Once in a great while, I go through a period where I can’t get enough Steve Vai.
I’m not as easily impressed as I used to be. This is particularly true when it comes to guitar shredders. When I first started playing, I was easily captivated by the flash, technical dexterity, and overall speed of more than a few axe-slingers. But over time, I came to realize many of those musicians — while certainly talented — weren’t saying very much with their instruments. One can only listen to exotic scales or homages to classical music via long-haired, leather-clad guitarists for so long.
It would be easy to lump Steve Vai into this category. He is, without question, one of the most technically proficient guitar players out there. And he can move his fingers with lightning speed and top-flight dexterity. But while I’ve started to block out many flashy guitarists focusing on the sizzle, Vai continues to provide more than a little steak. And because of that, he remains on my musical radar.
Steve Vai is much more than a mere guitarist. He is a supremely talented musician. He’s well-versed in music theory, he’s a supremely melodic composer, and he has a great gift for arrangements, as indicated by the many bands he has put together over the years. Some of those bands have featured not only standard rock band “guitar, keys, bass and drum” elements, but more exotic instruments like violins and harps. And none of these arrangements can be seen as gimmicky. The music is beautifully designed to suit each band.
Vai rose to prominence in the early ’80s, playing “stunt guitar” for Frank Zappa. It’s no accident that many of my favorite musicians come out of that band, because Zappa expected and demanded the very best from his musicians. Vai managed to get Zappa’s attention by writing out precise transcriptions of some of Zappa’s most complex compositions, like “The Black Page.” I would come to appreciate this work in the latter half of the ’80s. But the first time I fell in love with Vai’s playing, I wasn’t even aware it was him! It turns out Vai contributed the guitar solo on a song called “FFF” by Public Image Ltd. There was something about the sound of this album (called Album, Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on what format you bought) that kept it in my consciousness for quite some time.
More than a few people thought of Vai as the next Eddie Van Halen after hearing him play with David Lee Roth’s band. But he’s much, much more than that. While I certainly respect Van Halen, I find Vai to be more melodic and song-oriented. He doesn’t dive-bomb for finger-tap for the sake of doing so. To my ears, every Vai fretboard move serves a specific purpose within the context of the song. It’s NOT about being flashy.
That being said, there can be no denying Vai’s knack for showmanship. He may be a supremely talented musician, but Steve Vai is dying to be a rock star! Most shredders are content to stand at the center of the stage and let their fingers do the talking. Vai can do that, too. But at times, he takes things a step further, as I noticed the first time I saw the video for this number, which I already loved.
Vai dons ornate, sci-fi oriented costumes. He changes his wardrobe mid-show like a Top 40 entertainer. He attempts to dance, with varying degrees of success. But unlike the other rock stars who seem to be merely pandering to the audience, Vai doesn’t let you forget for one second that he can flat-out play the hell out of a guitar. And that is what keeps me coming back.
It’s not every day that I’m startled by the opening of an album, to the point where my heart actually jumps and I feel the shock in the pit of my stomach. Steve Vai has one of those openings. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen when I plugged the album Fire Garden into my CD player. But once I recovered, I was captivated.
Vai is much more than heavy metal grind and rock and roll showmanship. The man’s ballads are almost as legendary. This is where his deft touch and lyricism truly make their mark. “For the Love of God” is a concert staple. I’ve seen him perform it twice myself, and it never fails to bring this house down. But this orchestral version left me more than a little gobsmacked.
Most fans tend to choose either Passion & Warfare or Sex & Religion as their favorite Steve Vai album. But for me, song for song, it’s The Ultra Zone. To my ears, Vai digs deepest here, finding the widest variety of sounds within his own brilliant personal context. I’m never not amazed by what I hear on that album.
I love that Vai can pay homage to a fellow legendary guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, while still sounding every bit like himself. This is not the easiest thing in the world to do. I sense a great deal of fun being had during the recording of this number.
And then there are times when Vai plays something that causes me to look at my speakers in awe, while yelling out, “Aw, dude, that’s not right!” I say it with all due respect, of course. Ever hear the bottom just drop right out of a song? Well, check this out!
And of course, Vai does his best to put on a show while melting my brain. Killer stuff.
I don’t play Vai’s music all the time. There are a lot of notes to digest here. But he’s great for me to turn to every few months when I’m looking for virtuosity with a dash of style. Like I’ve said, that’s not something you get to see and hear every day.
There are rock stars, and there are musicians. Rare is the artist that gives you both in the same package. Steve Vai is one of those rarities. Catch him where and when you can.