Here's an interview with the stars of the G3 Tour -- Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen -- from the November 2003 issue of Guitar World.
Three wineglasses are lifted high in the candlelit ambience of a tony Hollywood restaurant. Like some latter-day version of the three musketeers, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen are toasting the beginning of this year's G3 Tour, which kicks off in Phoenix on October 9.
Although the tour has been in existence since 1996, this year's show promises to be the mother of them all. It brings together, for the first time ever, the three men who were the indisputable holy trinity of the Eighties shred boom, and who continue to be an inspiration to aspiring electric guitar virtuosi everywhere.
To spend time in the company of these guys, particularly when they have instruments in hand, is to understand the complete inadequacy of the term "shredder" as a description of what they do. Watching them up close, one realizes how utterly dissimilar they are in touch, tone, phrasing and even the way they set up their guitars. The easy precision with which Malmsteen negotiates his trademark scalloped fretboard was the phenomenon that ignited Eighties neoclassical mania and remains the nuclear furnace at the heart of recent work such as Attack!!, Yngwie's 2002 album with his band Rising Force.
Once as famous for his temper tantrums as for his dazzling technique, Yngwie has mellowed with age... well, a little bit. These days he's seldom far from the watchful gaze of his spouse and manager, April, who combines trophy-wife looks with a practical head for business. Yngwie has retained a lusty appreciation for good beer and fine-tuned Ferraris. A jovial yet imposingly large figure draped in gold jewelry and swathed in black leather and silk, he seldom manages to utter a sentence that doesn't include the phrase "fuck, mon."
And while Steve Vai's career is now entering its third decade, the man has retained the lanky frame and high-cheekboned cool of an archetypal rock guitar god. By this point, Vai's pretty much done it all. He has performed with everyone from Frank Zappa to David Lee Roth, played the devil's guitar slinger on film and released a stunning series of solo discs like 1999's The Ultra Zone -- albums that seem to confirm the lingering suspicion that Vai's unique brand of wang-bar voodoo originates from some realm of existence other than our own. Vai recently duetted with Indian sarangi master Surinder Sandhu. He and Malmsteen have both experienced the challenges and rewards of playing with world-class symphony orchestras in recent years.
In fact, the two guitarists seem to spark off one another. Malmsteen's exuberance awakens a wry, Zappa-esque sense of humor in Vai. In contrast, Joe Satriani remains serenely detached. In his own quiet way he can trump the pair of them. The guy toured with Mick Jagger, after all, and was Vai's guitar teacher.
A head shorter than the other two, his clean-shaven pate shrouded in a crazy quilted hat, Satch is like the wise, patriarchal monk in kung fu movies -- the tranquil master who could kick the crap out of everybody if he felt like it. Fortunately, Satriani has a more benevolent means of subduing all comers. His formidable mastery of guitar technique has always been grounded in a pure rock and roll heart, as albums like his most recent, last year's Strange Beautiful Music, readily attest.
While virtuoso guitar music is no longer "buzzworthy" in a mainstream context, it continues to thrive as a vigorous musical subculture. The success of G3 and the impressive roster of artists Vai has amassed on his Favored Nations record label are proof of this. And when these three unlikely compadres get together for a chat, it's clear that this is a subculture with a strong sense of identity and tradition, not to mention humor.
GUITAR WORLD: Where do all of you see yourselves fitting into the spectrum of music in the year 2003? Does instrumental guitar music matter today? Is it on the wane? Is it due for a revival?
JOE SATRIANI: If this kind of music were dead, we wouldn't be here.
STEVE VAI: That's right. Just the fact that we're here is a testament that there are still people who enjoy this kind of music. I know this because my record label, Favored Nations, gets tapes all the time: there is still a very strong subculture of people who want to do great things on an instrument, and who are stimulated by hearing people who can. That's reassuring. But it's gonna take a person -- and I don't know who this is -- to come along and reinvent the guitar as a virtuosic instrument in a completely different realm than any of us have done, or anybody else in the past. That's the clincher. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won't.
YNGWIE MALMSTEEN: This music just isn't in the forefront of the media. Today, particularly in America, the media and internet are overwhelming your senses. And it's deceiving, what you see on TV, hear on the radio and read in magazines. It doesn't necessarily reflect everything that's going on in the world. There are 280 million people in this country. And there are plenty of guys who work with jackhammers on the street who want to be guitar heroes.
Are any of you turned on by this nu-metal, downtuned, seven-string guitar stuff?
SATRIANI: The songwriting's good and the melodies are there, if that's what you want. Part of the message is the sound and the personality of the people making the music. The media is more personality driven and less instrumental driven. Before, maybe it was a little more together. You look at someone like Hendrix: he had incredible personality and virtuosity. You don't really see that today. You see more personalities. And they're entertaining. You can't knock them. If you're in the mood for that, you reach out and there they are.
VAI: I think people are talented and compelled in different areas of the music industry -- some people musically, and some people image-wise. You take someone like Marilyn Manson: I don't necessarily think there's a lot of intense musical talent there, but that guy really has a vision. The level of detail and thought behind the photos and videos is amazing. As macabre as it is, it's still extraordinary.
MALMSTEEN: I agree with that.
VAI: Or you take something like the last Korn record, Untouchables: There was a period where I couldn't stop listening to that. To me, that record is their greatest work. It's absolutely brilliant. Are they flailing about with tremendous virtuosity? No. But what they're doing is still very valid. The same with Radiohead, the way the whole band is able to work together as one mind. Then again, there's also complete shit out there, too.
A blues guitarist might cite Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters as the source of what he does. A punk guitar player might cite Johnny Ramone or Johnny Thunders. Is there anyone any of you can point to in a similar way, as the root of what you do? Is it that cut-and-dried for you, influence-wise?
SATRIANI: Although everybody you mentioned is great, Hendrix was the thing that really inspired me when I was a kid. And yeah, I have a couple of pictures and posters of guitarists on the wall of my studio that I look at all the time. I'm always asking them, "Is this crap or what?"
MALMSTEEN: On my console I have a bust of Johann Sebastian Bach. He was probably the most influential guy ever on me. Guitar players always listen to other guitar players. I wanted to break away from that a little bit. So while Ritchie Blackmore was a huge early influence on me, after that I had to find my own way. I just put my Deep Purple records away and got a big stack of Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven and, eventually, Paganini. And that changed the wiring of my brain. 'Cause all of a sudden I was thinking in all these other areas, instead of [sings a blues riff]. All these linear notes and pedal notes and arpeggios just started corning out of me.
VAI: It would be easy for me to look back and say Jimmy Page was the turning point in my life. Whenever any of us talk about our influences, it's easy to point a finger at particular guitarists. But I think the things that really influence us to take a certain direction or pursue a certain style are more diverse -- our parents, where we grew up, the people we hung out with. I was very fortunate in coming to like theater music. That's what my folks listened to. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim -- that was it for me. Show tunes -- there's a certain melodic content that was campy yet inspired. Andrew Lloyd Weber -- I have everything of his.
MALMSTEEN: Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge influence on me. My sister is seven years older than me. She was a teenager when I was still a kid, so she'd bring home records. And I'll never forget when she first brought home Jesus Chris Superstar. That first guitar riff -- I still get goose pimples now when I hear it. And talk about lyrics: Tim Rice is a genius! I spend a lot of time on my lyrics nowadays, so I really appreciate that. I've never heard or seen any other rock opera that I liked -- only that one.
VAI: I think my first influence from the musical theater was West Side Story. Bernstein was incredible. That's all I listened to when I was a kid. I thought that was the only record ever made.
I never would have guessed that Steve has this thing for show tunes.
SATRIANI: [with mock amazement] Couldn't you tell?
VAI: I'm a complete ham! I'm a complete poseur!
I see you in a totally different light now.
SATRIANI: This is really interesting, because I can't stand show music -- the pomp and circumstance, the theatrical part. To me it was the opposite. The first time I heard John Lee Hooker on a record, I couldn’t believe it. I was more interested in a performance by just one person that was really unique.
VAI: I didn't like the blues. Robert Johnson would have bored me to tears. I liked the energy and freneticism of Deep Purple, Queen and Led Zeppelin. And yeah, there was a campiness to show music that I completely rejected once I was 13. But then Frank Zappa came along. To me, he married all that stuff together: amazing guitar playing, musical credibility, comedy.
And of course there were other influences. I was very fortunate that in high school I had a great music theory teacher and I was in love with the little black dots. And I was fortunate to have a great guitar teacher in Joe, who turned me on to things like Wes Montgomery. But like I say, I think our influences are different than the few names we might cite. What gave us the courage to pursue music? What gave us the drive to sit for an entire childhood and practice like we did? Why were we so compelled to achieve things on that instrument? I don’t necessarily think it's this band or that band that made us do it. They were inspirations. But I think at the core of a very driven musician the influences are probably far more different than we think. An event that happened in their life. Something somebody said. Who knows what triggers those things that lie dormant in some of us?
You mean it isn't the sex drive?
VAI: Well, it could be a reflection of it. The sex drive is one of the most powerful instincts that we have. If it came to a choice between making a record and having sex, I think we'd all be fucking our brains out.
People often hope that the one will lead to the other.
SATRIANI: Yeah, you hear that all the time. The saying "you got in a band to get girls." That kind of thing.
MALMSTEEN: That was the most bizarre thing that happened to me when I first came to the States. It was the first time I heard the word "dude" as well. But also one guy said to me, "Hey, I bet you picked up the guitar to get laid, right?" And I was like, "What?!" I just couldn't fathom that. Obviously, I know some people do, but it wasn't me.
VAI: I played along with that game for a while. [dumb voice] "Yeah, I picked up the guitar to get laid." And then one day I said, "I did not!" That was the furthest thing from my mind. Yeah, I wanted to be cool, I wanted to be accepted. But for me it was an opportunity to gain self-esteem and dignity because I was capable of doing something. But then, yeah, if you play with someone like David Lee Roth, blow jobs grow on trees.
That being the case, it's a marvel that any of you guys decided to go instrumental.
MALMSTEEN: It wasn't my decision to go instrumental. That's the ironic part. I was in a band called Alcatrazz. The band's label decided that it wanted to give me a solo deal. The idea was for me to do a solo record but stay in the band Alcatrazz as well. The band was on tour, but once in a while I would take a day off, go into a studio and work on my solo album. Ultimately, I wanted to bring in a singer and make it a vocal record. But the label said, "No, you can't do that. You have to make an instrumental album." I was like, "Instrumental album? Are you crazy?" They said, "No, it has to be instrumental." And so it was. And it became a springboard for a lot of other guys to put out instrumental albums. But it wasn't meant that way.
VAI: It's funny, exactly the same thing happened to me.
was in a band called Alcatrazz! [
] A record company came to a show, signed me to a solo deal and said, "You should make an instrumental album." And that was [
Passion and Warfare
MALMSTEEN: I don't know what it was like for you, but I wasn't supposed to leave the band. I just ended up doing it anyway. I felt better doing my own thing. But that's funny. I didn't know it happened to you too.
VAI: In exactly the same way. Well, I left the band because I got that gig with David Lee Roth.
MALMSTEEN: He asked me too.
MALMSTEEN: We were on tour, headlining. Dave Roth came to a show. After the show he asked me if I wanted to join his band. I probably should have said yes.
VAI: You would have gotten along great with him. [laughs]
Joe, you never said whether you chose instrumental music or it chose you.
SATRIANI: It's kind of unusual. I was in a power pop band called the Squares. We were working really hard, but on one holiday from the band I put together a little EP of my own [1984's Joe Satriani] and made it instrumental. My idea was just to make it as weird as possible. I think I was inspired by cassettes that Steve was sending me of his music -- stuff like "Garbage Wrapped in Skin."
And I started my own little company to release the EP. The record got reviewed in guitar magazines. The turning point for me was that the reviewers didn't know about the Squares and did not know who I was. They reviewed the EP as if it was a serious record by a guy who was very serious about this particular musical direction. That sort of lit up a light bulb over my head. So it was a unique, cathartic moment to leap out of this power pop band and take this [instrumental] approach to music. Because this was an era when there was no instrumental music on the radio other than jazz. You definitely weren’t gonna get on MTV. Michael Jackson and Motley Crue were ruling. That was the kind of thing that was selling millions and millions of records.
So it was a similar situation. What seemed like a solo side project became the main event.
SATRIANI: That's right. And I'm sure all of us had a point where we were told, "You gotta go on tour now." And we thought, Go on tour, instrumental? All night long?
VAI: That's why I didn't tour for Passion and Warfare, which is probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. Because it was a time when I should have toured. But I'd just gotten off a 13-month tour with Whitesnake, my wife just had a baby, and the idea of touring off an instrumental record was just, What!!??? It was like, "Go out and take all your clothes off and go onstage."
Speaking of live shows, what is the G3 audience like? The preconception is that it's all adolescent male guitar geeks.
SATRIANI No, I think it's much more mixed than that. Each artist attracts his own different set of fans. And G3 over the years has created its own audience as well. They know it's something unusual and special that they're not going to get anywhere else. It seems to me that young and old, both sexes, all come out. They all look at each other like, Wow, what are those people over there? They're surprised at their own diversity.
VAI: As far as I'm concerned, G3 is beyond trends. It's an alternative form of entertainment that you'll really enjoy if you like the guitar. Because we really put out. Whenever Joe calls me for a G3 Tour my heart goes pitter-patter. 'Cause it really is a sharing experience -- a celebration of the guitar and music. And it's okay to come to a show like this if you're 13 or 14 and listening to Korn. It's not like you're not being cool.
And as you suggested, all of you probably goad one another to perform at your very best.
SATRIANI: It's the best kind of competition you could ever have. Because it's totally friendly, and what's the result? A better show. Everybody wins.
VAI: My respect for these guys has always been tremendous. But I'm also fiercely confident in what I do. We all are. And Yngwie -- the reason people are intimidated by him is because he is so confident. They're intimidated by his confidence. You can see it. Read all the interviews over the past 20 years. This guy has no choice but to be Yngwie. And that's a beautiful thing, man.
YNGWIE: I'm just very honored to be on this show. The three of us together, I think that's gonna blow people's minds. I'm really excited about it.
SATRIANI: Getting Steve and Yngwie together was an idea I had for a very long time. It was difficult to get the schedules to work together and in the right climate. But this just feels like a very good time.