Interview: Steve Vai and Tosin Abasi
The two guitarists discuss what it takes to be a virtuoso.
Your approach is almost pianistic at times, with the left hand tapping out chords on the lower strings while the right plays melodies on the higher strings.
ABASI: Yes, which is easy on an eight-string. Whereas, trying to do the same thing on a six, you only have three strings on each side to work with. But with eight-string, I can tap on two strings and have almost a whole six-string guitar for other stuff.
VAI: It’s more real estate.
ABASI: And range. We’re talking about frequency. I looked at other instruments outside the guitar, like a piano. It’s got quite a range. And if you ever mess around with a bass, sometimes that degree of low end is really gratifying. So to me, the eight-string guitar is a cool integration of all of that into a single instrument.
I wonder if you guys have any influences in common. You came up at different times, but I wonder if you could agree on a short list of ultimate guitarists.
VAI: I was a teenager in the Seventies, so my juice was bands like Led Zeppelin, Queen, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and all that progressive rock stuff. And there was a period when I studied various genres. Like, I was really into Joe Pass, Danny Gatton, Carlos Santana… But then there were other influences. Probably the music I listen to the most now is Tom Waits, which has nothing to do with anything I do. But I’m just very compelled by people who are connected with the core of creativity. That simple, clear connection which brings forth all of this unique talent. And he’s just really in touch with that, to me. But that’s me. I mean, I’m 52. You’re like…what?
ABASI: I’m 29. So there is definitely a generation difference in terms of what was popular when we were at an impressionable age. But then there’s music that carries over through generations.
VAI: What did you listen to, though?
ABASI: It started off, literally, with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins… I have a deficiency in being versed in classic stuff. I’ll have these experiences where I’ll hear a Yes song for the first time and be like, “Holy crap, I thought Dream Theater made this up. These guys were doing it 30 and 40 years ago!”
VAI: But in a way that’s part of the evolution of music too. Like, I wasn’t listening to guys from the Sixties all that much.
ABASI: You listened to current music of your own time.
VAI: Yeah, which was in the Seventies.
ABASI: There’s value in the past. Some of my favorite players are ones who are influenced by someone who, technically, I should have listened to. You know what I mean? I might like a contemporary guitarist who is into some of the icons. But I like his stuff more than the icons, because it’s an evolution off of those major, essential influences.
VAI: Well, I never sat there and thought, I’m going to take the guitar beyond what anyone’s done with it before. I always thought I was the worst! And frankly, I think one of the reasons why I can do the things I can do is because I never thought I was good enough. I always felt like I could do better and better and better.
You were tough on yourself.
VAI: Yeah, tough. Because it was fun, though. When I was young, I wasn’t a misfit or anything. I had friends in all the different social groups. But I had issues—just personal issues, insecurities and other things that had happened in my life. And when I got hold of the guitar, the thing that really lit me up about the instrument is you try to do something and you can’t, but then you work on it and all of a sudden you can. It’s like this little bell that goes off and you say, “Holy shit, I can do anything! All I gotta do is sit here and work on it.”
ABASI: Yes! Yes!
VAI: And that was it. All of a sudden, these things started happening, and there’s no end to it.
ABASI: I’m getting chills, ’cause I had the exact same experiences.
VAI: Of course, that’s how it works. You become fascinated. People ask, “Why did you practice 10 and 15 hours a day?” I don’t necessarily think that’s normal or even healthy. But it was an escape from other things in my life. And when you can’t do something but you work at it and then you can do it, you get this sense of achievement, which is something we all really thrive on, and also a sense of dignity that might have been destroyed by something else. So that in itself creates this feedback effect, this addiction. It was a beautiful thing for me. And when the Zappa gig came along and he was like, “Can you play this?” I was like, “Of course I can play it.” ’Cause all you gotta do is work on it. Slowly, slowly, note by note. It was unfathomable to me that any guitar player couldn’t do it. And I realized why. They just didn’t have the chutzpah to sit there and work on it. And it doesn’t necessarily make you great. I don’t really think that greatness is a product of discipline. Greatness is an inspiration that a person has. So we can tell people how to be a virtuoso guitar player: just sit and practice really slow and perfectly and make sure you have vibrato and your intonation is perfect and then get faster and faster and just don’t do anything that you can’t play. Every week click the notch up a bit. And you’ll be able to play anything. But that won’t make you a great musician.
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