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Seven-String Summit: Korn's Munky and Incubus' Mike Einziger Worship at the Feet of Steve Vai

Seven-String Summit: Korn's Munky and Incubus' Mike Einziger Worship at the Feet of Steve Vai

Here's a feature from the February 1998 issue of Guitar World, which features a conversation between GW, Steve Vai, Munky of Korn and Mike Einziger of Incubus. To see the cover, and all the GW covers from 1998, check out this photo gallery.

A few years ago, you couldn't thumb through the pages of a guitar magazine without stumbling across Steve Vai's name. But my, how times change. While Vai has maintained a flourishing career, most recently joining Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Kenny Wayne Shepherd on the successful G3 tour, he and his nimble fingers no longer inspire the kind of awe they did in the early Nineties.

Alternative musicians are more likely to dis' Vai than praise him, and the one-time guitar titan has, incredibly, become marginalized by the same audience that sang his praises only a few short years ago.

Given this recent history, the sight of Vai conversing amiably in his Hollywood studio with Korn's James "Munky" Shaffer and Incubus' Mike Einziger, both of whom could serve as alternative poster boys, is surprising, to say the least. But these guitarists, their dreadlocks, Adidas trainers and baggy pants notwithstanding, have come not to bury Vai, but to praise him.

"In the car on the way over here, we were talking about how you were such a huge influence on our wanting to play guitar and make music," says Shaffer, taking part in his first interview since he contracted viral meningitis, which led to his band's withdrawal from last summer's Lollapalooza tour.

"Listening to your music really helped me," adds Einziger, whose band's full-length debut, Science (Immortal/Epic), is a dizzying mixture of hard-hitting metal riffs, buoyant funk grooves and unusual tones and textures. "I'd try to figure out what you were playing and hope that I could do it some day. I haven't figured it out yet."

Vai, visibly touched by the praise, returns the favor. "Thanks," he says warmly. "What you guys are doing is really creative. When I listened to your stuff, I was stunned. It's really an honor to hear something like that and to know that I've had a positive influence on your music. It's a painful job sometimes, but if you can influence someone's creativity, it's worth it."

Although Munky and Einziger don't profess to be virtuosos, it's easy to discern the impact Vai has had on their playing. Like their unlikely mentor, both players like to explore unconventional sounds and techniques. The gulf separating Vai's gurgling animal noises from Munky's swirling sonic assault and Einziger's dissonant clanging is not as vast as it may seem at first glance.

Munky's debt to Vai extends to the Korn guitarist's exclusive use of the Ibanez Universe seven-string, a model Vai helped develop in 1990. The latter broke new ground with this instrument on his acclaimed Passion and Warfare album (Relativity), but the Universe was discontinued by the time Korn rose to popularity in 1995. But the otherworldly sounds Munky and partner Brian "Head" Welch wrench from their seven-strings have inspired renewed interest in the instrument. Ibanez, in turn, has reissued the Universe and introduced several new seven-string models.

A discussion of the seven-string guitar is what has brought this unlikely threesome together. But as the conversation gets underway, it becomes obvious that these players share much more than a love for unusual instruments.

GUITAR WORLD: Why is the guitar still such a popular instrument?

STEVE VAl: It's very well-balanced. It's very sexy-looking -- I mean, look at it.

MIKE EINZIGER: When you hit the strings you can feel the vibration in your fingers and your body; you don't get that playing some kind of synthesizer. That's why the guitar will never go away. When you pick up a guitar and start playing it, the sound flows through your whole body. It becomes part of you .

VAl: And it all meets in your brain, between your two hands.

What developments would you like to see in guitar playing and composition?

JAMES "MUNKY" SHAFFER: It's up to the individual to determine where to take the instrument. It's about forming your own ideas and unique approach.

EINZIGER: It's the weird things that happen randomly, that are almost accidents, that push everything forward.

VAl: I believe that everybody experiences those moments, but most of the time they don't identify them and act on them. You've got to know how to grab that thread and go with it. A genius is a person who is filled with those moments and makes use of them, acts on them, and does it very simply and unconsciously.

Music seems to be progressing in the areas of sonics and textures rather than notes and technique.

SHAFFER: None of us in Korn have the technique Steve has, but that doesn't prevent us from expressing ourselves in an interesting way. Instead of soloing in a traditional manner, we've learned to communicate by creating really raw and emotional sounds using new combinations of textures. I use a lot of different effects -- Uni-Vibes, phasers and wahs, as well as fuzz boxes -- but it's a matter of using the sounds in the right context and the right part of the song. I've been playing long enough to know that you don't have to be a technically skilled guitar player to write good songs and compose emotional music.

EINZIGER: A lot of new music is coming out, especially the electronic stuff like drum ‘n’ bass, where people are doing amazing textural things. I'm not a big fan of using a lot of technology with my guitar. I don't like to plug into a huge rack of processors. I go for simple things, but I try to make my guitar sound crazy. I go for a lot of weird, spaced-out sounds, like the things that I hear on jungle records.

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