Steve Vai Joins Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour
Steve Vai grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix. Now he’s paying homage to his hero onstage. As he prepares for this year’s Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour, the out-of-this-world virtuoso talks about the Sixties guitar god’s influence on his music.
“Hendrix had a huge impact on every guitar player that was around back when I was a teenager. While I was in high school, I formed a ‘Hendrix’ band, and we played nothing but Hendrix songs. So being given the opportunity to go out and play his music as a part of this tour is an offer I simply could not refuse—it’s like a life dream for me.”
Steve Vai is discussing his upcoming participation in this year’s Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour, an annual event (actually the second tour of 2010, following an earlier Tribute tour that took place in March) sponsored by Experience Hendrix, the family-run company overseen by Jimi’s stepsister, Janie Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix, a visionary guitarist that blazed new trails and pushed the envelope of the very nature of the instrument’s capabilities, is one of Vai’s earliest and most important influences. And like Hendrix, Vai has drawn from many diverse musical elements to create a strikingly original guitar style, one that, upon his arrival on the scene in the mid Eighties, reset the bar for both technical skill and creative musical freedom. One can hear a variety of Hendrix-isms in Steve’s soloing, such as extreme whammy-bar manipulation and flashy explosions of sound and technique. But Steve is no imitator; he has an immediately identifiable sound all his own.
“I went through all of the steps of learning Jimi’s music when I was a kid,” Vai says. “I loved playing it, and I developed a lot of my chordal technique from him. But I never felt that I should copy, or pantomime, him in my own music. I never saw any use in that because, a) I couldn’t do it; and b) I had other things that I wanted to do.
“The most striking thing to me about Jimi was just the fact that he was so colorful—that he was so aware of his own muse—and his imagination flowed freely in everything that he did, such as what he played, what he said, what he wore. His very nature as an artist is what has been so inspiring and influential to me.”
Born on June 6, 1960, in Carle Place, New York, Vai started on guitar at 13 and took lessons from a local teacher just a few years his senior, Joe Satriani. The two have remained close through the years and tour regularly, along with other guest guitarists, as G3.
In 1978, while attending the Berklee College of Music, Vai sent a transcription of Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” to the legendary rock icon, along with a tape of his playing. Zappa was duly impressed and hired Steve to transcribe his guitar solos, published in 1982 as The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, and to record overdubbed guitar parts on Zappa’s You Are What You Is album. Steve joined Frank’s band in 1980 and recorded and toured with him through 1982. In 1984, Vai released the self-produced Flex-Able album, recorded at his Sylmar, California, home studio.
Vai’s next two steps would prove hugely important to his stature as a rock guitarist on the rise: in 1985, he replaced the mighty Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, with whom he recorded Disturbing the Peace. Later that year, former Van Halen front man David Lee Roth embarked on a solo career, hiring Vai and recording the massively successful Eat ’Em and Smile album, which catapulted Vai to international acclaim. In 1990, Steve released the guitar masterpiece Passion and Warfare, followed by the adventurous Sex and Religion and Alien Love Secrets albums. He has remained remarkably prolific ever since, releasing both new works and compilations of previously unreleased tracks and demos.
Like his mentor Zappa, another of Vai’s favorite endeavors is composing for orchestra. His 2007 release, Sound Theories Vol. I & II, featured the guitarist performing his original compositions with the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands. At the time of this writing, Steve is putting the finishing touches on his latest orchestral project. “There is a Steve Vai Festival that is taking place in Holland this October,” he explains, “with two days of extracurricular activities, like workshops, and a ‘Naked Tracks’ competition wherein guitarists play my music, and then two days of performances by the NNO, the North Netherland Orchestra. So for the last month I have been feverishly composing orchestral music for this event.
“It was originally planned as a couple of pieces, with me on guitar in front of the orchestra, along with a new big symphonic piece without the guitar. I got the first movement of the symphonic piece done, and now the guitar piece is turning into a symphony, too. I’m finding that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew! But there will be a lot of new music performed, and it’s very exciting.”