When Steve Vai recently ended his Inviolate world tour, he’d spent 19 months playing 194 shows across 51 countries – the most exhaustive road trip of his 40-plus-year career.
Giving his mad-scientist, three-necked Hydra guitar a well-deserved breather, and also resting his 63-year-old bones, Vai tells Guitar World: “It’s always nice to complete tour cycles, which usually consist of making a record, conceiving it, writing it, recording it, rehearsing it, and touring it. I feel like I live a charmed life.”
He continues: “The night before I go on tour, I’ll lay in bed and think, ‘I wonder what the next year is going to bring me.’ Then when I get home from the last show, I’m laying in bed and I think, ‘Wow, it brought all that!’ But this tour felt elevated to me because, at my age, I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to deliver.”
Vai’s road warrior ways include miles logged with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, numerous G3 events and dozens of solo tours; and it may have left him a little creaky. But if he is, his fans can’t tell – as anyone who saw Vai on the Inviolate tour was made a believer.
“I had some physical challenges with my shoulder, fingers and wrist,” he admitted. “Having the Hydra and wondering how I’d navigate that was also a challenge. All that was a mystery, initially; and when I kicked things off in Europe I wasn’t in great shape. I couldn’t play the Hydra and I was in a lot of pain – I didn't feel like I was delivering on all cylinders.”
“But as the tour progressed, and the second leg came to America, things shifted into gear. I felt like I’d reached another dimension of performing. And that’s good, because as you get older, sometimes your goals become clearer and crystallized. I’m talking about real, authentic goals – not fantasy, but the things that really resonate with you.”
Vai isn’t resting on his laurels for long: he’s got the Satch/Vai tour kicking off on March 22 in Orlando, Florida, at the Hard Rock Café. It’s funny to think it’s the first of its kind, considering he and Joe Satriani have been thick as thieves since they stomped ground as young six-string guns on Long Island, New York.
It’s clear that Vai has immense respect for his old friend: “Joe always had immaculate ears; he hears everything and responds like a person who’s connected to you,” he says. “Most of the original G3s are like that, so when we do the G3 stuff, it's like a piece of cake.”
On the subject of G3 – as if Vai wasn't busy enough – he's part of an impending reunion of the original 1996 lineup alongside Satriani and Eric Johnson. “It's wonderful,” Vai says. “I do my short set, and then I play with those guys.”
“But it can be humiliating at times, too. Those players are so good, but the thing I’ve found when I stand up there – whether it was with Joe, Eric, John Petrucci, Brian May or any of the great artists who have played and toured with us – is that their distinctiveness seems to come out even more.”
In 2021, when Inviolate and the Hydra arrived, it didn’t seem like Vai could fly any higher. But by the looks of it, 2024 might be his biggest year yet. “The Satch/Vai tour is a little different because it’s just me and Joe for the first time, and we’re working on some music together,” he says.
“I’m just thrilled this is happening. I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen – I’m so happy that it is. It was finally the right time for it.”
You’ve just wrapped up the Inviolate world tour, which found you busier than ever. What are your overarching thoughts as you catch your breath?
“I’ve always resonated with the idea of being an entertainer, a service provider, and the best that I can be. A good entertainer engages people and even mesmerizes them, to give them a break from the incessant mind patterns they have to confront all day, usually regarding a lamented past or a fearful future.
“If you’re snapped into a state of grace while watching anybody do anything, people can become wholly connected and inspired. But that's not something a performer can demand of themselves – you have to allow it.
“And that’s been my work: to let myself be as relaxed and connected as possible. And this tour was the highlight of that for me so far in my career.”
Another highlight was Dante Frisiello joining your band in place of the departed Dave Weiner. What was it like playing alongside him?
“Dante was great. That whole thing happened transparently, and I didn’t have to do much, which was nice. Dave had been in my band for decades but was ready to do new things and needed time at home for personal reasons.
“The guy he had on his radar was one of his students, Dante. Dave had already found his replacement, showed him all the parts and worked with him.”
For the most part, the transition to Dante appeared seamless, which is impressive given the time Dave spent alongside you.
“To be able to tour in a situation like this, my first prerequisite is that whoever the person is joining the entourage – crew member, band member or anybody – they gotta be happy people. They gotta be fun, professional, and considerate people – because if you go out on tour, and you’ve got an asshole, they turn into really big assholes and they screw everything up.
“Dante absolutely passed that test – he was one of the funniest, most lively and most exuberant people on the tour. He’s magnificent. He’s just this young powerhouse. He learned the music very respectfully; and then, on that first leg of the tour, he came out with us as Dave’s tech. He slowly worked his way in by appearing on stage for a song in place of Dave, to see and hear how it felt. He eased right in.”
You and Joe Satriani have been friends since your days on Long Island – but this is your first joint tour.
“Joe is one of my life mentors – I started taking lessons from him when I was 12. I took lessons from him on and off for five years, and he was always great. He was always a class act.
“He has such a tremendous amount of integrity, a stunning musical ear, and he’s a guitar lover. He’s a great teacher, and he shared everything with me.”
Beyond the lessons, what has Joe's friendship meant to you?
“It’s always been this interesting phenomenon where we’ve been joined at the hip through our careers. We’ve been so fortunate that we’ve both experienced a nice chunk of success.
“We’re still touring and playing well over 50 years after starting as kids in the backyard playing together. But finally having the opportunity to tour with him will be so nice.”
What’s the most valuable lesson that Joe has taught you?
“That the quality of the melody is the most important thing about a song. And when you put your fingers on the guitar, make sure that what comes out always sounds like music!”
You’re probably aware that Joe will be tackling some Van Halen licks this year on the Best of All Worlds tour. As someone who took on some of Eddie’s licks with David Lee Roth, what’s the secret to nailing it?
“Do not try to play them like Edward because you can't. I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to play those songs with Roth because they’re beautiful.
“They’re like little orchestrations on the guitar; they fall so nicely and are very well constructed. When I approached them I wanted to retain the integrity of the riffs because they're brilliant, and you need to respect them.
“But I also knew instinctually that I wouldn’t try to sound like Edward because I couldn’t and didn’t want to. The best thing to do was to honor the parts and play them how I felt them.
“I’d play them, and it was great because they’re fantastic guitar parts, and I did my best. And after going through that, and even while it was happening, I felt relieved and comfortable with the audience – meaning the Edward fans. They weren’t expecting Edward, and they were very kind to me.”
It must be thrilling to be back together again for G3, especially given how important the event has become to the community.
“When Joe first called me all those years ago to do G3, I knew he might be thinking in the direction it’s gone, because he loves to celebrate the guitar. I thought it was a brilliant idea then, and I was so happy he invited me – just having the opportunity to be on stage like that and connect with the other Gs that are always up there.
“It’s always inspiring because it’s a jamming environment, so you gotta be on top of your game. You gotta be more you than you’ve ever been before. I know that sounds odd, but those players will push you. They push you to be the best you that you can be because the alternative is not pretty.”
I believe that’s called ‘being your most authentic self’.
“That’s it! That is exactly right. You’ve got to be your most authentic self. And, oh boy, do they push some weird, abstract shit out of me!”
Given your history of playing Edward’s licks and Joe’s undertaking this year, is there a plan to represent Van Halen at G3 this year?
“Us being there together is sort of a representation of that. We’re holding the guitar torches as high as we can. Other than that, I don’t think we'll be playing any Van Halen songs, but you never know. I don’t want to give away any of the jam songs we’re doing, but who knows? There may be something in there.”
What gear do you plan on rolling out for the G3 shows?
“For the entire Inviolate tour, I used my Synergy VAI 2-channel preamp Module and Fryette LX-2 Stereo Tube power amps, which is a setup I really liked. But after a while, you get in the mood for a flavor change and want to start updating the rig with different amps and some new things. I won’t have to do that before the G3 shows, so I’ll probably stick with my Synergy rig.
“But before I go out with Joe, I’m going to experiment with some different things. My Synergy rig is so flexible; it has a vast number of modules that have actual preamp sections of quality boutique amps.
“I just hit a button and can be in a basement with a Marshall Plexi, a Diezel or a Soldano. That’s hard to get past, but I’m gonna experiment a bit with some other gear to see what I find.”
Last year’s Vai Academy was a big hit once again. You’ve been a great champion of young players, so that must be gratifying.
“Oh, man – It had to have been the best one. The whole thing was the entire highlight. My idea was to bring together many of these young freakazoid players who are hitting the scene now and doing amazing things, and get them together at this camp. I wasn’t sure how it would work – but, man, it was fantastic.
“One of the things I loved was jamming with every camper, and we were totally sold out. We had more than 200 campers, and every single one of them wanted to jam. I jammed with all of them, and it took four hours over four straight nights to do it, but it was so great.
“You never know what will happen. Sometimes they’re nervous, so I tell them, ‘Just play anything.’ Then my band kicks in for three or four minutes and it’s great.
Plus you had so many young virtuosos by your side.
“I think the campers, who are really students, enjoy these monster young players because it’s so fascinating to see what they can do.
“We had Tim Henson, Scott LePage, Marcin Patrzalek – who came out and dropped jaws – and Matteo Mancuso, along with Sarah Longfield, Mohini Dey and all these folks who offer so much. They're all so different, and I was thrilled to see and play with them all.”
Matteo Mancuso is breathtaking. His style and chops are like no-one else. He’s exceptional.
“Yeah, he’s one of those special cases. I talked to him when he was developing his style. He decided to use his fingers, and I always thought, ‘If anybody ever did that – really honed their chops using their fingers – their ability to navigate the neck, do arpeggios, sweeps and runs would be outstanding.’ Boy, that is exactly what he’s doing.
“Matteo can navigate these breathtaking riffs that are close to impossible with a pick, and just don’t sound the same that way. He stumbled onto something and then fine-tuned it, and it's fascinating. It reminds me of when I went to Berklee, and maybe three guys had unfathomable chops.
“There was this guy named Lorn Leber. I would watch him play –we would all watch him play – and we’d just end up throwing our picks on the table because he would smoke everybody. He would pick every note and do these incredible, angular things with dense harmonic structures.
“A couple of guys at Berklee were doing that, and when I met Matteo Mancuso, I thought, ‘This is kind of like a Berklee guy but at the top of the food chain.’ So I’m eager and very excited to see how his career unfolds, the kind of music he gets into and the different shapes he gets into. Plus, he’s a real sweetheart and a super-nice kid.”
What can you tell us about the music you're working on with Joe?
“It’s not far off from what you might expect. I’ve got a couple of songs from him so far, and they’re just beautifully Joe. They have his DNA and melodic sensibility stamped all over them, and they're exceptionally good.
“But as Joe and I construct this music, we’re leaving space for each other to express our ideas, and it’s coming along great. I’m looking at it right now – I’m staring at a session right now. I’ve got 10 days to finish it all!”
- Tickets for the G3 and Satch/Vai tours are available via Vai.com.