Ahead of the NH7 Weekender, Pune edition, we had the opportunity to have a conversation with American composer and guitarist Steve Vai on his style, his work with Frank Zappa, practise routine and upcoming concert at NH7 Weekender.
What do you name your guitars?
Whatever the name is that they whisper to me when I ask them.
Have you ever panicked on stage?
Yup, it was the first gig I ever played. I was 13 years old and had a gig at a high school dance when I was in my first band called Circus. I was scared to death during the days before the concert. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I felt that I would never want to be a touring performing musician, even though in the back of my mind it was a real fantasy.
On the day of the show we were doing sound check and my amplifier wouldn’t work. I totally panicked and everything around me became dreamlike and surreal. But we got the amp working and the moment that the lights went down and I was on the stage in front of people for the first time, it all came together and I found myself very comfortable, confident and felt as though that’s where I belong.
As far as panicking on stage…hmmm, not really. I have seen so much and so many things have happened while performing on stage through the years I could write a book! But instead of panicking I usually find myself laughing at seeming disasters.
What is working with Frank Zappa really like?
It was like the best education a young musician can get. I was between the ages of 18-22 when I was working for Frank. He is the most extraordinary person I know. Most people who know Frank and his music know how much time and intensity is put into being one of his musicians, but in reality when you love what you are doing it’s not work at all.
What do you think it would be like for another guitarist to work with you? Do you have any particular eccentricities that you think would surprise them?
I do work with other guitar players occasionally and when I tour. Dave Weiner has been in the band as our second guitar player for almost two decades. He would know any eccentricities that I may have, better than myself. Most of the things I do seem normal to me but it’s hard to see yourself through the eyes of others. Actually, it’s impossible.
Do you think you’ll get any time to see India in the middle of touring?
Unfortunately not. We get to the hotel at night and the next day is the show and then we leave directly after the show so not this time. But I have been to India four times before and have seen some extraordinary things. It’s a very rich culture.
Have you been writing music this year? Can we expect something new soon?
I seem to be always writing and capturing little snippets of ideas that are developed later. My next release is a VaiTunes, which are single downloads of material from my vault. The song is called “Cupid and His Lasers” and is a soundcheck jam. We do a soundcheck jam every day on tour and record them. Some come out nice. This is a blues-type improv track.
After that, my next release will be Piano Reductions Vol. II: Performed by Miho Arai. It’s a CD of solo piano performances of a handful of my songs performed by this incredibly talented young Japanese girl. The first Piano Reductions CD that I released was performed by Mike Keneally. Some fans really enjoy these CDs.
After that I will be hunkering down in the studio for a year or so (2018) to work on my next album. It will perhaps be trio-based and instrumental. I’m planning on giving this everything I have with regards to my ability and creativity on the guitar. Many of the fans have been waiting for me to do a record like this, and I feel it’s time.
Do you still have a practice schedule? Or is it all instinct and muscle memory now?
I work out ideas and focus on phrasing, but I don’t necessarily practice. I just play. It’s important for a musician to practice but not nearly as important as it is to just play and create constantly. When you throw yourself into something and just do it you would be surprised how much you actually know. That’s instinct. These days I am most focused on connecting with my creative instincts. It’s the only way to fly!
When you create a new song, how long does it take for it to feel natural for your and strings?
It depends on the song. If it contains a technique that I’m working on, it could take some time, but the creation of a song in my head can happen instantaneously, and then I’m left with the task of manifesting it. Sometimes it changes and sometimes I build things in a stream of consciousness-type way where I don’t know what I’m going to do until I do it. So, there’s no set time frame but it can take anywhere between a day to several weeks for one song based on the complexity of the song.
Has any new guitarist caught your eye lately?
There’s some great ones out there. Some of the new players…Tosin Abassi, Plini, Daniele Gottardo…are a few of the ones I feel are doing great things.
I recently discovered this young 23-year-old phenomenon named Jacob Collier. He’s not a guitar virtuoso per se, but his musical ear is fierce and his creativity is just beyond beyond. He’s the most all-rounded, inspired musical performer I have seen, and I feel he will be doing amazing things in the future because he’s doing them now.
Anything you’d like to tell the fans before NH7 Pune?
Get ready for a really good time and eternal thanks for this opportunity.