For more than 30 years now guitar virtuoso Steve Vai has been blazing a trail while burning up the fretboard to be one of the most prolific guitarists of all time.
The visionary composer has been putting out solo records since his stellar debut Flex-Able in 1984 and has also joined forces with such rock luminaries as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake.
Last month Vai released his 15th solo album, The Story of Light, on Favored Nations Entertainment, the label Vai founded in 1999. The album compiles 12 original songs of conceptual and cosmic narratives in typical Vai diversity.
“That kind of diversity is prevalent on all my records. I have an M.O. for all my records,” Vai said from his recording studio. “I always like a clean song, a song with vocals, a song with intense composition and something dirty and gritty. I don’t think I could make an album that just encompasses one genre of music. That’s not what I am interested in, because it’s not me.”
Vai covers all of those bases and more on The Story of Light. Critically acclaimed indie darling Aimee Mann makes a surprising appearance singing a duet with Vai on the airy “No More Amsterdam,” which she also co-wrote.
“It’s funny. I’ve known Aimee since college at Berkley. She lived two apartments down from me and my girlfriend, now wife,” Vai explained. “Pia [Vai’s wife and former Vixen bassist Pia Maiocco] was a big fan of Aimee’s and would play her music all the time. Aimee is like a shining star with such a melodious voice, and her lyrics are just like poetry. Anyway, I was writing this new song, but I was having trouble getting the lyrics done. I just couldn’t get what I wanted out of the song. I knew I wanted it to be a duet with someone and, and my wife said, ‘Why not ask Aimee?’ It was like a light went on. She was the perfect fit, a real natural for the song.”
Vai also brought in Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on “The Voice,” to lend a blistering vocal performance on a track inspired by a vintage recording of blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, whose acid-soaked vocals are in the mix as well.
Steve Vai The Story of Light“The first time I heard that song I was blown away. It was so amazing. It was screaming for some heavy, tuned-down guitars and powerful vocals. The minute I heard Beverly sing on TV I knew she would be the one for this song. There was no need to look elsewhere.
“Beverly is an effervescent soul,” Vai continued. “She immediately grabs your attention the first time you meet her, like you’ve known her forever. In fact, I am taking her out on the new tour to open the show, and she will also come out and sing ‘Revelator’ with me.”
The addition of fantastic females lending their voices breaks up the primarily instrumental album. The three-time Grammy award winner’s guitar leads are technically masterful; his licks and solos follow the journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment, and redemption.
“The songs tell you what to do, you just have to listen,” Vai said. “I’m always pursuing knowledge, I’m a seeker of spiritual equilibrium—and music is a big part of that. I’ve been obsessed with these kinds of ideas for years.”
Vai’s obsession with these sounds is extraordinary, but his dedication to his instrument is otherworldly. He sees his guitar as living, breathing energy which he still plays on a daily basis.
“Well, right now I am practicing for the tour, so I have been playing a lot, about 12 hours a day. You have to be careful with that because you can hurt your hands, muscles can swell and even tear.
“But if I am not touring, I developed this routine when I am home where an hour before bed I will go down to the studio, lock the door, turn off the phone, computer, and just play for an hour and record it. I don’t practice scales or things like that. I just play whatever comes out of me at the time.”
On the current tour for The Story of Light, Vai has unearthed one of his most memorable guitar pieces, arguably the one which thrust him into guitar stardom. He will be playing, in its entirety, the guitar duel from the 1986 film “Crossroads.” Vai played the devil, Jack Butler, who was challenged by a young upstart guitarist, Eugene Martone played by Ralph Macchio.
Steve Vai The Story of Light“I was pretty young at the time, maybe 24 I think, and Ry Cooder was scoring the film. He contacted Guitar World asking them who was the hot new guitarist, and someone played him one of my songs over the phone, of all things. Ry heard that one song and contacted me. It was my first introduction to film making and I got the script, read it and thought, ‘Yeah I could do this.’ I took on the character of Jack Butler and gave him this evil persona. Looking back on it now, it was kind of a ballsy move to try and take all that on.”
Shortly after the film, Vai became a household name among guitarists. He started constructing elaborate, beautiful artistic guitars which stood out from the rest. Vai eventually signed on with the guitar company Ibanez and continues to work with them to this day on his infamous Vai JEM signature series. He literally put himself into a recent collaboration dubbed the JEM VAI2K DNA guitar—a limited-edition release of the JEM.
“Ibanez used my blood—a lot of my blood—in the guitar’s swirling paint job,” explains Vai. “Maybe a hundred years from now, when someone decides to clone me from the blood in the paint, my clone will finally figure out to how get his music on the radio.”
Another design characteristic Vai’s JEM series is known for is the handle carved out of the guitar body, something no one had ever done or has since…for a very good reason.
“When I went to Ibanez I wanted a few specifics for my guitars, “Vai said. I wanted a deeper double cutaway, I wanted 24 frets and I wanted something that no one could copy. I thought the handle was a good idea. The handle was something unique, something that was away from the norm of what other guitar players had.”
Of all the crazy guitars Vai has designed – the triple neck heart guitar, the the Flame guitar, the Neon light guitar among others – you might be a little surprised which one is his favorite.
“My favorite is EVO, the production model JEM. It’s the one I play the most because it has energy about it. I’ve had it for years. You take a guitar all over the world, you sweat on it, you bleed on it, it gets all gritty and dirty and it becomes part of which you are. It’s in your DNA. I am in the studio now and EVO is right near me and when I look at it, my heart just flutters you know> It’s like part of my body.”