Steve Vai, The solos of a genius

By Tom MacIntosh

In the electric guitar world there are few who wouldn’t consider Steve Vai as the pre-eminent virtuoso of our times; a walking legend consumed by an internal force of creativity and skill that only few mortals enjoy. At 12 he was learning technique from one Joe Satriani, at 20 was accepted into madman/genius Frank Zappas band where he became a seriously disciplined musician, and his later stints with both Alcatrazz and Whitesnake showed him the way to find his own road and identity.

Today at Guitars Exchange we’re going to look at some of his finer moments, some of his best solo work, (in no particular order).  

For The Love Of God
(Passion and Welfare, 1990)

His performance here may be his best from the early days. It is said he fasted for 10 days and recorded it on the 4th day, he says quite frankly, “This is
Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc”. It certainly is God-like in delivery on his Ibanez JEM and Universe guitars, then the Charvel Green Meanie guitar, all connected to his Marshall JCM900 amp setup. Vai shows his flare for intimacy while masterfully connecting to the masses.

Tender Surrender
(Alien Love Secrets EP, 1995)

This is one of his most popular numbers, built around the same structure and tempo of some Hendrix classics, such as Villanova Junction Blues, which he performed at Woodstock. The fluid technique is more moody and atmospheric, yet never robotic. The soulful touch on his solo is as sexy as it gets in an instrumental love song.

Whispering a Prayer (Alive in an Ultra World, 2001)

Vai makes his Ibanez Jem Flo sing in this timeless piece with his deft use of the whammy bar sweeping down and up to sonic perfection. He brings all his tricks into play here, tapping, legato, and wicked sweep picking, backed by Chris Frazier
on drums and Eric Goldberg on keyboards, creating an odyssey out of thin air that builds to a blinding feedback howl that will send shivers up your spine.

Lotus Feet
(Real Illusions: Reflections, 2005)

This Grammy
winner for Best Rock Instrumental Performance is another spiritual journey based on the ‘lotus’ which, in Eastern philosophy, religion and culture, seeks spiritual development, creation, purity and rebirth. The performance best known of this wonderful piece is with the Holland Metropole Orchestra, conducted by Dick Bakker with special guest appearances by Bryan Beller on bass and Chris Opperman on piano. Vai explains, “Playing this melody lifts my spirit. When I’m not thinking of the notes or the tone or bla bla bla, and I’m just humbly begging God for himself with every note, that’s when being able to play becomes the greatest gift in the world”.

I Know You’re Here
(DVD G3 Live in Denver, 2003)

Played on an amazing instrument, the Ibanez Triple Neck featuring a 12-string on top, a normal Floyd Rose system electric in the middle, and a fretless bottom neck. He manages the beast with effortless prowess, the spider-finger dexterity is sensational, and sets him in a whole league of his own once again. His show at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver has a hot 72 million followers on YouTube, from the DVD G3 Live in Denver, alongside The Breed: with
Billy Sheehan/bass, Tony MacAlpine/guitar and keyboards, Jeremy Colson/drums, and Dave Weiner/7-string guitar. Also on board for this spectacular show, the other 2 that make it 3 are Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Vai also provides lead vocals to this hot prog-rock beauty.


Bad Horsie
(Alien Love Secrets EP, 1995)

This is pure rock pyroglyphics! Vai scorches the stage with meaty badass riffs over a big wall of booming bass and drums, and his expert use of his tremolo with the Morley VAI-2 Bad Horsie 2 Contour wah pedal pushed to dizzying heights. He can make this thing sound exactly like a whinnying horse among other freakish effects. And just check out the look on his face, you can see this is what he’s always wanted to do: be a kick-ass rock ‘n roller.

Building The Church
(Real Illusions: Reflections, 2005)

Another bombastic drum intro gives way to a rapid Vai tapping technique he calls ‘Upanishads’, “The technique involves placing your left hand over the neck and tapping with the first and second fingers on the D and B strings, and then alternating that with tapping with the right hand on the neck with 3 fingers. You get this computer-like effect
”. His life performances are always mesmerizing and this proves the point; his body writhes and squirms to every hot spot in the piece. His main axe in the song is the Ibanez Floral Jem with a Roland GK-2A controller bringing that cascading effect to life. It’s simply an awesome display of power guitar work and showmanship only he can rip with ease.

We cannot let you go without mentioning his performance in the blockbuster film Crossroads
(1986), in which he plays the part of the Devil’s guitarist Jack Butler in the final scene ‘cutting heads’ challenging Ralph Macchios character Eugene ‘Lightning’ Martone in a duel of virtuosos on a song called Eugene’s Trick Bag, based on Niccolò Paganinis Capriccio #5. All the guitar wizardry here is recorded by Vai except for the slide guitar, done sweetly by Ry Cooder. This is a classic ‘guitar hero’ flick that shouldn’t be missed by any aspiring guitarist.

So this is our brief summary of some of his top solos and performances, and we didn’t even mention his Grammys for the impressive solos he did on collaborative efforts such as in 1993, as Best Rock Instrumental Performance in Sofa from Zappa’s Universe, in 2002 for Best Pop Instrumental Album, No Substitutions: Live in Osaka, and in 2008, Best Rock Instrumental Performance, for Peaches in Regalia, a single from Zappa Plays Zappa tour. He has been selected the “10th Greatest Guitarist” by Guitar World magazine and has sold tens of millions of copies.

We hope you like the selection of material here, something we like to call ‘guitar events’ only reserved for the créme de la créme, like Mr. Steve Vai.

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