Steve Vai

Highlight Reel

Live Performance

1994 Rock Album of the Year – 4th Annual LA Music Awards

Steven Siro Vai (born June 6, 1960) is an American guitarist, songwriter, singer, and producer who has sold over 15 million albums. After starting his career as a music transcriptionist for Frank Zappa, he recorded and toured in Zappa’s band from 1980 to 1982. He began a solo career in 1983, and has released eight solo albums and won three Grammy Awards.

Vai has recorded and toured with Public Image Ltd., Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake. He has been a regular touring member of the G3 Concert Tour, which began in 1995. In 1999, he started his own record label, Favored Nations, intending to showcase “artists that have attained the highest performance level on their chosen instruments”.
Born in Carle Place, New York as a descendant of Italian immigrants, Vai began playing guitar in 1973 at the age of 13.[2] In 1974, he took guitar lessons from guitarist Joe Satriani and played in local bands, one of which was called “The Steve Vais”. He was influenced by guitarists including Jimmy Page, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore,[3] Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Glen Buxton,[4] and jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. He credits Jimmy Page’s solo in the Led Zeppelin song ‘Heartbreaker’ as his main influence. He has stated, ‘When I first heard that solo, I went wild. I said to myself, “I want to learn how to play that. I’ve got to learn how to play that!”‘ Vai attended Berklee College of Music, afterwards recording a promotional piece for them in which he spoke about auditioning for Frank Zappa at age 20.
Steve Vai (on guitar in between the drums and keyboard), Frank Zappa and band during a concert at the Memorial Auditorium, October 25, 1980 Buffalo, New York
Early music career (1979–1985)
Vai mailed Frank Zappa a transcription of Zappa’s “The Black Page”, an instrumental for drums, along with a tape of Vai’s guitar playing. Zappa was so impressed that in 1979, he hired him to transcribe a number of his guitar solos, including some on the Joe’s Garage album and the Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar series. These transcriptions were published in 1982 in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book. After being hired as a transcriber, Vai did overdubs on many of the guitar parts for Zappa’s album You Are What You Is. He became a full-fledged band member, going on his first tour with Zappa in the autumn of 1980.

One of those early shows with Vai on guitar was released as Buffalo in 2007. While touring with Zappa’s band, Vai sometimes asked audience members to bring musical scores and see if he could sight-read them on the spot. Zappa referred to Vai as his “little Italian virtuoso” and listed him in the liner notes as performing “stunt guitar” or “impossible guitar parts”. Vai was a featured artist on the 1993 recording Zappa’s Universe. In 2006 he appeared as a special guest on Dweezil Zappa’s ‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ tour, alongside friends from his early years with Zappa.

After leaving Zappa in 1982 he moved to California, where he recorded his first album Flex-Able, in 1983 (released January 1984) and performed in a couple of bands. In 1985 he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen as lead guitarist in Graham Bonnet’s Alcatrazz, with whom he recorded the album Disturbing the Peace. In 1985, Vai played with John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd on their album Album. Also in February 1985, Vai performed in a one off project for the eclectic jazz label, ECM Records, The Epidemics (ECM 1308). That project was headed by Indian violinist, Shankar, known perhaps best for his work with John Mc Laughlin and featured Brand X bassist, Percy Jones and other players.

With David Lee Roth (1985–1989)

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Also, in 1985, Vai became the object of widespread public fascination after joining—at the urging of his friend, bassist and future bandmate, Billy Sheehan – David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen supergroup. The David Lee Roth band, which later became known as the Eat ’em and Smile Band (1985–1989), featured Roth on vocals; Vai on guitar; former Talas bassist Billy Sheehan on bass; and former Maynard Ferguson drummer, Gregg Bissonette. The foursome’s debut album, Eat ’em and Smile, was both a critical and commercial success, reaching #4 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart and selling over 2 million copies. Rolling Stone Magazine compared Vai’s guitar-playing favorably to that of Roth’s legendary former partner Eddie Van Halen, stating that Vai “takes his cues from Eddie’s loop-the-loop style, but, importantly, he adds some wild dips of his own. He’s not simply aping Eddie, he’s also embellishing. Likewise, Vai’s musical rapport with Roth mirrors Van Halen’s, and that relationship, as usual, defines much of the material.” Retrospectively, Eat ’em and Smile is frequently evaluated as one of the best rock albums of the 1980s. Vai’s, Roth’s, Sheehan’s, and Bissonette’s highly successful world tour began in May 1986 and continued through 1987.

The Eat ’em and Smile Band’s second album, Skyscraper, (released 1988,) was produced by David Lee Roth and Vai. Like its predecessor, Skyscraper was a major commercial hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart; however, its multi-tracked pop alienated many of Roth’s longtime hard rock fans. The Eat ’em and Smile Band began to fracture after the recording of Skyscraper, when Billy Sheehan left due to “creative differences.” In 1989, following the successful Skyscraper World Tour, Vai’s departure signified the end of the supergroup.

In 1989, Vai joined Whitesnake, replacing Vivian Campbell. When Adrian Vandenberg injured his wrist shortly before recording was to begin for the album Slip of the Tongue, Vai played all the guitar parts. Vai played on the Alice Cooper album Hey Stoopid, along with Joe Satriani on the song “Feed my Frankenstein.”

Vai continued to tour regularly, with his own group and with his one-time teacher and fellow guitar instrumentalist friend Joe Satriani on the G3 series of tours. Former David Lee Roth and Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan joined him for a world tour. In 1990, Vai released his critically acclaimed solo album Passion and Warfare. The song “For the Love of God” was voted #29 in a readers’ poll of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time in Guitar World magazine. In 1994, Vai began writing and recording with Ozzy Osbourne. One track from these sessions, “My Little Man”, was released on the Ozzmosis album. Despite Vai penning the track, he does not appear on the album, with his guitar parts replaced by Zakk Wylde. Another track, “Dyin’ Day”, appeared as an instrumental on Vai’s Fire Garden album. Vai’s band members in the 90s included drummer Mike Mangini, guitarist Mike Keneally, and bassist Philip Bynoe. In 1994 Vai received a Grammy Award for his performance on the Frank Zappa song Sofa from the album Zappa’s Universe.
Vai playing a twin-necked Ibanez
Vai released a DVD of his performance at The Astoria in London in December 2001. The performance featured Billy Sheehan, guitarist/pianist Tony MacAlpine, guitarist Dave Weiner, and Australian drummer Virgil Donati. In July 2002, Vai performed with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan, in the world premiere of composer Ichiro Nodaira’s Fire Strings, a concerto for electric guitar and 100-piece orchestra. In 2004, a number of his compositions and orchestral arrangements including some previously recorded pieces, were performed in The Netherlands by the Metropole Orchestra in a concert series entitled The Aching Hunger. In 2003, drummer Jeremy Colson joined Vai’s group, replacing Virgil Donati. Vai’s album Sound Theories, was released in 2007.

In February 2005, Vai premiered a dual-guitar (electric and classical) piece that he called The Blossom Suite, with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. In 2006, Vai played as a special guest guitarist alongside additional guest Zappa band members, drummer Terry Bozzio and saxophonist-singer Napoleon Murphy Brock in the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour led by Frank’s son Dweezil Zappa in Europe and the U.S. in the Spring, as well as a short U.S. tour in October. On September 21, 2006, Vai made a special appearance at the Video Games Live concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood. He played two songs with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; Halo Theme, and a second song for the world premier trailer for Halo 3.

In 2005, Vai signed on as an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in public schools throughout the United States. He sits on LKR’s Honorary board of directors. Vai was a judge for the 3rd and 8th annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists. Vai is the founder of the Make A Noise Foundation, which he started with his manager Ruta Sepetys. The foundation’s goal is to provide funding for music education and programs for those unable to pursue music-related activities due to limited resources. Vai is also a patron of music education around the world giving master classes in such prestigious music schools as the Fermatta Music Academy.

Vai made an appearance at the London Guitar Show in 2007 on April 28, 2007 at the ExCeL Center. In late April 2007, Vai confirmed the release of his record, Sound Theories, on June 26. The release is a two-CD set, mostly of previously released material that Vai rearranged and played with a full orchestra. Vai says the project was a great joy because he considers himself a composer more than a guitarist, and he is happy to see music he has composed played by an orchestra that can play it well. A DVD followed the record later that year. He guested on the Dream Theater album Systematic Chaos, on the song “Repentance”. The appearance was vocal rather than instrumental, as Vai was only one of many musical guests recorded. The song features contributions from many artists, with the aim of apologizing to important people in their lives for wrongdoings committed in their pasts. On August 29, 2009, he appeared on stage with Dream Theater during the final show of their Progressive Nation tour at the Greek Theater, where he performed in an improvised jam with the other musicians on tour. Broken Records magazine (Volume 1, Issue 3) quotes Vai as saying, “I enjoy challenging myself to come up with new ideas that I believe are unique.”

In 2010, Vai released several “VaiTunes” singles of tracks that were previously recorded and later finished. They are available on, iTunes and On September 14, 2010, Steve released “Where The Wild Things Are” as double vinyl through his label Favored Nations and made a guest appearance with Rickey Minor and The Tonight Show Band on NBC. In October 2010, Steve completed his first full symphony and performed the compositions at the Steve Vai Festival which featured Vai and the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra (NNO) on October 20–24, 2010. “The possibility to write for a full orchestra, as Vai was offered the opportunity to do during the last years, closes a circle back to the beginning of his solo career, his years with Frank Zappa and his first pieces for his debut record Flex-Able (1984).” After the Holland shows, Vai embarked for the US to headline the “Experience Hendrix Tour” which featured Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shephard, Susan Tedeschi, Billy Cox, Vernon Reid, Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford and other top guitarists.

On March 3, 2011, the online education division of Boston’s Berklee College of Music and Steve Vai, set the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest online guitar lesson. The first-of-its-kind initiative, held at streaming media platform Livestream Studios in New York City, brought together thousands of guitarists.

Vai’s “Story Of Light” tour beginning in 2012-2014, spanned over 250 tour dates. During the Spring of 2013, Vai announced a string of Alien Guitar Secrets Masterclasses and a new, intensive guitar camp called “Vai Academy. The 4 day course in NY offered a series of classes by top performers in the music industry, including Guthrie Govan, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter & Vernon Reid. The masters taught classes on composing music, recording, marketing, and how to legally protect a song with tools available to all musicians. Each evening, Vai and the special guests jammed with every camper who attended.

2015 saw the release of Vai’s fourth live DVD project “Stillness In Motion”, filmed in October of 2012 during his “Story Of Light” tour at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Released on April 7th, the 2 disc set contained a copy of the “Stillness In Motion” concert footage and a special bonus feature disc called “The Space Between The Notes”. “The Space Between The Notes” is a complete chronological timeline of the “Story Of Light” tour, with a video or picture representation of each show of all of the 252 shows that were played.

On May 9th, Vai joined the band Sepultura at their May 9th performance during the Rock In Rio USA festival in Las Vegas, Nevada.

From the end of May, 2015 to June of 2015, Vai embarked on an Alien Guitar Secrets Masterclass tour of Canada and South America.
Vai has announced an upcoming 2016 release commemorating the 25th anniversary of his second solo record “Passion & Warfare”. This 25th Anniversary release is to contain re-mastered “Passion & Warfare” songs and material from the time between the recording of “Passion & Warfare” and his first solo record “Flex-Able”.

In 2013, Vai was featured in Iwrestledabearonce’s album Late For Nothing, performing sections of the song “Carnage Asada” on guitar.

Vai owns Favored Nations, a recording and publishing company that specializes in internationally procuring and maintaining recording artists. Favored Nations is separated into three sections, ‘Favored Nations’, ‘Favored Nations Acoustic’ and ‘Favored Nations Cool (Jazz style)’.

Media appearances
Video games
“Juice”, from Alien Love Secrets, was featured on the 1996 video game “Formula One” for the PlayStation. Steve Vai’s guitar-work appeared in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose” was featured on the game’s soundtrack as well as “God Blessed Video” by Alcatrazz as part of the Lazlow-led, 1980s rock/metal radio station “V-Rock.” In 2004, Steve Vai was featured on Xbox’s Halo 2 (a game by Bungie Studios) Volume 1 soundtrack, performing a heavy rock-guitar rendition of the Halo theme, known as Halo Theme (MJOLNIR Mix). He also performed on the track Never Surrender. He later featured in the second volume of the soundtrack, where he performed on the track Reclaimer. Vai returned to rerecord his Halo work for the Halo 2 Anniversary Original Soundtrack, which was included for the anniversary edition of Halo 2 and was released 2014.

In 2008, Steve Vai’s For the Love of God and Halo Theme (MJOLNIR Mix) were featured as downloadable tracks for the game Guitar Hero 3. A live version of the song “For the Love of God” was also available at release on the Rock Band Network as well as the song “Get the Hell Out of Here” from his 2002 album “The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1″ on March 4, 2010. The Attitude Song and a live version of The Crying Machine were both also added to the Rock Band Network. A re-recording of “Speeding” is featured in the 2010 video game Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock for Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3.

Steve Vai’s music has appeared in feature films, including Dudes and Ghosts of Mars. He appeared onscreen in the 1986 Walter Hill film Crossroads, playing the demonically-inspired Jack Butler. At the film’s climax, Vai engages in a guitar duel with Ralph Macchio, whose guitar parts were dubbed by Vai and Ry Cooder, who played the initial slide work in the duel and Macchio’s earlier performances in the film. Vai composed the fast-paced neo-classical track Eugene’s Trick Bag that wins Macchio the competition. He based the body of the piece heavily on Paganini’s Capriccio number 5. He later borrowed the opening riff from the track Head Cuttin’ Duel for a song called Bad Horsie from his 1995 EP Alien Love Secrets. The Crossroads duel reappeared on the 2002 album The Elusive Light and Sound, volume 1.

In 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the introductory riff to KISS’ “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You II”, as performed by the Wyld Stallyns in the Battle of the Bands, was performed by Vai. He composed and performed the soundtrack to PCU (1994), and made contributions in 2001 to the score for John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, performing on the tracks “Ghosts of Mars” and “Ghost Poppin'”. His track, “Get the Hell Out of Here”, can be heard during 1992’s Encino Man in the scene where Brendan Fraser is taking a driving lesson. He plays guitar in the animated short film “Live Music”.

Style and influence

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Vai performing in 2001.
Steve Vai has been called a guitar virtuoso. His 1990 album Passion and Warfare is often cited by critics and fans alike as among his best works. Particularly the instrumental “For the Love of God” has received a lot of attention from the music press, and is noteworthy in that the entire six-minute piece was reportedly recorded in just one take. Vai’s playing style has been characterized as quirky and angular, due to his technical ability with the guitar instrument and deep knowledge of music theory. He regularly uses odd rhythmic groupings and his melodies often employ the Lydian mode.

Vai is also a producer. He owns two studios, “The Mothership”[20] and “The Harmony Hut”, and his own recordings combine his guitar skills and novel compositions with studio and recording effects. Vai helped design his signature Ibanez JEM guitar series. They feature a hand grip (fondly referred to as a “monkey grip”) cut into the top of the body of the guitar, a humbucker–single coil-humbucker (H/S/H) DiMarzio pickup configuration with several different types of signature pickups including Evolution, Breed and EVO 2. He also uses the Ibanez Edge and Lo-Pro Edge double-locking tremolo systems (between the years 2003–2009, production JEMs had the Edge Pro, which is now discontinued), as well as an elaborate and extensive “Tree of Life” inlay down the neck. Vai also equips many of his guitars with an Ibanez Backstop, a tremolo stabilizer that has been discontinued. Lately Vai has also equipped some of his guitars with True Temperament fretboards to make his chords sound more in tune.

Vai has a 7-string model designed by him named Ibanez Universe, featuring DiMarzio Blaze pickups in an HSH arrangement. The Universe gained additional early attention in the early-to-mid ’90s from two bands/musicians other than Vai: Korn, who used the guitar downtuned an additional step (to “A”), selling millions of albums worldwide and pioneered nu metal songwriting and sonics ” with their uniquely heavy yet untraditionally “Heavy Metal” sounds, as well as progressive rock band Dream Theater whose guitarist John Petrucci began using Ibanez 7-strings on their 1994 album Awake and has continued to do so in their technically challenging playing and songwriting. Vai also has a signature Ibanez acoustic, the Euphoria. His two main guitars are white JEMs dubbed “Evo” and “Flo”, each with their own unique modifications. Before Ibanez, he briefly endorsed Jackson guitars, but the relationship only lasted two years. Steve Vai has also worked with Carvin Guitars and Pro Audio to develop the Carvin Legacy line of guitar amplifiers. Vai wanted to create an affordable amp that was unique, and equal in sound and versatility to any guitar amp he had previously used. Over his long musical career, Steve Vai has used and designed an array of guitars. He even had his blood put into the swirl paint job on one of his signature JEM guitars, the JEM2KDNA. Only 300 of these were made. Currently, he mainly uses his white “Evo”, a JEM7V, and his “Flo”, which is a customized Floral JEM 77FP painted white. They are both inscribed with their names in two places, mainly so he can distinguish between them onstage. “Flo” is equipped with a Fernandes sustainer system.

He has a guitar named “Mojo” with dot inlays that are blue LED lights. He has a custom-made triple-neck guitar that has the same basic features as his JEM7V guitars. The top neck is a 12-string guitar, the middle is a six-string, and the bottom is a six-string fretless guitar with a Fernandes Sustainer pickup. This guitar was featured on the G3 2003 tour on the piece I Know You’re Here. Vai’s effects pedals include a modified BOSS DS-1, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Morley Bad Horsie, Ibanez Jemini Twin Distortion Pedal, TC Electronics G-System, Morley Little Alligator Volume pedal, DigiTech Whammy, and an MXR Phase 90/Phase 100 on the Passion and Warfare album. His flight cases are labeled “Mr. Vai”, or lately, “Dr. Vai.” He has used a number of rack effects units controlled via MIDI, but used a floor-based TC electronics G system instead for the Zappa Plays Zappa tour.

Guitar rig and signal flow
Vai’s 2015 guitar rig utilizes his Signature Carvin Legacy amplifier (now on it’s V3), The Fractal Audio Axe FX II XL, and an MFC-101 foot controller.

Depending on the location and venue, Vai will use either his Legacy I or Legacy III heads, and Carvin Legacy 4×12 speaker cabinets loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Vai uses EL-34 tubes by GrooveTubes in his Legacy amps.

Vai uses the Fractal Audio Axe FX II XL as the only modulation effects unit in his guitar rig. Generally for live use he utilizes the unit for stereo effects such as delay, chorus, and phase, with a separate preset for the parameters of each different song in his setlist. The Axe FX MFC-101 foot controller is set up in conjunction with the unit, allowing Vai to switch effects on and off in a fashion reminiscent to that of standard stompboxes.

Vai’s pedalboard consists of a wah-wah pedal (either his Morley Bad Horsie signature wah pedal, or a Dunlop Crybaby 95q wah pedal), an Ibanez Jemini twin distortion pedal, and Digitech Whammy DT pitch shifting pedal. The centerpiece of the pedalboard is the Axe FX MFC-101 foot controller for the Axe FX II XL, which as previously mentioned controls the effects in a manner similar to switching on and off stompboxes. There are two expression pedals used for the Axe FX, one to act as a volume pedal, and the other to control the harmonizer built into the Axe FX unit.

The signal from the guitar (usually one of the main guitars “EVO” or “FLO III”) goes into either the Morley Bad Horsie or Dunlop 95q wah pedal. From there, it goes directly into the Ibanez Jemini twin distortion pedal, and then to the Digitech Whammy DT. Out of the output of the Whammy, the signal heads into the input of the Carvin Legacy amplifier head. Out of the of the effects loop of the Legacy, the signal heads directly into the Axe FX II XL, where it is split into stereo and the effects are applied (and controlled via the MFC-101 foot controller). Out of the output of the Axe FX, one signal is sent back to the original Legacy head return, and a second is sent to a second Carvin Legacy head return, bypassing the preamp stage completely and acting as a slave power amp. Vai utilizes his stereo setup on effects like delay, where he sets up two separate delay times (one slower and one faster) and allows them to alternate back and forth. The signal is then sent from the amp to the 4×12 Carvin Legacy speaker cabinets loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Vai uses AKG microphones to mic his amps, and uses a separate Carvin power amp to power a direct guitar monitor cabinet instead of relying on the PA.

A detailed gear diagram of Vai’s 2007 guitar rig is well-documented.
A detailed gear diagram of Vai’s 1999 guitar rig is well-documented.

Personal life
Vai resides in Encino, California with his family. Vai is married to Pia Maiocco, former bass player of Vixen, who can be seen in Hardbodies. Vai and Maiocco have two children, Julian and Fire. In his spare time Vai is a beekeeper[30] and an honorary member of the British Beekeepers’ Association. His bees regularly produce a crop of honey that Vai sells for his Make a Noise Foundation. Vai is a longtime vegetarian and says:

It has affected my music in a way I believe that what we put in our bodies has a reflection on the way we think. And the way we think has a reflection on what we create. So I can’t tell you consciously how being a vegetarian affected my music but I’m sure it has. I think everyone has to find what’s right for them. I don’t judge anybody for what they eat. That’s their world and everybody has to find what resonates with them.

Vai is on record as a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and supporter of the David Lynch Foundation.