ ! I saw this great interview with Bob Dylan – I wasn’t a Bob Dylan fan when I was growing up, and actually, I only really discovered his music a couple of years ago. I said ‘ok, let me see what this is about’. I’d heard his music but never really dug in and I gotta tell you – I was SO blown away. It’s like I found a treasure chest in my backyard. It’s so obvious that he’s completely connected with that source of pure inspiration, and you watch an interview with him and they say ‘how did you write this song’? And he says ‘I don’t know, it just…came out’. So they say ‘well, where did it come from’? And he says ‘I don’t know, it came from that source where all inspiration comes from. It just comes out – I don’t know’, and that’s the best answer you can give, y’know? (laughs).

GC: Absolutely. And he is definitely one of those people – because, well I wasn’t into him till recently either –

SV: Yeah it’s funny, huh?

GC: Yeah I think you just start listening on different levels at different times, or y’know, you just sort of hear it in a different context –

SV: Yeah! Yeah, it’s based on what you’re interested in before that. I was never really there, I was just interested in heady, kind of intense music, and then years ago I discovered Tom Waits and that changed my life.

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GC: Yeah I remember reading about that! In fact it’s because you got into Tom Waits that I got into Tom Waits – you had some list that I read where someone had asked you what you were listening to and I went ‘Tom who’? So I checked it out and oh my god! The atmosphere that he creates – it’s just beyond.

SV: He captures a fragrance. And sometimes it’s a really stinky one (laughs).

GC: Yep, it stinks real good.

SV: Yeah (laughs), and after that is when I decided that I’d better check out Bob Dylan, because there had to be something there – and boy oh boy, was it amazing. It’s not Tom Waits but it’s good (laughs). But you know that that’s just my personal taste.

GC: Yeah, yeah. Everyone’s going to gravitate towards whatever their preference is, but there’s no denying inspiration.

SV: You just nailed it. If you’re open to it, you can’t not be moved by people who are connected. And that’s all that genius is – the simplicity of being connected to your infinite potential. That’s something everybody has access to, but for some people their opening to it is wider.

GC: It’s funny because the time I was at Berklee, there was this whole focus on opening up and listening to a bunch of new things and trying a bunch of new things on your instrument, and just experimenting on an unrefined level. It helped a lot and allowed my mind to be open to various possibilities, but I found that once I’d ended up in that place – getting into all sorts of really heady stuff just like you were talking about –  I started to drift back towards what my ear was naturally interested in. Or rather, it was a shift in what my ear was interested in, I was enjoying music that I liked rather than having my interest be defined by a type of music or musical element.

SV: Well, the thing is, you gravitated towards something that was interesting to you at the time you were into the more heady stuff. It was a valuable phase, because there were things you got out of it, and maybe one of the most important things was the next direction you took – which was back to the earthier or more organic stuff. That’s a nice process, and it will continue to hap-pen. And, if you can embrace it without prejudice, you’ll really get a lot of out it. All too often people criticize the interests of others, which is a form of insanity! (laughs).

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GC: Funny you put it that way, because that does sound a little insane (laughs). Your interests are your interests, and how could they be otherwise? Actually, speaking of growing and changing with varying interests – what’s come to mind when I think about your music and it’s evolution is the collaboration process. When you did ‘No More Amsterdam’ with Aimee Mann a few years ago, I remember you said you were surprised by how much you loved the collaboration thing. Is that desire still there or have you somewhat faded back to the multiple-hat-wearing-solo-artist Steve Vai?

SV: Well, it’s funny – I always threaten myself with the thought that I’m going to collaborate more, but I never do (laughs). I love collaborating usually when it’s outside of my solo work, because my solo work is kind of like my own little secret. When I’m writing and when I’m building a song, looking for inspiration, it’s almost like I don’t want it to be diluted by anyone else’s contri-bution – and that’s ok! Everybody’s allowed that if they want it. A composer would never – or I’ve never heard of such a case, although it might be interesting – compose half of the piece of mu-sic or only fill in the woodwinds and give it to somebody else and say ‘you do what you think works now’ . it’s a little weird for the creative process, y’know? So I’ve always gravitated towards just being independent. But, the collaborations I have done always felt good. The one with Aimee was very special. I felt like I needed it. I was working on that song and I wanted a female vocal. I had this concept for the song to be this call and response and I had the fist line – “the more that I see, the less I know”, and I thought that was kind of profound (laughs). And so, Amy was a friend – she was my wife’s friend when we were going to college in the 70’s, so we just kept in touch through the years a little bit. I always liked her and thought she was a brilliant songwriter, and Pia actually recommended her and said “why don’t you call Amy”? She was interested in it, and it was wonderful. And then I’ve also collaborated with Devin Townsend on some things that I thought turned out really well, but other than that it’s usually just me and me.

GC: I like how you said it. Collaboration is great but when it comes to your own thing, I couldn’t agree with you more. And the times you’ve collaborated, it seems to have been with some pretty great people so at least those energies can play off of each other.

SV: Yeah that’s the important thing. I get asked in almost every interview, “if you could play with anybody, dead or alive, who would that be”? My band – that’s who (laughs).

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GC: Yeah that’s the crux of inspiration, isn’t it? I’m curious – are you feeling creative in more ways than musically lately? I remember reading somewhere that Jimmy Page was eventually interested in pottery. Don’t know if that’s true, but I was curious to hear your take on creativity in general, beyond music. It just tends to happen sometimes with crea-tive people where interests grow and evolve.

SV: Well, to get a little more esoteric about it, it’s my feeling that the main reason we’re here is to be creative. We’re expanding the universe with anything that we do that’s creative. It’s actually the universe that’s doing it – it always was, y’know? We think it’s US and then the universe out there, we think we’re separate from it. But we’re not. We’re from it. So it’s our birthright to be creative. Now the thing that stops us is our own mind and our insecurities and fears – fear of failure, fear of not being good enough – all these things. But frankly, you can be uniquely creative in something extraordinarily simple that’s off the radar of what the world considers ‘earth-shattering’. And that’s important – it’s vital for a human being to be expressive and creative in some way. Some people gravitate consciously towards things that they’re attracted to like music or art or business – there are a lot of creative people in business, there are a lot of creative people in cooking – in any field. And in every field there are people for whom that field feels very natural to, and then they flow within it and what comes out of them is inspired work. I never thought of any of that when I was growing up, I just liked music so I made music. But to answer your question – oddly enough, about a year ago I started doing art. It just started out as little doodles because I always liked art but never felt like I was good enough to do anything, until I realized that art is art. There’s no good or bad really, it’s just whatever moves you. That’s the best part about doing art, and it’s just proliferated into – I don’t know, I think I probably have something like 80 or 90 pieces right now.

GC: Wow!

SV: Nobody really knows and I haven’t shown anything – maybe someday. It’s just another one of my own little secrets that I find to be a very cathartic process. When I do it I only have two rules. These two rules can be applied in a creative setting in virtually any field, and I would encourage anybody that’s being creative to try it and see if it works for you. And you know there’s nothing, as far as I’m concerned, that’s extraordinary about the art that I do (laughs), but it’s fun! And the thing that feels really good – these two things – they are ‘I don’t think when I’m doing it’. You just let it happen. You just go, you just move – you just allow whatever to happen, happen. Then the second rule is ‘you don’t criticize it’. You’re not allowed to criticize – you’re not allowed to say this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad – and anything that you do, there are no mistakes. You can do something beautiful and put a big cross through it. There are no rules and no mistakes and it might seem like a stupid, simple kind of a thing but it’s an incredibly cathartic process because it translates into life in general. There’s this feeling of allowing and then seeing the creative value in it – and frankly, that’s when I come up with my best music, because I’m not thinking. Improvising is kind of like that. When I’m on stage the whole point is to not think and to just be. Just to be incredibly present and aware, without having thoughts interrupt what you do. Everything happens perfectly then – magically even, y’know? Even things that might look like mistakes are just part of the process of happening. And when you fight against it it’s usually because your mind is creating thoughts like ‘this isn’t good enough’ or ‘I wonder what everybody’s thinking’ or ‘I’m the best’ or ‘everybody else’s work is inferior to mine’. ‘I am the great one’ or ‘I am the worst one’ – whatever it is, these are just thoughts that get in the way of the real creative process. So next time you pick up your guitar, take half an hour or so and just play without think-ing. It can take time because you find out that the mind is always criticizing or thinking of some-thing –

GC: It’s like meditating.

SV: – well it is. It’s a form of meditation. It’s bringing meditation into the world as opposed to ‘in a closet’ y’know? And you create an opening and just watch what happens, It’s magical, especially if you’re not criticizing it.

GC: Yeah I think those two rules – they sound simple enough but they’re hard to imple-ment and I think they are the backbone of creativity, actually.

SV: Yeah, frankly that’s where your real work is.

GC: Yes! In fact, talking about picking up the guitar, a year ago I started just throwing my guitar into strange tunings just so that I was using my ear instead of shapes or pentatonic licks or whatever –

SV:  Yeah! Isn’t that beautiful? And when you were sitting there and just listening as you were turning the pegs, you were being very present. You weren’t thinking about ‘how is this going to make me money’ (laughs).

GC: (Laughs) right. There’s a little time and a small place for that, but I think that’s the nail on the head – that moment.

SV: Yeah. There’s a place for thinking about all of that stuff, but this is not it. Because all of that is of relative importance, and there’ll come a point where you’ll address it. But of vital importance is that you find that space when you’re turning those pegs and you’re listening until something goes – ‘that’s it’. Now what is it that’s in you that is saying and knowing ‘that’s it’? That’s your creative genius – that’s your creative core. That, is of vital importance – and we’ve just dug to the deepest level here.

And there you have it. To add to that would be to pour water all over that oozing la-va, so I’ll leave it at that and trust you’ve enjoyed this read as much as I enjoyed the conversation with the one and only, Steve Vai.

 

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Steve Vai: From Zappa to Present

By Andrew Catania

One cannot simply characterize Steve Vai’s music.  Vai has such a virtuoso background that it’s hard to pinpoint or label his work.

Vai is a three time Grammy Award winning guitarist and songwriter best known for his soulful music that explores the depth of human emotions.  His deep love for music motivates him to create unique sounds that are not just technically faultless but also appealing to the human emotions. Steve has never tried to imitate anyone nor does he aim to be better than any other musician—he only aims to give his best to music and create music that provides him artistic and spiritual fulfillment.

Vai became interested in the guitar via such legendary artists as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper as a teenager and, upon starting high school, took lessons with an older player from the school, Joe Satriani. Playing in several local bands, Vai quickly picked up on the instrument, and by the age of 18 was attending the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston. As a student there, Vai transcribed several of Frank Zappa’s most technically demanding compositions for guitar, and even sent a copy of one such transcription, “Black Page,” to Zappa himself. Zappa was so impressed with the young guitarist that upon meeting him, he invited Vai to join his band. And hired him to transcribe his guitar solos in 1979.

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Subsequently, Vai toured the world with Zappa (giving Vai the nicknames “Stunt Guitarist” and “Little Italian Virtuoso”) and played on such albums as 1981’s Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is, 1982’s Ship Arriving Too Late, 1983’s Man from Utopia, plus 1984’s Them or Us and Thing-Fish, before leaving to set out on his own.

First off was a pair of self-financed, recorded, and released solo albums in 1984, Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers, both of which showcased Vai’s guitar playing and songwriting talents, yet were still heavily influenced by Zappa.

With Van Halen all the rage by the mid-80’s due to their massive hard rock/pop crossover success, Vai replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in a similarly styled outfit called Alcatrazz (which featured Rainbow Vocalist Graham Bonnett), playing on their overlooked 1985 release, Disturbing the Peace.  The same year, Vai made a cameo appearance in the movie Crossroads (playing the Devil’s guitarist and shredding away in a guitar duel with Ralph Macchio) and got an invitation from his friend/bass master Billy Sheehan to try out for the guitar spot in singer David Lee Roth’s solo band (Roth had just split from Van Halen) and eventually landed the gig

The debut release from Roth and his stellar solo band, Eat ‘Em and Smile, arrived in 1986 and went on to become one of the year’s top hard rock releases. Both Vai and Sheehan were catapulted to superstardom due to their instrumental talents, as they took top honors in numerous guitar magazines for years afterward.

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But although the quartet showed great promise, Sheehan jumped ship just after their sophomore album, Skyscraper, was issued in 1988. Although the album was more pop-based than its predecessor, it became another sizable hit — with Vai earning a co-producing credit on the album along with Roth. The same year, Vai issued his own line of snazzy guitars, the Jem 777 series, via the Ibanez company. After the ensuing tour with Roth wrapped up in late 1988, it was Vai’s turn to jump ship. In addition to working on another solo album, he was invited to join up with chart-topping pop-metallists Whitesnake, an offer he accepted. His one and only album with Whitesnake, Slip of the Tongue, was issued in 1989, as was his third solo album overall, Passion and Warfare, a year later. The largely instrumental album was based on dreams that Vai experienced as a teenager, and it became a sizable hit, earning gold certification and solidifying Vai’s standing as one of the top guitarists of the day. It was also around this time that Vai created a seven-string guitar through Ibanez. Although the instrument didn’t catch on initially, it would by the mid- to late ’90s, when the guitarists in such metal acts as Korn and Limp Bizkit would utilize the instrument to achieve super-low tunings.

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After an extended hiatus, Vai formed his first conventional rock band (called…VAI) along with newcomer Devin Townsend on vocals, T.M. Stevens on bass, and Terry Bozzio on drums — offering their one and only album in 1993, Sex & Religion. When the album proved to be a disappointment both critically and commercially, Vai returned to all-instrumental work with the 1995 EP Alien Love Secrets. For the remainder of the decade, Vai continued to issue solo releases, including 1996’s Fire Garden, 1998’s Flex-Able Leftovers (a re-release of his long out of print second solo album, with added tracks), and 1999’s The Ultra Zone. It was also during the late ’90s that Vai and Satriani reunited for an annual co-headlining tour (with a different third artist added each year), called G3, unleashing a live album, G3: Live in Concert, in 1997.
The early 21st century saw a flurry of releases from Vai, including a compilation of instrumentals, The 7th Song: Enchanting Guitar Melodies Archive, in 2000, and his first full-length live release, Alive in an Ultra World, in 2001, as well as his mammoth career-encompassing ten-disc box set The Secret Jewel Box. In 2002 he collected several pieces that he had contributed to films through the years, including the guitar duel from Crossroads and the theme to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and put them together in a 40-track collection called The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1. A series of compilations came next, and after a five-year hiatus from the studio, Vai returned in 2005 with Real Illusions: Reflections. A tour with the Metropole Orchestra followed and he released an ambitious double live set documenting his performances, titled Sound Theories, Vols. 1-2, in 2007. In 2010, he performed with the North Netherlands Orchestra, debuting several new compositions that fused rock music with orchestral arrangements, dubbed the “Evo Era.” Vai also made several television appearances in 2010, performing on The Tonight Show and on American Idol with Mary J. Blige, Orianthi, Travis Barker, Ron Fair, and Randy Jackson. In 2012, eighth studio album The Story of Light arrived, continuing the new age themes first put forth on Real Illusions: Reflections, and including unexpected twists such as a rootsy blues cover backed by a full gospel choir as well as a duet with Aimee Mann. In 2015, Vai signed with Sony/Legacy; his first album for the label was Stillness in Motion: Vai Live in L.A., a recording of an October 2012 concert by the guitarist.

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Over the years, Vai has guested on countless albums by other artists, including Gregg Bissonette’s self-titled debut and Submarine, Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid, Randy Coven’s Funk Me Tender, Al di Meola’s Infinite Desire, Public Image Ltd.’s Album, Joe Jackson’s Symphony 1, and Billy Sheehan’s Compression, and also releases from Mike Stern, Ozzy, and Meat Loaf. He can also be found on such additional Zappa releases as Jazz from Hell, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and on several volumes of the ongoing You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series and the live tribute disc Zappa’s Universe. As if his busy schedule weren’t full enough, Vai pursued a lifelong interest when he began harvesting honey among five bee colonies in the backyard of his home.

In 2016, Vai formed “Generation Axe, a night of Guitars” which featured world renowned guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi.  This group of guitar masters were on tour from April to May of 2016. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve on the Generation Axe Tour.  His playing is as inspiring as it was 30 years ago.  It was an unforgettable evening.

To this day, Steve Vai is well respected among his peers and fans, alike.

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