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Steve Vai

In this episode we chart Steve Vai’s path from 12-year-old student under the mentorship of Joe Satriani to full-blown rock guitar god. Additional topics include the evolution of guitar playing, the development of Vai’s showmanship (especially while playing with David Lee Roth), the difference between discipline and passion, the story behind his monumental song “For the Love of God,” and more.

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Transcript

Evan Ball:
Hello, and welcome to Ernie Ball's Striking A Chord podcast. I'm Evan Ball. On this episode we welcome the one and the only, Steve Vai. Steve Vai is of course way up there in the pantheon of guitar gods, playing with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, all that before releasing the landmark instrumental rock guitar album, Passion and Warfare.

In this episode we cover many topics, including how Steve learned to play guitar from Joe Satriani, why Steve is so good at what he does, the evolution of guitar playing, how his showmanship developed especially while performing with David Lee Roth, discipline versus passion, and the story behind his monumental song For The Love Of God. Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Vai. Steve Vai, welcome to the podcast.

Steve Vai:
Nice to be here. Good to see you, Evan.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, lots to talk about, lots to cover, past, present and future. So maybe we can start back a few years. High school, were you social? Did you play sports? Or was your passion for music all consuming? What was your high school experience like?

Steve Vai:
Well, I had older brothers and sisters, and they had carved a hole in the high school. My old brother Roger was pretty notorious. Loved, he was loved, but he was really tough and really kind of mischievous. So by the time my two brothers and my sister had gotten through high school and I got in there, the high school environment for me amongst the teachers was they were very cautious. But I enjoyed, I didn't like getting up in the morning and necessarily going to school, but I liked being at school because I had a lot of friends.

Steve Vai:
I was pretty much... I mean, in high school, I might say it'd be best to talk to people I went to high school with but I was a nice guy and I had friends in all of the different social groups: the brainiacs, the smart kids, the jocks. I always felt sorry for those kids that were just misfits, and I hung out with them. But I was primarily a greaser.

Evan Ball:
Really? Okay.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, a greaser. I had long hair, I had a tattoo. I got a tattoo when I was 16. I would have ridden a motorcycle but I couldn't afford one, but all my friends that I hung out with did, my brother. The group that I mainly socialized with was, and this is high school, was because I was in a rock band and the rock band was from the other side of the tracks, I mean, they were from our school but they were more of the greaser type. And when I say greaser, I just mean like we were partiers. We were smoking weed and drinking and going out and going to bars and clubs when we were 16, playing all the clubs in Long Island, and it was just really great, it was great fun. But I was accepted in all of the various groups, I don't think I was disliked or anything, and I was probably a bit of a misfit.

Evan Ball:
So it sounds like you had time for both recreation and lots of guitar practice.

Steve Vai:
Yeah. In younger high school like seventh and eighth grade, junior I guess, I was into sports. I had joined the wrestling team, believe it or not. And then in ninth and 10th grade, or maybe it was 10th and 11th? I can't remember, but at one point I joined the football team.

Evan Ball:
Wow!

Steve Vai:
I was a defensive guard because I weighed close to 200 pounds.

Evan Ball:
Really?

Steve Vai:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Wow. Wait, how tall are you? I know you're tall.

Steve Vai:
6'1". Back then I was-

Evan Ball:
Oh, [crosstalk 00:04:02].

Steve Vai:
Back then I was 6'1". I'm a little shorter now.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Steve Vai:
It just happens. But yeah, it was I drove an ice cream truck and ate a lot of meatball heroes and I gained a lot of weight.

Evan Ball:
All right.

Steve Vai:
But primarily, I only did that a little while. I played guitar. I went home and I played guitar and I wrote music.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Hey, at what point in your guitar journey do you take lessons from Joe Satriani?

Steve Vai:
So when I was 12 I had joined a band but I didn't play guitar, I played keyboard, electric keyboard, and I only knew two chords and they were for Jumpin' Jack Flash. But I had always wanted to play, so I finally when I heard Led Zeppelin, I decided I wanted to play. And also a friend of mine that lived a couple of houses down, John Sergio, he was real into music, he was one of those secret kind of people in my life that exposed me to tremendous amounts of music in various realms and took me to concerts. And he was the bass player in the first band I was in where I played guitar. And he was my childhood friend since I was a... Before kindergarten.

Steve Vai:
And so he was instrumental in my musical evolution as a youngster, but he was taking lessons from Joe. And when I was at John's house once and he had a guitar, and he was playing it, I couldn't believe it. I was like, "You have a guitar and you're able to play it." And he goes, "Yeah, I'm taking lessons from this guy, Joe Satriani." And I got Joe's number from him, and that's when I decided, "Well, if he can do it, it's okay, you can play the guitar." So then I went to Joe and I basically had a pack of strings and a guitar and-

Evan Ball:
Wow. So it's like the very initial phase of your guitar playing?

Steve Vai:
Yeah, I didn't know anything. I mean, I was noodling around with the guitar in my bedroom before that but I didn't know what I was doing, I was just playing by ear and I didn't know how to keep the strings tuned.

Evan Ball:
So is he teaching you like Led Zeppelin covers at this point or?

Steve Vai:
In the beginning, it was basically finger exercises and just things to get my dexterity going, but it was very well balanced. My lessons evolved very organically. He was an incredible teacher. He was able to see what it was that I was interested in and what I needed to know in order to help me to figure out things for myself. But he was a wealth of riffs. I mean, Joe, I would bring him songs and I'd say, "Can you show me how to play this song?" And it'd be like Led Zeppelin or I remember when the Bad Company record came out. I was asking him, and he had just heard the songs a few times, and he could play them. He was actually playing the riffs that the guitarist on the record was playing, and I was fascinated with it. I was like, "You really can do this."

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Do you think he saw your promise early on?

Steve Vai:
Oh, I don't know. You'd have to ask him. I always felt like I was struggling, not struggling to keep... No, I wasn't struggling to keep up. I always felt like the room had no roof, it had no ceiling. When I was in Joe's room learning, I never felt as though I was going to run out of mentorship. There was always this greatness about Joe that always seemed to surprise and delight. He was always teaching. One new lesson after another just revealed a wealth of information and almost what seemed to me at the time an infinite depth of musicality.

Evan Ball:
Oh, that's great. Yeah, I always wondered, was this just a fun fact that spread like Satriani gave you a five minute lesson once and it got embellished from there? But-

Steve Vai:
No. Joe-

Evan Ball:
This is real.

Steve Vai:
Joe's Satriani taught me how to play guitar, the end.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that's so cool. That's awesome.

Steve Vai:
I took lessons from him for maybe three or four years from the most formidable time for me when I was 12, all through high school. And then Joe, he was four years older than me, so he was out of high school before I was, and he had moved. He actually moved to Japan. That was weird he moved there. And so I wasn't able to take lessons for like, I think he lived there for six or eight months.

Evan Ball:
Okay, but this was early 70s, right?

Steve Vai:
Oh, yeah.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Steve Vai:
Well, now it's mid to... Well, mid 70s like 76, 75. And then he came back for a little while and I was able to get some more lessons, but then he moved to San Francisco. And I started taking lessons from all sorts of different people. I was taking lessons from one of the guitarists that Joe played with, Tom Sharkey. I was taking lessons from a guy named Joe Bell, he was teaching me jazz. So there was a lot of other teachers, but none of them... The other guys were like, "Okay, I'll take lessons for three or four months, and this is great. Let me find somebody else to teach me a little classical," but Joe, no. Joe was solid, religiously, every week for several years.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. I love thinking about the eras. I'm always interested in how music evolves. For example, how guitar gets from let's say, Jimmy Page and other guitar giants in the 70s, to flashy or faster, more technically demanding solos in the 80s. And I guess I am intrigued in general with how humans are able to continually push boundaries, whether it's-

Steve Vai:
Well, it's very easy.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, I think it's a natural process, but I think it's certain individuals have to sort of pave the way, right?

Steve Vai:
Well, that's the natural evolution of things. The human mind is capable of... I mean, I'll go out on a limb here. I mean, it's not a limb for me. It's capable of anything. Anything that you believe entirely is your reality. So when a kid comes into the world and hypothetically is interested in music and guitars, such as myself or Joe or any of our peers when they were 12, and they're listening to Jimmy Page and Hendrix and all the greats of the 70s, they're coming into the world and saying, "Okay, that's the status quo. That's ground zero."

Steve Vai:
And subconsciously if I was able to speak my subconscious mind back then, I would say, "Okay, well, this is where it's at now. This is ground zero. This is what I want to do." So I had a beautiful giant buffet that was already set out for me, and I'd take it from there. That's what we all do, we take it from where we see it. If you were to futz around with time and project 100 years into the future, in the very unlikely event the guitar would be able to actually conceive of how it would have evolved, and you had a player and 100 years from now that was four or five generations or whatever evolved, and you placed him here right now, everything would pick up from there. You know what I mean?

Evan Ball:
Yeah, because it's for most people, you have to know what's possible, what you can aspire to.

Steve Vai:
Exactly. And it's those people that see what's happening and then say to themselves, "That's possible. I wonder if this is possible?"

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, I'm curious, would it be possible from a music history perspective to trace a path from say, mainstream rock guitar playing in the 70s to the 80s? Are there certain players that stand out as notably moving the needle?

Steve Vai:
Everybody's contributing whether it looks that way or not, because you're hearing all sorts of through those years, those 10 years, you're hearing all sorts of players. Like in the 80s for me, there was a huge amount of rock players because the guitar was really exploding as more of a pop rock instrument. In the 70s, it was more of a tool of improvisation and expression and rock and roll and all that. But then in the 80s, it became very focused, short, flashy, solo kinds of things, at least as far as pop awareness goes.

Steve Vai:
So there was a lot of players contributing, and when you hear it, when you would hear all these other players, they would always be shaping your perspective. So it's not necessarily a handful of players, although there may have been a handful of players that were spearheading a movement. So when somebody like Edward comes along, that's a pretty big monolith that landed, so that cast a complete awareness over the guitar in general. I mean, when he hit the scene, that was one of the more epic transmutations of the guitar because immediately you see him and it was eons beyond anything anybody was really doing in the way of tone and song construction and being handed to you on a silver platter. So then people were inspired by that and there was a paradigm shift in the guitar community.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, let's say you're taking lessons in 1975, I mean, is finger tapping or sweet picking even on the menu of things to learn, right?

Steve Vai:
Well, it's people come along with different inner visions and then they manifest them. So there were people tapping, and according to who you talk to, you will hear different stories about how tapping emerged. You'll talk to people, "Oh, no that started way decades ago, and so on, and so on." I can only tell you my recollection and my story. The first time I personally heard tapping was on a Frank Zappa song, it was Inca Roads. And he used this pick, he would tap on the neck with his pick. And that was one of my favorite solos. It was a big, long, beautiful involved solo recorded live in Helsinki. And when I heard the tapping I said, "Oh, that's cool," and I started doing it. But it was unrefined and it was-

Evan Ball:
Were you doing it with a pick at that point or finger?

Steve Vai:
No, I was starting to use my fingers.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Steve Vai:
And but it was more novelty based. And then all of a sudden there's Edward and you're like, "What is that?" So he completely... It's like you're a farmer and you've got a little rain here and there, and you're going out and you're finding the shrubs and you're like, "Oh, okay, here's one good one." And then all of a sudden somebody says, "Well, look, come to my supermarket. I've got everything in great abundance." And that was Edward.

Evan Ball:
Wow. All right. So by 18 years old you're already transcribing complex Frank Zappa compositions, right?

Steve Vai:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
So while you're a greaser and you're doing all this stuff, so sight reading must be a big part of your practice during your teen years, right?

Steve Vai:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
To get to that level.

Steve Vai:
Yeah. I was always fascinated with notes. I wanted to be a composer before I even knew what a guitar was. And always fascinated with the little black dots and started to learn how to write them and read them at a very early age. And then in high school, I started a music theory class in seventh grade. It was a high school class, so it was pretty challenging, but it taught me everything. The teacher Bill Westcott, Joe had the same teacher. He was like this genius, this savant. And my high school theory class was everything that to this day, I base everything off it-

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Steve Vai:
Compositionally. Compositionally. But it wasn't until I was taking lessons with Joe that he was sort of teaching me how to take all this knowledge, this music knowledge that I had and apply it to the guitar. Because for me the guitar was like, "Okay, I can play this Since I've Been Loving You," that's what the guitar is for, but it wasn't until Joe that I started mixing that using the theory.

Evan Ball:
Okay, so the note reading, that's a natural passion, it's not like you had to be disciplined to learn it? I think the drive for most players is I want to work on playing faster, I want to work on whammy bar technique-

Steve Vai:
Evan, none of that stuff works. You have to be interested in order for you to have any retention. And if you're interested, there's no discipline necessary. Matter of fact, passion is what takes the place of discipline, and it's a more effective tool.

Evan Ball:
Definitely.

Steve Vai:
Discipline doesn't really work. I'm totally undisciplined. I've never been disciplined. I mean, it looks from another perspective, it looks like man, that kid's discipline, but I wanted to be able to read music because I loved the idea of looking at notes and playing them and having music come out. When I finally moved to Boston and was going to Berkeley, there was a period of time for about a year. And by the time I had gotten to Berkeley, I was an okay reader. I loved the idea and was fascinated with the idea of being an incredible sight reader. I decided when I was at Berkeley that I wanted to be the greatest guitar sight reader in the world. That's it. I wanted to be able to look at any piece of music and just play it.

Steve Vai:
And I worked my ass off with great passion for like a year, and I was okay at the end of it. I was not great because the guitar is a hard instrument. It's really a difficult instrument to sight read on. I'm pretty good or I was, I don't do it. I stopped doing it. There's no need for me to sight read anything. But I can pretty much read anything that's playable, but I can't sight read it anymore.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. What do you think accounts for your clearly excelling on guitar? I mean, do you have an obsessive personality? Are you competitive? Or is it... It's clearly passion like we said. There's no replacement for passion, but is there anything that feeds into that?

Steve Vai:
Well, it's hard to say because when you're doing it, it's hard to judge? I could say I'm an overachiever, but what does that mean? Or I could say-

Evan Ball:
But relative to other people, you can kind of notice your personality traits maybe?

Steve Vai:
Relative to other people, my perspective at the time when I look back, now, whether this was really happening or not, or this was just in my mind at the time, there was always a little bit of inferiority in me. I wasn't a very smart student. I was, if anything, below average. And so I always felt everybody else had it going on more than I do. This is not an uncommon thought that insecure people have. Everybody's got it going on better than me and I have to work harder or this is... It's not true, first of all. It's just a weakened perspective brought on by the ego. So I-

Evan Ball:
Joe Bonamassa was on this podcast, and he said, "You know what, I'll be honest, spite is a big motivator for me. It drove me."

Steve Vai:
Well, I was driven by interest, but also the realization that here's something that I can understand easily, because when I looked at music, when I would listen to what theory was, it just was so easy and clear to me. I was like, "Oh, yeah, of course, these are the notes. Oh, yeah, oh, that's the scale. Okay, then these are all these. Oh, I get it, of course, if you want to write something and you want to have everything you go like this, it's very, very easy." Nothing else was easy for me except math. I was good at math, but not very good at anything else. So I just thought, "Well, this is my strength. This is what I want to do." It was just very innocent. It was like, "This is what I like, this is what I want to do."

Steve Vai:
And here's the thing, okay, when I would sit down and get an idea and try to play it, and not be able to play it, and then work on it and work on it and work on it, and then all of a suddenly be able to play it, this caused a feeling of fulfillment, and dignity, and achievement, and that was it. That's the answer to your question. It's the feeling of achievement which makes you feel good about yourself which becomes addictive. And that's what happened to me, it became addictive.

Steve Vai:
So there was the realization that here's something that I can understand, not do, but understand better than all my friends. All my friends that were good at everything and smart and cool, and hip, and could make fun of all the other people that didn't have their shit together, they couldn't touch me in the way in regard to my ability to absorb musical understanding. I don't know why, it's just a brain muscle.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. You said you intellectually just comprehended this stuff very well. I guess there's the physical component to of finger movements which you must have some natural coordination.

Steve Vai:
Can I be honest with you? I'll be honest like Joe Bonamassa. I had to work really hard. I'm not a natural at playing. Most people, I've had students through the years that were remarkable that I would watch them and all of a suddenly they're just natural. Like Dweezil, when I first started teaching Dweezil he couldn't play, he couldn't even put one finger on the guitar without hitting three strings And I didn't teach him, I gave him a couple of lessons, but he just, when I tell you like within three weeks he was playing [Ingber 00:22:41]-

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Steve Vai:
I'm not kidding. It's just one of those things and one of those people. I wasn't like that. I just really I don't even believe I started sounding good until Alcatraz.

Evan Ball:
That surprises me because you're playing... I'm even thinking I saw you play live in the Ernie Ball 50th Anniversary party, and I just felt like your touch came through and your expression.

Steve Vai:
But that's been developed.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, I guess I just I would equate that not with someone who's book smart in learning this stuff. It's more natural, and I don't know, I feel like it's... That it's harder to develop.

Steve Vai:
Well, I think you can't develop something that's not dormant in you. I would never be able to develop... Okay, so there's jazz players that can play over all these changes. You could throw any change and their focus when they're jamming or playing is changes and all these flavorful notes and this kind of thing. That doesn't lie very dormant in me. I could do it, but it's never going to speak naturally and organically. The thing that speaks naturally and organically in me is phrasing. So that's what I gravitated to, and there's this, almost like this... Ry Cooder said it. When he said this, I kind of understood what he meant. It put together a couple of puzzle pieces for me. And I'm not patting myself on the back here, but he said that. And I used to read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare there's something very rich and romantic about it, but you got to get it, you got to resonate with it. And he said, "You're like Shakespeare." He said, "You play the guitar like Shakespeare writes." And I thought, "Okay, I kind of get it. There's like a quirkiness. There's a romantic kind of you do it sometimes."

Evan Ball:
Oh, that's cool. Real quick on Zappa. I've kind of wondered this, if someone hasn't been exposed much to Frank Zappa, his catalog seems daunting. Do you have any guidance on where to start? How to dig in.

Steve Vai:
That's really tough, but you can't go wrong if you pick up... Now, this is just my opinion because Frank's music is so vast, each little room that he would live in was beautiful. So you could pick a room to live in for a little while. He had the Synclavier work, there's RMB, there's rock, there's all this stuff, but his compositional rock band stuff was my favorite. So records like One Size Fits All, Over-Nite Sensation, they're just incredible records, and also Live at The Roxy.

Evan Ball:
Great.

Steve Vai:
Things like that. They're really great. I mean, that's what I might recommend to dip your toe.

Evan Ball:
One more funny thing. So I know you worked with him for a couple years before joining his band. I think he wanted you to join his band. But I heard you mention that he wasn't that nice to you on your audition. How does that add up?

Steve Vai:
He was tough. He was tough. I had to go through a lot of little mini auditions because I think Frank's concern with me was taking a 20 year old kid on tour, and is he going to be able to perform, is he going to be able to learn all this music and actually play it properly? So I was kind of put through a lot of different little auditions. I remember, there was this one really difficult the passage in a song called Wild Love, and it's a composed piece with all these polyrhythms. It's just an interlude, and I had to play that to him over the phone once. That was one of the first things.

Steve Vai:
But when I came down for an audition for the actual audition, Frank was putting a band together for an American tour in 1980. And he said, "Come on down, learn all these songs." And he gave me a list of songs. Didn't call any of those songs when I got there, but he put me through the paces throughout the audition. He had to see if I knew how to deal with my sound, if I could take direction, and he would just... Because Frank built music by any means necessary. He would come in with written stuff and he'd say, "Play this," or he'd pick up the guitar and he'd cryptically kind of play through something and he'd say, "Okay, play that. Play it at this speed. Do it like this." He'd sing something to you. There was any means necessary to get his point across, and you just had to be ready.

Evan Ball:
So there wasn't really a formal audition, it was more of a gradual process?

Steve Vai:
He wanted to try me out when I was 18, but then when I told him I was 18, he just said, "You're too young. I can't have an 18-year-old in my band." So the day after my 20th birthday I moved out to California right down the street from him basically, and just started going up to the house. And once you start going up to the house, you just start recording. And Frank's universe was musical at all times, so you were constantly being pulled into his creative sphere of making music.

Steve Vai:
So I think that he was observing me, but there was some real intense, really intense stuff that he had given me to learn before I was even invited to come down to audition for the band. It was a piece of music, at the time it was called C instruments, but it turned into the theme to the I think it was the first movement of Sinister Footwear. It's impossible. I mean, it was like if I held the first page, the last page would be about six feet away, and it was sheer terror, nothing to do with what's playable on the guitar. You know what I mean? It didn't fall, right, but it was beautiful. It was beautiful.

Steve Vai:
And at the polyrhythms in it were staggering. They were just very dense. And I learned it, and I recorded it at the house. And then he had given me this guitar solo to transcribe, one of his. Frank solos were like anywhere between five and 10 minutes long. And I transcribed it and I told him, "You know, I could double that." And he said, "Go ahead." And I learned it, and he really got a kick out of all these kind of impossible things I was doing.

Steve Vai:
Doing those kinds of things are all fine and good, but it's a lot different than being in his band where you have to deliver it's not all complex, hard music. I mean, there's a lot of other nuances. You have to be able to take direction, you watch him, and there was so much. I mean, I was 20 and I was on a giant stage with Frank Zappa.

Evan Ball:
That's crazy. Well, hey, in addition to your virtuosity on guitar, I think it's safe to say you've gained a reputation for showmanship. I was actually just looking back on some video of you and David Lee Roth, and it was quite hard to rival the performance you guys put on. Was this a natural thing for you or did it get ramped up during this period? Or how did this side of you develop?

Steve Vai:
Well, again, it was dormant. I love theater. One of the first pieces of music that I ever heard that lit me up was when I was four or five years old and it was the West Side Story, because when you're young you hear what your parents bring home, and they had that. And there was the West Side Story movie, and they had gangs in it, and it had all this drama, and this incredibly historic music that sounded beautiful. So there was a part of me that wanted to perform, be a performer. And I used to lay in bed when I was nine, 10, 11, 12, and I'd listen to... The two things that I did quite a lot before I actually... Well, even after I started playing, was I'd lay in bed and I'd imagine myself on a stage being this performer and performing, and I visualize this.

Steve Vai:
But I would manifest it in front of a mirror with a tennis racket or a broom where I'd have a fake guitar and I would just be jumping around listening to like Led Zeppelin. I was a rock star man. I was in my bedroom with a broom jumping from bed to bed. We had two beds, and my brother had a stereo and I'd blast an hour after hour jumping around like I was a rock star on stage. That's what I did. I locked the door. Nobody knew, nobody came in, except once my grandfather barged in and I was embarrassed, but-

Evan Ball:
Do you think that's something David Lee Roth took into consideration or was that just an added bonus once he got you on?

Steve Vai:
Well, what happened was I tried to act this rock star persona when I started playing out with my friends in high school, but it was hard because you got to play. And I'm like, "Well, I can't let the performance get in the way of the playing or else I'm just going to be an idiot." But then that other side of me that was really into composition and nuance kicked in with Frank, because with Frank, there was no performing, there was playing the parts, so I wasn't concerned about performing at all. I mean, a couple of little things here and there.

Steve Vai:
But then with Dave Roth when I first joined the band, that was the period where I learned how to perform organically as opposed to trying to be a rock star so to speak. But I liked the big stage, I liked being animated because when you're on a big stage like that, you have to project or at least I felt I did. And working with Dave was fantastic because he was one of the greatest projectors. I mean, David Lee Roth-

Evan Ball:
Yeah, he's over the top.

Steve Vai:
Over the top back in the 80s. And he taught me so much. I mean, I was very gawky in the beginning, and not very charismatic or my movements were not very elegant at all. And I was very thin, and I think he knew that I could play, but he spent time working with me as a performer. He demonstrated. There was periods of time we'd go down to the rehearsal place and he would say, "Okay, so this song goes like this, and there's these people out here, and I'm going to be doing this." And all of a sudden he'd bust into David Lee Roth. I'd be like, "Whoa." And he'd say, "How are you going to project? How are you going to move?" And I'd start kind of... I'd do my thing, and he would just immediately point out the flaws. And this was fantastic education, but then after a while... And then he would take me to the gym and kick my ass, my skinny white ass. He got me into working out. It was important to him.

Evan Ball:
No, it looks exhausting what you guys were doing on the stage.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, but it was so much fun. And then I got it. I just kind of got into what it's like to emanate. And that dormant rock star kid that was playing in the mirror came to life. But then after Dave Roth and after Whitesnake, when I became Steve Vai. Steve Vai? Like my more natural... So, well, when I became a solo artist.

Evan Ball:
Passion and Warfare and beyond. Yeah.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, I actually didn't tour on Passion and Warfare because I couldn't see myself fronting a band because I was so used to having these enigmatic lead singers, and I wasn't quite sure how I would negotiate the whole thing. So then when I did the next record Sex & Religion and I got a singer, and I tried all that, I got Devin, and I was very comfortable kind of being on the side. I wasn't interested in being out front.

Evan Ball:
So you didn't tour Passion and Warfare?

Steve Vai:
No, I did not.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Steve Vai:
That's probably one of the greatest disadvantages to my contemporary touring audience is that I didn't tour that record because probably my audience would... I don't know.

Evan Ball:
Because it was too hard to pull off live?

Steve Vai:
Well, there was various factors involved. There was the fact that I had just toured and recorded intensely with David Lee Roth for two or three years and it was intense. And then I went right from Dave Roth into Whitesnake. And I didn't go through the writing process with Whitesnake, I just jumped in, recorded the guitars, and then we were out on the road for 13 months. And Passion and Warfare had come out while I was on tour with Whitesnake, so when I finished Whitesnake, I had the opportunity to go right back out on tour. But I had just been out for 13 months, and before that I was out for two years, and I just had a baby. And I just, there was no way, so I just let the whole thing pass and I stayed home. I actually worked on some of the projects.

Steve Vai:
But then once Sex & Religion came out, I started to tour. And after the Sex & Religion, I realized that I think I could be comfortable as a front man. I love Devin, Devin was incredible, but I can't depend on anybody. I saw Frank do that and it was a lot of work. I just decided then, I need to be the center of attention, I need to be the gravity pole on the stage. And I knew I can do it. But it needed to be the merging of all of the things from the past, meaning I wanted my playing, what I was playing to be mature, to be effective, to be interesting, engaging.

Steve Vai:
I wanted my performance to... Primarily I see myself as a performer that's there to entertain people and give them something to feel engaged and interested in. I want them to see a great player that the music flows through this player organically and beautifully and mellifluously, almost seemingly, infinitely. It's hard to explain, so but these are the kinds of things you have to imagine.

Evan Ball:
It's a high bar.

Steve Vai:
You have to set a high bar. What the fuck? I mean, there's this idea that you're not allowed to think this way about yourself because it's pretentious. This is insane. You have to be able to see yourself doing something before you're going to be able to do it, and there's no limitation, there is no limit. The limitation is in your own mind.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, good advice. Well, I want to go back to Passion and Warfare for a sec. I remember reading back then. I was in eighth grade when that came out. I've been playing guitar for a couple of years and it was just the coolest thing ever.

Steve Vai:
Thanks.

Evan Ball:
And obviously I wasn't alone, because the impact is amazing for an instrumental album. But I remember reading that you fasted three days prior to recording For The Love Of God, and I think didn't even pick up your guitar for a month beforehand. But can you give us the story behind writing and recording that song?

Steve Vai:
It was the kind of thing where whenever I have a little idea, I capture it somehow, whether it's on tape. In the old days, it was cassette, and then DAT, and now it's my iPhone. And that riff, I started playing the chords and I sang the melody of just the verse, and recorded it on a cassette, put it on the shelf for many years. And broke it out when I was doing passionate warfare and realized there's a whole beautiful song in here.

Steve Vai:
And the melody, I really liked the melody. The melody was enchanting to me. My wife mentioned, this went way back. She said, "You know that sounds a bit like kung fu melody. I was like, "Really?" So I went and I ran, I listened to the kung fu melody, and I thought, "Oh, yeah, there's two or three notes that it's very similar. So it must have been in the back of my mind because I watched kung fu when I was a kid."

Steve Vai:
But anyway, so I knew there was a full song in there. So I fleshed it out and I basically recorded the track. I put the track together. And I knew the trajectory of what I was going to do with the guitar, but there was a lot going on at that time in my life. I was working on Whitesnake, there was a period where I was mixing Passion and Warfare now, and I wasn't quite sure if For The Love Of God was actually going to be on the record because oddly enough, a part of me felt like it was over indulgent.

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Steve Vai:
If you can imagine that. So me overindulgent. So while I was mixing, I didn't get a chance to play a lot. And as you know, if you don't play the guitar for even a couple of weeks, you'll lose your calluses. So there was about a two week period where I had to mix. And I was mixing non-stop, and I didn't get a chance to play much. But then at the end of the day, I needed to record For The Love Of God because I was going out on tour with Whitesnake.

Steve Vai:
And the fasting came about as sort of something that I had studied and picked up earlier in the 80s, early 80s when I was kind of going through a transition, a personal psychological transition. And I was discovering more metaphysical things, I was studying Yogis and Buddhism and all sorts of different things. And one of the things I came across was fasting. It was a book called The Miracle of Fasting by Paul C. Bragg. And same Bragg that makes the amino acids.

Evan Ball:
Oh, wow.

Steve Vai:
I mean, the-

Evan Ball:
Yeah, I know what you're talking about.

Steve Vai:
Cider vinegar. Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Steve Vai:
So I was fascinated with it, and I started experimenting with it. And I would fast for 10 days, two times a year. I found this very beneficial. So that particular few weeks that I was mixing, I had scheduled a 10 day fast. And the fourth day into it, I had to start recording the solo For The Love Of God. And-

Evan Ball:
So it wasn't coordinated or you didn't fast for that song, you were just happened to be in the midst of a fast?

Steve Vai:
Well, it was twofold. Basically, I knew what my frame of mind would be like through the fast because I had done it many times. And there's various things that happen to you psychologically when you're fasting. You're going against your body's natural instinct, first of all, so you have to really find the discipline. And when you do that, it's humbling. It's humbling. Because it's not like you're starving out and it's not intentional. Non-intentional starving is not... This has nothing to do with it. That's very different. That's like malnutrition. So you'd have to do it to understand the kind of mental changes that you go through during a fast.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, I've only done 24 hours, so I can't imagine.

Steve Vai:
The third day is the hard test, but then it gets easier, it actually gets easier. And then you go through these bouts of intense pain for about a minute or two minutes, because your body's sort of releasing all these toxins that are buried in your organs and stuff. And when that happens it's like you're being poisoned. And it's amazing how sick you feel, and how you want to die, you actually just you want to die. But it only lasts like a couple of minutes and then you're just really hungry. There's like a pit in your stomach. And then it goes away, and you get this euphoria. For a couple of days there's this sort of like euphoria. You're still hungry. It's hard to explain.

Steve Vai:
But in this state, it is I would say it's an altered state of consciousness in a sense, and I knew this from the past from doing it so many times. So I knew I had this fast coming up, and I timed the performance of For The Love Of God after the third day because there's no way I was going to be able to get through it on the third day. The second or third day, no way. It's just too hard. All you want to do is eat and you're weak. So by the fourth day, things lighten up. And then by the fifth day, those altered states really start to kind of kick in. So it was all a part of it. Another part of it was I was fascinated with pyramids at the time, and I was studying the Great Pyramid in Egypt and its dimensions and all the mystique surrounding it and how it's the center of this and-

Evan Ball:
Look at the album cover, you see these little pieces on there.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, and I built... Well, my friend that I was living with at the time, built a pyramid, a little pyramid that you can sit in, and it was just the outline. It wasn't solid, but it was based on the dimensions of the great pyramid in Egypt. And I played under that.

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Steve Vai:
That was one of the things For The Love Of God also. And these were just fun things to experiment with.

Evan Ball:
That's cool. I mean, the song is so... The chords are so moody. The note selection is so moody. So to then infuse that intensity into it.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, every artist has a perfect storm in their career.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Do you feel like that is yours?

Steve Vai:
Well, I would say that's one of them, one of the ones that people recognize at least. All the elements came together for me.

Evan Ball:
Well, did you feel it at the time or was that a surprise later that the recognition and the success from that song?

Steve Vai:
I can only after now decades of having a particular feeling about something and then recording it, and then seeing how it turns out, only now do I know back then I thought it was something special. At the time, I didn't. You see?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Steve Vai:
But what I did know back then was there was an impulse, I had an impulse to do it. The whole thing came to me in a flash. The song, I had the melody that's all I needed. The rest of it came as... It was there. It was an inspiration that it came all complete in one piece of low hanging fruit. Now, back then, it didn't mean anything to me in the eyes of the world, because I thought by then my career was over. When I was working on Passion and Warfare, I thought, "Well, nobody's going to understand this record, and it's not going to sell, but I have to make it. This is who I am." And so I didn't think anything about what people might think because I didn't think anybody was ever going to hear it, which was lucky for me.

Evan Ball:
It was the right recipe, whether you do it or not.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, it's a good recipe. Yeah, and I sometimes encourage musicians to write a piece of music as if no one's ever going to hear it or care about it or anything because then you could do absolutely whatever you want. Too many people work within the confines of the expectations of the world, and that is a recipe for unhappiness because it never works, because it doesn't fulfill you as the creative person. The only thing that's going to fulfill you ever completely in life is for you to be expressing your uniquely creative potential. That's the only thing.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that's great. Good to hear. I also want to direct our listeners to your YouTube channel because you've been very active this past year and earlier on YouTube, but probably more active during this period. And you have a couple of really cool series, Under It All, where you're getting into more issues like this, and as well as Alien Guitar Secrets. Anything else you want to maybe describe to listeners as far as what you have going on right now that they can tune into?

Steve Vai:
Oh, yeah. Sure, yeah. Well, the lockdown has been very interesting for me to reevaluate the kind of work I'm doing and how I'm getting it out there. And for a while now, I've been looking for a format or a platform to be able to bring all this stuff together, all the creative stuff, because otherwise it's an Instagram here, a Facebook here, and YouTube and all this. And every artist has a following that's kind of more of the hardcore. What I did was I put my people on the lookout for some kind of a platform, and there's quite a few out there now. Some of them are really, really good, and some of them are missing some of the check marks. But they came back and they said, "Patreon is probably what would work for you right now."

Steve Vai:
So I'm not a fan of subscription-based things because I mean, I know that that's the way things are working these days a lot with subscriptions, but I know that they're a pain in the ass for a lot of people. It's like, "Oh, no, another... I've got my cable, I've got my this, I've got all these monthly subscriptions." You can't do Adobe or anything now without a subscription. And I just I was a little apprehensive, but I thought, "Well, none of this stuff is going to make me rich, so just charge like $5 a month or something." So that's what I do.

Steve Vai:
And my plan is to just funnel all of this creative stuff through this, at least for now, this Patreon thing. I might move as it gets big because this is where I'm putting all the information I know about music theory, about composition, about guitar riffs, about guitar writing, about writing songs, everything. There's really funny stuff on there. I've got different series, there's Tall Tales where I tell these funny stories that happened throughout my career. There's Vaideology where every episode I go through a chapter of the book. There's Grab Bag where I just put together a whole bunch of stuff from the studio and I give it out for free, for people that just kind of sign up, and you can make a donation for charity and stuff.

Steve Vai:
And then there's Under It All, which is where I discuss a lot of the esoteric topics, and Alien Guitar Secrets. And I'm working on finishing an Alien Guitar Secrets now that's it's a it's a behemoth. I just did one that you can check out on the Patreon on micing cabinets.

Evan Ball:
Oh, cool.

Steve Vai:
Because that's something that people have been asking and I learned how to mic cabinets by Eddie Kramer, who useD the same technique when he miced cabinets for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and... So I go through great detail in explaining. It's like two hours of how to mic cabinets. I mean, through this one sound, I have 17 different mics on cabinets, with room mics. I show forensically how to align your tracks so you don't get phase cancellation. I mean, it's-

Evan Ball:
Yeah, for our listeners, I just typed in Patreon Steve Vai. It was the first result that popped up, so you can easily get there. And it's yeah, so much value. Five bucks, you have a bunch of bullet points of what it includes, so really cool to see.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, thank you. So that's the lockdown led me to that, doing that. But other than that, I started working on an acoustic record. It was a solo acoustic guitar and vocal, me singing. And it was something I always wanted to do. And I had gotten through most of it, and then I had this shoulder issue. I had to get surgery on my shoulder and it put me out of playing for two months, two or three months. And then when I started to play again, oh man, I was shocked. I couldn't pick, I couldn't strum. I couldn't strum at all. And I was just like, "Whoa, is this it? Is it over now?" I was like, "Okay, this is what it's like for it to be over."

Evan Ball:
Oh, man.

Steve Vai:
But then I just started practicing and practicing playing. And it's not entirely back, but I know it's going to be back. But before that, when I was in the knappsack I had this sling, it was called a knappsack because the doctor that did my shoulder surgery, his name is Dr. Knapp and he designed this sling called a knappsack. So I wrote the song where I played the guitar with one hand, and it's called Knappsack and it's on-

Evan Ball:
Yeah, I saw the video. It's online, and you talk about your injury too and then conclude with that song. And then I think there's a freestanding video also of the song.

Steve Vai:
Yeah. There's the song. And yeah, one of them is an episode of Alien Guitar Secrets.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. What about touring, any plans yet? Are you able to do anything there?

Steve Vai:
Yeah, it's anything I say now could change.

Evan Ball:
Sure.

Steve Vai:
But I was lucky. I didn't plan any tours that I had to move, because once the pandemic kicked in, I didn't have anything on the books for touring and I didn't put anything, but what I did have on the books was a project that I've been wanting to do for years and years, and that's record a whole slew of orchestra music that I have. And we planned that, it's going to take a month. And I was using two orchestras in Europe, and had to cancel it and move it. Then I had to cancel it and move it again. And now we're scheduled to do that in 22, May.

Steve Vai:
So what I'm looking for, what I'm looking at now, I'm starting to feel really eager to get on tour. January 22, kicks off with a Vie Academy Camp, Vie Camp. And that'll be very nice.

Evan Ball:
Is that virtual or is that in person?

Steve Vai:
No, it's all in person. Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Okay, cool.

Steve Vai:
And then, at the end of January, I'm supposed to kick off an American tour. And I should be touring for about a year and a half.

Evan Ball:
Oh, wow.

Steve Vai:
Yeah. And then that's it for me for big giant tours.

Evan Ball:
Oh, really? And smaller tours? But yeah, that's an enormous tour.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, and smaller tours. That's big.

Evan Ball:
Well, hey, before we go, I guess we should talk about guitar strings real quick.

Steve Vai:
Okay.

Evan Ball:
Obviously, you play Ernie Ball. Have you been consistent in the the gauge you play through the decades?

Steve Vai:
Yeah. I'm usually a nine to 42 guy, but once I get on tour, after a couple of months, I up the low strings after a month a little bit sometimes. And then if I'm feeling really randy, I switch to 10s. I didn't do that on the last tour.

Evan Ball:
Okay, so you're a super slinky guy mainly.

Steve Vai:
Yeah, but it's the paradigm.

Evan Ball:
Oh, okay.

Steve Vai:
Those strings are crazy good, man. I mean, I was so surprised because after being in the business for 41 years, there's all sorts of claims that are made by companies. And sometimes they're fascinating and sometimes they're just talking points. "These don't break," and in the back of my mind I'm going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure, sure." And I tell you what, man, they don't break.

Evan Ball:
Super tough.

Steve Vai:
They just don't break. Yeah, I was surprised.

Evan Ball:
That's good.

Steve Vai:
And then I did a little research, one of the Alien Guitar Secrets that I was planning on working on for the Patreon was a complete and utter review of how to string a guitar.

Evan Ball:
Oh, cool.

Steve Vai:
Like really how to string it, and the different strings and what different strings are. But I went through every single Ernie Ball string.

Evan Ball:
Is that already released?

Steve Vai:
No, I've got it, it's on my computer still.

Evan Ball:
Oh, I like that.

Steve Vai:
I was speaking to Sterling. I told Sterling about it. We were talking about it and he said, "Well, I'll turn you on to these guys at the company that'll aid you," because there's a couple of points that I still wanted to review. But it's comprehensive, it's completely comprehensive.

Evan Ball:
Oh, I can't wait to see it.

Steve Vai:
Well, I have to finish it now, so it's-

Evan Ball:
Yeah, someday.

Steve Vai:
And yeah, well, I have to finish a lot of things.

Evan Ball:
You got a lot going on.

Steve Vai:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Well, Steve Vai, I so appreciate the history, the insight, and thanks for being on the podcast.

Steve Vai:
Thank you. And thanks for having it. And the whole Ernie Ball history and the family and the just my relationship with the company, it's really nice. It's one of these things in the business that it's just a perk. And not just the fact that I have a personal relationship. That's special, and it's really nice. What's really great is the fact that this company, as creative as Sterling is, and as aware he is of being able to get into all sorts of different things, he's never compromised the quality and the evolution of the strings and the company, basically, all aspects of it. The company is constantly has always beautifully improved and expanded in ways that has been so beneficial to us musicians. So that's really nice.

Evan Ball:
Thank you. That's great to hear.

Steve Vai:
So, thank you.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Steve Vai:
Thank you.

Evan Ball:
All right, Steve Vai. Thanks for tuning in to Striking A Chord, an Ernie Ball podcast. Big thanks to Steve Vai for doing this interview. Such an amazing career, and I can't wait to see what's coming next. If you'd like to contact us, please email strikingachord@ernieball.com.

Steve Vai:
There's been times through my career that I've had a feeling about something, and that feeling was always an organic, creative sense of enthusiasm which is different than the feeling of, "Hey, this is a good idea, and everybody's going to love it, and it's going to be a big hit." See, that's a fantasy, okay? And a fantasy may or may not happen. Nine times, maybe 99 times out of 100, they don't happen, but they're egoic fantasies. And the reason why people are so disappointed so many times is because they believe that they were cheated somehow because their fantasy didn't come true, when in reality, their true fantasy is happening and they don't realize it.

Evan Ball:
But is that sort of how people can be most present, and there's certain activities for certain people that are authentic, that are going to allow them to be present?

Steve Vai:
It's impossible to not partake in an authentic procedure if you're present. If you're present, everything you do is perfect for you in that moment. But people don't know what present means to be present.

Evan Ball:
It's hard, yeah.

Steve Vai:
It's hard because to be present you have to be in the now with your attention, completely in the now without past or future in your head. When you're present you're in touch with your creative instincts. It's the only place that you can find your true creative, unique, your uniquely creative impulses. They're there. They are absolutely there. You don't even have to believe me, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you even believe me or not. The only way it matters is you'll be depriving yourself of them if you don't, but they're there, they're there. And becoming present is the highway. It's the opening that's necessary for these things to come out into the world. They want to come out through you.