There’s a Fire in the House: A Conversation with Steve Vai (Part 1 of 4)

Playing melodically and “shredding” are each in their own way highly valued qualities in music, especially in the genre of hard rock. But those two qualities – crafting an accessible, memorable melody and displaying formidable instrumental pyrotechnics – come together only in the rarest cases. Exhibit A for melodic shredding is the music of Steve Vai. A guitar virtuoso, New York-born Vai has applied his prodigious talents as guitarist, composer, arranger, songwriter, instrument designer and band leader. He has released a dozen solo albums starting with his 1984 debut Flex-Able right through his recent work: an archival release and collaboration with old friend Johnny Sambretto, 2023’s Vai/Gash, and an album of great new music, 2022’s Inviolate.

Vai’s career has also included high-profile examples of him lending his skills to some of the biggest names in rock. He’s toured as lead guitarist with Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake and others, and has worked in the studio with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Mary J. Blige to Alice Cooper to Spinal Tap. Ahead of a concert tour with lifelong friend and fellow shredder Joe Satriani, he spoke with me about the what he’s learned from other musicians, as well as reflecting on the relationships between emotion and music, between feel and technique.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. A much shorter edit of this interview appeared previously in Rock On Magazine.

Your songs have always been about much more than serving as a sonic canvas for a solo; the music explores a wide variety of emotional textures as well. From where do you draw the emotional content that shows up in your music?

I draw my emotional investment in the music similar to the way anybody else would. You have to enter an emotional state of mind in order for it to authentically flow into whatever you’re doing: a melody, an intensity, a groove. The thing that I always focus on is melody.

I love shredding. I love going off into the most obtuse, abstract kind of performance I could muster. And where that comes from is desire: It’s an impulse to create, and everybody has that. It’s finding the fearlessness to do what you want to do, what your impulses are dictating. And the emotional content is always reflected in the depth of the ability of the music’s creator to go into an emotional state of mind.

Those emotions could be positive or negative, right?

Yeah; you can very easily see that in popular music. You know what’s on people’s minds: sex, heartbreak, all these kinds of things. And that’s fine. Many people feel that expressing their pain in their music – their emotional pain, is a cathartic way of dissolving it. But I don’t buy that at all. I think that whatever state of mind you enter into, you create more of. So beware how you feel when you’re writing and performing. You have to make a choice.

Frankly, I don’t have a lot of suffering in my life, so my songs don’t reflect that. They reflect other things. I do have challenges, and there’s an emotional element to those challenges, and that flows into the music. How you feel should flow into what you’re doing, and you are in control. You’re the only one in control of the quality of the emotional investment you want to make in your creations. So that’s your responsibility. You could do whatever you want, but whatever you do, you’re creating more of that for yourself.

So if I go back and play a song that I may have written 40 years ago that has a lot of angst in it, in order for me to perform that song effectively and authentically, I would have to feel angst-ridden. I choose not to do that.

So you just don’t perform those songs?

No, I don’t perform them. But I don’t have many of them. My songs are centered more around silliness, and funny, quirky, loving, very intense joy. There’s a desire to create melodies that satisfy, that are fulfilling and satisfying. There’s a difference between the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction and angst. And it’s always your choice. So I pull my emotional content from the same place everybody else does: their intentions.

The melodic qualities – the “heart” of your works, if you will – are perfectly balanced with technical brilliance, the “head” part of the music. Does that balance come naturally?

In the field that I function in, my technical abilities on the guitar are not really extraordinary [ed. note: oh yes they are!]. It’s what I play, it’s how I apply my technique that creates the voice. So I love melody, and I really love phrasing. And the guitar is the best instrument in the world to create phrasing, because the dynamics of it are extraordinary. You can color the sound. You pick it, you bend it, you hit it hard. All these incredible variations: pull-offs, hammers, anything that anybody does, they’re all available. And I like using those things in the melody as opposed to just, “Here’s a melody.”

Let’s take an example: “Call it Sleep” from Flex-Able, because there are a vast amount of dynamics and phrasing in the guitar part. If you listen, there’s so much that I love, using to get the melody to speak a certain way: all the articulations, dynamics. These are all part of the tools that you have to shape a melody to make it more effective.

An effective melody has to speak to somebody similar to the way a human voice speaks. When I speak to you, I use inflections, I use space, I use commas, I use periods and exclamation marks and question marks. These are all tools that we use to get our communication across. So the same thing holds true when you’re writing a melody. If I didn’t use all those things, and I just sat and talked to you like this [speaks in measured monotone] you’d get bored really quick! So I try to apply that to melodies.

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