8 Steve Vai Facts Every Fan Should Know
We are all familiar with his infamous tenure as Zappa’s ‘stunt guitarist’, his movie role as the Devil’s axeman and his guitar antics with David Lee Roth; in this blog we look some lesser known Vai trivia.
1. A JEM by any other name
You may already know that Steve’s latest signature guitar, the Pia, is a namesake tribute to his wife; but the title of his mainstay guitar, the JEM, had slightly less romantic motivations.
Jem was the name of the guitar custom shop business owned by Steve Vai’s childhood guitar maker friend Joe Despagni. Joe provided custom work and maintenance for Steve during his early career; as a term of recognition, he named the JEM after Joe’s company - highlighting their time together. Steve also states that Joe was the first to cut that famous ‘Monkey Grip’ into one of his guitars!
For extra trivia - the Ibanez luthier who worked with Vai on the JEM, Rich Lasner, took the concepts of the guitar and went on to build the ultimate boutique super strat; a guitar favoured by Californian session guitarists and connoisseurs. This new guitar launched with a hefty price tag and took the JEM’s HHS set up and sharp looks a step further. ‘I’ve never heard of this guitar!’ I hear you say; then it may surprise you to know that the humble Yamaha Pacifica started life as anything but a beginner’s instrument!
2. Teacher knows best
Remember ‘The Audience Is Listening’, that irreverent track on Passion & Warfare? And the outlandish music video that went with it? No doubt, the playing is the star of the show; but it's not fair to call this an instrumental; the classroom dialogue which interrupts the track from start to finish is arguably one of the most memorable elements.
The reason the exasperated teacher you hear on this tune sounds so convincing is that, rather than hiring an actor for this voice over, Steve enlisted his actual childhood school teacher, Nancy Fagen.
Nancy has a credit on the album for ‘vocals & hysteria’.
3. Sight Reading Prowess
You know that old joke: ‘How do you shut a guitar player up? Put a sheet of music in front of him’; Vai would have the last laugh in this scenario!
Whilst he admits that his obsession with ‘becoming the world’s greatest’ sight-reader was short lived, there was a time when Steve spent 9 hours a day, across an entire summer, exclusively practicing his music reading chops. He would collect written scores for violin, clarinet and saxophone - focusing on instantly translating and playing them on guitar.
Despite, re-evaluating his practice priorities, one could say that his intimate understanding of written music, way beyond the abilities of the average rock guitarist, contributed to him landing the gig with Frank Zappa following his famous transcription of the dreaded ‘Black Page’.
Originally written as a piece for drum kit and tuned percussion, ‘The Black Page’ was an intensely complex composition, even by Zappa standards! Hard to play, even harder to read … and, impossible to transcribe? You guessed it; at the tender age of 19, Steve Vai transcribed The Black Page, scored it in full notation and sent it to Zappa. This then opened the door for his historic audition for Frank’s band (but thats a story for another time!).
4. It’s All About The Bees
Yes, literal bees! Steve Vai is an avid beekeeper. Far from a passing hobby, he is a genuine authority on the practice, having owned approximately 100,000 honey bees and maintaining colonies for over 25 years. Apparently, his passion is owed to a hive of honey bees which lived in his neighbour’s walls; they kept his garden so healthy that he set up an apiary in his new house.
Steve is quoted as saying that his attraction to bees comes from their tireless work ethic, which he appreciates and from which he draws inspiration.
He produces so much honey that it is bottled and branded - Vai family ‘Fire Garden’ honey is a real thing and, as the label puts it, ‘brings new enlightenment to your muffin’. Unfortunately, you can’t actually purchase Fire Garden honey, as this is reserved for friends & family. The remaining profits from his honey farm are invested Steve’s own charity which provides music listening rooms for schools; helping them to foster music appreciation in children.
Stranger than fiction - after the demise of one of his colonies, Steve took on a hive of bees from his near neighbour Bette Midler.
What can we learn from this? Practice guitar with bee-like dedication? Who knows!
5. Passion & Whitesnake
The Whitesnake link didn’t end with ‘Slip Of The Tongue’, whilst we are on the subject of the occasional vocals which appear throughout Passion & Warfare, you will no doubt be familiar with those famous lines ‘Walking the fine line between pagan and christian’ and the throaty ‘We may be human, but we’re still animals’. You would be forgiven for thinking that these were the rich tones of Steve Vai’s voice, but they were actually recorded by David Coverdale.
6. Practice Makes Perfect
Steve is famed for his finger-busting 10 hour a day practice routine, and many an aspiring guitar virtuoso has looked to this regime as a route to technical mastery. However, Vai claims that this was, in realty, more often 9 hours (only 9 you say!) - being easier to dissect into chunks - his routine would start at 3pm, when he returned home from school, and run until midnight.
Rather than sweating away for 9 hours building his monstrous technique or speed, he actually spent a great deal of time developing ‘non mechanical’ skills such as ear training, rhythm/timing and studying theory, and he stresses the risks of continuously woodshedding on your technique for hours at a time, both in terms of musical and physical detriment.
When asked, of what he valued the most from this approach, he firstly cites ‘balance’ as the key to any practice routine and, given only 2 hours a day to practice, would condense the same regime into smaller chunks, effectively giving the same attention to each. He also makes a point of the benefits he reaped from his ear training sessions - placing this as the skill you should develop the most!
7. Fancy Looking Curtains
The JEM has remained relatively unchanged since 1989, save for a range of colours and finishes; the most eye catching of which is the FP, floral finish model. There is no mystical genesis to this design, as you would expect with Vai; the finish of this guitar is literally made from Steve’s lounge curtains.
Steve simply says that he liked the curtains and wondered how they would look on a guitar; Ibanez ordered the material from the curtain’s manufacturers and the rest is history.
Due to the finish of the floral JEM being formed from over laid fabric, each one is completely unique and individual. Steve, himself, claims the the FP model has the best tone of all the JEMs due to the fabric!
Who’d have thought soft furnishings could add so much to your guitar tone!!
8. Some of Passion & Warfare was penned in the mid 80’s
We think of this seminal album as the one which kick started the 90s; bringing the guitar to new levels of ascension - but tracks such as Blue Powder existed as early as 1986.
If you were lucky enough to see Whitesnake when Vai treaded the boards with them during the 80s, you would have been treated to renditions of For The Love Of God and The Audience Is Listening during his solo part of the show!
Bonus trivia - Vai landed the job with Whitesnake after David Coverdale watched the 1985 movie, Crossroads; Steve’s dynamic performance as the soul stealing satanic guitar player Jack Butler was enough to seal the deal!
So there we have it, enough Vai facts to keep your guitar buddies entertained and perhaps bring you closer to the legend himself!