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Steve Vai: The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Written by Ava

Wish we could say it was Jemsite that had the privilege of interviewing the legendary Steve Vai. But alas, Premier Guitar had that opportunity and ran with it, but let us along for the ride!

Here's a detailed, republished interview with the Ibanez icon from Oscar Jordan at Premier Guitar magazine.

I was left alone in the Harmony Hut. No, it's not a corporate family restaurant chain. It's virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai's recording studio. It's where the magic happens-his sanctum sanctorum, if you will.

In one of the rooms, his guitars are lined up against the wall in two long rows, top and bottom. I see guitars that I remember from his Alcatrazz and David Lee Roth years, electric sitars, seven-strings and old Frankenstein Strats. Further back is Vai's amp rig, locked and loaded. Sitting on a desk, there is a Ted Greene chord book opened to the middle laying on top of a Mahavishnu Orchestra transcription book. Behind his desk and workstation in the adjoining room, a large window reveals a big, beautiful tree situated just outside the studio, a tree that radiates the kind of Zen-like peace and serenity I imagine would be perfect to inspire psychotic guitar riffs in bizarro time signatures. The studio is immaculate.

Steve Vai is in training for an upcoming triathlon. At 49 he's in excellent shape. He's taller than my six-foot frame, but then again, he was genetically engineered to look cool on stage wearing a guitar, and I wasn't. Vai is a very busy yet serene guy who thinks about what he says before he says it. I'm watching him do his thing at a photo shoot just prior to our interview. Vai likes things the way he likes them-purposeful and focused, he's direct without being surly. He also has a great sense of humor, which is accented by a touch of East Coast edginess. This highly productive, "get it done" side of his personality is offset by the disposition of a very passionate artist and seeker of personal truth and spiritual equilibrium. Vai also meditates.

Vai's new concert DVD is called Where The Wild Things Are. He's got new band members and new tunes, he's reworked some old favorites, and he gets all animated. His fans will eat this up. When Steve Vai enters the room, I feel like I'm meeting Kubla Khan in Xanadu.

How ya' doin'?

I'm doing great. If things get any better I'm going to explode. [Laughing]

I can tell. You have a lot going on. How do you keep all the plates spinning?

It's all about time management and keeping a focus on priorities and being able to delegate to people that you can trust. I just finished a DVD. The priority is marketing it…. It's a lot of work. When I'm creating my music I'm very passionate about it, like most artists. It's very important to me. When it comes time to have to sell it, it's very difficult because it's very personal. I'm much better at selling someone else's stuff.

Does being a salesman eat away at your musical creativity?

It doesn't eat away at it, but it detracts from it. When I'm being creative, that aspect doesn't stifle my creativity, but it's part of the process. Any professional musician will tell you that you have to let people know that your product is out. Some people really rise to the occasion of promotion and really enjoy it. I do to a degree, but I much prefer making the music... I'll tell ya' though, with technology the way it's evolved, it makes the marketing part a little more creative and interesting. When it's done, I go underground. I'm not a guy who thrives being in the limelight or hangs out at posh Hollywood openings or parties. I can, but I just don't.

When you're in the limelight, you're in all the way. When you're out, you stay out... it's like "Where's Steve Vai? ... none of your business!" [laughing]

[Laughing] The artist has to go make more work. It's part of the process.

As a musical eclectic do you worry about writing music that strays away from what your base audience expects?

With my fans there is no going away from the base. When it comes from my inner ear, that's why they're my fans. That's why any artist has a core following. What they do that attracts their core following is the most sincere thing they can do. That comes from their inner ear. If I make a song on a Steve Vai record, the audience is going to appreciate it because it comes from me. If I try to make a pop song or something that's not really me, you can't fool them. They know in a second. Fans are so much more intuitive than you think. They don't care what I do as long as I'm searching for my inspiration and not pantomiming somebody else's music. It's about honesty. Fans respond to that.

Tell me about the new DVD.

Oddly enough, I don't have a lot of DVDs out. The first one was an EP that I had done that I made a DVD for. Then I had a live concert DVD called Live at The Astoria. My last DVD was with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. It was a great project. When I was done, I needed to get into the studio to make a studio record, but that would've meant that I wouldn't have been on tour for years. So, I decided to put a band together that was part of a little dream project that I had and just do a little tour. I did a month in Europe and a month in America. We went to South America and it was a tremendous band.

My music is kind of compositional to an extent. I thought, "Let me do something interesting and different that I've never done, or I've never seen anybody do." So I thought I'd get a violin player in the band. I started auditioning these violin players. They were all these metal guys and they sounded awful. They really didn't understand the nuances of music and they were just shredding with bad intonation. It sounded like deranged mosquitoes.

Were they trying to impress you with their idea of what you do, as opposed to simply playing well?

Most people think all I do is just shred. All the classical players I auditioned were too wimpy. So I found this guy named Alex DePue. He came in and blew me away. Unbelievable. He was stunning. I first saw him on YouTube playing "Owner of a Lonely Heart." This guy was just ferocious. So I felt like I'd found my violin player. Then I started getting these emails from this young girl in the Midwest named Ann Marie Calhoun. I told her I already had my players. She goes, "C'mon! I wanna rock!"

I saw a picture of her, and I thought, "Nobody this beautiful can play well." I was wrong. This girl just stunned me. Her intonation was stupendous. She just flows with the instrument, gorgeous performing and a very attractive young girl. What a sweetheart. I said, "That's it. I'm going to have two violin players in the band!" I did, and I could immediately see how I could orchestrate the music so it would work. I like to put a show together that would be something that I'd like to see when I'm sitting in the audience.

What I like to see is really great musicianship, elite musicianship but also emotional investment. I don't want to be beaten up by somebody's musical intellect. I like dynamic swings. I like a show to have dimension to it, so you can have an acoustic set. When you see this DVD, it's got all those dimensions. I like to have the audience feel like they're part of the secret.

Your shows are known for having lots of dynamics. Does adding violins allow you to push that further?

A violin can be played very sweetly. If you pump it through the right gear, it's a monster. They play together so sweetly at times. At other times, with the three of us and the other guitar player, it's just ferocious. It's very entertaining.

Did you use any new guitar gear on the DVD?

No. My guitar set up is usually good for four or five years, then I switch it up. With that setup I was using my Ibanez JEM, which is pretty standard. It's like twenty-two years old now. I have a very simple set up. Coming out of my guitar I go into a Bad Horsie Wah or a Crybaby, then into the Ibanez Jemini distortion pedal that I designed. Then it goes in the front of my Carvin Legacy II, which has three channels. Out of the Send, I come out of the main head and I go into a volume pedal. Out of the volume pedal I go into a DigiTech Whammy pedal.

For the DVD, I was going through a TC Electronic G-System, then stereo out of that and returning to the two Legacy heads... I'm rebuilding my system right now. The G-System was very faithful to me for years. Now I'm going into a looping system again. The looping system is really the only way to create pure hard bypasses with the sound and keep it real discrete.

And clear.

And clear. Once you put the signal through a multi-effects unit, there's such a price to pay.

And that's a price Steve Vai isn't willing pay.

Especially when you're dealing with digital stuff. I'm very fortunate, because I'm in a position where all the stuff that I play comes from my design. I get to work with companies who are interested in what my inner ear desires for particular gear.

It goes without saying that you're designing amps, guitars and effects for yourself, but from a marketing standpoint, are you at all concerned with how working guitarists or hobbyists can apply them?

Whenever I've tried to second-guess, I've always missed the mark. Whenever I've tried to make music that I thought people would like, I was usually doing something that I really didn't think was the best thing I could do. When I designed the Jem guitar, at the time it was a unique instrument-the scale length, the neck... twenty-four frets with a whammy bar? There wasn't anything like that... the cutaway, the pickup configuration was unique, and it was very practical. I like Strats, and I like humbuckers. I wanted humbuckers in both neck and treble positions, but I wanted that really cool, clean double single-coil sound, like a Strat gets on the in-between positions. I had them make the five-position switch so that when it's between the middle pickup and the neck position pickup, it splits the coils. You get two single-coil pickups. That completely satiated my aural appetite. It was unique at the time, but now it's pretty common.

Essentially, it was a stage guitar just for you.

It was a stage guitar for me and by the time they made it, I already had that guitar. I had a little guitar shop in Hollywood (Performance Guitars) custom-make me three guitars to suit my style. The floating trem was the first one. It was as simple as, "How can I make the notes go up?" There's a piece of wood in the way, and I just took a hammer and a screwdriver and banged it out. Then it was floating.

And you desecrated a very beautiful early '70s Strat?

I've got it in the other room. I can show you. [Laughing]

What's the story behind the monkey grip?

Just me doing something stupid.

You were just goofing around?

Goofing around... but I thought it would be cool to be able to hold the grip in photo shoots and swing it around. And it was something that I thought no one would have the balls to steal. It would look really ridiculous if somebody else put a monkey grip on their guitar.
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