Steve Vai

Groupology

  • Frank Zappa
  • Alcatrazz
  • P.I.L.
  • David Lee Roth
  • Whitesnake
  • Steve Vai

Jurassic
Watch Steve Vai in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Steve Vai combines a blistering technique and a high-energy stage presence with an obsession for the tonally bizarre. Though Steve enjoyed a fruitful early career as a sideman for Frank Zappa, his break came replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz. Steve then found star status in David Lee Roth's band, and later joined David Coverdale in an incarnation of Whitesnake. Vai then switched gears and became a giant in instrumental rock guitar. As Joe Satriani's most famous guitar student, Vai actually found fame before his former teacher. Steve was then instrumental in getting Joe Satriani discovered and making sure he got a record deal. Thank you, Steve Vai. Steve also played a major role in designing the Ibanez Jem guitar, a model which has since gone on to become one of the most recognized axes in guitar oriented rock. In addition, Steve was also one of the first players to really use a 7 string guitar in a rock format. Steve also has his own record company: Favored Nations. Steve is an endorsee ad favorite, though unlike George Lynch, Vai remains pretty loyal to brands he endorsees - Ibanez, Carvin, Morley, DiMarzio, all these manufacturers have built custom spec equipment which have gone on to be best sellers with guitarists worldwide.

Infamous for: Recording all manner of bizarre sounds for use in solo compositions (cat being "relieved" by a thermometer, wife giving birth, son talking nonsensical rubbish). Being a favorite guitar magazine cover boy. Getting the gig with Frank Zappa at age 18 after transcribing some of his most extreme works. Used to sleep with headphones in order to attain perfect pitch. A 10 hour guitar "workout." Steve is also infamous for his cameo role playing the guitar hero incarnation of the devil in the ludicrous 80s film, Crossroads. In this film, Steve has a guitar duel with insufferable teen actor Ralph Macchio of Karate Kid fame. Vai supposedly loses this duel, but every guitarist knows the fix was in.

Influences

Obvious: Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani have probably had the most profound effect on Vai's playing. The wacky, the bizarre, and the sense of humor in Vai's playing undoubtedly came from Zappa. In Vai, that sensibility is paired with an unbelievable command of the instrument that was helped along by lessons from Joe Satriani. Satriani is also Vai's closest stylistic contemporary, but Joe is generally much more melodic and conventional than Steve. Eddie Van Halen is in there too, as is Brian May's influence on some of Vai's arrangements and use of harmonized melodies.

Not so obvious: Vai's influences include Jimi Hendrix, Frank Marino, Jimmy Page. More recently Vai has been citing players like Dimebag Darrell (Pantera) as influences. But you don't hear these influences too often in Vai.

Strengths

Originality. Steve Vai has his own thing. A very unique, quirky and recognizable style.

Chops galore. Steve Vai is a total monster player with awesome ability, speed, and command of the instrument. (Described in detail in the Guitar Style section below.)

Versatility. Steve has one of the most complete guitar styles you will ever hear. His range of musical expression covers everything from rip roaring metal (Deep Down Into The Pain) to Hendrixy dreaminess (Sisters) to wacky white noise experimentation (Alien Love Secrets).

Ingenuity. While Steve's not the ultimate player/innovator, he has made a lasting mark in guitar design, and that's not easy to do. When Vai hooked up with Ibanez, they came up with some guitars expressly suited Steve's own needs, but in so-doing, they hit upon some popular designs that have sold well and remained in production. The various Ibanez Jem model guitars with their light bodies, distinctive deep cutaways, 24 fret necks, large radius fingerboards and monkey grip handles immediately found favor among shred heads. The Universe 7-string models rank among the most popular 7 string guitars available.

Weaknesses

As stated, Steve Vai is a total monster player. He is perfectly capable of playing anything in any style — and has done so as a side man. But when left to his own devices, there very little sex in Vai's playing. Instead, you find humor and technique. Vai impresses the brain and tickles your funny bone. Listening to Steve is sort of like having a gorgeous stripper come up to you, but instead of stripping and giving you a lap dance, she stays clothed and launches into a Rodney Dangerfield routine. There's enough going on to keep you interested for a while, but you never get that tent in your pants. Why? Steve's roots do not come from the blues. They come from that unconventional Frank Zappa sensibility. Vai can play bluesy — as he did in Whitesnake — but when he does, it doesn't feel sincere. You get the impression he's playing a role rather than channeling something that he feels inside of him.

Accessibility. Related to the above, Vai's instrumental music is interesting and enjoyable on certain levels, but it can miss the mark on that "gut-level." Sure, it's tougher to achieve that emotional connection with instrumental music, but Jeff Beck does it routinely and Joe Satriani manages it a bit more than Vai. There's a certainly loads of ability to appreciate, but Steve tends to appeal mostly to the segment of guitarists who favor chops and eccentricity over simpler heavy riffs, melody, and emotion. Steve Vai is like the Salvador Dali of guitar — which is great — unless your taste runs more toward Rembrandt. At its best, Vai's eclectic, humorous style made him the perfect foil for David Lee Roth. They were brilliant together, and Vai (along with bassist Billy Sheehan) helped make David Lee Roth's early solo albums accessible to the masses while dazzling the musician audience at the same time. But the other side of the coin is that when Vai works instrumentally, much of his music is so eclectic you kind of wish for some common ground or set musical style. Instead, the ride from track to track is often disjointed. Some find it grating, others love it. You decide.

Under minor annoyances, Vai's tone can sound too processed at times. His vibrato is often a little bit out, but he's too damn proficient for that to be accidental. You get the idea that Steve was one of those kids who loved scraping his nails down the chalkboard in school just to give people the willies.

Tone

Steve has a very modern, pretty hi-gain tone. It's a hair thinner than Joe Satriani's tone and has a little more biting edge to it. While there is some tonal variation from album to album, Steve's fingerprints are all over everything he play. Vai's guitar tone is seen by many as the ultimate rock guitar tone, others see it as lifeless and soul-less.

The basics of Vai's tone are a DiMarzio-loaded Ibanez Jem guitar (basswood construction, humbucker/single/humbucker configuration, Floyd Rose style tremolo) into Boss DS-1 Distortion box, into Carvin Legacy — Steve Vai's signature amp built by Carvin.(100w EL34s) Vai has long been a Carvin amp user/endorser (X100Bs), and though he's also used modded Marshalls and Bogner Ecstasys throughout his career, he's basically come full circle back to Carvins.

Vai has a Bradshaw Box pedal system and typically employs a big effects rack filled with signal processing gear. The most characteristic of these effects is the Eventide Harmonizer — a staple of nearly every young guitar hero of the 80s who could afford one. The Eventide digitally harmonizes single notes and was/is a popular studio effect for pulling less than pitch-perfect musicians into tune. Guitarists like Vai and others used them primarily for fullness of sound or in some cases to create specific harmonies.

Extensive rig details can be found at Vai's Official website

Guitar Style

Vai's musical knowledge is vast, his technique awesome, and his ability to read and write guitar notation legendary. Steve was the guy who used to transcribe most of the blistering leads of the day for the guitar magazines. Quite definitely a schooled player!

Throughout Vai's career — particularly with Frank Zappa and on his solo albums, there is an abundance of odd time signatures. One of the best known of these is The Attitude Song from Flexible which is in 7/16. Steve often employs right hand techniques in rhythm patterns to make part snappy and percussive as in Goin' Crazy. Vai has a heavy rock rhythm style. His chords are often spiced up with add9 inversions — check out Perfect Timing from Skyscraper. He also likes triads with moving bass notes. Where other guitarist might play a G5 power chord, Steve might play a G6/9. In fact, many of Vai's chord voicings are derived from Hendrix. And Vai's heavier rhythm parts often come out sounding quite funky due to muted bass notes at odd times. Erotic Nightmares from Passion & Warfare is one such example.

As with Joe Satriani, Vai is a master of adding subtle phrasing nuances to his melodies. Specific Vai trademarks include wide interval skips, harmonized melodies, whammy melodies, and single string melodies played by sliding up and down.

Vai's is best known for his lead work. While Steve can burn with the best of them, he's not really known as super picker like Al DiMeola, Yngwie, or Frank Gambale. Vai uses more alternate picking and less legato than Joe Satriani. Check out the end of the Shy Boy solo for some frightening speed. Right hand tapping is an integral part in Vai's arsenal. Check out the solo from Hot Dog & A Shake or Elephant Gun for trademark Vai tapping workouts. These are much more advanced than Eddie Van Halen's simple patterns. Vai is seen as one of the players who took tapping to the next level. Steve uses sweep picking quite a lot too, Shy Boy and For The Love Of God highlight Vai's use of this technique. Vai tends to use this over 5 and 6 string arpeggios.

Scale wise, Vai uses pretty much every mode and scale somewhere in his work. Vai is probably most associated with the Lydian mode — instant Vai. Dorian, Mixolydian and Locrian also crop up frequently. Compared to other players, Vai doesn't really use much Pentatonic when left to his own devices.

Steve uses a lot of wah and in a number of ways. His most famous use is probably to make the guitar talk. Yankee Rose features a legendary conversation between Vai's guitar and David Lee Roth! Vai also employs the pedal the way Michael Schenker does as a frequency boost. Steve's low register riffs often see the pedal depressed to provide a more metallic tone. Vai uses and endorses the Morley Bad Horsie Wah.

Vibrato:

Vai uses the whammy bar a lot — make that an awful lot. It's an integrated part of his style and almost everything Vai does features interesting use of the tremolo bar. He is one of the best around at using the trem to create odd sounds, vibratos and other musical embellishments. For example, Vai uses a lot up quick upquirks on the bar, giving the effect of cat meows (Kittens Got Claws), There are also times where he windmills the bar around and around. The resulting sound sort of defies description. Vai can also use the bar to add an Eastern tinge in his many flavorings.

Vai has many finger vibratos too. Slow, wide, fast. And like George Lynch, he has many techniques for executing them: standard finger vibrato, circular finger vibrato (moving the finger in a circle), classical style (along the length of the string). For the most part Vai's finger vibrato is good but occasionally I hear the bent note vibrato's being uneven and out of pitch. Steve probably intends it to be some microtone or intentional "rub," but to me it just sounds weird. I have not heard many people comment on this so maybe its just a personal gripe. Overall Vai does not have one instantly recognizable finger vibrato the way John Sykes and Leslie West do.

Steve Vai in Action

Recommended Listening

David Lee Roth

Whitesnake

Steve Vai

Profile by Andy Craven. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.