Steve Vai Discusses the Struggle to Balance Precision and Passion in 1991 Guitar World Interview
Here's an interview with Steve Vai from the April 1991 issue of Guitar World. The original story ran with the headline, "The Passion of St. Steve: Guitar visionary? Masochist? Or just a cool dude from Long Island? Steve Vai continues his epic struggle to balance precision and passion." To see the Vai cover -- and all the GW covers from 1991 -- click here.
Joseph Campbell, one of the world's foremost authorities on mythology, once outlined in a simple paragraph the plot followed by every classic adventure story from The Odyssey to Star Wars.
"A hero," Campbell explained, "ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow gifts on his fellow man."
Steve Vai's storybook rise to fame and guitar fortune uncannily parallels Campbell's summary. After serving an extended apprenticeship under legendary guitar wizard Joe Satriani, the young Steve spent several years in seclusion, relentlessly honing his powers.
At last he ventured from his common day home in Carle Place, Long Island, to a region of supernatural wonder -- Los Angeles. There he encountered fabulous and grotesque forces, among them Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and David Coverdale. After mastering Zappa's labyrinthine arrangements, doing battle with the ghosts of departing heroes (Yngwie Malmsteen, with Alcatrazz ; Edward Van Halen, with David Lee Roth), and tasting the apple of gigantic success with Whitesnake, Vai emerged morally unscathed and in full possession of his awesome facilities.
Re-invigorated, Vai gladdened the hearts of men with the fruit of his visions -- the critically acclaimed solo record, Passion And Warfare. In the aftermath, the guitarist rightfully emerged a true "guitar hero," and was accordingly voted this year's Guitar World MVP.
But has Vai's epic journey exacted a cost? His post-Whitesnake interviews suggest that the once-humble lad from Carle Place has evolved into a somewhat serious and stern fellow. His steely, Saturnine gaze and intimidating 12-hour guitar workouts suggest that the knight in shining armor has become some sort of new-fangled guitar cyborg, devoid of emotion and good-humor.
“It’s very hard to come across as a passionate human being in print," says a clearly concerned Vai. "People can't hear the inflections in your voice. I can tell you this: I'm an extremely passionate individual. I try to be careful how I display it because you never know how people are going to take it. You get criticized for whatever you do, and it's painful. I have a deep love for life and my fellow human beings. I try to understand everything that everybody does, even if it seems wrong to me."
Warming to his subject, Vai continues with missionary zeal: "When it comes to myself, I'm a disciplinarian. But after I've gone through the personal discipline, and I can perform something that I've been hearing in my head, I'm completely elated. So, ultimately, I don't see these things as discipline. I'm very serious about what I do, but I'm not miserable. The only time I'm miserable is when I can't keep an instrument in tune.
"When you discipline yourself to quit smoking, to run faster or to play better, you have to reach deep down into a part of you. That is a profoundly spiritual event. That's when you come into contact with that little piece of God within you. You're not going to be the same after that. It's a gift of life."
It was a bone-chilling 10 degrees on the day Steve Vai and I met most recently. Yet the man Ozzy Osbourne once called a "mechanic" managed to heat things up considerably with his thoughtful answers and outspoken views. Are they the words of a dedicated, passionate musician -- or the cold blatherings of a wind-up automaton? You decide. But this will be your last chance, for a while.
''I've been around a lot this year, and have had my face on the cover of a lot of magazines -- and I'm sure a lot of people are getting tired of seeing me," said Steve at the outset of our conversation. "This will be the last interview I'll do for a long while."
GUITAR WORLD: We hear that you're taking a very active role in the production of the upcoming Passion And Warfare sheet music book.
I personally went through and edited all the music to make sure it was accurately transcribed. Jesse Gress and Dave Whitehill did a great job capturing all the music on paper, but everybody has their own system of notating guitar music and I wanted to make sure everything was articulated in accordance with my personal system.
Why did you become so involved with the book?
It's my curse. I always feel compelled to get very involved with anything that has my name on it -- to the point of becoming a complete nuisance! It was especially hard to stay on the sidelines in this case, because written manuscript is very dear to me.
Unfortunately, my control freak tendencies are beginning to run my career. I mean, right now I'm working on a video that I produced, directed and edited. I even shot a few scenes. I'm trying to learn how to trust other people, but at the same time I enjoy being close to my projects.
Is it true that you're thinking of writing a method book?
I've actually given it a great deal of thought. It 's something I'd really like to do when I have more time. I'd like to do three volumes of intense stuff that would cover everything from absolute ground zero to the complete outer limits of music. It would include things that people would never expect in a music book.