Steve Vai: Flex Appeal
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009
With $5000 and a homebuilt studio, Steve Vai recorded an album that
made him a star and changed guitar music forever. On the 25th
anniversary of Flex-Able, Vai delivers the most in-depth look ever into the making of his shred-tastic debut and his plans to remake it.
“I was completely scared to death of being famous,” Steve Vai confides. “And I just thought, There’s no way I could sell this music I’ve made. I don’t even want to try to sell it! It’s too personal.”
The music that Vai is discussing is Flex-Able, his first solo album. Released in 1984, a quarter of a century ago this year, it has become a classic among fans of virtuoso rock guitar and a landmark of the Eighties shred phenomenon that forever raised the bar for rock guitar technique. It has been reissued many times and in many formats, along with the now equally famous Flex-Able Leftovers bonus tracks. In commemoration of its silver anniversary, Vai is preparing a specially remastered, 25th anniversary deluxe reissue of the album that put him on the map.
Flex-Able was the disc that introduced Steve Vai to the world. Although he had already made several albums with Frank Zappa, Flex-Able was the first record that presented him on his own terms. His uncanny mastery of the fretboard, the strange voodoo he could work with a whammy bar, the soul-searching lyricism of his ballad playing, his compositional flair, even his mystical, tantric alien love god persona—the whole Vai story begins with Flex-Able.
The album is also an important early example of a rock musician seizing control of the means of production and distribution, and having it his own way. Vai recorded it in a home studio that he built with his own hands, and then released it independently. In that respect, Flex-Able is an important harbinger of our own digital D.I.Y. era of MySpace and YouTube, Pro Tools and Garage Band—except that Vai did it all analog, at a time before personal computers had even made their way into most people’s homes and the internet was still more than a decade down the road. Nonetheless, Flex-Able has sold more than 300,000 copies to date. Not bad for music that its creator thought would never sell.
These days Steve Vai is no longer scared to death of fame. Posing in an L.A. photo studio for this month’s Guitar World cover (in which he recreates Flex-Able’s jacket art), Vai is relaxed and assured, completely comfortable in his tall, lanky rock star frame, working the lens with the same easygoing command he exhibits on the fretboard. But he also remains one of the nicest, most unassuming guys in rock, with a kind word for everyone in the room, a joke or a concerned inquiry as to the other person’s well being. Settling into a sofa after the shoot, he seems eager to discuss his plans for the special 25th anniversary reissue of Flex-Able.
“What I’m working on is remastering Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers in their original form, and releasing that, along with a photo book and the whole story of that time in my life,” he explains. “The bonus material includes a whole slew of stuff that was recorded even before Flex-Able, in an earlier home studio I had. It’s some really weird stuff. I say ‘weird,’ but what I really mean is silly. When I listen back to some of it I think, Who the heck was this guy who made this silly stuff?”
That guy was a guitarist in his early twenties from suburban Carle Place, Long Island, who’d been plucked from the Berklee School of Music by none other than Frank Zappa and whisked off to L.A. to serve as Zappa’s music transcriptionist and “stunt guitarist,” the Zappa band member who played the “impossible” guitar parts. The young Mr. Vai also possessed an almost lifelong obsession with audio recording.
“Even when I was a young boy,” he recalls, “besides the guitar itself, the thing that fascinated me most was the idea of recording sound on sound. I started recording stuff the day I started playing guitar. Even today, I record myself playing the guitar at least an hour a day, probably four or five days a week. I just sit and play, and I record it. I don’t even know why. There’s maybe the idea of some kind of posterity, which more and more seems like a big waste of time. But just maybe the idea of going back and listening to the person who I was at that time.”
Vai arrived in Los Angeles on his 20th birthday and set himself up in an apartment at 1435 North Fairfax, where he assembled a little four-track studio he called “Sy Vy.” When he wasn’t working with Zappa, he was in his apartment cutting his own tracks. In the early Eighties, the home recording boom was really getting underway. Tascam and Fostex had begun releasing the first affordable reel-to-reel multitrack tape machines in the late Seventies. The dawn of the Eighties brought the Portastudio concept: four tracks on cassette, with an integrated mixer. Prior to this, musicians without a record contract or other financial means of paying for commercial studio time had no affordable means by which to record their own music. The advent of home studios profoundly affected the evolution of popular music and the music business in the decades that followed.