Interview by Robert Cavuoto
Photo (C) Larry DiMarzio
Steve Vai will be releasing his newest studio album, Inviolate, on January 28, 2022, via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group.
Throughout his 40+ year career, Steve Vai has transformed the world of instrumental guitar, something that would seem to be nearly impossible, into a very successful career. From his early beginnings with Frank Zappa’s to his work with the ever-flamboyant David Lee Roth, then back to his exploratory solo work, Steve has continually challenged traditional guitar playing and composition into a mind-altering experience. He has revolutionized guitar playing and has influenced legions of fans and guitarists along the way, something he is very humbled by.
More important than creating to impress others, Steve answers to a high voice, his own. On Inviolate, he had made technological advances with his playing like never before. He has evolved as a musician, writer, and composer, most notably on songs like “Candle Power” with its wildly unique techniques to “Knappsack” with his one-handed playing to “Teeth of the Hydra,” which was created as one complete composition on an Ibanez built guitar with a 12-string neck that was half fretless, a 7-string neck, a bass with half fretless neck, and thirteen harp strings!
These are just three examples of where Steve has outdone himself and evolved. Still, his fans will undoubtedly be in awe of all the instrumental songs on Inviolate due to his ability to balance technique and melody. Pre-orders for Inviolate can be found here https://usa-store.mascotlabelgroup.com/collections/steve-vai
I had the pleasure of speaking with Steve about creating his latest masterpiece, Inviolate, how he has evolved as a guitarist, when inspiration strikes him, the status of Generation Axe, and what fans can expect on his upcoming 2022 tour.
Robert Cavuoto: After 40 years of writing songs, tell me how you never run out of inspiration for exciting and impactful songs?
Steve Vai: I don’t know. It just shows up when it is needed. I’m not always inspired, but I can sit down and write something. When inspiration comes, I try and capture a thread of it and document it somehow. I started doing this when I was 13 years old with cassettes, and now I have what I call the “Infinity Shelf.” It’s 1000s of little snippets of ideas. I’m never going to ever tap those out. If I stopped writing new ideas today, there is enough music there for five lifetimes of songs. For this new record, Inviolate, which comes out in January, many songs were culled from those little moments of inspiration that I captured on my iPhone. It might be a simple riff, yet it has the DNA of an entire piece of music in it.
Robert Cavuoto: Some artists were very creative during the 2020 pandemic, while others felt uninspired and took a break. I have to believe that you used your time wisely to write and record this album?
Steve Vai: That was part of it. The lockdown has been pretty long at this point. When it first hit, I was planning on doing a big production of a record, which was the third installment of the trilogy of records, called Real Illusions. I couldn’t with the lockdown, so I put the kibosh on it, which was fine. The music community was hit very hard, but we are a very resilient group, and we just figured out different ways of doing what we needed to do. I used the lockdown to start uploading live streams of performance and inspirational Q&A chats. As I was doing that, I had time to finally experiment with some techniques that I didn’t have the time for. I did one track called “Candlepower,” which has a weird technique. I had shoulder surgery in the middle of the pandemic, which worked out pretty well. I was able to get it fixed and have enough time to heal before recording. I wanted to get back out on tour, so I started working at home and built the album, Inviolate.
Robert Cavuoto: The video of the song “Knappsack” is one of my favorite songs off Inviolate. It’s incredible to watch you play it with just one hand. I know you like to experiment, and I was wondering if that song came from experimenting to seeing how far you could take pull-offs or due to limited mobility with your surgery?
Steve Vai: It was due to my limited mobility. I had just gotten back from the hospital and was in bed for a few days on drugs. You know how it goes! I went into the studio, and a new guitar arrived from Ibanez, the Black Onyx PIA. It is one of the most beautiful guitars I have ever worked with them on. I was frustrated because I only had one hand, but I started playing it immediately without any hesitation. It was as if it was low-hanging fruit like it was always there and meant to be. I would go as far as to say that the limitation was the impetus to want to do it with one hand. I knew instantly that I was going to record a song with one hand. I knew I could do it because my style is kind of legato, as it’s not an impossible thing I’m doing. If you have a legato guitar style and quirkiness like I do, these types of things are interesting and fun. I knew I could do it. That is why it worked. That song started from an exciting idea. The problem was that I didn’t have my engineer or anyone to help me as I only had one arm. Trust me when I say that playing the guitar parts were easier than navigating the computer to set everything up and press record [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: That’s when you call your wife and ask her to press the record button [laughing]!
Steve Vai: Exactly! [laughing] Thank God for the space bar!
Robert Cavuoto: That’s an inspiring story. I had a friend who started learning to play guitar but broke his right arm and had to stop. I showed him your video and told him that he could bring something good out of his bad situation. It was very inspiring to watch the video as it’s a testament to your resilience!
Steve Vai: Thank you! I always try to take the perspective that anything that happens to us is in our best interest! Whether we see it that way or not. If you believe that, then you start looking for opportunities and challenges. The resilience becomes conscious when you decide everything is in your best interest. You find yourself looking for cooperative components. One example for me was nobody wants a wrecked shoulder, but I got that song out of it [Laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Kudos to you! You could have easily sat on the couch eating chips all day, waiting for your shoulder to heal.
Steve Vai: I did that too [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Your songs always have an underlying sense of melody that you can sing or hum, like “Zeus in Chains.” I have that song stuck in my head. So many instrumental guitarist’s music gets very monotonous, and the artist sounds as if he is overplaying or shredding to fill space. How do you avoid those trapping?
Steve Vai: I have always been attracted to melody. I also went through a big period of time where I was attached to the idea of being as limitless as I could be on the instrument. Melody was always the real stimulating factor. Even when I’m soloing, there are times when I’m ripping finger patterns because it’s fun. They can accentuate certain things, but without melody, which is the main ingredient, you’re missing the real attractive nature of something. The one that does that for me is “Little Pretty” because the guitar solo is death-defying. When I wrote those chord changes, I set up some parameters where every chord is going to be different. Every time it changes, there is not going to be anything similar. Plus, it’s going to be an odd time, and all the scales are going to be synthetic modes that do not revolve around conventional scales. That’s all the academic information, but the main focus was melody! The last thing I’m comfortable doing is blowing through changes like jazz or fusion player because I know the chords. It’s got to be melodic. When an artist makes a certain personal achievement, sometimes it’s that artist’s secret. There are things on this record that I can see where I made an evolution and evolved, but it might not be very common or identifiable by people.
Robert Cavuoto: How do you consciously balance technique and melody when writing?
Steve Vai: You just tell yourself what you want. You say, “I want to…” then fill in the blank. I’m doing that anyway. Those players who are just developing their chops and fascinating themselves by how fast they can play is a period that they go through as an instrumentalist. It’s part of developing their technique, but the focus at that time for most people is, “I have to play faster and cleaner then faster and cleaner and so.” It is part of the game, but if you add into the equation the psychological demand on yourself that “I want fascinating skill, but I also want melody. Above all else, I want powerful melody!” If you say that and have an authentic desire for it, it will happen because your radar is on that. You are listening and looking. I don’t have to balance or tell myself that anymore; it’s just a natural demand.
Robert Cavuoto: You have some very colorful and interesting song names. How do you come up with them?
Steve Vai: You have to listen to the song, and it will tell you. For example, with “Zeus in Chains,” it was called something else which I don’t recall. I had to listen back and knew the song would eventually tell me. There was beauty in some of the chord changes, a real intensity in the melody, and then there was a heaviness. Within that heavy part, the word Zeus came to me. I liked it and knew I was on to something. Then in the middle section, where the chords ring out with that completely dissident note, that’s Zeus in chains, and knew that would be the song’s name! Similar thing with the “Teeth of the Hydra.”
Robert Cavuoto: Will you take out your Hydra guitar with three necks and harp strings on tour to perform “Teeth of the Hydra?”
Steve Vai: The jury is still out on that. When you see the guitar, you’ll understand. It started about five years ago when I was watching Mad Max – Fury Road. There was this one scene where they are going through the desert, and a guy is on the front of a truck with this wild-looking guitar bouncing around. I thought that was cool, and it inspired me to create a guitar with three necks and harp string. It would be used to play a piece of music that I could deliver while being fascinating. I was also into Steampunk fashion at the time. I gathered some materials and my idea was to have a 12-string neck that was half fretless, a seven-string neck, and a bass neck with the E and A strings being fretless. On top of that would be these thirteen harp strings as well all sorts of technical things in the guitar. I went back and forth with Ibanez, and they did a rendering of the Hydra, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Once I got the guitar, it was fascinating. I opened the case, and it was both awesome and intimidating! I knew I had to write a piece of music [laughing]. I set it up in the studio, and for a year and a half, I passed it 20 times a day, and every time I passed, it said to me, “You know you have to play me!” [Laughing]. So, I carved out six weeks of time and composed “Teeth of the Hydra.” The guitar is called Hydra because of its three necks and the mythical dragon/creature analogy. The song was a real creative endeavor to juggle all the necks and make a piece of music that could stand on its own. The bass, 7-string guitar, 12-string guitar, and harp guitar are the only things on the track other than some keyboard and percussion. Everything you hear is performed on the Hydra in one performance. It creates this odd linear piece of music because I couldn’t play two necks at the same time.
Robert Cavuoto: Is the limitation of taking it on tour is finding someone who can tune it [laughing]?
Steve Vai: [Laughing] That is one. The limitation is that it is a delicate instrument, and the brain alone takes up three rack spaces. It weighs as much as a car, and the case is like half a car. I recorded the piece with the guitar on a stand, so I haven’t actually put it on my body and tried to play the song. I don’t know what is going to happen. I know I can do it’s just a matter of how much time I have.
Robert Cavuoto: With your coming 2022 tour, can you believe that people still want to come and are excited to see you play? It must be humbling?
Steve Vai: It is, and I never take it for granted. I’m 61 years old, and I can play instrumental guitar music. It’s fascinating and a blessing.
Robert Cavuoto: I saw you write a song with Eddie Trunk in New Jersey in 2015. Besides moments like that, is there a percentage of the night where anything could happen, perhaps putting you in the fun danger zone?
Steve Vai: There is a little unknown, but there is an overwhelming understanding in me that whatever happens, I’m going to make it work. It didn’t matter what Eddie did up there; I was going to figure out how to make it work. It has always worked. I pulled people up on stage for 250 shows, and every time it was hilarious, and it worked. Sometimes it was deader than others when people didn’t do anything. They were stumped because they are on stage in front of people. The best is when we get young kids, as they are so funny with no fear. It’s all part of the fun. The whole performance with Eddie is on the Space Between the Notes It’s a 3 hours 45-minute tour diary for the Story of Light tour.
Robert Cavuoto: Are there any plans to revisit a Generation Axe Tour? I was completely blown away by the diversity of the guitarists and their playing.
Steve Vai: The challenge with doing a Generation Axe tour is everyone’s available. They have solo careers and play with bands. Nuno Bettencourt has Extreme, and he is a consistently busy person. Tosin Abasi has his guitar company and solo career. You have to juggle it. Everyone loves doing it. I think the biggest challenge is working around Ozzy [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: He just rescheduled his tour to 2023, so maybe you can squeeze it in now.
Steve Vai: You notice that people are rescheduling all the time. You have to be absolutely sure something like that is not going to happen because after you have it all set up, you don’t want any surprises.
Robert Cavuoto: In 2018, I saw Generation Axe. You and Yngwie join forces for “Blackstar.” You took the second harmony, and I expected you to mimic his neoclassical playing style, but you had your own interruption. Was that by choice?
Steve Vai: I can’t play like Yngwie; nobody can play like him. Nobody can play like me. Nobody can play like anybody. What I did was take the harmony or melody of the song and play it the way I would do it. It was challenging because there were a lot of little fast runs with his fingerings and his tonal center, which is different than mine. I had to work on it; I could do it, but when it came time. As to playing against each other, I’m Steve, and he is Yngwie. That is one of the greatest things about that tour; they are all extremely confident in what they do. They don’t compete with you at what you do. What happens is it forces us to compete with ourselves to be the best we can be. Zakk is being Zakk as best as he ever can be. We are all helping each other to push all sorts of aspects of being professional to stage appearance to communication to playing to off-stage etiquette.
Robert Cavuoto: You are known for playing with Frank Zappa. A few years back, I spoke with Steve Lukather of Toto, and he shared a tremendously funny story of when he auditioned for Frank when he was 17 years old. Steve shared he went to an audition where there were 100 guitar players in a room at SIR in Los Angeles. Frank was picked him out of the crowd first and said, “You’re first, can you read music?” And he said, “Yeah, I can read, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have to sit down and learn it.” Frank was staring down at him with a band that had been rehearsing for three months. He then says, “See if you can play this.” He gave him eight bars of some whacky, fucking Frank Zappa shit to try to play back to him exactly what he just played. Steve fumbled through it, and said, “I’m sorry. I’m really nervous. Can I do that again?” Frank says, “Sure.” Frank then played it completely different. Steve fumbled through, and then Frank said, “Bad comprehension. Next!” As he was packing up in tears, the room cleared out. He realized he was the scapegoat. I was wondering if you were there and had a funny story too about an audition for Frank?
Steve Vai: I was never part of a cattle call. I was 18 years old, living in New York, and I sent Frank a tape. He wanted to audition me, but when I told him I was 18, he said forget it! He did hire me to transcribe. The day after my 20th birthday, I moved out to Los Angeles, just down the street from him. I just started going up to his house, and he would give me pieces of music to learn and then record. I had the ability to play the complex melodies he wrote. I was fascinated with composition and polyrhythms, which Frank used a lot. I loved it. I couldn’t site read stuff, but I had good comprehension. Frank used any means necessary to write a song. He would tell you to play this, then change this. He could hand you a piece of music or give you an interesting description of something and ask you to make it sound like something he had in mind [laughing]. After I spent months going up to the studio recording various things, Frank was putting together a band for a fall tour of 1980 of the US. He already had the band, but he wanted to audition me to see if he could add me. I remember his manager not wanting to do it because of the extra money, but Frank insisted to audition me. I went to their first rehearsal and got on stage. Before that, he told me to learn a bunch of songs, and he didn’t call out any of them while I was there [laughing]. Luckily, I knew a lot of them. It was more about him telling you what to play and you being able to play it. It was not easy, and he was not nice. He was tough. I felt as I was being put through the wringer and figured I didn’t get the gig. He said to play something very cryptic, which he didn’t have the chops to play. He would play it cryptically; then, you had to follow and play it the way he wanted. He played a very long line; I said okay and played it. Then he said, add this, and I was like, okay, and did it. Then he said to change this part. He was seeing how I could adapt. Then he said to play it in 7/8. I thought about it and played in 7/8. Then he said to play it in 7/8 reggae [laughing]. I didn’t realize that he was taking a piss at me. People were laughing, and I was thinking everything I had to get it correct as if the audition depended on this. Then he goes, add this at the end. I couldn’t do it! It was impossible! It was impossible for anybody! I told him that it was impossible. He then said, “I hear Linda Ronstadt is looking for a guitar player.” [Laughing]. I thought maybe I should go check it out because I’m done here. I apologized and thanked him for giving me the chance. He said, “What are you talking about? You are in the band!” [Laughing]
INVIOLATE WORLD TOUR / U.S. 2022 CONFIRMED DATES:
1/27 Las Vegas, NV
1/28 El Cajon, CA
1/29 Riverside, CA
1/30 Phoenix, AZ
2/01 Salt Lake City, UT
2/02 Boulder, CO
2/04 Oklahoma City, OK
2/05 Austin, TX
2/06 Dallas, TX
2/08 Houston, TX
2/09 San Antonio, TX
2/11 Birmingham, AL
2/12 Macon, GA
2/14 Atlanta, GA
2/15 Clearwater, FL
2/16 Orlando, FL
2/17 Ft. Lauderdale, FL
2/18 Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
2/19 Charlotte, NC
2/21 Charleston, SC
2/22 Alexandria, VA
2/23 Glenside, PA
2/24 Red Bank, NJ
2/25 Huntington, NY
2/26 Port Chester, NY
2/27 Providence, RI
3/01 New Haven, CT
3/02 Boston, MA
3/03 Albany, NY
3/04 Rochester, NY
3/05 Harrisburg, PA
3/06 Greensburg, PA
3/08 Warren, OH
3/09 Detroit, MI
3/10 Morgantown, WV
3/11 Louisville, KY
3/12 Nashville, TN
3/13 St. Louis, MO
3/15 Chicago, IL
3/16 Milwaukee, WI
3/17 St. Paul, MN
3/18 Kansas City, MO
3/19 Lincoln, NE
3/20 Des Moines, IA
3/22 Sioux Falls, SD
3/23 Fargo, ND
3/25 Billings, MT
3/26 Bozeman, MT
3/27 Missoula, MT
3/28 Seattle, WA
3/29 Portland, OR
3/31 Turlock, CA
4/01 Napa, CA
4/02 Los Angeles, CA