Steve Vai: Better Than Flex?

Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009

Naked Tracks lets you play along with Steve. Are you ready to walk on the Vai side?

Take the best Steve Vai tracks of all time and…take out Steve Vai? That’s the premise behind the new Naked Tracks box set, which collects the best part of six Vai solo discs—Passion & Warfare, Sex & Religion, Alien Love Secrets, Fire Garden, Alive in an Ultra World, The Ultra Zone, Real Illusions: Reflections—stripping away Vai’s own space and time warping leads. This leaves you room to play your own leads over some of the best backing tracks available anywhere.

Don’t panic, Steve is with you every step of the way. Detailed liner notes offer both technical playing advice and creative strategies. You’ve never had a better shot at playing and thinking like Steve Vai—to the extent which that is humanly possible.

It seems the virtuoso guitar hero has been in serious education mode of late. Vai has also been traveling around offering Alien Guitar Secrets, live guitar clinics filled with sage advice from the master himself. And soon Alien Guitar Secrets will be available via VaiTunes, a new internet subscription service that will dole out a monthly dose of instructional videos and rare, previously unreleased tracks from the Vai vaults.

All in all then, the future is brimming with possibilities to get interactive with Steve Vai.

GUITAR WORLD How did you arrive at the idea to put together the Naked Tracks box set?

STEVE VAI Through the years, whenever I mixed my records, I would always do a mix without the lead guitar so I’d have something to play along to. I didn’t do that with Flex-Able because I didn’t really have the technology at the time. But with all the other albums I thought, One day I’ll make these tracks available so people can play along. And through the years I have, to a degree, but now I’ve decided that I’m going to take everything that somebody could play along to and release it all in one box set, right now. No excuses. And I created this five-CD box called Naked Tracks. It probably has 60 or so tracks of mine, spanning the years, without the lead guitar. And just listening to them without the lead guitar is very interesting, because you can hear a lot of the production.

GW You really expect people to be able to reproduce your leads?

VAI That’s the great part. I wouldn’t really expect people to take these tracks and play my parts; you can play anything you want against them. And it’s really cool because all of a sudden you have these very colorful backing tracks that aren’t just canned beat material that you download for GarageBand; these are real songs to which you can add your own interesting playing.

The idea to release Naked Tracks also came from the fact that I go on YouTube and see a lot of kids who play along to someone’s track. So we’ve just started this contest online. It’s called Real Guitar Hero. People can download a track, and basically there are two categories: one is “Play Like the Record,” and the other is “Create Your Own Concept.” It will be very interesting to hear the results. I did this once before with “Jibboom” [from The Ultra Zone]. This company wanted to have a contest, and 10 people had sent in tracks they’d created from the naked track of “Jibboom.” And it was astonishing how different and diverse they all were. The way I played on the song sounded really conservative compared to what these guys were doing.

GW So the Guitar Hero phenomenon influenced you to do all this?

VAI Yeah, I support the whole Guitar Hero thing, because it actually— statistically—encourages kids to pick up an instrument. For that, I think it’s pretty worthwhile. You know, the guitar is the coolest instrument in the world. Everybody loves it. I’ve discovered that most people want to play it. And the people who say they don’t probably do.

The guitar is just so expressive. I’m a big proponent of the idea that everybody should play guitar. Even if you’re just banging out a D chord or an E minor chord, you’re hitting it and making strings vibrate, and that resonates with the human soul—just the sound of strings vibrating. It’s a great, cathartic thing to do. So when people are picking up a game and doing it, it’s a form of pseudo instant gratification. But if it encourages them to actually pick up the real instrument and make the strings resonate, that’s cool.

GW You said that you don’t expect everybody to play exactly what you played on the original tracks. But how many people do you think are out there who are actually capable of playing the leads that you played?

VAI What I’m noticing is there’s this whole new wave of guitar players, and some of them, their chops are extraordinary. I mean they can really shred. Many of them can play faster and with more chops than I can play. But what I have yet to hear is someone who understands the nuances of dynamics and phrasing, ’cause that’s what makes the notes really speak. I do use speed to get certain points across, but that’s just part of the picture. But you know, in this day and age it seems like kids are into instant gratification. And when you start to practice a lot, you can fascinate yourself with how fast your fingers move. So a video game encourages you to play withyour impatience, in a sense, because it centers on your impatience. You want instant gratification: take a pill; get a hard-on. It’s that kind of thing.

GW It’s our culture.

VAI Yeah. So, playing fast, I think a lot of kids get stuck in the fascination of it.

GW Right. They’re so happy with themselves that they can do it. So they don’t really think about dynamics or phrasing.

VAI Yeah, and then I get the heat for it!

GW The written instructions that go with the Naked Tracks are hugely valuable in themselves. You’re really offering people high-level advice on how to conceptualize their playing.

VAI I wanted to give people a chance to approach these tracks from their own perspective, and also to give them some guidelines on how to find their own voice on these tracks. And that’s hard to do, because most people just want to know how I played a certain thing, and I tend to shy away from teaching that. I mean, I understand the value in that, and if someone wants to know how to stretch notes or how I did a particular thing, I’m happy to show them. But really, I’m eager to encourage you to do it better, or find your own way to do it. When I picture myself onstage, I don’t picture myself playing like somebody else; I picture myself in terms of how I want to be perceived and how I want to perform. That’s a mental image I create. And the mental image you create becomes your reality. So when it comes to teaching people, I try to get them to understand the value of creating their own mental picture of a concept or an approach—because then they’re going to fulfill that—as opposed to telling them, “This is what I do and you should do the same.”

So these tracks will be valuable in a lot of different capacities. Now, if all and over again, God bless you. Because there’s a lot of gratification in that too.

GW And now people can get more of that kind of instruction from VaiTunes?

VAI Yeah, but that’s just part of the package. I’ve also got all this stuff that I’ve recorded throughout the years that I’ve never released because it’s in various forms of being completed. For instance, on the last tour I recorded probably 15 soundcheck songs. And from the Fire Garden Tour I’ve got several dozen songs that were recorded in soundcheck. Some of them are just jams and some are actual songs. So this VaiTunes thing will be subscription-based. When you subscribe, you’ll get one of these songs a month—one brand-new song from the vault. Plus, subscribers get one Alien Guitar Secret each month. Alien Guitar Secrets is this thing I do where I go out and basically teach a class. It’s a three hour class, and it’s usually very limited to about 25 or 30 people. I talk about the guitar and I focus on fundamentals and academics to a degree, but the main focus is more on what we were talking about before: approaches to the instrument that help you find your own uniqueness. So you get maybe a five-to-10-minute Alien Guitar video snippet, a little five-to-10-minute update snippet and a new song. We’re probably gonna launch that at the end of the summer.

GW So is this going to be the end of your releasing regular albums?

VAI No. But it signals a direction that a lot of artists are going to start moving in, because it just gets too time consuming and expensive to release a whole album sometimes. The stuff on VaiTunes will be just interesting individual tracks. I’m trying to refrain from putting out any filler. But along with all that, I’ll still have albums coming out that will actually be projects.

GW I think one reason why people are eager to learn specific techniques from you is that they somehow think it will solve all of their life’s problems. I know that sounds naïve, but I think a lot of fans believe that a great musical gift does make a person immune from life’s issues.

VAI Well, I’d encourage those people to look at certain things they have in their life that they think other people believe take the woes of the world away. Do they, really? It doesn’t matter what you have or what you’re good at. Your ability to skate through life is a mental attitude. Put it this way: fame has the potential to magnify personality foibles. I’ve seen very nice guys who became rich and famous and became very, very nice guys—very sweet, generous, genuine people. And I’ve seen people who were assholes who became rich and famous and became big, big fuckin’ assholes.

We always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Which reminds me of a song that has tremendous profundity to it. It’s by a group of young girls who don’t even know how to play their instruments, called the Shaggs. They would write these songs that were absolutely pure. One of my favorite records of all time is the Shaggs album Philosophy of the World, because it’s real music. And there’s no greater proof of the phrase, “out of the mouths of babes come gems” than the lyrics to their song “Philosophy of the World.” And it goes [singing]:

All the rich people want what the poor people’s got
And the poor people want what the rich people’s got.
All the skinny people want what the fat people’s got
And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got.
You could never please everybody in this world.

There it is. So yeah, a lot of people think if you’re an elite rock guitar virtuoso, the world’s handed to you on a silver platter. And in some ways, yes it is. But you usually want more. And I will say that I have had challenges in my life. I’m no different than anybody else in that way. Life is a series of problems with rest spots in between. At the end of your life, success is measured by how well you’ve dealt with the problems. I didn’t say that, by the way. A very wise man in India said that.

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