Steve Vai Discusses Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder in 1987 Guitar World Interview
Vai grew up in Long Island. where he came under the spell of guitar at age 13. It was Jimmy Page's solo on "Heartbreaker" that initially grabbed him. "I had never heard anybody play that fast," he recalls. "By today's standards it might not be one of the greatest guitar solos on record. But back then, for me, it meant a lot. Both the technique and the emotion involved in that particular solo really grabbed me. And even today I still love it."
He began playing at age 14 and soon came under the tutelage of Joe Satriani, who became a towering influence on the young guitarist. "I took lessons with him for three years and he was very good because he didn't tell me that I had to play like him or that I had to do things this way or that way. He explained why it was important for me to figure out things on my own
Satriani was the guy who introduced Vai to the joys of wang bar. "He was one of the most musical people I ever met and he did a lot of things with the bar that I watched and learned from ." Satriani is also responsible for impressing on Vai the virtue of "big ears."
"He could listen to a record and tell you in words exactly what was going on harmonically -- the chord changes, the voicings, intervals and everything. I saw him do that and I said. 'I gotta be able to do this. I want to be like this guy.' It wasn't long before Jimi Hendrix came along to make another lasting impression on Vai's psyche.
"I think Hendrix influenced me more spiritually than anything else." he says. "His whole approach was so inspiring. Just his feel, spiritually, of what he was doing is what sent me. He was doing it instinctively with no precedent or no other examples to copy. You never really heard anyone else who sounded anything like him. Whereas if you hear someone like me you might say, 'Well, he sounds a little hit like this guy or that guy.' But Hendrix, man he must've been from Venus or something."
Upon enrolling in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Vai began studying theory with trumpeter Mike Metheny (Pat's brother) and trumpeter Wes Hensel who taught him a lot about writing for woodwinds. It was at Berklee that Vai learned to sight read.
"Oh God, what a task! I think the guitar is one of the hardest instruments to Sight read on. But one summer I was determined to learn. I said. 'This does it! I am gonna sit here all summer and become a great sight-reader.' I went to the library and got so many books -- violin books, saxophone books, flute books, everything. And lemme tell ya, it was hard. But it paid off."
Vai spent a lot of time transcribing Frank Zappa music during his term at Berklee. Later, when he joined Frank's outfit, he would put in even more time in transcribing.
"I was literally working 10 hours a day doing nothing but transcribing," he recalls. "All day, every day. I was transcribing guitar solos lead sheets, orchestra parts. There's a stack of stuff at my house that's four feet high. There's a book of guitar parts and drum parts from Frank's music that's four inches thick. So when I was with him. I was working on Frank's music all day, every day whether I was learning it on the guitar, practicing or transcribing it. That's all I did. That's why I got along great with Frank. I was very dedicated to his music. It's what he needs out of his employees.