No, no, hear me out – Steve Vai is one of the very few from the “Shred Shed” that transcends that silly notion. For a start, he knows when he’s being a ham. I don’t think Joe Satriani has that awareness.
The movie Crossroads was so important to me growing up. Not the Britney Spears vehicle (though the version of I Love Rock’n’Roll is…no, I’m kidding. It’s nothing).
Crossroads was Robert Johnson fan fiction starring The Karate Kid. And Steve Vai appears at the end as “a real good gee-tar player, name of Jack Butler”. Watching that film, aged 13, in a motel room with the hockey team – well, it was a formative experience. Sure, Ry Cooder’s score was a selling point of the movie – but there was something visceral about the performance of this Steve Vai guy. He was selling all of the absurdity of being a shred-king guitar-hero. It was wonderful to watch, and occasionally pretty good to listen to too. I had to find out more.
So I bought his then-new album, Passion and Warfare. And it was mesmerising. Like the very best of Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani and those sorts of players that you think, as a young kid, must have been beamed down to earth. But also he had this Frank Zappa-thing going on. (And then I’d find out that he played with Zappa, learned so much from him). Maybe that’s where Vai first learned (so much) about how and when to be a ham. Frank Zappa, apparently, would give instructions to Vai, like “that was good, but I want your tone to be like an electric ham sandwich”.
Then I start finding all these other things Vai had played on – an album before Passion, but also records with David Lee Roth (another guy who’s forgotten more about how to sell a performance than most people have ever known) and then I got onto that PiL album. The one called “Album”. What an album!
Steve Vai’s records got too big and too silly and I lost interest in him pretty quickly but I’d dive back to Passion and Warfare annually. Or so. And it was almost guilty-pleasure like.
Then I’d hear the odd new thing he’d do and be somewhat amazed at his arranging ideas, his idea for the role of the electric guitar. Like Jeff Beck you can see that Vai wants to use the guitar as voice, doesn’t just want to shred and wail but wants to be a conductor, a conduit, a virtuoso player who just happens to play the most rock’n’roll instrument ever: the electric lead guitar.
I saw Vai, for the first time, as part of the G3 concert. Look, the show was fucking ridiculous. Steve Lukather from Toto was boring as shit, and didn’t deserve to be there. Satriani was loud and humourless and though I have a soft spot for bits and pieces on his first three albums (and liked hearing Flying in a Blue Dream live, particularly) he was borderline atrocious. His everything-louder-than-everything-else approach was like something out of Spinal Tap. Or Bad News. Bad news indeed…
And then. In the middle of the show came the scene-stealer. Steve Vai. Vai was Zen. Vai was amazing. Beautifully intense with a cool charm, this was all about the rock-star look and strut but no back-room shred-guitar goon.
It was a command performance from a first violinist; it was like watching a magician – but in place of any smoke and mirrors there was simply true belief. It was spellbinding but there was never any hint of wool being pulled over eyes. This was just the outcome from years of hard work, dedication, devotion.
The 10-hour practice regime might have seemed excessive/exhaustive to read about – but it was very clear to see the proof of that workout.
Fretboard wankery is something I have grown to detest as the years pile up. I’d rather hear the truth in Jules Shear’s playing, or Jesse Winchester, J.D Souther, James Taylor…all of them would mean more to me than Satriani’s guitar-onanism.
But somehow Vai’s performance transcended – it was the very best bits of shred and silliness, of technique and talent and it was all wrapped up in this constantly mesmerising star-of-the-show look and feel and showmanship.
Vai wasn’t just playing the guitar. He was playing the music – playing himself (rather than playing with himself). The guitar just the conduit.
I then saw Vai solo a couple of years later. His own show. It went on for hours. And was kinda horrible.
But if you could distil what he does – and the way he does it – down to 45 minutes (as was the case with his G3 set) then I have no doubt you’re seeing the very best in the world. The greatest. One of the absolute greatest.