The Vai advantage

The hard rock guitar legend will help lucky Israelis unlock their inner musician.

Steve Vie 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Steve Vie 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Ask him about his sixth finger," a friend advised when he heard I was going to talk to hard rock guitar legend Steve Vai. The friend had just returned from a visit to Los Angeles, where he visited a landmark music store with its own unique walk of fame - featuring the handprints of some of the most accomplished rock and jazz guitarists through the ages. And sure enough, the print of Vai's right hand sported an extra digit. "That's the Vai advantage," laughed the 52-year-old Vai, when queried about his appendage, while coyly not confirming or denying the assertion. In truth, having an extra digit on your picking hand doesn't really make a difference. But when listening to Vai rattle off lightning-fast, intricate passages on any of the dozens of albums he's performed on over the last 29 years as guitarist for as diverse a spectrum as one-time teacher Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa, Whitesnake and David Lee Roth, or as an accomplished solo artist, it sounds like he has 20 extra fingers on his fretting hand. A prototype lead guitarist - skinny, yet chiseled frame, with long, flowing hair - Vai lived the rock & roll dream at an early age. But he always aspired to more than that, and since 1984, he's been releasing a series of increasingly complex and challenging solo albums that expand the boundaries of the definition of rock guitarist. "It was great to play in bands, but it was a distraction, in a way. I made a lot of money, became famous and had a great time, but in the back of my mind, there was this other music that was pulling me," said Vai, an Italian-American who grew up in New York. "I knew I was going to have to stop everything and do it. When I did it, I felt that it was the end of the big rock star stance for me, but it didn't bother me." The lessons that Vai has learned about music and life, not necessarily in that order, make up the bulk of a master class he's developed over the last few years called Alien Guitar Secrets. In the two-and-a-half hour session that he's presenting in Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium on June 30th, Vai will discusses music theory, guitar techniques, the music business and most importantly, techniques on how to discover and unlock a musician's personal musical identity. It also includes a question-and-answer session, and a few attendees will be chosen to jam with Vai in the class finale. "Occasionally through the years, I would hold a seminar or clinic. There are so many things I learned through the years from experience, and I enjoy the process of teaching and speaking. So I put together a curriculum for an hour class. It ended up being a five-hour class, but I eventually compressed it down to two hours," said Vai. "Once I got it down, it started becoming wildly successful and I started getting offers from around the world. It's easy and fun for me, and it's something to do in between tours and records." ACCORDING TO Vai, a young musician today has a plethora of avenues in which to learn the academics and theory of guitar playing, like the Internet. But it can't teach you how to develop yourself as a player, he cautioned. "When I look back at the style and evolution of my technique, I realized that you can't learn it unless you go through it yourself. It's all about discovering and cultivating your own voice on the instrument, and the techniques that can be employed. It's an intense process to find your own self in the music," he said. But it's not just the philosophical side of music-making that Vai tackles in Alien Guitar Secrets, it's also the business of making music. "Everyone wants to know how to make a record, and that's something I've done independently. I have my own label today and I understand how it all works, so I share some of that. I usually put that music industry stuff at the end, so sometimes we just don't have enough time for it," he said, adding that questions from the audience often take up a good part of the class. And, of course, there's the music itself, the main feature that attracts Vai guitar disciples to every master class he gives. Vai offers impromptu demonstrations throughout the classes on one of the many guitars he brings with him. "The general setup of the seminar is maybe an hour spent talking about identifying your unique voice and developing your ears, there's maybe 20 minutes of performances with me playing live myself and playing to tapes as well. The remainder is a Q & A, and it covers the spectrum from what kind of strings to 'how does that solo go?'" said Vai. "I enjoy it very much and it's a completely different dynamic from playing a show. Onstage, I'm in a different mind set, almost hypnotized. Alien is very open and easy." At the end of each seminar, about 10 lucky audience members who put their ticket stub into a raffle are chosen to come onstage and jam with Vai. While the guitar hero is happy to have the company, he admitted that he still hasn't discovered the next coming of Hendrix - or Steve Vai - yet. "I've had a lot of players come up at the end of the class. There hasn't been anybody that provoked a 'whoa' - and has blown me away. A lot of players can play well with interesting technique and tunings, but that just isn't enough," he said. VAI KNOWS all about interesting technique and tunings. As a fresh graduate from the prestigious Berklee School of Music, the 20-year-old virtuoso joined Zappa's eclectic band after wowing the late musical legend with his ability to transcribe guitar solos and play complex score music on sight. Vai said his years with Zappa provided him with valuable training, both in musical and life lessons. "I learned a lot from knowing and working with Frank. I learned to protect my intellectual property, to march to the beat of my own drum. I learned that if I have a vision for something, I should do it myself because nobody's going to do it for me, and I learned to be honest and fair," said Vai. "Frank was the most intelligent, honest and fair person I've ever met. If you were going to talk to Frank, you had better be prepared to use your mind." After amicably separating from Zappa, Vai played with a slew of artists and bands over the next few years, including Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and the aforementioned Lee Roth and Whitesnake. But beginning with his solo debut - Flex-Able in 1984 - his priority has remained his solo career, resulting in his most influential and best-selling album, Passion and Warfare, in 1990. Even though his style of playing fell out of fashion in the grunge-worshipping mid-1990s, current guitarists like James "Munky" Shaffer of Korn, Mike Eizinger of Incubus and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine all cite Vai as a major inspiration. For him, it's sweet justification that he chose the right path. "When I started my solo career, I didn't think whether I was ready for it, or if it was the right move to make. It was something I needed to do. I guess that's the best advice I can give - to find what it is that completes you musically. If you're playing or creating something that shows that, then people will respond to it and find you," he said, adding that making his own records was an act of freedom. "I was creating something that was honest to my inner ear, and I was fortunate that other people liked it. I didn't really think it would be accepted, because it was too personal and quirky." While many of the guitar hero wannabies that attend his seminars hope that Vai will disclose the secret to developing and maintaining a music career, the veteran generally offers some sobering words for those in the audience who think their future is lined with gold. "I think if a teen or a young adult is thinking about choosing guitar as a career, he shouldn't. Simple as that," he said. "It's not something you have a choice over. If you're destined to be a musician, you're drenched in the hue of it, you simply don't have a choice. I would say that you don't feel completely overwhelmed and compelled to be a musician, then you should just play music for fun your whole life, for the love and enjoyment of it. "I wouldn't want to discourage someone, but at the same time, I wouldn't want him to go through a life of unhappiness." That's something that Steve Vai has managed to easily avoid so far, no matter whether he has five or six fingers.