STEVE VAI

29 September 2009

[Picture of Steve Vai playing Jem7]I first came across Steve Vai’s album “Passion & Warfare” in 1997, so it was four or five years old by then and had built up a huge buzz.  I got onto it seeing that Brian May of Queen regarded the opening track, “Liberty” as one of his favourites.

I then read that Vai himself described the album as “Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc”. Hmm. Intriguing and worth a punt in HMV.

When I first heard the  CD, I was not immediately impressed.  What was May talking about with “Liberty”? — for anthem work you cannot beat Gary Moore, especially with Colosseum II, or The Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, come on!

It had a lot of things I just have always hated — silly narration, backwards guitar, attempts at comedy, peculiar drums and timing, and shredding for the sake of it (to name but a few). “The Audience Is Listening” has a woman pretending to be a school-teacher, talking to Steve (who “talks” through his guitar)! No! Then his kid son intros and a hispanic lady and … and… you get the picture.

So I shook my head, put the CD away to one side, and moved on with my life.

But — as such things do — Steve Vai kept coming up.  Now, I like Joe Satriani, and was surprised to discover in an article about him that he was Vai’s guitar teacher!  Then I found out that Vai was discovered by Zappa – exactly like Adrian Belew!

Vai was gaining some serious credentials!

Next up was the movie “Crossroads”…

There are various legends about musicians selling their soul to the devil in exchange for increased musical ability, one is about the exceptional violinist and composer, Niccolò Paganini who died in 1840.  Another is about Bluesman Robert Johnson who apparently sold his soul at a crossroads – and who had a secret “missing” tune. There are even rumours that Vai had gone that way himself… ooer!

The movie is about a young chap (Eugene) — played by the Karate Kid guy, Ralph Macchio — a classical guitar student who hears about Robert Johnson’s missing song and tracks down an old man and one-time friend of Johnson who says he knows it.  But Willie had sold his soul too — and needed Eugene to battle to save his soul, taking him to the crossroads.

The climax of the film is the guitar duel.  Ry Cooder played all Eugene’s music in the film, and so the duel starts off with Cooder playing Eugene’s blues/ bottleneck part against Steve Vai (as Jack Butler), the Devil’s champion — but in the end BOTH parts are played by Steve Vai (and oddly enough, some of the music was based on a Caprice by Paganini)!

embedded video of Crossroads from YouTube

That’s great fun, even if it goes against my belief that guitar playing is not competitive.

And that’s always the trouble when it comes to Mr. Vai — look at YouTube comments or guitar forums, and it’s clear that this has become a problem.  People compare Vai with Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Satriani and everyone else. Vai is accused of being too cold and calculated, lacking heart — all technique and no soul!

What bullshit…

embedded video of For The Love Of God from YouTube

So I dug out the CD of “Passion & Warfare” and jammed along, listened and got used to it, and it is wonderful!  I have even (to my utmost surprise) become accustomed to the daft bits.

As an influence on my playing, I would say that I sometimes use his pick-harmonic trick, and I now steer clear of whammy bar gargling, but that’s about all really.

Yes, Steve Vai is the shredder behind “Bill and Ted” films, but he is good with melody, sure he plays fast noodles, and overdoes everything grandly — but that is the essence, the charm of it. It’s certainly got the feel of being over-Vai-ed, in that he plays and writes too many of the parts.

I have to say that I bought his follow-up “Sex and Religion“, but that turned out to be the shortlived disappointment — despite being a proper grown-up record, complete with a band and singer! I think I would have liked another instrumental, but with some input and influence of band musicians.

Vai cites the great Allan Holdsworth as his biggest influence, and I really and truly can hear that coming through in his playing.  He also quotes as his next biggest influence, the legendary Jeff Beck (Beck was probably through Satriani and the Berkeley School). Again, once you know about this, you can hear the influence — so Vai is like a blend of Holdsworth and Beck/ Satriani.

I don’t understand the level of anger and hate that Vai attracts, and was talking about this a while back to a metal-head at work.  His theory was that resentment was down to his career moves: Vai replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, and later joined David Lee Roth when Roth split from Van Halen and went into competition with them. Although I could see that this might set Vai up in a competitive way, I have to say that Malmsteen and Eddie Van Halen are tappers — they play quite differently to Vai. Would Satriani, Beck or Holdsworth have received the same treatment? I don’ t think so!

The strangest thing of all is that I believe Steve Vai to have reached a far wider audience than most acclaimed guitarists, without resorting to playing pop (Eddie Van Halen played on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”). Additionally, Vai is at the top of the list when it comes to technique playing, especially what-is-called shredding, so he’s a massive influence on modern guitar playing — even in the development of guitars, pedals and amps, or just in that he is not playing a Fender or Gibson. He’s really put Ibanez on the top.

Anyways, I really wish he would come up with a new album to beat “Passion & Warfare” —  straight melodies and good tunes — maybe a grown up version of it would do me fine!  No need to push the bleedin’ envelope or prove something to forum quibblers!

Until then, I am stuck with one CD and movie memories.

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3 Responses to “STEVE VAI”

  1. davedevine Says:

    I just came across Vai’s Bad Horsie — How GOOD is THIS?

    [Embedded Video:]

    Super-dooper down-and-dirty guitar playing! Check it OUT!


  2. […] Vai gets a lot of stick for being more technique and less emotion, yet I think that criticism is often founded on dubious contextual comparisons or personal preference. […]


  3. […] through spring to be honest.  I delved back into technical guitar music for a while, listening to Vai, Holdsworth, and the jazz theme continued for summer with Hiromi Uehara and Tal Wilkenfeld — […]


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