Interview: Steve Vai and Tosin Abasi
The two guitarists discuss what it takes to be a virtuoso.
Did you get into seven-string guitar partially because of Steve’s influence?
ABASI: Well, it was more from heavier bands doing stuff with a seven-string guitar. I’ve always had this metal side. I think a lot of advanced guitar players end up in this metal genre, ’cause it allows them to play fast. Their ideas of taste are a bit crazy. But the first guitar that I ever worked really hard for and spent a lot of money on was the Ibanez UV-777. [The seven-string Universe guitar that Vai designed with Ibanez.]
VAI: Right on!
ABASI: That was the seven-string. I’m trying to think of tracks where you played the seven that really inspired me. For me, it was more just your playing in general.
VAI: I didn’t really use the seven-string as much as a lot of people thought I did. I designed that guitar for the Whitesnake record [Slip of the Tongue], ’cause I wanted to have a sound that could do different things. And then a part of it spilled over onto Passion and Warfare, but not a lot really. When I did the Whitesnake tour, however, I played the seven-string exclusively.
VAI: Yeah. But when I was doing it, I had a feeling that there was going to be a group of kids who were really gonna take that low string and do something with it that I wasn’t doing. And I also felt that maybe some jazz and classical players would take it up. I had no idea that they were going to do what they did. I remember I was driving down the street once and I heard this music on the radio. I actually had to pull the car over and listen, ’cause I couldn’t believe it. It was Korn. And I’m like, “They’re doing more than I did with the seven-string.” They took it to another level. It was so, so cool to see it happen. See, my own influence on the seven-string guitar kind of came and went. But when it came, there were enough young players who were inspired to play a seven-string guitar and who became popular. They really blew it up. And that’s the seven-string you heard. ’Cause I used it more as a texture.
ABASI: Yeah, with “Bad Horsie.”
VAI: No, that wasn’t a seven-string. “Bad Horsie” was just tuning down.
ABASI: Okay. Sorry about that! But it’s really cool that you had an idea and implemented it, and then it became the catalyst of this whole other thing.
VAI: Well, now they’ve got eight strings. You’re playing an eight-string guitar.
Yeah, how did you progress from seven to eight?
ABASI: In getting comfortable on the seven, I enjoyed a real creative boost from having that extra string. I was writing new riffs and there were different interval combinations available to me. So I guess I was looking for that same experience again. And the idea to move on to eight strings came from Meshuggah, who were playing Universes for a while, and then I guess they wanted to go further, so they commissioned a luthier to make them these eight-string guitars. Hearing that, for me, was kind of like what you were describing with Korn, Steve. You know it’s a guitar, but…
VAI: I don’t think they even have a bass player anymore.
ABASI: They do, but it’s hard for him to find a place in the music. He just does unison notes sometimes. So as a guitar player, you hear this thing and it’s like, Okay, I know that’s a guitar, but why does it sound like that? What’s happening with it? I was actually in music school at the time I got into eight-string. I did a one-year program at the Atlanta Institute of Music. Because I was learning about the fretboard as well, the idea of eight-string seemed less daunting. Long story short, I found a guitar builder—Jesse Hall, the illustrious luthier—and asked him if he wanted to do an eight-string. He said yeah, and it inspired some music. That guitar had a kind of elongated body. The top bout goes all the way up to the 12th fret or so. The body was the size of a bass guitar and the neck was 30 inches long. But all the eight-string material on the first Animals as Leaders album was written and performed on that guitar. So instantly, I started writing music with this new string. I’m still inspired by the amount of range on it.
To ask the devil’s advocate question, why ain’t six strings enough?
ABASI: It’s a weird question. If you had a five-string guitar, you would produce music on that.
VAI: Six is enough, and eight is enough too. Whatever you want. Four can be enough. One can be enough, if you’ve got the imagination for it. But I do agree with Tosin. I’ve played eight-string guitars and, when you get down to it, there’s a lot more options. There are chord voicings that you just cannot play on a six-string guitar. I’m using the seven-string on my new record. I’ve got these big, fat, seven-string voicings with tons of distortion, and when you can get them to speak right, it’s something you just can’t get out of a six-string.
With an eight-string, you’ve got an octave and a fifth below a standard guitar, or an octave and a fourth.
ABASI: Yeah, I do. And it’s exactly what Steve is describing. It’s these rich, complex chords. They don’t necessarily have to be harmonically complex, but that amount of strings ringing out at the same time is really something.
VAI: A guitar just twangs. It’s the resonance.
ABASI: But is the eight-string really a guitar? In a weird way, I was less concerned with playing the guitar than with just playing a stringed instrument. The six-string guitar can be characterized as a midrange instrument. But for me, the eight-string and its almost alien quality started to produce new musical ideas because it was un-guitarlike in a lot of ways. I like that, because of this idea of evolution and pushing things forward. Sometimes your tools can be responsible for that.
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