WHILE MANY musicians easily fit 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 emotion.
Vai set the standard for rock guitar in the 80s. Growing up on the progressive rock of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Alice Cooper, Vai has always had a penchant for the conceptual side of rock. He attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston and, as a student, transcribed several of Frank Zappa’s most technically demanding guitar compositions, sending a copy of Black Page to Zappa himself. Zappa was so impressed with the young guitarist that he invited Vai to join his band. Vai accepted and stepped into the spotlight. He toured the world with Zappa before leaving to set out on his own.
Vai released two self-financed and recorded solo albums in 1984, Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers, showcasing his guitar playing and songwriting talents.
In 1985, Vai was asked by bass player Billy Sheehan to take up the guitar spot in singer David Lee Roth’s band. 1986 saw the debut release from Roth’s group, Eat ‘Em & Smile, which went on to become one of the year’s top rock releases. Vai was catapulted into superstardom due to his instrumental talent, winning top honours in numerous guitar magazines and awards, which continued for many years.
Although Roth’s group showed great promise, Sheehan jumped ship after their 1988 album Skyscraper, which saw Vai earning a co-producing credit with Roth. The same year, Vai issued his own line of guitars, the Jem 777 series, via the company Ibanez. After touring with Roth, Vai left to work on another solo album.
Steve Vai also joined up with chart topping Whitesnake, releasing his one and only album with them, Slip of the Tongue, in 1989.
His third solo album, Passion & Warfare, came a year later. The largely instrumental album became a sizeable hit, solidifying Vai’s standing as one of the top guitarists of his day. It was also around this time that Vai created the seven-string guitar. It didn’t catch on initially, but, by the mid to late 90s, guitarists in acts such as Korn and Limp Bizkit used it to achieve super low tunings, providing the low-end rumble they craved.
After an extended hiatus, Vai formed his first conventional rock band, VAI, with Devin Townsend on vocals, bassist TM Stevens and Terry Bozzio on drums. Their one and only album, Sex & Religion, released in 1993, proved to be a disappointment both critically and commercially, so, for the remainder of the decade, Vai returned to all-instrumental work. He issued solo releases, including Fire Garden (1996) and The Ultra Zone (1999).
The early 21st century saw a flurry of releases from Vai, including a compilation of instrumental tracks in 2000 and, a year later, his first live album, Alive in an Ultra World. That album contained the track Whispering a Prayer, which earned Vai his sixth Grammy nomination to go along with his 1991 Grammy award for best rock instrumental performance, with his version of Frank Zappa’s Sofa.
Over the years, Vai has been a guest musician on countless albums by other artists, including Alice Cooper, Randy Coven and Public Image Ltd., as well as contributing to the world of film with the theme to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and guitar duel from Crossroads.
He has become a major influence on the post-grunge era. Current guitar idols like James Shaffer of Korn, Mike Eizinger of Incubus and Tom Morello of Audioslave, all cite Vai as a major inspiration.
One of Vai’s earliest endeavours was the Make a Noise Foundation, which he founded with Richard Pike in 1988. The organisation provides instruments and music education to young musicians who can’t afford it. Helping young musicians is a cause that hits close to home for Vai because when he was accepted to Berklee, his father sold his life insurance policy to pay for the tuition.
If the name Steve Vai rings a bell with you, be it from his days performing with Dave Lee Roth, Whitesnake or his solo instrumental tracks, then get your tickets for his upcoming Lisbon concert on November 4. Vai will be performing at Aula Magna, Alameda da Universidade, at 9pm. Tickets are available at www.ticketline.pt or by calling 210 113 406.