At age 18, while a student at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, Steve Vai started transcribing guitar compositions by Frank Zappa. At 20, he sent the Zappa a copy of “The Black Page,” an instrumental the music legend had written for drums. He also sent Zappa a recording of himself playing the guitar.
Vai caught Zappa’s attention. And when the two finally met, they started a relationship that would eventually lead to Vai playing in Zappa’s band.
Since then, Vai has built a reputation as one of the world’s most highly-regarded and influential guitarists. Now 52 years old, he has worked with some of the leading names in music: singer David Lee Roth, bassist Billy Sheehan, steel pedal guitarist Robert Randolph, Ozzy Osbourne and the group Whitesnake, among others.
And he has released a number of highly acclaimed solo projects, the latest of which is The Story of Light, his eighth studio album and the second in a planned trilogy that started in 2005 with Real Illusions: Reflections. Vai is promoting the album on a tour that is taking him to several cities in North America and Europe, including D.C.’s Howard Theatre, where the videos you see in this post were recorded.
A rocker at his core, Vai crosses the line into the jazz-rock territory explored by Zappa, Jeff Beck as well as Joe Satriani, who gave him guitar lessons while both attended the same Long Island high school. Some might describe Vai as flashy, both in his playing and in his stage presentation (at one point during his performance at the Howard, he came out in what looked like a space suit!)
But with someone of Vai’s abilities, flash is only on the surface. To me, it appeared that he was experimenting to see what sounds he could coax from his guitar; the audience just happened to be in the room with him.
Thinking about it again, I wasn’t sure which one was in control, Vai or his guitar. They seemed to have the same kind of relationship that a good ventriloquist has with his mannequin: after a while you’re not sure which one is actually doing the talking.
Vai started learning guitar at 13. A year later, he was taking lessons from Satriani, four years his senior.
His professional career took off in 1979 after Zappa hired him to transcribe his guitar solos. The transcriptions were eventually published in 1982 in a volume called The Frank Zappa Guitar Book. Vai then went on to overdub many of the guitar parts for Zappa’s album, You Are What Is, and in 1980 started touring with Zappa.
During the tour, Vai would sometimes ask audience members to bring musical scores which he would sight-read during the shows.
After leaving Zappa in 1982, Vai recorded Flex-Able, his first album. In 1985, he became the lead guitarist in the group Alcatrazz, replacing Yngwie Malmsteen.
Later in 1985, following the advice of his friend, bassist Billy Sheehan, Vai joined a new group formed by David Lee Roth, former singer for Van Halen.
As a debut album, the group, which also included Sheehan, released Eat ‘em and Smile. The album, which sold over two million copies, eventually reached #4 on Billboard’s 200 album chart. Vai personally drew kudos from Rolling Stone magazine, which compared him favorably to Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen.
In 1988, the group released its sophomore album, Skyscraper, which Vai and Roth produced.
Vai joined the group Whitesnake in 1989. He played all the guitar parts on the group’s album Slip of the Tongue after guitarist Adrian Vandenberg injured his wrist. He also played on Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid, joining forces with his old guitar teacher Joe Satriani on the song “Feed My Frankenstein.”
The year 1990 saw Vai release a solo album, Passion and Warfare. A reader’s poll in Guitar World magazine picked a single from the album, “For the Love of God,” as number 29 on a list of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time.
Vai began recording and writing with Osbourne in 1994. Although a cut from these sessions, “My Lilttle Man,” was included in Osbourne’s Ozzmosis album, Vai did not play on it. Instead, guitarist Zakk Wylde played his parts.
In the late 90’s, Vai joined Satriani for the so-called G3 tour. A live album was released from the tour.
Vai, Sheehan, pianist Tony MacAlpine, guitarist Dave Weiner and drummer Virgil Donati held a concert at London’s Astoria, releasing a DVD of the event in December, 2001.
The guitarist traveled to Tokyo in July, 2002 to join the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra for the world premier of composer Ichiro Nodaira’s Fire Strings, a concerto written for a 100-piece orchestra and electric guitar.
Vai premiered The Blossom Suite, his piece for electric and classical guitar, in 2005 at Paris’ Châtelet Theatre. The following year, he joined the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour led by Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil.
In 2010, Vai joined the North Netherlands Orchestra to play several compositions mixing rock and orchestral music. That same year, he appeared on The Tonight Show and American Idol to perform with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Orianthi, Travis Barker, Ron Fair and Randy Jackson.
Outside of his work as a performer and recording artist, Vai is a supporter of Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization providing free musical instruments and instruction to public school children. He also is the founder of the Make A Noise Foundation, an organization which provides money for music education to people of limited means.
He also has developed a line of guitars with the Ibanez company. Among them is a seven-string guitar that, because of its capability for low tunings, eventually attracted the attention of the metal groups Korn and Limp Bizkit.
After the concert at the Howard ended, we were able to ask Vai a couple of questions. First, we asked him about Frank Zappa:
We then asked him who his favorite guitar players were overall: