Nowadays, the mastery of a guitar virtuoso shocks nobody. You can easily find videos on Youtube where young kids are shredding at the speed of a bullet on guitars which are bigger than themselves. But still today, there is one man whose contribution to music never fails to amaze. 33 years have passed since his first solo album was released, but he's still king of the guitar world and on a completely different level. He's won three Grammy awards and been nominated for thirteen more. A re-inventor and a madcap, an incarnation of talent and passion. His name is Steve Vai. Today, we are honoured to discuss with this incredible personality his music, guitars, career and life values. This interview was pretty long so we will be splitting it into two parts – part one is dedicated to his guitars and gear and the second part is about his personal life, career, fame, money and… bees? We will of course also get some valuable recommendations and inspiration from the maestro himself.
Backstage Secrets: Hello Steve! Thank you so much for your precious time!
Steve Vai: Of course guys! I always love good talk!
BS: So you’ve moved over to Fractal Axe FX, moving away from a traditional stompboxes based rig. How did you find this transition? Did it take long to find your sound again?
SV: I’ve always used a combination of rack gear and stomp boxes. I’ve always really liked stomp boxes, there’s a certain charm to them... a romance. They’re very colourful and some stomp boxes you’ll get a sound of it you’re just not going to get out of multi fx modules. I’ve been using multi fx modules since they came out and really early in my career the first two pieces of rack gear that I had were these Roland SD 2000’s. I used them for things like delay and chorus and they were just great, but I’ve always had both components. In the 80’s, before multi fx modules came out all of these rack pieces were separate, so in the David Lee Roth days I had tonnes of these racks with loads of gear in. But I’ve still always had stompboxes because things like distortion just don’t work in the digital domain, and there’s certain analogue pieces like chorus and pitch shifts that I try to not use rack gear for because they don’t have that warmth that stompboxes do.
When the Axe FX came out I did a very forensic test with it, and I found the converters were just awesome. They were the best converters I’ve heard in a piece of rack gear. The engines in the Fractal and the things you can do have so much freedom, but you have to know what you’re doing. Today it’s the only rack gear I use, other than that it’s just stomp boxes.
BS: What about other similar equipment such as the Kempler? Have you tried that?
SV: Well I have a Kemper… I haven’t tried it yet!
BS: Is this a thing then, where you just accrue guitar gear and never use it?
SV: Thomas my guitar tech just keeps bringing me stuff. I have a stack of gear I’m still working on getting through! I don’t use digital preamps or modelling though. Maybe one day I would, but there’s nothing that matches me just plugging into my Legacy. Nothing’s come even close. The way the notes hit your fingers and ears, with something as beautifully compressed and user friendly as the analogue sound of my Legacy, these digital modelling preamps, they just sound small to me. The real test is when you take these onto the battlefield. In your room you can play around with all these simulated amps, cabinets and combinations of where the mic goes. It’s all very deep, and it could sound very good in your room, but once it’s on the stage where the tone has to compete with the drums, the monitors, the bass, the keyboards, it just doesn’t cut through. Cutting through does not mean high-end, it’s the warmth and girth of the sound and it’s just not there. You sound like a deranged mosquito! With the Legacy… I’m there.
BS: You look back to the 90’s when modelling and multi-fx units started coming through. It’s getting big now and you’re using it in your rig. Where do you see this stuff going in 10-20 years? Do you think it will ever beat the tube amplifier in terms of complex algorithms and stuff?
SV: Well the thing I’ve noticed about us humans and the inexorable march of technology, is there are two things we are always striving for. One is convenience and the other is quality. And we’re never going to stop. Why should we? We never have. It’s going to evolve, so if I was going to guess where it’s going to go… One of three things is probably going to happen. The analogue rich sound will continue for a while to be the preferred ‘ear-candy’ and with mixed in digital stuff, or another thing is the convenience of digital stuff is you plug in and everything is in it. So they may continue to evolve the sound of digital to get closer to the warmth and integrity of a tube amplifier. Or something else is going to come along that’s completely off our radar right now!
BS: Like some kind of alien technology?
SV: Yeah, and it may not be digital, it may not be analogue. It could be... sound waves generated from the gravitational field of the earth, versus the moon. It could happen!
BS: It could! So let’s move onto your famous axe, the Ibanez JEM. So why did you go to Ibanez in the first place when you wanted to create the JEM?
SV: When I was a kid I loved Strats and Les Pauls, but they both had aspects to them that were difficult for me. I loved Strats and they had a whammy bar… and i knew i had to have a whammy bar! But they only had 22 frets and I just didn’t like the sound of those single coil pickups, they weren’t rock and roll enough for me. Les Pauls, I couldn’t really play. I liked the way they looked, but I couldn’t sit with them and they only had 22 frets too. With none of these guitars could you reach up and play in the high register and I could never understand why these guys would make these guitars with the frets but no access to them. So it was really just an innocent desire back in 83/84 that I wanted to create my own guitar. At the time, I’d just finished my first David Lee Roth tour. I really wanted 24 frets and it was hard to find 24 frets back then. The Jacksons had them but I wasn’t keen on how they looked. So I went to this little guitar shop in Hollywood and I had this guy make me this guitar. I outlined the body, I liked the Strat shape, but wanted something a little… ‘sexier’. Strat’s always looked a little pedestrian to me. And just look at it! It’s sexy!
*Steve proceeds to pull out a Seafoam coloured JEM*
SV: This is my original one, and I made it 24 frets and double cutaway so I can just easily play up here. It’s scalloped and feels great to play. But the pickup configuration was something I was concerned with too, because back then I loved the sound of the humbuckers but when you’re in that middle position with the strats, you get that 2 single coil sound and that was really impactive to me. So what I ended up doing was coming up with this pickup configuration with a 5 position switch that splits the coil in this position, so you get two single coils with that hot tubey/stratty sound. And it’s perfect! I have no desire for anything else, it’s everything I need. There’s no other guitar that feels nearly as comfortable. I did other things too, like this cutaway - it was the first floating tremolo system that was on the JEM, truly floating! And this silly handle… just because I can.
BS: So how did you choose the company to produce this perfect guitar for you?
SV: I sent out the guitar to a lot of companies and I said whoever makes me the best guitar, I’ll play. I got back all these guitars and they were my guitar with their name on it, and they had their own little differences here and there. But I was just like… no, this is the guitar I want.
Then Ibanez, they just made the perfect guitar. They made the JEM, and it was just my dream guitar.
BS: Have you ever taken any ridiculous designs to Ibanez? Ideas they’ve just looked at and thought… nah.
SV: No they always make whatever I want. They even push me to be even crazier! But you’d be surprised how some of the big things are easy and some of the little things are hard. For instance, I designed this guitar with Ibanez that I’m going to use on my next record. For this next record what I’m thinking of is all the songs are going to be trio based. There’s going to be three records. The first one is all very clean tones, the second is more my normal distorted tone and the third one is just this incredibly heavy, tuned-down, hard, heavy-heavy-heavy… just as heavy as I can get. Because that’s what I like! But I designed this guitar and right now they’re just calling it the Steampunk guitar and you’re not going to believe it! It’s just crazy!
BS: Are there any concept models out in the public yet? Is this something we could get our hands on?
SV: Oh no... there’s only one. It’s got like three necks and it’s got sympathetic strings... it’s wild! It’s got blowers on it for smoke and all this crazy stuff!
BS: Amazing! Have you got it with you now?
SV: I… I can’t really show it to you. But yeah Ibanez are happy to do this for me. But one thing I couldn’t get them to do for me and it’s kind of revolutionary, is I can’t understand why you need to use a tool to change your strings, or tune. It’s just ridiculous. Where’s my tool right now? I don’t know! But I need it to do my guitar. It’s bad design and it’s archaic, it’s just not good enough. Why should you have to use a tool? It should take just 20 seconds to change a string, but you can’t. So I tried to get Ibanez to build a neck clamp that’s very simple and doesn’t require tools, and a bridge. But doing stuff like that is more challenging because it requires a tremendous amount of engineering, because you’re reinventing something that no one can figure out, or has yet and do it right. I have thoughts and diagrams but we just couldn’t get that together… And that’s one thing!
BS: I can imagine there would be issues with things like tuning though that would make that difficult.
SV: Someone’s going to invent it! Okay, someone might be listening to this and I have a request. Can you please design a guitar tremolo system that gives you: all the bending down and pulling up of something like the JEM, requires no tools, stays in tune perfectly no matter what and has no digital components. People have made stuff and brought it to me that keeps the guitar in tune, but it just doesn’t work. They put it through digital modelling and say “if you want it to sound like an EVO through a Legacy just push this button” and it doesn’t have anything to do with the EVO and the Legacy and it just has latency and that digital sound… but it’s in tune! So it would be great to have something that when you break a string your guitar does not go out of tune and when you bring the whammy bar down they go down evenly. No one’s been able to do that yet… it’s possible, but they’re intimidated or just haven’t thought of it.
BS: So on the subject of bells and whistles on guitars, what do you think of things like the Kaoss Pad and other things people incorporate into their guitar? With the way technology is advancing can you just see more and more of this stuff going onto guitars?
SV: Well I’m all for the evolution of technology and how people apply it to their instrument and use it. Thomas my guitar tech is really really into this stuff and brings me all these crazy devices, like the one you just mentioned and one you wave your hand and a wah-wah happens. They’re really interesting and I bet for a lot of people they’re really creative tools, but I just haven’t gotten into it.
These days I’m just more into note phrasing and inspired melody.
But there’s nothing wrong with any of that kind of stuff!
BS: Okay so imagine a guitar 50 years from now… What do you think it would look like?
SV: Maybe it’ll be invisible and you just play it with your mind!
BS: Well guitars are becoming more at one with us already! Have you seen the trainers you can wear that have a wah pedal built into them?
SV: I haven’t seen it but some people would be into that!
BS: Right so let’s move onto your relationship with Carvin, your amps. With the Legacy 3 for example, what brought about that change? What made you think “I need a new iteration?”
SV: Well the Legacy 1 was just ideal, the sound of it was… perfect. And then the Legacy 2, it had a different colour and although it was a good amp I preferred the Legacy 1. When you’re on the battlefield for a tour and your ears will tell you what you like better. So I kind of wanted something with the engine of the Legacy 1, but with a few more ‘accoutrements’ that I needed. For instance, the master volume control is really useful, we don’t have them on the Legacy 1. And the 2nd channel that you can make dirty. You see the thing about amplifiers, the more wiring and gain stages you have, the more the integrity of the signal suffers. The Legacy is a very clean amp signal, and we try to keep them as absolutely simple as possible. I see amplifiers with things like four channels, four different volume stations, the back of the amp, a gain here, a volume here, a master volume. It goes through more and more circuitry and you hear it, you feel it. They just don’t sound right to me. But that doesn’t mean anything because it’s just my gear!
BS: So have you got anything in the works at the moment for a new model? Or anything you would improve on the Legacy 3 at the moment?
SV: Well the thing that we did that we’re very excited about recently with Carvin is we made the Legacy drive pedal. It’s the preamp of the Legacy that I love so much. It’s where all the tone is, the distortion, the EQ. It took a year and a half to two years to develop the Legacy. I knew what I was looking for, but knew nothing about amps or their construction. So they just kept making different versions and tweaking them and tweaking them. Poor Carvin! The problem is I travel so much and dragging amplifiers is really expensive, so I wanted the sound of the Legacy without… the amp! So Carvin made this incredible little Legacy drive pedal that sounds just like a Legacy. It’s tube and it’s small but it doesn’t have a power amp in it, but for me that’s an easy fix because any good clean power will be fine. So if I’m in… Siberia and I need a power amp, they’re relatively easy to find compared to a Legacy!
BS: And do you think it’s nailed that sound then? You take a small form factor pedal and compare it the size of the amp with all the circuitry involved. Do you think it’s done it?
SV: Well I have to tell you, I can’t tell the difference! The only thing is if I use a different power amp and return the Legacy drive pedal into something different than a Legacy, there might be a colour change. But it’s not anything drastic.
BS: So what do you think about Carvin’s guitar models then? Aside from their amps.
SV: I don’t know anything about them! I mean I’ve played a few of them, but I’ve played a lot of guitars
*Konstantin from Backstage Secrets disappears for a moment and reappears clutching a white Carvin guitar*
SV: Haha! They do make great products you know. But as with other guitars, I’ll pick it up, play it for a bit then just go back to my JEM. I’m finding out the older I get, the more of an old guy I am!
BS: Okay so let’s finish this off with some quick fire effects pedal based questions! First one - If you could keep just one type of effects pedal, what would you keep?
SV: Probably a stereo delay. I like delay! It just fills things out, makes me feel like I’ve got friends around me and for me, it kind of covers up a lot of my mistakes!
BS: So what kind of effects are you not a fan of? Any sort of effect you never go to?
SV: I like compression in the right settings, but I don’t compress my sound live and there’s certain things I stay far, far away from like digital distortion or analogue reverb. Otherwise, things like phasers, there’s a place for.
I use everything! But for me, if you give me a distortion pedal and a delay pedal, Steve Vai is very happy.
BS: What do you think of antique gear that amasses a cult following? Like the Klon Centaur for example. Do you think these things are worth the thousands they sell for? Or do you think it’s all hype?
SV: Well I’m not a big collector of antiques. I don’t really have a lot of vintage guitars and I have none that are really valuable. I try them, but I just don’t see the romance. If I had an old Les Paul that was worth half a million dollars, it would just have to sound good and feel good. None of that stuff really means anything to me. To me, it’s just the personality of the instrument. Yeah there’s a romance in antique stuff and there’s some stuff I have that’s kind of old, but I’m just not one of those guys that’s really interested in that. But I see the ‘candy’ in it so to speak! I went through a period where I was really, really into antique Harley Davidsons. Bought a bunch of them and I just loved the way they looked. With old things, there’s just a quality and aesthetic that's substantial. A lot of new stuff seems a lot more on the peripheral side or just the way it feels when you look at it. One of the great things about the electric guitar is you can colour it with so many cool little stomp boxes. Okay, so… I collect hot sauce. Yeah, the bottles of hot sauce! It’s the labels, the labels are just really cool. People are very creative, they go outside of the box and name their hot sauce something really funny and put these little illustrations on. I just like them! Everyones got their own kind of hobby. It’s the same thing with stomp boxes.
*Steve spontaneously stands up and walks into his studio and shows us his cabinets full of effects pedals, all neatly organised and categorised by different effects types. He finishes his tour with a reveal of his secret hot sauce stash*
BS: Have you ever considered getting your own hot sauce designed guitar pedal?
SV: I haven’t got that crazy yet! But yeah I can absolutely understand why people like to collect foot pedals
BS: Yeah and there’s so much variety out there, they’re like pieces of art. Even before you plug something in there’s just so much character to it.
SV: Yeah! And the sound has a tendency to take the shape, in a weird psychological way, to the colour and aesthetic of the box. It’s like an album cover, when you’re looking at the cover and the artwork and the music kind of takes on the personality of that artwork.
...to be continued in chapter 2 where Steve will share his personal secrets and knowledge.
Special thanks to Igor Vidyashev and Neil Zlozower, amazing rock star photographers who helped us set up the interview with Steve Vai. Igor has given us the opportunity to post his exclusive pictures of Steve.
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