Steve Vai’s technical mastery of the guitar is such that, like a gunslinger of old, he used to challenge the audience at Frank Zappa gigs to bring along music scores for him to sight read live on stage. Naturally enough Vai’s reputation spread and his solos soon became one of the benchmarks that aspiring guitarists measure themselves against.
The complexity of Vai’s work – not just in speed, but in his use of notes outside the common pentatonic scale along with pick harmonics, tapping, sweep picking and, in particular, extreme whammy bar techniques – might explain why he rarely sits at the very top of commercially-influenced Greatest Guitarist lists. But players rate him much higher. Practically every month Steve Vai is featured in at least one specialist guitar magazine; and he’s consistently in the top five searches within online guitar tuition sites such as licklibrary.com.
Remarkably, though Vai attended an ordinary secondary school in the suburbs of New York, he wasn’t the only gunslinging guitarist that Carle Place High produced. Joe Satriani, his senior by four years, was already a pupil there and gave Vai lessons while the two were still teenagers.
It was a typical act of bravado that led to his big break. After Carle Place, Vai studied at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and while there he transcribed The Black Page, an intentionally complex percussion composition by Frank Zappa. He sent his transcription, along with some examples of his guitar playing, to Zappa, who hired him, initially as a transcriber, and, from 1980 (when he was still only 20), as a full band member, credited on albums as playing ‘stunt guitar’ and ‘impossible guitar parts’.
He left Zappa in 1982 and released Flex-Able, his first solo album, in 1984. He touted it around record companies, getting a series of ‘thank you but no’s, and rejecting the only offer he did receive because, as he told LickLibrary’s Stuart Bull, ‘It was pathetic and I wasn’t desperate.’ Instead Vai decided to self-release and signed an extremely lucrative distribution deal – and watched the money roll in as Felx-Able went on to sell more than 400,000 units.
Helping that process by raising Vai’s image with the wider rock audience was his day job as a member of high profile bands including a brief spell in 1985 with Alcatrazz (replacing Yngwie Malmsteen), followed by a couple of years with David Lee Roth, who had by that time split, very publicly, from Eddie Van Halen. His iconic status also led to a collaboration with Ibanez with whom has designed several signature guitars.
While continuing to produce a string of solo albums, Vai has also recorded with a host of other top acts, including Whitesnake and Alice Cooper (playing together with Joe Satriani on the song Feed My Frankenstein). His association with his former teacher was furthered by participation (together with bassist Billy Sheehan, who, like Vai, played in David Lee Roth’s band) in several of Satriani’s G3 tours. He has also appeared with the Tokyo Metropole Orchestra, as a guest on Dweezil Zappa’s Zappa Plays Zappa tour and has film credits including Crossroads and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
He remains highly popular with aspiring guitarists – his masterclass at the 2007 London Guitar Show was a sell out, and licklibrary.com’s statistics show that online lessons and DVD tutorials teaching songs such as For The Love Of God and Die To Live to up and coming gunslingers are consistent draws.