Steve Vai Joins Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour
GW Jimi also blazed new trails in regard to how one could express oneself with the guitar, with his use of the whammy bar, effects and unusual techniques, which is something you have done throughout your career, as well.
VAI The guitar itself is such an infinite creature. There have been so many great guitarists, all of whom have had their own unique approach and sound. The instrument is capable of whispering and of roaring, and I like to try to utilize all of the dimensions of the guitar whenever I can. Hendrix had some really colorful dimensions, and he pretty much invented those colors himself. We sometimes take for granted how those things have become so much a part of our vocabulary as guitarists.
A lot of things about his approach to the guitar were distinct. It wasn’t just a technical tool for him like it is for a lot of people today; he would never have sat down and taught a master class about his playing, and it’s so rare to hear him talking about his strings or his amplifier or demonstrate a piece of gear. That concept didn’t even exist back then—the guitar was just the instrument that he played, and it was his tool for expression. And one of the beautiful things about him was, as an expression of his youth, he was so fearless and courageous. When you look at the pictures of his lyric sheets, with certain words scratched out, and then you listen to the song and you can hear that he’d continued to tinker with it, you get the impression that he definitely had a vision for his music and it wasn’t solidified in any given moment. He worked on his music constantly, and that in and of itself is inspiring.
GW What would you say is the greatest challenge of performing Jimi’s music on this tour?
VAI The real challenge is presenting the tracks in a respectful way, not just as a pantomime of someone else’s genius, with the hope of making it entertaining. When you hear the melody of a song that you love, it has a way of moving you. Even when I hear someone play something like, for example, the main riff in “Purple Haze” or “Little Wing,” there’s always an appreciation for that performer, but there’s also a feeling of the intense mystique about the music and about Jimi himself. I’d like to try to retain that feeling the best that I can, so that people will be able to appreciate the song for the song. It’s a very delicate responsibility to try to take one of his songs into another direction or area and not stomp on it. The goal is to try to keep that exquisite thread that is him that runs through all of his songs.
GW For this tour, you’ve picked a nice cross-section of songs to play: “May This Be Love,” which is a beautiful ballad, “Love or Confusion” and the crushingly heavy “Midnight.”
VAI These are three Hendrix songs that I’ve been dying to play for years, and they are all songs that I used to play with my high school band. “Midnight” is such a great track, one that’s under the radar because it was on an album [War Heroes] that was not as well known as some of the others. I think it’s one of Jimi’s greatest guitar performances ever. The tone is incredible, and my favorite part is where the track sounds out-of-tune toward the end due to the studio flanging. The sound of that track is so interesting, and I have no idea how they got it.
“May This Be Love” has always been a touching song for me. As a song, it’s very simple and sweet, but he sort of reinvented the guitar with every song he ever recorded, and I love this invention. The tonality of the song, his touch…I’m going to do different stuff, because I can’t get that tone, and I don’t want to even try to sound like him. It’s a very peaceful song, the way he effortlessly plays through the chord progression, and the way in which he decided to use the delay and run his guitar along the mic stand at the beginning. That song is like a little capsule of one side of Jimi, and it’s a treasure. When I was a teenager, I used to sit and play along to the solo section over and over.
The way he plays that solo, all on one string, is something that I’d never heard before, and it’s fascinating. That entire approach was an entire frame of mind, and he grabbed onto this atmosphere and made it come out of his fingers. There’s no explaining it, and you’ll never hear him explaining it to someone. He wouldn’t say, “Well, I put my first finger on the fourth fret, and then pull off and slide down”; he’d be more likely to say, “Just pretend there are no strings on the guitar!” That’s what that song is. When you listen to the way he phrases his lines, it’s a profound language, like sentences from another planet.
“Love or Confusion” is great too. Just the lyrics, “Is that the stars in the sky or is it the rain falling down?” and the way the feedback guitar just screams through the entire track. Forget it—that’s another one of those moments where the meaning of cool has been completely redefined. If you listen to all of the “flower power” music through the Sixties and what was popular on the radio at that time, the attitude and atmosphere of his music changed the terrain completely, giving the music a different dimension that’s so authentic and sincere, and inspired.
For example, “She’s So Fine,” from Axis: Bold as Love, was the only song not written by Jimi; it was written by Noel Redding. That song epitomizes a sound that was considered hip, and pop and mod in the Sixties, but to me it already sounded dated by the time I heard it. It’s a Sixties hippy song, and it’s funny, but next to the Jimi songs on the record it sounds pretty lightweight. The coolest part of the whole song is Jimi’s end solo, which culminates with the big dive bomb with the whammy bar. It’s like he redefines the whole genre with that one sound. And then the next track is “If Six was Nine.” How could anything compete with that piece of music? It’s so heavy.