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Music

Steve Vai: The Complete Current Q & A

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Steve Vai, still in fine form after nearly 40 years of guitar wizardry



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What’s your favorite moment from, say, You Are What You Is (1981, an album in which Vai is credited as “Strat Abuse”)?

There’s a piece called “Persona Non Grata” that turned into the “Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear,” and there’s a guitar solo that Frank did and I transcribed and doubled, so when you listen to the song, you hear me on one side and Frank on the other. It’s pretty extraordinary how closely I doubled his performance. That was quite a feat.

Punk started as a direct response to flashy, technical guitarists like you. What’s your take on DIY music? How do you view technically limited musicians who are trying to do their thing?

I have two way of looking at other people’s playing. One is a very critical view, which listens with the same ears that listen to Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix… I look at any guitar player and there’s a particular way that I might criticize them in my mind, like, ‘Well, the intonation is not very good, the vibrato is nice, they don’t really play fast…” That’s just one way of kind of sizing them up. But it’s a very small part of what I do when I’m watching somebody. The larger part, and it’s getting larger and larger as I go through life, is a very non-critical, non-judgmental view of somebody doing anything. Because what you discover eventually is that, anytime you meet anybody or see anybody doing anything, you’ve really already created in your own mind an identity for them and a critique for them. You don’t really know the person but you criticize them in your head. So what I do when I’m watching a guitar player, if they have no technique or maybe too much technique, I don’t judge it at all. And what happens is that you see this person is being animated by something else. You see that what they’re doing is expressing themselves the best way they can at that particular time. And that’s all than anybody can do—to do their best at any particular moment. You can’t say, “They should be like this” or “they should be like that”. They’re incapable, and I’m incapable of being anything besides what I am at this particular moment. As you go through life, you go through experiences that change you and educate you. But ultimately, what is, is. When I see somebody playing, I see the universe expressing itself through people. You asked about Frank [Zappa], and I saw that with him. Frank was completely in the moment when he created music. He didn’t make any excuses and whatever he did he was completely invested in it. It was his way of expressing himself. And if somebody picks up an instrument and tries to express himself even though he can’t even play it very well, I see it as something very beautiful, there’s something absolutely beautiful about it. You’re listening to God, in a sense, expressing yourself in a multitude of ways. So that’s what I prefer to do nowadays, instead of saying, “Wow, they can’t play as fast as me.”

Your new music is challenging but also accessible, song-based.

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