The little Italian virtuoso

By Miguel Ángel Ariza

You just turned 20, you’ve spent the last 7 or 8 years of your life in your bedroom studying up to 15 hours a day, the last 2 you even dare to try transcribing the most complex pieces from a mind as twisted as Frank Zappa’s and now you are before him auditioning for a spot in his band as guitarist. You greet him, strap on the guitar, and nice guy Zappa starts to get callous with you, he speaks of his songs that you certainly don’t know, he abuses you, demeans you, and starts to play dirty...he tells you to repeat the legatos as you listen, then you do, he says do it again but this time in ⅞ tempo...and you do it; he says do it in the same tempo but with a reggae beat...and you do it, and finally he wants you to add one more note which is physically impossible on this legato...and you give up. You tell him you can’t do that and he responds with, “I hear Linda Ronstadt is looking for a guitarist”...What an asshole! Defeated, you take off the guitar and when you’re about to say goodbye he tells you “You’re in the band”.

And that is how Steve Vai’s professional career started my friends. If at 20 years of age you’re able to convince the most demanding and looniest musician in the world of rock, wait and see where it gets you.


And now we find ourselves before a guitarist unanimously considered a virtuoso by the entire guitarist community. This New Yorker spares no expense in studio time, nor in methods to learn. Proof of this is that one of his first guitar teachers, when he was about 12, was one Joe Satriani...maybe you’ve heard of him. Years later he also decided to enroll as one of the illustrious students at the legendary Berklee College of Music in Boston, so his academic record is one of authentic pedigree.


As we’ve already mentioned, all this made a place for him in Zappa’s band, legendary as much for its quality as for its thoroughness to which they were subjected under their boss. Steve Vai not only passed the grade but also gained the admiration of Zappa to the point of his relegating, bit by bit, his role as guitarist both  in the studio and on stage, giving free rein  to the new twenty-year-old. The incredible technique of this ‘kid’ remains compiled in the credits of records such as The Man From Utopia in which he’s given credit on several songs for “impossible guitar parts”.   


Vai himself has admitted many times that those first tours with Zappa were quite a hair-raising spin to his style of life. He went from spending all day studying at home to knowing he wouldn’t see a bed (at least not his) in weeks. But Vai not only learned from Zappa about  being part of a rock band on permanent tour, but also absorbed his musical knowledge and a lot of style that Zappa used to coat his songs with. The most evident trace of this absorption of ideas is on Vai’s first solo record, Flex-Able from ‘84, probably the most zappatesque record that you can find outside of Zappa himself, and far beyond what one could expect from the first album of a “guitar hero”.

It was at this same time that Steve Vai would be the chosen kid to replace his ‘predecessors’ and maybe his contestants as well, to take over the throne of the most masterful guitarist on planet Earth. In ‘84 he took the place of Yngwie Malmsteen in the heavy metal band Alcatrazz, and perhaps due to its poor result, went over to join David Lee Roth’s band in ‘85 when Roth had  just split with Eddie Van Halen. Just when they needed a bit of ‘shred guitar’ they could depend on Vai. Contrary to what happened with Alcatrazz, the two first albums of David Lee Roth, Eat ‘em and Smile and Skyscraper, the last one produced by Vai, were giant record-selling hits that shot him higher up in the pantheon of  80s rock stars. 

The immediate result t of being a genuine 6-string star is the ‘pull effect’ among the big guitar makers. For years Vai had been using a Superstrat, made by his friend Joe Jem Despagni, and Vai sent all the brands who wanted to sign him the features he wanted to put his name on, saying he would sign to the one who made  the best of all. They all failed except for Ibanez who made a prototype to the future Ibanez Jem (a grand gesture, by the way, to the man who helped design and make it for him). Needless to say, Vai is very meticulous when it comes to his sound and was thorough when it came time to perfect this guitar to his taste. Besides, since we are a portal for guitarists, in ‘89, always in search for  new sounds and new technique frontiers in , he is the first to introduce Ibanez to the 7-string guitar market, adding a low B as the 7th string.


The other effect of being a real rock celebrity is a call from Hollywood to take part in the movie Crossroads with the karate kid himself, idol of the masses in the 80s, Ralph Macchio as the hero and the final guitar duel is between him and Vai himself. Many of us at the time grinned at the nonsense that reflected quite well the liberties taken in teen movies of the 80s. The kid wants to play the blues and ends up playing like Steve Vai (because both solos are done by Vai, one doing himself and his fictional rival, except the slide part, played by Ry Cooder)...In the end the kid doesn’t play much blues, but, WTF!, this is Hollywood! And besides, Steve Vai is actually scary, and most important of all, and thanks to the infinite hero making power of Hollywood, that scene remained burned into the minds of millions of people and for sure tons of teens bought a guitar and pretended to do the same things at home thanks to this flick...and that’s that.

If having kids buy guitars wasn’t enough, that scene in Crossroads served Vai well by getting him into one of the biggest bands in the world, as were  Whitesnake at the end of the 80s. David Coverdale himself has recognised that he called Vai to replace the outgoing Vivian Campbell and the injured Adrian Vandenberg, in 1989 having only listened to, out of  all of Vai’s career, the solo in the final scene of the film. Together they recorded one of the band’s most successful albums, Slip of the Tongue, with mythic tracks like Fool For Your Loving, which  kept Vai as an undeniable force of rock until the end of the decade. 
Never one to lower the bar, his second album, and most acclaimed to date, comes out in 1990. Passion and Warfare, is a very personal record wherein Vai ‘finds’ himself and displays all of his wisdom in songs like For the Love of God, where we can enjoy a guitarist in the most creative  and technical  splendor. It’s an electric guitar record, almost avoiding vocals except the spoken parts, done by a composer who expresses himself through an electric guitar; what we’re getting to here is that we don’t necessarily have a commercial pop record, but in a way it got an incredible response from  the general public, which makes the creative mind behind it all even more admirable. Vai is much more than a guitarist and proves it to the world with this record.

Since then Vai’s career has been up and running, always seeking new sounds and new ‘worlds’ to  get into with his guitar. This caused him  to be hit hard by the critics just as happened with his record Sex and Religion when all his fans were expecting another Passion and Warfare, which Vai ran from in a hurry, because, my friends, this guy is one of the best guitar virtuosos in history, but as he has declared, “ You always have to go beyond and deeper than technique alone”, and he always finds that deepest road  by drifting from the land you already walked on. As he acknowledges, he writes songs “thinking no one's going to listen to them” and that’s what makes him feel  free to do what he really wants and to express what he carries inside. Thus, in these recent years, we have been able to enjoy this busy body letting rip the ‘shredder’ he has inside together with his ‘teacher’ Joe Satriani on the G3 tours. We’ve also been able to listen how he arranges his own songs for orchestra on records like Sound Theories Vol. I and II, - orchestral arrangements that go far beyond just bringing electric instruments together with a symphony orchestra. 

So all the colours on this palette  are what Steve Vai’s world stands for, this “little Italian virtuoso” as Zappa called him, who is really much more than that, and as proof here is this little walk through his career, 4 decades dedicated to music, the only thing left to do be Linda Ronstadt’s guitarist.