There’s a Fire in the House: A Conversation with Steve Vai (Part 3 of 4)

Continued from Part Two

Beyond artists who are associated with the guitar, what musician has inspired you the most?

My favorite artist – maybe of all time – is Tom Waits. And he has nothing to do with what I do! Nothing at all. But it’s the artistry; it’s the commitment to creating a sonic emotion; Tom is just so connected and he’s so brilliant. There’s such a depth in what he does. He’s true artist because he creates atmospheres, and within that atmosphere, he’s capable. He just does this organically. He builds sonic tapestries that depict the emotional content in such a way that they’re transparent. They’re completely connected. And then the way that he sings things is completely in sync with the message. He’s beyond extraordinary. I never go anywhere without his entire catalog. He’s the whole picture.

Now, of course, you have to be interested in that kind of thing. It’s like were saying before: I may not really get the Rolling Stones, but Tom Waits? Man, that runs really deep with me.

I’ve always found this factoid fascinating: You took guitar lessons from Joe Satriani when you were young. Tell me about that.

I was 12. Joe was a little older than me: three, four years. We went to the same school. And my friend John Sergio, who lived a couple of doors down from me, was taking lessons from Joe. And I didn’t even play the guitar; I just couldn’t believe that my friend played it. I finally got a guitar and he gave me Joe’s number; Joe was already well known in our town. He was one of the cool older kids. He had hair in his face and all that hair! And he could play his ass off, man.

But Joe was always a class act and I started taking lessons from him. At first I had to take them with another friend of mine because I couldn’t afford them. They were $5 an hour, so we both chipped in. And then Joe came to me and said, “You have to take them separately because you’re taking off.” So I started to take private lessons from Joe, and did that virtually every week for five years. There were long stretches of time where he moved to Japan for six months or something, but it was quite a lot.

There were times when I stopped and I went to other teachers. There were times when I had one or two, sometimes three teachers a week because I wanted to learn more jazz, I wanted to learn this, that, whatever. But I remember at one point evaluating all my teachers; they didn’t even come close to Joe in connecting with me. So I would just go back to Joe all the time.

And he was something else, man. He was just a powerhouse. He loved the guitar, he loved music. He was so excited about music. He was able to take all the music theory that were learning in high school and apply it to the guitar. I was applying it to composing but I didn’t know how to apply it to the guitar. And that was one of the things with Joe. He taught me about these modes: you don’t just compose with them; you can play them on the guitar. So there was so much connecting.

And also he was very strict. You had to know your lesson; no messing around. My lessons were the most important thing in my life. I cherished them. Nothing was more important to me. It’s similar to the way so many youngsters now are in love with the guitar.

But my biggest takeaway from being taught by Joe – and this just flashes in my mind all the time – is that whenever he would put his fingers on the guitar, no matter what he played, whether it was an exercise or anything, it just sounded like music was coming out. It just sounded good. There was a class to it, and an integrity. And that’s a great lesson.

Joe and I have been joined at the hip since I was twelve. I’ve seen a lot in the arc of a musician’s career because I’ve seen my own and I’ve seen others. And I see how that can have various types of psychological effects on people. Fame, having to make big decisions, or what look like big decisions, money, awards, these kinds of things – it’s almost impossible for those things not to affect you. They affect everybody differently.

I know for me it’s been roller coaster type of a ride at times, but Joe Satriani never changed. He was as solid as the day is long. From the day I met him to now, he never got swept away by the lunacy that can accompany fame. That’s my perspective; to me he’s a hero and a mentor. So I might have a different perspective than others. My wife said it perfectly once. She said, “Joe’s like the Grand Canyon. He’s big, he’s wide, and he’s forever.” Or something like that!

I would say one other thing. A big part of my love for melody, and the fact that I do respect melody as being such an important aspect of music, may have been inspired by my lessons with Joe. Because, look, man: is there a more melodic guitar player?

All these years later, what’s the most fulfilling and enjoyable thing about working on stage with Joe?

It’s when he makes me laugh. Because sometimes we have this private kind of inside joke with [musical] notes. It’s hard to explain, but Joe has a really good Long Island, New York sense of humor; It’s kind of quirky and funny.

So sometimes I see him do things on the guitar when we’re playing together. And they’re just funny. Sometimes they’re funny because they’re so extraordinary, and they come from nowhere: “What was that?” And sometimes there’s a playful pantomiming, a taking the piss out of something, making fun of something. It’s hard to explain, but those are the moments when I giggle so hard!

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