It is no accident that Steve Vai’s evolution as a guitarist has coincided with some of the boldest design innovations in electric guitar history. As Vai’s curiosity drew him deeper into the instrument, his ideas for what could be achieved on guitar expanded, and his gear had to adapt to keep up.
That process started with a Fender Stratocaster. That was the shape. As he explains here, offering Guitarist a tour of some of the most important pieces in his collection, his 1977 Strat was the gateway – it’s the one that inaugurated his genius, so to speak.
But once Vai hooked up with Ibanez, designing his JEM signature guitar – complete with Monkey Grip, high-output DiMarzio humbuckers and, typically, a double-locking Floyd Rose (typically because Vai has a special variation on the theme) – he had created one of the most iconic high-performance electrics.
The collaboration with Ibanez did not end there. The PIA models offered a next-gen JEM experience, and then, with the release of Vai’s latest studio album, Inviolate, the world was introduced to the Hydra, the triple-necked custom-built monster that sat for some months before Vai was ready to learn to play it. No small feat.
Vai has an extensive guitar collection. Here, he talks through some of his favorite pieces, and explains what makes them special to him.
1977 Fender Stratocaster
“This is a 1977 Fender Strat,” says Steve. “It was my first quality guitar that my mother helped me buy at Matthew’s Music in Roosevelt Field [shopping centre in Long Island, NY] when I was 16 years old.
“I put more notes on this guitar than any other that I own. I used this as my one and only main guitar all through high school, Berklee College, Frank Zappa days and into Alcatrazz. Flex-Able was recorded with this guitar, including The Attitude Song.
“Frank Zappa used to mod his guitars in unconventional ways and this inspired me to do the same by changing out pickups, adding preamps and various signal EQ boosts. It’s the one guitar I own that gives me the most juice when I see it.”
c.1993 Ibanez Jem SV #148
“This is SV #148 serial number 253318 from my collection,” says Steve. “It’s a Floral JEM that we believe was built around 1993. I received it from Ibanez in or around the early 2000s as a replacement for my original floral pattern JEM that was stolen.”
2016 Ibanez JS2450-MCB
“Serial number F1609180, this guitar is a Joe Satriani prototype of the JS2450-MCB (Muscle Car Black),” says Steve, “which was only available in 2017. This guitar was built in 2016.
“My dear friend Joe Satriani used this guitar on one of his tours, brought it home, beat it up and made a lovely custom painting on the back and sent it to me for my birthday in 2020.
“It’s a prized possession as it came from my musical life mentor who started teaching me how to play the guitar when I was 12 years old and has continued to inspire me through my whole life.”
1998 Ibanez Custom Jem
“I enjoy Strats, but they are missing a few elements that I’m accustomed to in my JEMs,” Steve explains, “so Ibanez made me this custom JEM/Strat[-style] in September 1998. I’ve used it on various recordings and specifically in the Candle Power video. We had the bridge locked, so it’s more like a hardtail guitar.”
1992 Ibanez Jem EVO
“This was one of the first white JEMs that appeared in 1992 and was a prototype and I first started using it on Sex & Religion,” Steve tells us. “I named it EVO after the Harley Davidson Evolution engine. It was basically stock. Through the years I changed out the neck and pickups several times, and also the electronics and the bridge.
“At that time, this guitar had a magnetic-like pull to me. The first time I played it, it felt like home. This was the main guitar I used from 1992 to present day. I used this guitar at more concerts and recordings than any other guitar. It always felt like my safe place.”
2021 Ibanez Onyx PIA
“This is the second prototype of the ONYX PIA from 2021,” says Steve. “It’s stock with a Sustaniac pickup added, a slight scalloping of the neck and a trem-stopper. I’ve been working this guitar into the setlist and it looks as though I will be making it one of two of my main guitars for the 2022 to 2023 touring season.”
Ibanez Custom Hydra
“The universe will inspire in you those unique ideas that are suited for you and you’ll know them because they come as complete downloads and also with the feeling of enthusiasm.
“I remember I was watching a Mad Max movie and there was this one scene where there’s this guy strapped to the front of the truck and he’s playing this wild guitar [the Doof Warrior, played by Australian guitarist iOTA, in Mad Max: Fury Road]. And I saw that and I thought that was really cool. But it was fake, it was a movie [editor’s note: the guitar built for the movie did actually work!], and I thought I’m going to make it real but much cooler.
“Instantly, a visual came and the visual was a guitar with seven strings, a bass neck and these harp strings, and also that I was going to create a piece of music on this instrument that was a much evolved version of things that I’ve done with other triple-neck guitars.
“I was really going to integrate into the piece of music all the necks, and I haven’t done that. I also knew that this piece of music had to stand alone as a piece of music and it can’t sound gimmicky, and I knew that the melody had to be uninterrupted, it had to sound like a melody while I was juggling all these other things.”
- Inviolate (opens in new tab) is out now on CD, vinyl and digital via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group.