While many musicians fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai's unique musical vision remains unclassifiable. After more than 20 years, Vai continues to use unbridled guitar virtuosity and soulful artistry to explore the spectrum of human emotion.
From his self-released solo debut "Flex-Able" (1984) to his most recent "Alive In An Ultra World" (2001, Epic), Vai creates a sound all his own by striking a balance between technical ability and poetic phrasing. "I make music to push my own buttons," explains Vai. "I've always been driven by an addiction to create sounds that are unique – not better than what other people do, just different."
That obsession with running down the voodoo in his head remains the guiding force behind Vai's ongoing musical evolution and what he loves most about being a musician. "For me, the real gravy is when I hear a strange or beautiful sound in my head and then make it real in the world using the devices I have as a musician," says Vai. "The things that have never been done before are what interest me most."
His desire to break new ground led Vai to a special performance with the 100-piece Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra this summer in Japan. Together they performed a concerto for electric guitar called "Fire Strings" composed by distinguished Japanese composer and concert pianist Ichiro Nodaira. Learning the 20 minutes of raging, atonal electric guitar was the most demanding challenge of Vai's career. "It's almost impossible to play, and that's why I did it," says Vai. "I think a few other guitar players could play it, but I don't know any who would because of the tremendous time and dedication the music required. It was certainly an honor to be a part of it."
Growing up on Led Zeppelin and progressive rock, Vai has always had a penchant for the conceptual side of rock. While many of his albums revolve around a specific thematic axis, Vai considers "Alive in an Ultra World" (2001, Epic) the high point of his conceptual efforts.
A contender for one of the most ambitious live albums ever recorded, Vai wrote, rehearsed and recorded the music for the two-disc set during a 32-country world tour. Each song is dedicated to a different country – Bulgaria, Spain and Romania to name a few – and reflects the flavor of each country's indigenous music. Creating the album was equally exhausting and rewarding. "On paper the project looks insurmountable," says Vai. "I wrote songs in the morning, rehearsed the new music at sound check with the band in the afternoon, played a two and a half hour show at night and then download the show from my mobile studio later that night. Somewhere in all that craziness, I found time to immerse myself in music from different countries.
"It was hell on me and the band making that record, but when I listen to the music now there are no words that can describe the joy I feel for having made that fantasy a reality."
"Alive in an Ultra World" includes "Whispering a Prayer (Song for Ireland)," which earned Vai his sixth Grammy nomination to go along with his 1991 Grammy win for best rock instrumental performance for his version of Frank Zappa's "Sofa" on the live Zappa tribute album, "Zappa's Universe." "Whispering a Prayer is probably the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever played in my life," says Vai. "Every time I play it, I'm overcome by feelings of freedom and happiness."
In contrast, Vai needed 20 years of patience to realize his idea for "The Seventh Song: Enchanting Guitar Melodies - Archives Vol. 1" (2000, Epic). The album features the seventh song from every Vai solo album before 2000. "The seventh song on my records has always been the wistful, screaming guitar ballad. Those songs sounded a bit out of place on the original records, but when I put them all together it creates a beautiful, flowing musical experience."
Without a doubt his biggest achievement in terms of sheer girth is "The Secret Jewel Box" (2001-Ongoing, Light Without Heat) – a 10-CD compilation documenting Vai's career through a mix of rarities, outtakes and oddities. Each disc explores a different facet of Vai's career including his soundtrack contributions, work with Frank Zappa, live and studio recordings with Alcatrazz, Japanese-only releases and an eclectic art piece that includes music interspersed with dialogue.
The collection of hard-to-find gems and unreleased music is a gold rush for fans. "The Secret Jewel Box is a way for me to gather in one place a lot of the hard to find things I've done in the past," explains Vai. "I think hardcore fans will really enjoy the CD that features a band I was in before I recorded 'Passion and Warfare' called The Classified. That music truly is the missing link between my first and second albums."
Vai first stepped into the spotlight in 1980 as a guitarist in Frank Zappa's band. But Vai's indelible contribution to music came during his solo career, which includes combined sales of nearly six million albums. His debut - "Flex-Able" (1984, self-released) – set the stage for Vai's most influential and best-selling album – "Passion and Warfare" (1990, Relativity). The album expanded the lexicon of rock guitar and ushered in an era of guitar virtuosos in the early '90s. Ironically, two record labels dropped Vai while he recorded the breakthrough album.
"I didn't know what people were going to think of that record, I just knew that I had to make it," recalls Vai. "I locked myself in the studio, and the music that had been building up in my imagination for years all came rushing out. Honestly, I thought the record was going to sell about 10 copies. Instead it went gold in a week."
Despite the album's unqualified commercial and artistic success, it set Vai up for an inevitable backlash in the mid-'90s. "Guitar players in the '80s were trying to outplay our influences – people like Jimmy Page, Brian May and Ritchie Blackmore. Some of us were good at it and some of us were just wankers; I've been accused of being both," laughs Vai. "Eventually, that style of guitar playing hit a wall and that's when grunge took over."
Although his music was replaced on the charts by the Seattle sound, Vai became a major influence on the post-grunge era. Current guitar idols like James "Munky" Shaffer of Korn, Mike Eizinger of Incubus and Tom Morello of Audioslave all cite Vai as a major inspiration.
Not only did Vai's music have a huge on influence contemporary hard rock, so did his guitar. In 1987, Vai helped guitar-maker Ibanez design the JEM, and then in 1989, the Universe 7-String guitar, which provided the low-end rumble many guitarists were craving.
Vai continues to work with Ibanez, and literally put himself into a recent collaboration dubbed the JEM VAI2K DNA guitar - a limited-edition release of the JEM. "Ibanez used my blood – a lot of my blood – in the guitar's swirling paint job," explains Vai. "Maybe a hundred years from now, when someone decides to clone me from the blood in the paint, my clone will finally figure out how get his music on the radio."
In addition to his influence on musical inspiration and innovation, Vai began branching out into the business of music last year by launching his own record label – Favored Nations. The label struck Grammy gold in 2002 for best pop instrumental album for "No Substitutions" by Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather.
Throughout his career, Vai's creative impulses have been inspired by a deeply-held spiritual commitment to improving the world through his music and actions. "The most important thing in my life is trying to achieve some sort of spiritual balance because everything flows from that," explains Vai. "When I'm looking back on my life when I'm 70, I want to be proud of the contributions I've made to society, not just in terms of music, but socially too. That's what drives me these days."
One of Vai's earliest philanthropic endeavors was the Make a Noise Foundation, which he founded with Richard Pike in 1988. The organization continues to provide musical instruments and music education to young musicians who cannot afford them.
To fund the project, Vai regularly auctions off his music gear. "I set out to cultivate a rich musical awareness among young people because of the experience I had at the Berklee College of Music," explains Vai. "The best music education I got was at the school's listening library where they had every kind of music available. Being exposed to different kinds of music was a big contributor to my musical awakening. I started Make A Noise, in part, to help others have the same experience I had."
Helping young musicians is a cause that hits close to home for Vai, who grew up in Carle Place, New York. When Vai was accepted to Berklee his father sold his life insurance policy to pay for the tuition. Vai graduated from Berklee in 1979 and in 2000 was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the esteemed college. "I was really lucky to have a family that was supportive of me going off to college to pursue music," says Vai. "My dad especially was there for me—paying for guitar lessons and then driving me there no matter where or when. I owe my family a debt of gratitude for all they did."
His most unlikely charity effort began a few years ago when Vai turned his beekeeping hobby into a way to raise money for Make a Noise. "I got into beekeeping by chance," recalls Vai. "For some reason, a bunch of bees decided to live in the wall of my neighbor's house. My neighbor wasn't happy, but as a result my wife's garden looked fantastic. When my family moved, I decided to plant fruit trees and found out honeybees were the best way to pollinate them so I got my first swarm. My family harvests the honey each year and we give some of it away at Christmas and auction the rest for charity."
Playing the role of King Bee has become an unexpected source of relaxation for Vai. "Bees are fascinating creatures and taking care of them can be a Zen like experience if you let it be," says Vai. "It's one of the few times of the day that I really do something that's entirely for me. I can forget about all the contractual obligations and just hang out with the bees."
But it is Vai's work with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) – the Grammy organization – that excites him the most. He served on the board of governors with NARAS for almost three years and was recently promoted to trustee.
The new position gives Vai an opportunity to expand his charity work and help more people. "For 25 years, I dedicated all my creativity to finding different ways to get from one note to the next using a whammy bar," says Vai. "Now that I'm working with the academy, I've found a forum where I can channel some of my creativity into finding ways to give back."
Discovering new challenges isn't hard for Vai; it's finding the time to do them that is the tricky part. One major aspiration high on his list is to record the quintessential solo guitar record while he still has the dexterity to pull it off. "I don't feel like I've made a record that expresses my full potential on guitar," explains Vai. "I'm fighting time on this project because I'm getting older and at some point I'm going to hit a wall physically. While I still have the chops to do it, I want to make my definitive guitar statement."
Perhaps that album, Vai says, would signal the end to one chapter in his career and the start of a new one. While he has no plans to put down the guitar, Vai would like to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a composer. "I love the way music looks on paper. It looks like art to me," says Vai. "When I first understood what music was, I wanted to be a composer. I've got stacks and stacks of scores that I've written that have never been recorded or performed. I'm really looking forward to exploring new territory."