Hard to believe, but nearly three decades have passed since Steve Vai first shook up the guitar world with his dazzling solo debut, Flex-Able. Since then, the six-string virtuoso has appeared on more than 60 albums, including stints with Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth and others. For avid fans, a new Vai solo album is like manna from the heavens, a musical feast feeding ravenous musical appetites. The Story of Light, his latest, finds him continuing to push the envelope as a composer, arranger and, most of all, as a guitarist who continues to raise the bar for himself and others. Prior to embarking on a U.S. tour, Vai talked about the new disc, his earliest influences and how Frank Zappa once compared his tone to a “ham sandwich.”
You expanded your horizons quite a bit on the new album. “John the Revelator” is a bit of a departure.
As you get older, you sometimes let go of certain inhibitions. Probably one of the biggest of those inhibitions is fear. Musicians are susceptible to that. We’re afraid of not being accepted. After a while you kind of let go of all that stuff, and you just want to be free with your thinking. I had heard the original recording of Blind Willie Johnson doing “John the Revelator” on a compilation called Anthology of American Folk Music, and was blown away. Another version I fell in love with was a high school choir a cappella version, with a great vocal arrangement. I was so blown away by it, I got the music and hired 10 of L.A.’s best singers, and I triple tracked them. I also used the track from that original high school choir, cutting it up and writing along to it. From the start, I imagined the song with all these big guitars. I just thought it was an exciting idea. What I’m finding out, as I talk to people who’ve listened to the album, is that it’s the standout song for a lot of people.
Did you consider singing it yourself?
Originally I was going to sing it, but I just don’t have that range. I needed someone with real power, because the track was so powerful. I was hosting a function for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences – NARAS – and I went into the audience to see how things sounded, because there were some bands performing. And there was Beverly McClellan, on-stage. She was totally captivating. I thought, “There’s my singer for ‘John the Revelator.’” I was lucky she was interested in doing it.
“Gravity Storm” is another high point.
A lot of people think I’m playing that with a whammy bar, with all those bends. Actually it’s all being done with my fingers. I was trying to create a feeling of weightiness, with the bends going down. Those bends are at the end of most of the phrases, even in the solo. I thought, “If I do this, and it’s successful, that will give the whole track a feeling of weight.” I tuned down a whole step for both “Gravity Storm” and for “John the Revelator.”
What was the first music you heard that made you want to play guitar?
The first real music that stimulated me was the soundtrack for West Side Story. And that was a good thing. It was historical music, and it involved a lot of composition. I loved composition and the idea of writing music. I was trying to write music before I started playing guitar. And then I heard Led Zeppelin. That changed everything for me. My sister was listening to all this great music – Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper and Sly and the Family Stone. As soon as I heard the solo in “Heartbreaker,” the urge to have a guitar – and play guitar – became overwhelming. That’s what got me started.
Where did you go from there?
I had a friend who lived down the street – his name was John Sergio – and he turned me onto the really great progressive rock music of the ’70s. I started listening to bands like Queen and Jethro Tull and Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes. That’s the stuff I cut my teeth on, in the beginning. I tried to pick things up by ear, and play as much as I could. And then my lessons with Joe [Satriani] were very important. I could sit across from him and see a real guitar player. He was gifted beyond anyone else I knew. That’s where I began learning how to apply the music theory I was being taught in school to the guitar. And just the idea of being in a rock band meant a lot. When you’re in a rock band in high school, there’s nothing cooler than that.
Later you worked with Frank Zappa. Was he a tough taskmaster?
It depends on your perspective. Most of the musicians who worked for Frank adored him and respected him and wanted to please him. His musicians respected him because he was worthy of that respect. As a result, you wanted to rise to the occasion, and you found yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do, in other circumstances. He cultivated that desire in you. Frank was able to see your potential better than you yourself were. That was part of his genius. He was a tough taskmaster only if you were a miserable kind of person who just wanted to jam and do things your own way, and behave like you didn’t belong.
There’s a story that he once told you your tone was like a ham sandwich.
That was after the first gig I ever did with him. We were having breakfast, and I said, “How was the gig last night? What did you think?” I was looking for advice and criticism. He said, “You know what, I think you’re a pretty good guitar player.” That, right there, was an amazing statement to hear from him. But then he said, “But your tone sounds like an electric ham sandwich.” That was just Frank’s way of saying I had to work on my tone. By that, he meant that the way you hear yourself, imagine yourself, is the way you’re going to sound. The way you think about the way you play is going to be represented in what comes out of the amp. It’s not in the gear, it’s in the way you hear yourself.
Does that also apply to solos?
Absolutely. Suppose I want to improvise a solo during a live show. I might imagine myself as a wizard wielding a sword in slow motion. When you do that, what you play is going to sound – or come out – totally different. That’s exactly what I did on my last tour for one particular solo, the solo for “Now We Run.” You can see it on the Where the Wild Things Are DVD.