Dialing back to the ‘80s, there were numerous giants who strode the earth with an electric guitar in hand. These titanic players were overlords of shred and sultans of melodicism.
Of the many who stood out in that time, few remain, and even fewer are remembered with the same fondness they fostered in their heyday. But still, a few have not only maintained their status as gods of all things six-string, but watched it extend to incredible heights previously thought unfathomable.
Names like Edward Van Halen, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen come to mind – but the list doesn’t end there. Another, somewhat lesser-known name who has become one of the most vaunted, hallowed, and adored guitar heroes of his time is none other than Staten Island’s own Vito Bratta.
“As a kid, I loved the guitar, and my parents got me a cheap one out of a Sears catlog” says Bratta. “So, I guess I was getting tired of listing to Mary Had a Little Lamb and all that stuff [Laughs]. I was taking lessons as a kid, but that was boring me, too. Guys like Glen Campbell and Roy Clark appealed to me first, but they’re not on my list.
“Anyway, you know how there’s always that one cool friend in school? I had one of those. He had access to all these albums through his brother, and I still remember the day he pulled out The Best of Cream; everything changed. That’s when I knew that I wanted to play rock guitar.”
Few unleashed solos with such hyper-accurate force as Vito Bratta. His arpeggiations, pick work and slick fretwork were generally unmatched. And while some might think of him as nothing more than another Eddie Van Halen clone, those who do should think again.
Bratta learned early on that he didn’t need to copy anyone. Through his remarkable talent, and a sequence of events that changed his physiology forever, Bratta was destined for greatness as one of the most inventive, and utterly unique, players of his generation.
“When I was a kid, I fell down and broke my right wrist,” Bratta recalls.” I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘Show me your arm kid; which one is it?’ And I showed him my left wrist, which was the wrong one [Laughs]. I don’t know… I guess I was nervous, but when I came home with a cast on the wrong wrist, my mom was like, ‘Vito, go back to the doctor. That's the wrong wrist!’ I guess they didn’t have an X-ray machine, or they just took my word for it. So, long story short, I go back, they switched the cast, and it healed. But the thing is, it never healed properly.”
“The result is I have a bone that overgrows the other bone in my right wrist,” Bratta continues. “It’s not a problem, it’s just a weird little lump where the bones met and fused together. And later I found out that it affected me as a guitar player because I can only go so fast with my right wrist. So, it turns out that I was never gonna be as fast as some guys, so I never bothered to try.
“I found my own voice and my own voice turned out to be melodic solos and not worrying about ‘shredding.’ I could try to do the shred and just throw something out there, but that never appealed to me. I went a different way, and I guess it’s what made me stand out.”
While an audience with the ever-reclusive hero is rare, Vito Bratta dialed in with Guitar World to reveal the 11 guitarists who shaped his sound.
1. Eric Clapton
“He wasn’t the most influential to me – we’ll cover that later – but Eric Clapton was my first. At face value, obviously, there’s a lot of differences there, so I’d have to say that Clapton most influenced me through his sound. That sound of a Gibson being plugged into a Marshall dimed on 10 really imprinted itself on me from a young age because of him. If I didn’t hear that, I’d have ended up more like Glen Campbell, style-wise.
“I wasn’t educated enough at that time to recognize, ‘Okay, these are scales and this that, or whatever.’ I was too young. So, I was just totally blown away by Clapton’s sheer speed. Back in the ‘60s, what Clapton was doing on Crossroads was ‘shredding.’ Nobody else was doing that back then, and it obviously had an impact on me from there on. That’s what made me be like, ‘I wanna be a rock guitar player.’ Otherwise, I’d have been Glen Campbell or Roy Clark [Laughs].”
2. Leslie West
“I didn’t have much money for records and things like that growing up, so for a while, it was all Clapton, and nothing else. But eventually, I started getting into other music via the radio and stuff. Now, you have to remember that back then, there was no ‘heavy metal.’ There was stuff that seems very heavy, and I guess could be considered precursors to metal, but there wasn’t much of that sort of stuff going on.
“But when I heard Mississippi Queen on the radio, and what Leslie West was doing, suddenly, things went from what Clapton was doing, to hearing Leslie West absolutely shredding these blues lines in this insanely heavy fashion. He changed everything for me again."
3. Jimmy Page
“Remember how I said we’d get to the person that influenced me most later? Well, later is now [Laughs]. The number one influence of my life is hands down Jimmy Page. When I heard this guy play the guitar, man, it was like everything hit me all at once.
“But I remember being especially enamored with how Page mixed the acoustic guitar parts with the electric. His phrasing was unlike anything I’d ever heard in rock music, period. Listen back to The Song Remains the Same, and tell me who else was doing that? No one was.
“So many people played either acoustic or electric by themselves, but the way he combined them was otherworldly. It’s like, ‘Wow… here’s Jimmy Page putting them both together in ways I’ve never heard before.’ And honestly, my little brain at the time couldn’t fathom it [Laughs].
“Page is what led me down new paths, and even though we probably couldn’t afford it, and I probably didn’t deserve it, my dad got me a Les Paul Sunburst. While you probably don’t hear it in my playing on the surface, Jimmy Page is what carried me through White Lion, and even into today.
“I’ve got a Les Paul Black Beauty that I play all the time. It’s light and easy to handle, but it’s inspired by Page. Jimmy’s cool factor, and his solos, inspired me to do what I wanted to do and do it the way I wanted to do it rather than how people were telling me to.
“Without him, I don’t know where I’d be. I took every single thing I could from Jimmy Page. But I was smart enough not to take one important thing: the violin bow [Laughs]. I knew well enough to know that the bow was only for Jimmy. Only he could make sounds that we’d understand with that thing. So, my message to others is: don’t use a violin bow on a guitar. Don’t do that. That was not a gift from Jimmy. I don’t wanna use the word gimmick, but it’s whatever it is [Laughs].”
4. Jimi Hendrix
“After Jimmy Page hit me, from there, I’d say I got into Jimi Hendrix. And I absolutely wore the Electric Ladyland record out several times over. But it’s funny, Hendrix was all supplemental at that time, and was only a continuation of what I’d found with Jimmy Page and Zeppelin.
“I love Hendrix, and his whole Stratocaster into a Marshall thing influenced me later in on the ‘80s, but nothing he did was ever going to replace Page for me. So, Hendrix didn’t replace Page, he instead supplemented that for me through a whole different sound and vibe.”
5. Jeff Beck
“I definitely have to go with Jeff Beck now. I mean… Blow by Blow and Wired? Come on, forget it – those albums were amazing when they came out. I was very into those and played them constantly in the ‘70s. I heard Beck, and I went from wanting to be a straight rock guy, to [wanting] to take it further into what would become known as ‘jazz-fusion.’
“But I’ll always remember the struggle I had in discovering guys like Jeff Beck, because I really had to dig around and find ways to hear this stuff. Again, we didn’t have much money, and I couldn’t just go and buy whatever I wanted. I’d have to go to newsstands and look around in magazines to find out what the new stuff was.
“I’d start asking around, ‘Hey, what are you hearing out there? What’s new?’ Finding the sounds and notes that Beck played wasn’t easy, but it opened me up to modes, and all these things that I wasn’t doing through hearing Page.
“I just played stuff and then, you know, I had to look around in the guitar magazines, but I didn’t have that much money so I couldn’t buy [them], and I couldn’t go on Amazon and buy the stuff.
“I didn’t know what books [to get], but you you had to start asking around and reading – 'what are these sounds that Jeff Beck plays?' Like, I don't even know these notes. Then you start learning about modes and whatever the major seventh chord [is] – stuff I wasn’t playing with Jimmy Page.”
6. Robin Trower
“People probably wouldn’t suspect this since I didn’t do much blues with White Lion, but Robin Trower had a huge influence on me. A lot of people will tell you that, aside from Gary Moore, Robin Trower was one of the more aggressive blues guys out there. But the thing that appealed to me most was that he was continuing the Hendrix thing after Hendrix had gone.
“I got a lot of Hendrix vibes from Trower, and like I said, he was a little more aggressive, and maybe a little more in the rock world. Whereas with Jimi Hendrix, he was always in his own world that couldn’t be classified.
“But regardless of how you classify him, to me, there’s no doubt that Robin Trower did sound a lot like Jimi Hendrix. He had the whole plug it in and forget it thing going, leading to maybe a more modern version of Hendrix. Even though I didn’t do that type of music with White Lion, Trower meant a lot to me.”
7. Peter Frampton
“I was a hard rock and metal guy, so you might wonder how Frampton influenced me. And the best way I can say it is: here’s a Les Paul, here’s a Marshall, and he’s one of the most melodic players ever to pick up a guitar. Frampton’s use of melody was just unbelievable, and he really changed my life completely.
“The second that I got wise to Frampton, that’s when I became a more melodic guitar player. And you definitely can hear that in my White Lion stuff. His solos were weird, and sort of out of left field, and just very forward thinking.
“I loved his Humble Pie stuff, but it was his solo stuff I’m talking about. But the funny thing was, very early on in my professional career, I was in a small-time band that was able to make its way from the basement to the club circuit, and our very first ‘big show’ was opening for Humble Pie.
“As cool as that was, it pissed me off. I was like, ‘Oh man, why couldn't this have been when Peter Frampton was in the band?’ But yeah… Frampton pulled me out of the pentatonic scale box that I was stuck in, and got me thinking beyond that.”
8. Eddie Van Halen
“This was the guy that taught all about what technique was. Like a lot of the kids around me back then, I used to sit in my room and practice for hours. I’d work on muting my strings, so I didn’t wake anybody up, and then I read that Eddie said he did the same thing, so I was like, ‘OK, that guy’s cool.’
“But that aside, it was just the sheer technique that Eddie had. He forced me to say to myself, ‘How do I elevate my technique?’ And remember, I was a young guitar player, and I had been listening to a lot of the same old pentatonic scales and shit like that.
“When Eddie Van Halen came along with all this insane rapid-fire stuff, a lot of what I'd heard before that seemed to pale in comparison. But the thing that struck me most about Eddie Van Halen when he came out was that here was literally everything that I had been chasing wrapped up in one guy. He had the melody, the tone, the picking, the rapid-fire stuff, and he had the look of being a guitar player.
“He was the image of what I thought of when I thought about being a guitar player in a rock band. And it was all wrapped up in one person. It was unfathomable to me then, and it still is today.
“I will say this, once I became established with White Lion in the ‘80s, I got a lot of shit from people who said I was aping his style. That was all bullshit. It got to the point where I met Eddie once, and I asked him, ‘Does it freak you out that I play like you?’
“I thought that because it had been drilled into my head by magazines and stuff. Now, I’m not the type to use Eddie’s name for whatever – especially since he passed away – but I will say that Eddie complimented me, and said that he didn’t agree.
“I got to meet him once when he came into the studio during the recording of Mane Attraction. He came in, and he was sitting on my 5150 amp. I was blown away. Here I am, standing in the studio, watching Eddie Van Halen sitting on my amp, jamming out on guitar.
“Eddie said a lot of nice things to me that day, and I’ll take them to my grave, but I’ll tell you this, I was touched enough to where I had to leave the room, go to the bathroom, and cry. That might make me sound like a dick, but after being told I sounded like him, that I was copying him, and all this shit, it meant a lot to hear that he liked what I did, and that he respected it.”
9. K.K. Downing
“A lot of people think I took most of my style and sound from Eddie Van Halen, but the truth is I got way more from K.K. Downing than Eddie in a lot of ways. The way K.K. used his tremolo bar was completely and totally his alone. And the way he used to come out and totally crush it on songs like Victim of Changes and things like that… just incredible.
“The way he looked when he held that white Stratocaster was just awesome. I saw that, and me and my friends were like, ‘Oh, my God. Dude… is that not the coolest fucking thing you’ve ever seen, or what?’ K.K. Downing was just so visual, and I loved the way he moved around stage, held his guitar, and generally went about his business.”
10. Randy Rhoads
“Since we’re talking about Eddie, now is a good time to get it out of the way: they’re completely different players. I know that a lot of people compare them, but it never made much sense to me. Randy was so different than Eddie because Randy had the whole classical thing happening, you know? In that way, Randy and I were a lot alike. I am not saying I was as good, better, or whatever compared to Randy Rhoads. How we were alike is in our mindset toward the guitar and music.
“I identified with Randy was because he once said in an interview that he wanted to quit playing with Ozzy [Osbourne] and go study classical guitar. And if I’m being honest, that was me in a nutshell. Rock is my base; it all begins there for me, and I venture off when I feel like it. But I'm basically a classical guitar nerd who played in a rock band. So, when I heard what Randy said, I was like, ‘Yup. I could definitely go for that,’ and I eventually did.
“Let me put it this way, if I were friends with Randy back then, I’d have said, ‘Ok, I'll do it with you. Let’s go. I’m up for getting a degree in classical guitar.’ And I was all about classical guitar until recently. But I’ve since returned to playing rock music, because I’m now able to again without the levels of pain I used to have. But that’s another story. So, I identified with Randy from a mental standpoint, and it did go on to affect me in that way down the road.
“But as far as Randy vs. Eddie; they’re so different. You didn’t hear classical influences in Eddie’s playing for the most part. Randy has this infusion of classical and he helped usher in this renaissance for that type of music within rock and metal in the ‘80s. He brought that in, and he also brought back the Jimmy Page thing with mixing acoustic and electric.
“His songwriting, the way he crafted things, and his mindset are all what influenced me most. When I heard Randy, I didn’t think, ‘This is the new Eddie Van Halen.’ I knew that he was his own thing, and that’s because he was. I think Eddie and Randy would both agree.”
11. Yngwie Malmsteen
“Me being different from Eddie, I was still in a phase of loving and absorbing his playing for a long time. Yngwie Malmsteen got me out of that phase. But as far as style, Yngwie didn’t affect me too much. I think it was more his look, and the use of a whitish Strat with the Floyd Rose that I identified with when he came out.
“Now, I had a Floyd Rose before I saw him, but I found myself identifying with him through that. But I remember when he came out, I was like, ‘Holy shit, how many times is he gonna switch pickups?’ He made me want to go get a neck pickup installed in my guitar and left most of us with our jaws on the floor.
“I will say that I switched to rosewood neck from maple, and a lot of my later guitars had neck pickups after I saw Yngwie. But he was so good that he made just about everybody question themselves as guitar players [Laughs]. As far as speed, and all that, he was essentially unmatched.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Don’t even try and compare your speed to this guy,’ because I’d never be able to match that. I didn’t even try. After Yngwie came out, you had a whole lot of guys who tried to do what he did, and they failed at it. I knew immediately that I needed to do the opposite of that.
“What he was doing was otherworldly, so unlike a lot of other guys, I decided to go in a different direction. I chose to focus on songwriting, being accurate, and being melodic. And that was fine for me. So, as far as Yngwie being an influence, he really served as an example of what not to do.
“It sent me in a new direction because I knew, ‘I’m not catching up with this guy.’ That made me convince myself that speed was not where it’s at, you know? It’s a strange way to influence a person, but it’s how Yngwie influenced me. He showed me, in vivid detail, what I shouldn’t try to do.”