September 2011. By Greg Phillips
In many Steve Vai articles, he’s labelled a virtuoso guitarist. My computer dictionary defines virtuoso as ‘a person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit’. Well yeah, Steve is that, but as his resume shows, he’s also an innovator, musical explorer, a prolific recording artist, generous collaborator, and a multi-award winner. Yet, even though his music is sometimes outer-worldly, his feet are still planted firmly on the ground. Australian fans will soon get the opportunity to experience all the facets of Steve Vai when he arrives in October for a series of masterclasses he calls ‘Alien Love Secrets’. I spoke to Steve prior to the tour about the clinics and also quizzed him on his amplification.
You have a massive fan base and could just record and play whenever you like. You don’t have to do these masterclasses. Why do them and what do you get out of them?
You’re right, I don’t, but there are a lot of things I do that I don’t necessarily have to do. I produce and engineer everything myself. I mix it all myself. I have my own label. I have started a site called Guitar TV which is really fascinating. I am working on a new company which is going to be a new model for a record company, so I do a lot of other things besides record and play. I love doing that but I also very much enjoy teaching. I used to teach when I was younger and one of the things I realised was that you learn a lot when you’re teaching. I thought that one day it would be nice to try to create some kind of forum where I could express some of things I have learned in my career, you know, about being an independent musician in this business and the things I have cultivated about being a unique voice on the instrument. So the time came when I could put something together and it’s called ‘Alien Love Secrets’ and has worked really well and I really enjoy it. I carve out maybe a month of each year to do this because it’s really easy and I enjoy it.
I am sure there are one or two questions which you can guarantee will be asked at each masterclass, but do you also get surprised by what audiences ask you?
Sometimes you get some very unique questions. The people in the class come for very different reasons. For some, there maybe a burning question as to how I made it in the music business or how do I get my music out there. Some people are interested in writing their own music and cultivating their own voice on the instrument and others are interested in the music business. The approach I take when giving masterclass is a little esoteric. I don’t have to teach what a major scale is or minor scale or exercise and stuff like that … although I do brush on that stuff, but it is not the gist of what I talk about. The things I talk about are more inspirational and motivating for young musicians and anyone really. There are little esoteric principles. You can get all that academic stuff in many other places, but to hear from someone who has been through it … you know … things you can’t learn in a book, that’s the kind of thing I like to deliver.
I was looking at some YouTube footage of your masterclasses and I was really impressed by the inspirational nature of the sessions and how self-assured and philosophical you were. I’m wondering if those traits, that self-belief, comes from your upbringing or something you’ve learned?
Frankly, when I was young, I was very insecure in a sense. I felt relatively inferior. Then when I started playing a lot, it was my little secret. I loved playing, it was a warm place for me, my own little sanctuary and I played a lot. As a result, I was able to do things I couldn’t do before. That in itself is very motivating. You can’t do something and you work hard at it, then all of a sudden you can play it … it’s like a freedom. So as a result I’d gain confidence in what I do. I know if I do this, then this will happen… and usually it does. So when I come off being self assured, really what I am talking about are those things which I have proven to myself that have worked. I don’t really give advice on … well I could … I could give my thoughts on anything … but when you see me talking with confidence it is because I have been through it so many times and I know how it works.
A lot of people going to these sessions will want to learn but I am sure there are some who will want to hear you play. How much playing do you do in a masterclass?
I probably play anywhere between 2 and 4 songs and I jam to a backing track, just showing some of the processes that I go through when I’m trying to discover something new. I try to talk about the importance of recording yourself and listening back and being critical. Probably the highlight of the night, towards the end, is when I invite people up onto the stage to jam with me.
What sort of gear do you use in a masterclass?
I have a small rig that I bring which is a Carven Legacy head and cabinet with a Jemini distortion pedal, maybe a wah wah and a whammy pedal and a delay. it’s a simple, modest set up.
A company you have recently become involved with is Zoom. You created a range of patches for their G2Nu effects pedal. How did that come about?
I get approached probably once a week by a company who is interested in having me check out their gear, or write patches for them or give a blurb or something. I learned very early on that you really have to be careful when you do that stuff because it is easy to say yes and get all of this gear, but if the gear is crap, you’re name is attached to it. So I just go after things that I like. It is really much easier to buy stuff as I want it, but with the Zoom … it was a cool little effects pedal that they sent to me. I was looking for something that I could take and have in hotel rooms and have a decent sound and various parameters. So they gave me some stuff and requested that I write some pre sets and I had written them anyway. I was using them and that’s the best way to do it, when you are actually using the gear. I don’t use the Zoom on stage but it is a cool little device and I just thought, sure why not. Usually, I am in it for the long haul. I don’t bounce around from one company to another. I have never done that. I have been with Ibanez since the beginning. I have been with Carvin from the very beginning. I have been with DiMarzio from the very beginning. We’re talking 20, 30 years here. My manager has been with me 25 years, my secretary is my sister and has been with me 25 years. I have been with the same girl, married for 32 years. I find what works and I stick with it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t explore, you know, if something comes along. Most of the time, it’s too much work, too much of a hassle and much easier to do one thing really well and then stick with it.
You also endorse Zoom’s little Q3 HD recorder. How does that come in handy for you?
That’s the kind of thing … when I write songs … I have to wait until I am inspired because I just can’t command inspiration. So when the gods of inspiration spread a little fairy dust on me, I have to be ready to capture it. So any kind of little recording device that is around I will use, and that one seemed to work pretty well.
I’m wondering how long after you got your first electric guitar did you explore effects? How long did you play clean before getting into that?
I started exploring effects from the moment I had an amplifier. My amplifier consisted of a stereo power head that was used for the radio and turntables. I realised that if I plugged my guitar into it, it would come out of the speakers. The only speakers I had, were all blown, but that had a cool effect to it. I was 13 years old and I would sit in my bedroom and hook up these stereo speakers through stereo amplifier and play through that. I didn’t have a guitar amp. I never went through period where I played clean. Maybe after I was playing for about two years, I got an acoustic guitar and for about a year, that’s all I played.
We all know that Frank Zappa put his musicians through hell at band auditions. What’s the audition process like for the Steve Vai band?
Well, you have to stand on one foot while drinking half a gallon of chocolate milk! Actually, what I look for in a person is their sense of humour, their personality because when you go on tour, there are no secrets at sea. You are with people for a long period of time, living with them in small quarters and you get to know those people really well. The road has a knack of bringing out someone’s characteristics. If you go out on tour with someone who is a jerk or asshole, they end up being really big jerks or assholes! If you go on tour with people who are cool and fun loving, considerate, then you get a lot of that and it makes for a really good touring environment. If there’s a bad egg, that person can ruin it for everybody. A tour is like a piece of your life. You look back at a tour and it doesn’t matter how many records you have sold or how many people you play to, or even how much money you are making, what you remember most of all is the touring experience. That experience is largely based on the people you have with you. First and foremost, it doesn’t matter to me if someone is really good, but if they are not good people, I just avoid them. Having said that, they have to be able to play their ass off!
You’ve always been the adventurer musically. What’s still on the to-do list … the bucket list?
That’s a long list my friend! I am very satisfied with what I have achieved so far, I never expected to achieve so much. Having said that, there are a tremendous amount of projects I would love to do. Right now I am working on a new record and a tour and I have some interesting thoughts for the tour for filming it and creating a series. I have the intention to do a lot more orchestral work. My last record had two violin players on it, which made the show and the video very interesting. I’d like to do one with percussion and all different kinds of percussion instruments. I’d like to do a record with a big band, like 15 horns, and I have all different kinds of music I’d like to record and release. It’s a big bucket list but at any point in the game, I am very satisfied with what I have accomplished.
Ok, so it sounds like you have a lot to do, so I shall let you go and we look forward to seeing you in masterclass in Australia in October (2011).
I’m very excited to being coming downunder again. I always love my visits to Australia and very much looking forward to it. It’s going to be a wonderful class and I really believe that because of my past experiences with the classes, that people are going to get a lot out of it.
About Steve’s Amps …
You worked with Carvin for around 18 months developing the Legacy amp. What kind of things did Carvin need to do to get the sound you weren’t getting from other amps?
I have always looked for something that was suited to my playing style and my ears. That’s why I designed the Jem guitar 25 years ago, because it has things that no other guitar had at that time, that were idiosyncratic to the way I play. So with the amps … I was using the amps that everyone else plays, you know, Marshalls, Fenders and everything else, but I was in a position where I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. There were companies who were willing to customise their gear around my ear. Carvin was one of the companies I had worked with. I started out with them in the early 80s. All of the major amp companies approached me to make a signature amplifier, but basically what most wanted to do was use all of their own electronics, and just have the knobs and stuff in the way I liked and that’s not what I wanted. I needed an amplifier with a sound that really suited me. I enjoy the sound of Marshalls and amps like that for certain applications, but if you’re going to stand on stage all night and play a screeching electric guitar, you want something that is not going to take people’s heads off. I wanted an amp that was friendly to play, that had balls and could cut but not hurt. So I worked very hard with Carvin tweaking little things. At the time, when I am designing something, I get very into it. I research what different tubes do and what different capacitors do. You know, when a motherboard is hand wired it sounds a particular way, when it’s stamped by a machine it sounds another way. One of the cool things about Carvin is that they are a small company and they are family owned and controlled, so they have the ability to do whatever you want at a relatively affordable price. The great things is that they were interested in tweaking it until it was right for me and when we came across a sound that I liked, that was it! When I go into the studio to record, I have many different kinds of amplifiers but ninety percent of the time I end up using my Legacy because it’s the sound that I really like.
I saw a YouTube clip from one of your masterclasses and the camera panned through your amp settings. It showed that your treble, mids and bass were all set at around the same. Was that an accurate picture of your settings and if so, does it differ for a gig?
Usually it’s the same. Sometimes I will tweak them a bit, considering what the stage is like. Is it a wooden stage or rubber or metal, or carpet? All of these things change the sound. Some surfaces suck up all the top end and some surfaces suck up the bottom end, so I may ending up tweaking it … but not too much. The way it sounds on the stage is going to be very different to what it sounds like in the house. If I am going to tweak something, I have to find the right balance between what sounds good in the house and what sounds good on stage. It has to feel right for me as a player too, so those settings I use are pretty consistent.