Steve Vai Discusses Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder in 1987 Guitar World Interview
"And through all the transcribing, it's made it possible for me to hear things and visualize them on my instrument better and see them on paper better. Now I can look at a piece of music and pretty much have an idea of what it's going to sound like, just by looking at it. Or if I get an idea for a melody line. I can instantly commit it to paper, just like I'm writing a letter to somebody. It's not a hard thing to do. It's just a question of sitting down and doing it and being disciplined about it. I learned that much from Frank."
Vai has particularly high regard for Zappa's perfectionist tendencies. It's one of the things that rubbed off on Vai during his three-year period with ol' FZ. Listen to Vai's self-produced album, Flex-able to hear what else rubbed off on him.
Says Vai of the maestro. "Frank Zappa is a very dedicated musician. He's very, very demanding of himself, more so than anybody l’ve ever seen in any medium at all. And that comes through in both the quantity and the quality of the music he produces. For me, it's music of the highest quality. I love Frank's music. And being able to watch him create that music is a real thrill in itself. It makes you think. 'Why don't I apply myself like that?’ It's really inspiring, his example. The man is amazing."
In spite of his obvious respect for the man and his music, Vai never really got much of a chance to stretch out and solo in Zappa's band, with the exception of one showcase tune, "Stevie's Spanking." This was Vai 's one chance to pull out all the stops, lay on the wang bar, thrash and flail 'til his heart's content. As he puts it, "That was Frank's way of throwing me a piece of meat there."
One of his other great accomplishments in Zappa's band was his work on the cut "Jazz Discharge Party Hats" from Man From Utopia. For this piece, Vai had to transcribe an impromptu spoken-word rap that Zappa delivers in concert.
Notating the natural rises and falls in the pitch of Frank's voice during this meandering discourse on skinny-dipping with groupies and other hijinks on the road, Vai then went into the studio and overdubbed an identical unison line on acoustic guitar, covering every word, every laugh, every er, ah and um that Frank uttered. It was a triumph of transcription. Vai calls it, "The hardest thing I ever tried to do. It took me so long to transcribe that and then to learn it on the guitar. It was such a chore. But after I had it down and after I practiced it until I was blue in the face, it was such a joy, such a riot."
Since leaving Zappa's employ, Vai's career has prospered. The Flex-able project was a considerable feat in itself, but there was much more to follow. Hooking up with Alcatrazz in the fall of '84 gave him a new vehicle in which to burn. His playing on the group's Disturbing The Peace album (released in '85 on Capitol) shows a confident Vai in full command of his powers. Check out his triple-track unison solo on "Painted Lover," his two-handed virtuosity on "God Bless Video" and his insane solo showcase on "Lighter Shade Of Green."
There followed two notable session dates-work on Indian violinist L. Shankar's pop project for ECM, Epidemics, and featured soloing on the Bill Laswell-produced PIL project for John Lydon on Elektra Records.