By the time Steve Vai crossed paths with David Lee Roth, he had already had a busy career that included working as a teenager with Frank Zappa.
Still, Vai found new challenges taking on music written by Eddie Van Halen, which he said was “perfectly orchestrated”.
Now that many albums have been removed from the experiment, Vai continues to find new ways to challenge herself. Inviolate, his latest record, arrives on January 28 digitally and will be released on vinyl in March.
“It’s very ‘Vai’, whatever that means,” he says, going on to call it “just very honest music.”
Vai is the first to admit that his job can get quite complex, which is why he wanted to keep things simple this time around. “A lot of my records are long and there are a lot of concepts and games with stories. This one has none of that. It’s nine fairly dense all-instrumental compositions that I wanted to capture and record for be able to get out there and play them live for people.
He’ll hit the road later this year in support of the album, armed with a new multi-neck guitar “dubbed the Hydra” that would make Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen jealous. We spoke with Vai via Zoom recently before the album was released.
What was it like working on the Van Halen songs that you played on tour with David Lee Roth? What’s holding you back from this whole experience?
Well, how awesome they were. As a guitarist, playing Edward’s parts is a joy because they are perfectly orchestrated. They fall beautifully on your hands. They are just so well designed. Now you can learn to play them, but it won’t be like Edward. You know, it will always look like you. It sounded like I was playing Edward’s part. I did my best to pay homage to them, as they are so much fun to play. It was nice. It was an amazing opportunity and a joy to perform these songs in front of 25,000 people a night.
Watch Steve Vai perform Van Halen’s “Panama” with David Lee Roth
What was the most difficult?
[Vai pauses.] The challenging aspect for me to play these pieces was also the educational aspect, and that’s how Edward quantified his parts. They had no sharp edges – it’s hard to explain, but they are nicely rounded edges. His ability to synchronize with his brother was magical. Find that groove [was interesting] because his brother wasn’t playing straight like a drum machine, but the way they locked together was remarkable. This is something you can’t really learn by learning where to put your fingers. It’s an internal thing. You should play with Alex [Van Halen] to understand how you would navigate these parts like Edward did. I played them with Gregg Bissonette, who is a fabulous drummer. It’s a little straighter in the groove. It’s like, Alex sinks more; Gregg is locked. So I was playing for Gregg, so it was a bit different.
For your new album you have a new guitar called the Hydra which is amazing. I would like to know more about the experience of its design.
I still have [liked] multi-neck guitars. In the past I used to play this big red heart guitar and I had treble necks and that kind of thing. I’ve always tried at some point to incorporate the other rounds into a performance. But with the Hydra, I really wanted to create something where everything is integrated into one performance. It started about five years ago. I was looking Mad Max: Fury Road where they’re flying through the desert and there’s this guy strapped to the front of a truck. He plays that wild guitar. I thought that was really cool, but it’s not. I’m gonna make it real and really do something wild.
I came up with the idea to make this guitar which had a half fretless 12 string neck and a seven string neck and a half fretless three quarter inch bass neck [with] harp strings. I was into steampunk designs at the time. I gathered a bunch of materials and sent them to Ibanez. Designers and engineers in Japan freaked out. They just went above and beyond. I couldn’t believe it, because they are usually very conservative. They sent me back a rendering of a hydra and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Are you gonna build this?” And they’re like, “Yes, we are, Mr. Steve!” They started building it and took about three and a half years. They even made a prototype. Finally I got the guitar and I couldn’t believe it. When I opened the case it was like, “What?” It was awesome and it was intimidating. Because I knew I had to write this piece of music with it. I put it on the stand and it stayed in the studio for about a year.
You said it was heavy. Over the years, have these types of guitars become lighter than before?
Unfortunately, the older you get, the heavier things get. [Laughs.] Fortunately, I have a brilliant guitar tech, Thomas Nordegg, and he designed this strap that puts all the weight of the Hydra on my hips. It’s really super. But the thing is so heavy. And it doesn’t move like a guitar, so when you walk with it – for example, if you take a step to the right, the Hydra is like, “Oh, you want to go that way? Alright, let me take you to New Jersey! [Laughs.] It keeps taking you, so your balance is upset – but it’s okay, I feel very confident. I know I can totally execute it, given the time to work on it. I obviously want to be able to get up and play it. I haven’t gone that far yet, but on a stand, it’s obviously much easier.
Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen is famous for his equally crazy guitars. To what extent has this been a source of inspiration for Hydra as well?
I have an unbridled imagination. This is where it takes root. I think that’s where it takes root in Rick. You know, we love it. He has a great sense of humor. He is a badass player and a historic songwriter. He can do whatever he wants. I’m glad he did that. But it certainly came from his [mind]. I mean, look at the paint job on it. Look what he wears when he plays it! It’s so him. It’s nice.
Hydra came the same way. There’s nothing unique about having a multi-neck guitar. It’s what you make of it and how you present it. It takes a village. Guys like me and Rick can come up with the idea, but you have to have a team of people who find it interesting enough to build it. You know, because I can’t build it. It would remain a rumor in my own room if I were to build it – a legend in my mind! But yeah, it’s fun too. When you have people like that around you who are interested in building what you have in mind. It’s really friendly.
“Knappsack” is one of the songs you released before this album was released. Kids start posting videos of themselves playing your song. Are you fascinated by how quickly songs come back to you this way these days?
I didn’t think I was going to see anyone trying to play “Knappsack”. Exactly like you mentioned, a few days after I released it, there was this kid, he had made two videos. The first part and the second part. I couldn’t believe it, this kid was nailing it. It was fascinating. Just recently, I released the song “Little Pretty”. It’s very dense music. It has real ethereal qualities. The solo is very melodic and relatively death defying due to the chord changes that exist underneath. I’ve already come across four videos of kids trying to play the song or playing it, or doing tabs or commenting – already. I wrote to one of them and said, “How did you do it so fast?” It’s nice to see that. It means that there are people who find it interesting and that’s fine.
Watch Steve Vai perform “Knappsack” with one hand
You do really interesting things with Secrets of the Alien Guitar and also, your Patreon, which opens up a whole other creative exchange. What do you get out of it? In a sense, you arrive at the workshop of your material.
Yeah. You know, all my life I’ve always loved the idea of educating and teaching. I always thought that when checking out, I wanted to have some kind of platform that offers everything I know. All the experience that I believe I have acquired could be useful for people who wish to pursue a career in a similar field. I have a wealth of [things to share]. I’ve been an independent artist all my life; I know this job. There are so many things I’ve discovered – and music in general. I wanted to create a place where I could get rid of all those things in my life.
Push finally got to push during lockdown. Before starting to work on Inviolate, I cut out about four or five months and created a ton of content. I wasn’t sure what platform to put it on, because I’m not really aware of everything that’s available, and everything is constantly changing. So I sent my buddies to find the best platform and they came back and they said, “We think the Patreon platform is going to be great because it has folders and you can create categories.”
If you go to my Patreon, there are all these categories. There’s stuff like “Lift the Riff”, where I just show people a riff, or “Tall Tales”, where I just tell stories. It’s hilarious shit too. It worked very well. They said, “You have to charge something, you know.” It was the hardest part. I said, “Okay, what’s the least? Like five bucks a month or something. Okay. But really, the value, if you’re interested in guitar recording, there’s a whole episode I did on delay, on miking, there’s a great wealth of information when it comes to engineering. I designed all my records. So the Patreon is really nice – and also, I can go live and talk to these people and they get a little something special.
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