Another Tuesday, another guitarist…
This week we have Steve Vai, a frighteningly adroit musician who’s worked with a mind-boggingly wide range of artists. You may find this hard to believe (I sure do), but he’s appeared on records by people as diverse as:
- Frank Zappa
- Public Image Ltd.
- David Lee Roth
- L. Shankar
- Lisa Popeil (no, I’ve never heard of her either)
- Whitesnake (the less said about that, the better)
And a whole heap of other artists as well. The “With other artists” list on his Wikipedia page is hideously long. (Can one musician have played with that many other musicians?) And the full discography page on his website is even longer. I thought that he might have set himself a limit at some stage (e.g., “I’ll just work with three thousand musicians this year”) but no, he just keeps on recording.
Oh, yeah: Steve is also on the soundtrack of the 1986 movie Crossroads – and he appeared in the movie as well (Steve played The Devil’s guitarist).
Now, this is useless information but I think it’s cute: when Steve worked with Frank Zappa he was credited on Frank’s albums with titles such as “Stunt Guitarist” and “Impossible Guitar Parts”. Frank once described Steve as “My little Italian virtuoso”.
In concert, Vai does have a habit of not knowing when to put on the brakes (like David Gilmour, once he starts playing it’s hard to get him to stop), but I guess that comes with the territory – i.e., when you’re a guitar hero, you assume that people want to hear as much of your guitar playing as possible, so you play as much as possible.
Steve may irritate a lot of people with his I-don’t-have-an-off-switch guitar playing on stage, but in the studio he’s apparently a dream to work with. He’s so technically proficient that he can go into a recording studio and immediately do anything asked of him. Guitar Player Magazine prefaced their first interview with him by stating that he probably has the best sight-reading* and transcribing* skills of any guitarist anywhere.
Okey dokey. Enough of the yammering. Let’s listen to Señor Vai in action.
But before that, I must let you know that I’ll only be playing you tracks from the CD’s I have with Steve on ’em. He’s recorded so much that I didn’t want to spend months trawling through his entire discography, auditioning countless tracks, just for a blog post that would be read in three minutes.
OK. Now for the music…
To begin with, I’ll play you the very first thing of his I ever heard. It’s called “The Attitude Song” and it’s one of Steve’s own tracks (he hadn’t embarked on his marathon “I’ll play with anyone” journey yet). It appeared on a flexi-disc (a very, very thin vinyl 7″ single that you could put in magazines) that came with the October 1984 issue of Guitar Player Magazine:
Steve Vai – “The Attitude Song” (1984)
“The Attitude Song” ended up on Steve’s first solo album, Flex-Able (1984). (As far as his fingers are concerned, he certainly is.)
Here’s another track from Flex-Able:
Steve Vai – “Viv Woman” (1984)
Incidentally, this release by PiL is the most generically packaged music I’ve ever seen (and this is coming from someone who bought The Nothing Record). The vinyl version of the album was called Album and the cassette was called Cassette. I opted for the Compact Disc.
The big single from Album/Compact Disc/Cassette was “Rise”. There’s not much in the way of guitar heroics, but Steve’s on it, and it was a hit for Public Image Ltd., so…
Public Image Ltd. – “Rise” (1986)
But the highlight of the album, from a guitar fan’s point of view, is undoubtedly “Ease”. The song has a monumental guitar solo that just keeps going as the song slowly fades. The solo is stunning. The two-and-a-half minute noodle-fest starts at 5:39:
Public Image Ltd. – “Ease” (1986)
I next heard El Vai-o pop up on David Lee Roth‘s first solo album, Eat ‘Em And Smile (1986). Playing with Diamond Dave was a bit of a change from the intensity of John Lydon‘s rants, bit Steve just fit right in. Here’s the first single from Eat ‘Em And Smile, “Yankee Rose”, where Steve’s guitar talks to David at the start of the track:
David Lee Roth – “Yankee Rose” (1986)
And from the same album, here’s “Big Trouble”. The reason I’m playing you this particular track is the guitar solo. Steve transcribed it for an issue of Guitar Player Magazine when Eat ‘Em And Smile was released. Every single note and inflection was written down, and I marvelled at the ocean of black dots in the sheet music laid out before me. It was great fun listening to the solo and reading what he was actually playing. The solo begins at 2:14. As far as rock guitar solos go, I think it’s a masterpiece:
David Lee Roth – “Big Trouble” (1986)
The next time I heard Mr. Vai-o-lin, it was on another flexi-disc in the October 1986 issue of Guitar Player Magazine. The track was called “Blue Powder” and was supposed to demonstrate Carvin amplifiers. To me, it demonstrated the power of guitar playing to melt your brain:
Steve Vai – “Blue Powder” (1986)
Mr. Vai then released his second solo album, Passion And Warfare, in 1990 and guitar fans went wild, as it contains some pretty amazing rock guitar playing. If amazing rock guitar playing does nothing for you, then you’ll probably think it’s a dreadful album (which is fair enough – not everyone likes amazing guitar playing). But for guitar fans it’s one of the best rock guitar records ever made.
“Blue Powder” ended up on Passion And Warfare. (I’m glad it did, because those flexi-discs weren’t known for their longevity, and after a few plays that very, very thin vinyl started getting thinner.)
Another track on Passion And Warfare is “Erotic Nightmares”. Before I implore you to press ‘Play’, I hope you don’t mind if I inflict a little anecdote on you. Once, years ago, I went shopping for loudspeakers (before computers came along, I was a hi-fi nut), and like any decent hi-fi nut I took a swag of CDs with me to test their capabilities. Passion and Warfare was one of the CDs, and “Erotic Nightmares” was the track that I used. The reason I used this track is that there are a lot of guitars in it, and I found that the better the hi-fi system the more guitars you could hear:
Steve Vai – “Erotic Nightmares” (1990)
Right, I think that’s enough Steve Vai for one day. (If you’re not much of a guitar fan, then the above will probably last you a lifetime.)
(*For non-musicians: Sight-reading is the ability to look at sheet music and play what you’re looking at the same time you’re looking at it. Transcribing is the process of writing down what you hear.)