Steve Vai Joins Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour
Does that mean Vai, as conductor, will be standing in front of the orchestra waving his arms? “No, just my whammy bar!” Steve says, laughing. “Writing for orchestra is really a completely different brain muscle from playing the guitar. Playing is fun and expressive—you listen and create on the spot—but there are things that you just can’t do. Having 100 musicians under your control, on the tip of your pen, is an amazing endeavor. You can create all of these musical colors, textures and interesting sounds.
“So, I’m excited about these orchestral performances, but I’m also extremely excited about this Hendrix tour. Jimi’s music has meant so much to me for as long as I can remember, and I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to play his music with the many great musicians they’ve assembled for the tour.”
GUITAR WORLD Was Jimi Hendrix one of your primary influences when you first picked up the guitar?
STEVE VAI Absolutely. I even had the word “Axis” tattooed on my arm! Listening to that stuff growing up, I felt like, That’s Hendrix, man—it simply cannot be reproduced. Every one of those great guitar players from the Seventies—and this is true of all great players—had a special touch that was unique. This was something I loved about Jimmy Page too: his vibrato, the way he hit chords, the little bit of looseness…or a lot of looseness sometimes! It was all a part of the music he created and all a part of what made it so great, and it’s the same thing with Jimi Hendrix.
GW Do you look at performing his music as more of an opportunity to be inspired by it as opposed to recreating it?
VAI I have to be really careful, because I’m not looking to totally recreate it at all. I did do that once before: I did “Bold as Love” with [Jimi Hendrix engineer/producer] Eddie Kramer, dubbed along with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I thought, Okay, I’m gonna really nail this, meaning I wanted to recreate Jimi’s solo. I love that track! I learned it note-for-note, got all of the phrasing just right, and after the fact I thought, Why did I do it that way? Why didn’t I take it into a different direction? I know these kids that play my music, and when I see them play the parts just as I played them, it’s touching. But occasionally I’ll see a kid that really just likes the track and does something completely different; I find that more interesting. When I’m approaching these Hendrix songs, I’ll make sure some of the signature things are in there, and I like playing the things that he played, because they mean so much to me.
I haven’t started working on the songs yet, so I’m not absolutely sure of just what I’m going to play. I have to find the way to express myself in these songs, and keep the bar as high as I can while putting a bit of a different tilt on the songs. I won’t play his solos, and I won’t be trying to recreate his sound. I just need to be respectful, and the way that I approach that is to listen to the track and picture myself playing something a little left of center while retaining that thread that has remained such a big inspiration for all of us.
GW What inspires you the most about Jimi Hendrix as a guitarist, composer and performer?
VAI One of the important things I hear when I listen to Jimi is his overwhelming confidence. It’s very hard to look back into the past and try to imagine what the world of guitar was like before he came along. It was a different world, and when Jimi came along there was nothing even remotely as bizarre or unusual or as intense as he was. He had all of these great things in balance: his political commentary, the powerful sexuality of his music, the wild clothes that he wore, the way he spoke, his lyrics, and his whole spiritual mojo. Together, it all created this amazing balance. And he was only 27 years old when he died. Somehow, I will always envision Jimi as being older than me, even though I’m approaching twice his age when he passed. He was a monolith, like in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back in those days, the late Sixties/early Seventies, when people consciously tried to be cool or look cool, they didn’t cut it. A lot of it just ended up seeming so cornball. But for Jimi it was natural.
GW At the Isle of Wight concert, Jimi came out in an orange butterfly suit and still looked like the coolest guitarist you ever saw.
VAI That was his confidence. I saw some footage of him onstage wearing a fashion disaster—plaid pants with a green shirt—and he looked amazing. Back then, when people tried to look hip, psychedelic and cool, it usually just looked silly to me, but that was never the case with Jimi.
Aside from Hendrix, there were only a few things from that time that I liked when I was a kid, like a few Jefferson Airplane and Doors songs, and Cream stuff where [Eric] Clapton was really playing. But I’m a ham. [laughs] When I’m onstage, I change my clothes three times, I move around a lot, and I really like the extroverted nature of performance, of which Jimi was a master. As a performer, he was a whole different vibe from his contemporaries. Nowadays, there are so many outtakes and live tracks available, you can hear the way he communicated with the audience, and it gives you great insight into his thought process.