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Creativity, craft, and career: An interview with Steve Vai

Creativity, craft, and career: An interview with Steve Vai

Steve Vai

Guitar hero, composer, clinician, educator, and beekeeper Steve Vai is a serious guy. If you look at his body of work, from phenom touring musician and designated transcriber for Frank Zappa, to the devilish Jack Butler in the 1986 movie Crossroads, to his bold, and conceptual solo albums, to his symphonic works, he has no shortage of talent or creativity.

Born and raised in Carle Place, NY, Steve attended Berklee College in Boston. In addition to touring with Zappa, David Lee Roth, and his own bands, Steve has played with Deep Purple and Whitesnake. He has recorded nine solo albums, and won three Grammys. And, quite admirably, he has managed his own career almost from the beginning of it. It's common for artists to manage themselves today, but he was doing this in the 1980's.

Steve spoke with KVR while he was on the road with the Generation Axe Tour, performing with fellow burners Tosin Abasi, and Yngwie Malmsteen. He is currently starting his next project after Vai Academy 5.0, his educational seminar series for guitar players.

Why did you choose guitar?

It wasn't a choice. It was just like a natural pull. I played the accordion when I was young, And then I switched to playing tuba in high school. But I always wanted to play guitar. It was always in the back of my mind, from the first time I saw this young guy playing it. He was about eight and I was about six. It wasn't until I was twelve when I heard Led Zeppelin that I decided, okay, I'm going to play the guitar.

Did you use a computer before music software started to appear?

The Commodore 64

Well, I was always very interested in computers. And I was a young man before computers were available to people. Then they started to become available for home use and that was when the Commodore 64 came out. I got the first model. It was archaic and very difficult to learn the language, so it wasn't very useful for me.

The first music software I found was a manuscript program, and this was very exciting for me. I started composing before I even played the guitar. So, I got that. It was completely archaic and very hard to move around in, but I always kept on the cutting edge of what was available. So, every time there was an evolution in computers, I always tried to get the newest one. And then when Apple came along with the Macintosh, it was a game changer.

I just stayed with that and as more powerful computers would be made available, people would write more powerful programs, and finally, in 1988, Make Music created a program called Finale. It was very complex and looked like rocket science but eventually it smoothed out. And there were other music writing programs, but Finale was always the most powerful, so I used it. As far as workstations, I had the first, real powerful stereo digital workstation called the Dyaxis by Studer And that, to this day, is still one of the best sounding stereo workstations. I did a lot of editing with it, and eventually it's expanded, and there was Studio Vision from Opcode that was a powerful, good program. And then, DigiDesign emerged, and I've stuck with them since. I've been through all of the digital workstations and through the eons, all of them. But I'm very comfortable in Pro Tools. That's my choice.

Story of first DAW.

Who were your influences in the way you use technology? In other words— What kind of impact did Frank Zappa have on the way you use technology, if any?

Well, you just answered the question. Frank was the kind of guy that, anything he got his hands on, he pulled it and pushed it and stretched it to its limits, and then would go to these instrument companies and say, "It can't do this, and it doesn't do this very well. Make it do this." You know, so, working with him and seeing how he was so in depth with things has taught me not only to browse the circuits of the available technology, but to go deep into it. He was the one that was really at the forefront of so much of my activities and my daily life, because I was so young and impressionable. I saw how he worked, and I thought, "Okay, that's how you work."

Steve and Frank play a duet

There's still hundreds of snippets of his work in the digital abyss of the Synclavier. About fifteen years ago I talked to Gail (Zappa) about launching a project to retrieve all that stuff, and the expense of even bringing back the New England Digital equipment up to a workable situation was just too much.

Transcription of Zappa's spoken voice

You mentioned that you were composing before you played guitar.

Poster by
Joe Caroff

Well, it's evolved. Our musical influences are usually brought to us in our immediate family or friends. When I was a little boy, my parents were listening to West Side Story. That had a huge impact on me. I loved it because there was adventure in it, a story, theater, historic melody, and an absolutely supreme composition—Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim—and I understood very clearly what the possibilities are for a person who understands the language of music. The infinite creative potential in wielding an orchestra based on little black dots. I just instinctively understood music, even when I was four or five years old. I don't know why. I could just look at a score and go, okay, I kind of get it.

Bill Westcott torturing other students

I learned to read music when I started playing the accordion at eight years old. While my friends were doodling pictures, I was doodling notes. And I was so fortunate that when I was in seventh grade, I was allowed to join this high school music theory class. And the teacher, Bill Westcott, was a savant—kind of tormented but unbelievably talented—and he drilled me, Holy Mackerel!, every day for about six years. Yea, every day for about six years I had to come in with a piece of freshly written music. And not like melody and chord changes but I had to compose music, and break it out for, say, French Horns, or other orchestral instruments. I wrote my first orchestra score in high school.

Other than Frank, who are some of your influences as a composer?

I wasn't a big fan of conventional classical music. I'd listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and I'd think, "Oh, that's nice," but it didn't have enough hair on it for me. And then I started getting into contemporary classical music. First, I went through a romantic period, and when I was in high school I got really into (Maurice) Ravel and (Gustav) Mahler, and then I was listening to Frank's classical music. I really liked Frank because he didn't have any limitations of instrumentation; he could just do whatever he wanted. He made me realize that you don't have to stick to any convention.

Steve Vai performing in Poland with the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra

So then, when I arrived at Berklee College of Music, they had this vast library of recorded music. That was my best education for sure. I'd go to that library every day and I could hear every composition by Stravinsky, and Mahler, I got really into people like Iannis Xenakis, and Luciano Berio. He's huge for me, and of course Edgar Verese, who's one of my very favorite contemporary composers. He was ahead of his time and people are just discovering that now. And I was very into, and still am, inspired contemporary music. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of contemporary music that I hear that I really respond to. A lot of it sounds like noise, and doesn't do it for me. But, there are some really incredible contemporary composers that I follow. I like Esa Pekka Solomon, and probably my favorite is Magnus Lindberg--he's a Finnish composer. He is quite a freak.

Have technology products, either software or hardware, been a source of inspiration for you in any one of your particular pieces?

Absolutely, as technology changes and the tools change, they allow creations that were impossible before, but the bottom line is that the desire to express your uniquely creative voice has to be within you first. And any tools you use, whatever they are, whether it was made a thousand years ago or today, can be inspirational, and aid in your creative endeavors. But you have to have the creativity first.

Have you had a situation where you got a new instrument or virtual plugin, with a particular sound that made you to think, "Wow, that sounds cool, I'll take it from there."?

Oh, all the time. All of the time. Plugins are like instruments, you know. if I pick up the guitar and play, it's a guitar. If I plug it into a Fractal AXE it's like I'm playing with a different instrument. I have written many songs based on the offerings of the various technologies. Still today I use all sorts of different stuff.

Of all the things that have changed in the way that music is composed, recorded and performed during your career, what has had the most profound impact with you personally?

In the way of composition, for many years, right up until when I wrote my last symphony, which was about two years ago, I did everything by hand. There's something very different about holding a pencil in your hand and creating like that. I was familiar with Finale, but Finale was a beast. I never thought I could solve a creative problem by using a computer for my composition, but it also comes at a price. Because, when you're composing by hand, you can't hear it. You have to imagine it. There are all sorts of opportunities for mistakes, and then when you hand that off to somebody to type into a computer, there are also opportunities for mistakes. And then when they create parts from that, there are more opportunities. So, by the time you get into rehearsal, it's a disaster sometimes because the process has led to so many unwanted things.


So, I decided I was going to bite the bullet and become a total Finale composition master. I spent a lot of time with it and what I discovered was when you get a handle on the software...oh my god. It was a miracle. You can do things that you just can't do by hand so quickly. And when I finished the score, I had a finished Finale score. I didn't have to give the handwritten stuff to somebody to type. And you can hear it as you're doing it. Through the years, as the evolution of effects progressed, if you bought hardware gear like a chorus or delay or harmonizer or compressor, it would usually only have one function.. So, when I was out on tour, we'd have racks the size of refrigerators (laughs)..

Fractal Audio AXE-FX

And eventually, it just consolidated. And for me, the game change is the Fractal Audio AXE-FX. As far as outboard gear goes, recently I checked out the Synergy system. Synergy is a new company, and they create amplifiers, and they have this system now where they take the pre-amp section of popular amplifiers and they put them in a rack. And it's just like, I have a new lease on life with this gear because now I'm not confined to having one amplifier in my rig. I have six, and they're all authentic, and they all have two channels.

Has technology ever gotten in your way?

No. Because I embrace it with a positive attitude, and then it works for you. The technology is a tool for you. If I come across a piece of technology that is confusing to me - which happens quite often - but I think there's something in it that I could use, I'll learn it. I'm surrounded by great people. My engineer Greg Ward? is like a wiz and I can say, "what's the newest thing?" And there it is on my desk. Letting it get in your way is a choice.

For me, we always think that we've arrived when a new piece of technology comes out ... and hopefully this is inspiring to some programmers or scientists even.. they're still living in an inferior world where you've got to plug things in; you need wires and cables. If I need juice in my phone, I have to plug it in. You want to use MIDI, you've got to plug in. It's all bullshit. It's gotta go away, and it will. here are two things we're always striving for. One of them is convenience and the other is quality. And right now, we're in a transitional stage between quality and convenience.

You do a lot of different things, whether it's the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra or a tour with Yngwie Malmsteen and Tosin Abassi. How do you keep everything organized? Or do you just finish each project, and then on to the next?

Steve doing something different

I can't keep up with my latest inspiration. So, I capture in snippets. And you never know when inspiration is going to hit you, and if you can capture just the essence of the inspiration, that's enough for me. So, I have thousands and thousands—I started collecting little snippets of inspiration when I was thirteen years old, and I call it the "Infinity Shelf"—and I have literally thousands of snippets that are completely unfinished ideas. I think of it as a bank account. With creativity you have a clear idea that only will come to you in a second, but completing it for me might require months and months of work..

Good answer..

And I just keep focused until it's finished.

What's happening now with computers, there's a live performance virtuosity that is missing in the more traditional sense, whether it was somebody watching Paganini play the violin way back when or whether it was watching someone today, there's a traditional musical instrument that someone has worked very hard to master. As someone who has made a very deep commitment to your craft, what your thoughts are about that. And, are there any artists out there that play computer that you think are interesting?

Absolutely. I think that it's important to embrace whatever your interest is, and for some people it's to create notes and melody and harmony in the traditional sense. For example, I think Jacob Collier is head-to-toe an inspired, in the moment, creative tornado. He does everything. And when watching him use a computer, the musicality is first. You feel that the emotion and attempt to capture an atmosphere is the primary thing. How you go about manifesting that in the world is inconsequential. It doesn't matter. As long as you're comfortable with it, and when you watch Jacob, it's obvious to me that this is the real evolution of composition. To put limitations on this stuff based on convention is cheating yourself of your potential. So, learning how to write music or orchestras, there's a lot to learning a language with or without a computer. There are always going to be people wanting to do that, but the format may change.

Jacob Collier plays live

If you're an old-timer, we always think that the way that we did it was the right way. But that's an illusion, because the way that we learn music is going to change. My instincts tell me that the evolution of the learning of music is going to be more based on emotional content, by listening. When you listen to something and you learn how to see it in your head, not necessarily in note form, but in color, in feel, in dynamics, there's a new way to absorb the learning process of recreating music. And that's fine. That's just the way it is...

Steve enjoys the fruits of his labor

And the band does as well

Steve back on his home planet

Check out the rest of KVR Guitar Month by visiting the KVR Guitar Month Page.



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