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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.”
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. 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 influence on 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Among Vai’s most noteworthy accomplishments, he has been a member of bands Whitesnake, David Lee Roth band, and Frank Zappa, & performed with renowned artists including Billy Sheehan, Rudy Sarzo, Devin Townsend, Stu Hamm and more.