Steve Vai grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix. Now he’s paying homage to his hero onstage. As he prepares for this year’s Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour, the out-of-this-world virtuoso talks about the Sixties guitar god’s influence on his music.
“Hendrix had a huge impact on every guitar player that was around back when I was a teenager. While I was in high school, I formed a ‘Hendrix’ band, and we played nothing but Hendrix songs. So being given the opportunity to go out and play his music as a part of this tour is an offer I simply could not refuse—it’s like a life dream for me.”
Steve Vai is discussing his upcoming participation in this year’s Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour, an annual event (actually the second tour of 2010, following an earlier Tribute tour that took place in March) sponsored by Experience Hendrix, the family-run company overseen by Jimi’s stepsister, Janie Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix, a visionary guitarist that blazed new trails and pushed the envelope of the very nature of the instrument’s capabilities, is one of Vai’s earliest and most important influences. And like Hendrix, Vai has drawn from many diverse musical elements to create a strikingly original guitar style, one that, upon his arrival on the scene in the mid Eighties, reset the bar for both technical skill and creative musical freedom. One can hear a variety of Hendrix-isms in Steve’s soloing, such as extreme whammy-bar manipulation and flashy explosions of sound and technique. But Steve is no imitator; he has an immediately identifiable sound all his own.
“I went through all of the steps of learning Jimi’s music when I was a kid,” Vai says. “I loved playing it, and I developed a lot of my chordal technique from him. But I never felt that I should copy, or pantomime, him in my own music. I never saw any use in that because, a) I couldn’t do it; and b) I had other things that I wanted to do.
“The most striking thing to me about Jimi was just the fact that he was so colorful—that he was so aware of his own muse—and his imagination flowed freely in everything that he did, such as what he played, what he said, what he wore. His very nature as an artist is what has been so inspiring and influential to me.”
Born on June 6, 1960, in Carle Place, New York, Vai started on guitar at 13 and took lessons from a local teacher just a few years his senior, Joe Satriani. The two have remained close through the years and tour regularly, along with other guest guitarists, as G3.
In 1978, while attending the Berklee College of Music, Vai sent a transcription of Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” to the legendary rock icon, along with a tape of his playing. Zappa was duly impressed and hired Steve to transcribe his guitar solos, published in 1982 as The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, and to record overdubbed guitar parts on Zappa’s You Are What You Is album. Steve joined Frank’s band in 1980 and recorded and toured with him through 1982. In 1984, Vai released the self-produced Flex-Able album, recorded at his Sylmar, California, home studio.
Vai’s next two steps would prove hugely important to his stature as a rock guitarist on the rise: in 1985, he replaced the mighty Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, with whom he recorded Disturbing the Peace. Later that year, former Van Halen front man David Lee Roth embarked on a solo career, hiring Vai and recording the massively successful Eat ’Em and Smile album, which catapulted Vai to international acclaim. In 1990, Steve released the guitar masterpiece Passion and Warfare, followed by the adventurous Sex and Religion and Alien Love Secrets albums. He has remained remarkably prolific ever since, releasing both new works and compilations of previously unreleased tracks and demos.
Like his mentor Zappa, another of Vai’s favorite endeavors is composing for orchestra. His 2007 release, Sound Theories Vol. I & II, featured the guitarist performing his original compositions with the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands. At the time of this writing, Steve is putting the finishing touches on his latest orchestral project. “There is a Steve Vai Festival that is taking place in Holland this October,” he explains, “with two days of extracurricular activities, like workshops, and a ‘Naked Tracks’ competition wherein guitarists play my music, and then two days of performances by the NNO, the North Netherland Orchestra. So for the last month I have been feverishly composing orchestral music for this event.
“It was originally planned as a couple of pieces, with me on guitar in front of the orchestra, along with a new big symphonic piece without the guitar. I got the first movement of the symphonic piece done, and now the guitar piece is turning into a symphony, too. I’m finding that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew! But there will be a lot of new music performed, and it’s very exciting.”
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.
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.
GW One of the things about performing on the Hendrix tour is that you will be without your normal band and you may be playing with different people from night to night.
VAI I know, and I’m really looking forward to that. I know that all the musicians are going to be very good. I believe this will be very rejuvenating for me, because I haven’t done something like this in quite a while.
GW Do you already know whom you’ll be playing with, whether it’s a trio, and whether you’ll also be performing within other ensembles of players?
VAI That hasn’t been nailed down, but along with my segment, there’s a big jam at the end that I’ll be a part of. I plan to sing the songs I’m playing, but I’m sure there are some other singers that could cover it too. I know a lot of the guys on the tour, so it’ll be nice to be with them again, and I’m really dying to get back out on tour and play.
GW Have you spoken much with your good friend Joe Satriani, last year’s tour headliner, about his experiences?
VAI Oh yeah. He told me all about it, and he loved it. He said the musicians were fantastic, and, you know, Joe is obviously a really big Hendrix fan.
GW Are you going to use any new or specific gear for this tour?
VAI I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I’m going to have a couple of new guitars made just for the tour that will somehow pay tribute to Jimi. Ibanez sent me a few bodies that are more Strat-like than my usual guitars. I examined very closely the photos of Jimi’s hand-painted guitar that he played at Monterey [on June 18, 1967], and I decided to hand-paint these new bodies in Jimi’s style. If you look closely at Jimi’s guitar, you can see that it’s two-tone, red and white [Jimi’s guitar was originally red and he painted part of it white before further adorning it with flowery designs], and I believe he painted the guitar shortly before he went on. So I hand-painted them, and I’m not any kind of a painter, but I tried to create a Sixties-style look from the perspective of 2010. I made two of them. They both have single-coil pickups and maple necks, but there are certain things about them that suit my playing style, like 24 frets, the type of whammy bar and the Sustainer pickup. Everything that I’m doing with this tour is being done with the utmost respect for Jimi’s legacy, along with capturing a contemporary feeling for what that’s all about.
GW I can tell you from my own experiences that all of the musicians reveled in the uniqueness of the tour, and the prevailing feeling is that we were all part of this big “Hendrix” team.
VAI That’s one of the things that I’m really looking forward to: being out there with people that all have the same desire and the same love and respect for Jimi. A tour is like a family—sometimes even closer than a family—because you live with these people every day, and there are no secrets at sea! I love that environment. I’m a really big fan of the whole tour experience, especially in what I believe will be an atmosphere of mutual love for the project.
GW Do you have plans for your next record?
VAI I have a few different options, but I’m thinking about something a little simpler. Some of my projects are very complex and involved in terms of production, but I’m thinking about doing something along the lines of Alien Love Secrets, which was simpler to do in this regard. I’m feeling it’s time to step back and do a record with no overdubs, you know, before my fingers stop working! [laughs] So this tour might be a good precursor to that.