Steve Vai Discusses Recording 'Skyscraper,' His New Album with David Lee Roth in 1988 Guitar World Interview
Here's our interview with Steve Vai from the May 1988 issue of Guitar World. The original story started on page 50 and ran with the headline, "Zen and the Art of Steve Vai."
It's two days before Christmas, and at Guitar World, the atmosphere is giddy. Ax slinger extraordinaire Steve Vai is coming to town, coming to these very offices, in fact, bearing a preview tape of Skyscraper, the album he's co-produced with David Lee Roth.
He and I have already filled in the general background part of the interview needed for this story, and now what's left is listening to the tape that's been entrusted to band members only (His managers are justifiably afraid that if they gave out any copies this far in advance they might surface on the radio) and hearing what he has to say about it, track by track.
So when he arrives, a kind of controlled pandemonium breaks out: Everybody wants to shake his hand, stop by and say "Hi," mention one of their favorite bits of his work and all that. Steve is his habitually gracious self, unselfconsciously poised, friendly, unflustered. In a phrase, in control even at his most relaxed, drawing a kind of strength from the exuberant near-chaos greeting him even when it threatens to sweep everything else before it.
Like how he plays guitar: never quite the expected lick in the expected place, never the feel, the tone, the cliché where almost anybody else would think it "belonged."
It's not because of his good looks or because he's such a nice guy that Steve Vai has risen to become one of the guitar's leading current practitioners.
Since his early teenaged lessons with Joe Satriani, his debut with Frank Zappa at the ripe old age of 19, through his own solo stuff, his fill-in time with Alcatrazz, his work with Ry Cooder on the movie Crossroads and now his role as co-producer and chief songwriter for multihued rock vaudevillian Roth, Vai has proven time and again that he's got some of the most wicked spins, some of the most outrageous chops in the land of the six-string.
And they're all his, payoffs for the years of hard work at his natural talents.
''I've never really heard anybody imitating anything of mine the way they do with Edward Van Halen's stuff," says Steve once the office has been cleared and the coffee's been brought and the chairs tilted back so we can listen and talk with our feet up on the editor-in-chief's cluttered deskful of manuscripts and memos. If that's true, and it seems to be -- it may be because how Steve Vai does what he does is less easily separable from what he does than Van Halen's techniques, like his overcloned two-handed tapping, are from his own musicality.
Where would-be Van Halens can master Eddie's gestures without absorbing the underlying intelligence at work partly because those gestures themselves are writ so large, anyone listening to Vai has to penetrate the carefully woven web of melodic and harmonic understanding, the off-kilter rhythmic flares, the restless and searching tonal variations and, of course, the emotional vibe that come together to spin out this ramified musician's vocabulary.
Articulate as Steve Vai is with his ax, so is he with his speech. That poise stays with him in the very different situations he's thrown into, providing him with a perspective that gives him needed distance on himself and those around him.
He talks, for instance, of his career in music and its development in a clear-eyed way that makes it plain he's looking to control how that development unfolds, that he's learned from past situations how to shape what he wants his future to be, where he wants it to go, as much as anyone can shape such things.