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Steve Vai Discusses the Struggle to Balance Precision and Passion in 1991 Guitar World Interview

Here's an interview with Steve Vai from the April 1991 issue of Guitar World. The original story ran with the headline, "The Passion of St. Steve: Guitar visionary? Masochist? Or just a cool dude from Long Island? Steve Vai continues his epic struggle to balance precision and passion."To see the Vai cover -- and all the GW covers from 1991 -- click here.

Joseph Campbell, one of the world's foremost authorities on mythology, once outlined in a simple paragraph the plot followed by every classic adventure story from The Odyssey to Star Wars.

"A hero," Campbell explained, "ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow gifts on his fellow man."

Steve Vai's storybook rise to fame and guitar fortune uncannily parallels Campbell's summary. After serving an extended apprenticeship under legendary guitar wizard Joe Satriani, the young Steve spent several years in seclusion, relentlessly honing his powers.

At last he ventured from his common day home in Carle Place, Long Island, to a region of supernatural wonder -- Los Angeles. There he encountered fabulous and grotesque forces, among them Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and David Coverdale. After mastering Zappa's labyrinthine arrangements, doing battle with the ghosts of departing heroes (Yngwie Malmsteen, with Alcatrazz ; Edward Van Halen, with David Lee Roth), and tasting the apple of gigantic success with Whitesnake, Vai emerged morally unscathed and in full possession of his awesome facilities.

Re-invigorated, Vai gladdened the hearts of men with the fruit of his visions -- the critically acclaimed solo record, Passion And Warfare. In the aftermath, the guitarist rightfully emerged a true "guitar hero," and was accordingly voted this year's Guitar World MVP.

But has Vai's epic journey exacted a cost? His post-Whitesnake interviews suggest that the once-humble lad from Carle Place has evolved into a somewhat serious and stern fellow. His steely, Saturnine gaze and intimidating 12-hour guitar workouts suggest that the knight in shining armor has become some sort of new-fangled guitar cyborg, devoid of emotion and good-humor.

“It’s very hard to come across as a passionate human being in print," says a clearly concerned Vai. "People can't hear the inflections in your voice. I can tell you this: I'm an extremely passionate individual. I try to be careful how I display it because you never know how people are going to take it. You get criticized for whatever you do, and it's painful. I have a deep love for life and my fellow human beings. I try to understand everything that everybody does, even if it seems wrong to me."

Warming to his subject, Vai continues with missionary zeal: "When it comes to myself, I'm a disciplinarian. But after I've gone through the personal discipline, and I can perform something that I've been hearing in my head, I'm completely elated. So, ultimately, I don't see these things as discipline. I'm very serious about what I do, but I'm not miserable. The only time I'm miserable is when I can't keep an instrument in tune.

"When you discipline yourself to quit smoking, to run faster or to play better, you have to reach deep down into a part of you. That is a profoundly spiritual event. That's when you come into contact with that little piece of God within you. You're not going to be the same after that. It's a gift of life."

It was a bone-chilling 10 degrees on the day Steve Vai and I met most recently. Yet the man Ozzy Osbourne once called a "mechanic" managed to heat things up considerably with his thoughtful answers and outspoken views. Are they the words of a dedicated, passionate musician -- or the cold blatherings of a wind-up automaton? You decide. But this will be your last chance, for a while.

''I've been around a lot this year, and have had my face on the cover of a lot of magazines -- and I'm sure a lot of people are getting tired of seeing me," said Steve at the outset of our conversation. "This will be the last interview I'll do for a long while."

GUITAR WORLD: We hear that you're taking a very active role in the production of the upcoming Passion And Warfare sheet music book.

I personally went through and edited all the music to make sure it was accurately transcribed. Jesse Gress and Dave Whitehill did a great job capturing all the music on paper, but everybody has their own system of notating guitar music and I wanted to make sure everything was articulated in accordance with my personal system.

Why did you become so involved with the book?

It's my curse. I always feel compelled to get very involved with anything that has my name on it -- to the point of becoming a complete nuisance! It was especially hard to stay on the sidelines in this case, because written manuscript is very dear to me.

Unfortunately, my control freak tendencies are beginning to run my career. I mean, right now I'm working on a video that I produced, directed and edited. I even shot a few scenes. I'm trying to learn how to trust other people, but at the same time I enjoy being close to my projects.

Is it true that you're thinking of writing a method book?

I've actually given it a great deal of thought. It 's something I'd really like to do when I have more time. I'd like to do three volumes of intense stuff that would cover everything from absolute ground zero to the complete outer limits of music. It would include things that people would never expect in a music book.

What should a teacher try to accomplish?

I think the thing a teacher should aim for -- and I can only speak as a student -- is to get their students to explore their own individuality. The best teachers always relate to their students as human beings; the worst ones look at teaching as just a job. I personally believe that teachers are the most important factor in the evolution of the human race.

I have here two Zen parables relating to teaching and leadership. I'd like to get your comments on them. The first one is: "There are many individuals who are liberated, or who appear to be so. Some of them seek disciples because they have not heeded Nietzsche, who said, 'What? You seek followers? You would multiply yourself by 10, by 100, by 1,000? Seek zeroes! Remember this and know that any system of liberation may work once, for one individual."'

I would agree with this. I think there is probably something a little unbalanced about a man seeking followers. I believe the best thing a human being can do is just set a good example.

You've had some great teachers. What was Frank Zappa like?

Frank always taught through example. He's one of the most honest people I've ever met. If he tried to lie, his tongue would probably snap out of his mouth. That made a big impression on me.

What was Joe Satriani like as a teacher?

Joe was by far my most thorough teacher. He knew what it meant to teach. He taught all the fundamentals, but he also set a great example. For instance , he would never tell me to practice and not practice himself. He would never tell me to memorize something that he didn't have memorized. He was, by far, my biggest influence.

Now for the second Zen parable: "An older student came to a respected Zen scholar and said, 'I have been to see a great number of teachers and I have given up a great number of pleasures. I have fasted, been celibate and stayed awake nights seeking enlightenment. I have given up everything I was asked to give up and I have suffered, but I have not been enlightened. What should I do?' "The scholar replied, 'Give up suffering.'"

I think there are certain things an individual can learn by following, but ultimately you’re going to have to follow your own path or suffer. It's important to find your own personal methodology.

One of the things I thought was interesting about the parable was the student's attitude toward discipline. Relating it back to the guitar, some see the discipline of practicing the guitar for six hours to be torture, while others actually enjoy the process because they love the guitar. Some people see all forms of discipline as "suffering," while others find it liberating.

Suffering is only in the mind of the sufferer. For me, practicing is a labor of love. It reflects a desire to become more proficient. Human beings have this inbred need to reach for better and for more. It's in every single living thing -- it's part of nature. It's why we procreate. That's why we do what we do.

I have to look back at some of the things I've said in the press, and apologize for some of my seemingly more self-righteous attitudes. When I've said I practiced for 10 or 15 hours a day, it was only because I was asked. I didn't mean to wear it as a badge. Believe me, it wasn't suffering. Maybe some part of me wants to show off, but I hope that 's not true because I find that grotesque.

I really enjoy practicing. I enjoy fasting. It has to do with trying to experience different aspects of life. If I go on a ten-day fast , it's not because I want a reward. I'm doing it for what it is and to experience it. I don't do it because I think other people should do it. I enjoy doing these things. I enjoy the pain -- not in a masochistic way -- but I know that I'm striving for something, and in order to reach certain goals you have to put out. And it hurts sometimes. It takes courage to try to achieve your goals.

Recently, in the middle of a December night, I ran through a foot of snow in my underwear and jumped into Lake Tahoe. I met some people who were active members of the Polar Bear Club, and they were absolutely fascinating. I talked to this guy who was 77 who looked like he was 50. He claimed he could outrun me and that he swims in freezing water at least three times a week from December through March. I decided I just had to try it.

I also went Bungee jumping [the practice of hurling oneself from a 100-foor high platform with an oversized rubber band tied to one's feet.] the other day. That was really wild. Deep down inside, everybody has a little voice that is always asking, "What if?" What if I turn into oncoming traffic? What if I jump off the top of this building? Bungee jumping is the closest thing to satisfying that craving. It's really a rush. I treasure the moment I had on the ledge just before I jumped. After I decided I was going to jump, I just heaved myself off.

But it had to be difficult at times to be so dedicated to the guitar.

I often forced myself to play something, and I'd get really mad at myself if I tried to walk away from it. I'd call myself a wimp. I don't know where that mentality comes from, but that's what I did. Playing guitar was a very serious endeavor, and I didn't practice with the idea of being famous. In fact , that was one of the furthest things from my mind. It just seemed so impossible.

At one point, I was even very afraid of being famous. lt was a major source of anxiety. That sounds weird. It thought it would be a very scary lifestyle, fraught with overwhelming responsibility.

Does it surprise you when people try to emulate you?

I never thought someone could possibly want to emulate me. That concept is totally beyond me. And I'm sure a lot of people don't want to emulate me. Some people are just interested in me because I look like some sort of weird creature.

What is the idea behind the Passion And Warfare jacket art?

For me it was a representation of the two sides we all need to draw from in order to achieve balance.

You've had an incredible year. What are some of your personal highlights?

Doing the record and being satisfied with the end result was a personal highlight. The fact that it was accepted by so many people was also a pleasure and an honor. Also, winning all these polls is something that is very dear to me. I have to keep remembering that people are showing their respect for my talent. It's not like you're Number One -- that's pretty impossible. If you start believing that you are Number One, I think it becomes anti-productive on many different levels.

I've also reached a new calm this year. I think it's primarily because I did a solo project that was uncompromising, and it was still accepted. It's the first time since high school that I felt musically free. I've always been in bands, and in any band you usually have to compromise.

Speaking of bands, are you going to continue working with Whitesnake?

Basically, everybody is doing their own thing. David Coverdale lives down the street from me, and I wouldn't mind writing with him. But I don't really have any comment on the band 's future.

I know that you really admire band units like Led Zeppelin and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Is it frustrating that the perfect band unit has eluded you?

I really love the sense of family that you get from a tight band unit. Sometimes I regret the fact that I wasn't in one band all along. But it would have to be such a diverse and special band. Maybe I didn't have the incentive to find those types of people when I was younger.

I thought the David Lee Roth unit could've been special. It just slowly deteriorated. I had a great rock group in high school named Rage, and it was probably my greatest band experience. It was such a pleasure! We were young, we had no inhibitions. It was like a family. Rage was something we would fight for. We'd do whatever it would take to make the band great. We'd steal lights off of people's lawns to make a light show, carve up bottle rockets in order to make flash pots. Sometimes I wonder what it would 've been like to have just stuck with that band.

I really admire Motley Crue. The Crue have been around. Their record has just sold over four million copies, and that's because they are brothers. People sense that.

What's the greatest obstacle to assembling a great band?

Finding a great lead singer. Someone who's talented and has a big ego. I wouldn't want to be the biggest thing on stage. But because I've worked with the best, it makes it more difficult to find someone. Nobody sings better than David Coverdale, and nobody entertains better than David Lee Roth. Those are tough shoes to fill, but I can't settle for anything less.

With the success of Passion, you can pretty much do anything you want. Is having that much freedom of choice difficult?

Absolutely, positively, unequivocally no. I think people are attracted to music, situations and individuals that display their freedom. That's why great political and spiritual leaders have followers. They're not seeking followers, they're just expressing themselves in a true and pure form, and it 's inspirational.

Why did someone like Boy George become so big? Basically, he just said, "To hell with everybody. I want to wear makeup, do whatever I do, and people can think whatever they want to think." That 's freedom and people relate to it. Whether they go for his bisexuality or not is besides the point.

Is there any new talent you find interesting?

Dweezil Zappa is doing some great things. I think he is highly underrated.

Are there any music trends you find disturbing?

I try to keep a positive attitude about everything, but Top 40, CHR radio tends to make me sick. A lot of it is so contrived and counter-evolutionary. I just went out on an interview tour, and the deejays are really frustrated. They have all these great things they want to play, but can't because radio is so tightly formatted. It's a shame, because they're the real music lovers. They could really make radio interesting again, but their hands are tied.

Is there anything other than the typical rock influences that helped shape your aesthetic vision?

West Side Story was a big one. The gang violence and rebellion intrigued me when I was young. Also, the late Leonard Bernstein's score had everything -- incredible arrangements, high energy and great melodies. The songs were really shocking. [Sings] "We are the Jets and we're going to beat every last fucking gang on the whole fucking street . On the whole fucking, ever-loving street!" When I was a kid it was like, "Wow, do you hear what they're saying?" And it was all set to this great music and choreography.

The Jets' theme said it all, musically. It was very defiant, and Bernstein loved writing in Lydian, which is my favorite mode. Guys like Bernstein and [composer] Stephen Sondheim are brilliant. Have you ever heard Sondheim's score to Sweeny Todd? Oh, man!

Somehow, it 's not surprising that you connected to West Side Story -- you've made a career out of a form of choreographed juvenile delinquency.

Thank you [laughs].

Have you ever thought of writing a musical?

Years ago I had a vision of doing a modern variation on West Side Story. I had a story line that pit punks against rockers. The music was going to be scored for a small orchestra, and I envisioned performing at rock clubs like the Roxy in California. I thought it would real cool to get people like Joan Jett and Wendy 0. Williams to star in it.

I understand you've been dabbling in the production of your own videos.

Yeah, videos have gotten so expensive, I thought I'd try to just do it myself. As I mentioned earlier, I'm producing, directing and editing my "For The Love Of God" video. It 's only costing me $20,000, which is a miniscule amount, compared to most video budgets. I hired a cameraman and took him up to Mount Shasta, where we shot a lot of footage. The Mount Shasta stuff is intermingled with some already existing footage that I acquired with the budget I had to work with. So far, the results are very striking. I'm really trying to capture the essence of Passion And Warfare. The song and video are about how far people will go for the love of their god.

To change gears, as an outboard equipment junkie, what would you like to see implemented or invented that is currently non-existent?

There are several things. I'd love to see digital ins and outs on all gear. I just bought a Dyaxis system, which allows you to do stereo digital editing, and it's great. In the guitar realm, a few years ago I talked to Eventide about implementing diatonic harmonizing into their machines, which they have since accomplished. But along with that request were several other things that I would still like to see. Real quirky things, like being able to activate certain effects by hitting the guitar strings harder or softer.

There's also a new thing in the recording world called Q-Sound, which allows you to create tri-dimensional depth in a stereo field. I would like to see that implemented in an amplifier. It's sort of like holographic sound. Maybe this interview will inspire some company to do it -- but if you're listening out there, just don't make it too expensive, okay? [laughs]

I've never heard you speak of any guitars other than Ibanez. Do you ever use anything else?

Not really. I designed the six-string Jem and seven-string Universe model for my specific needs. People think the reason I play Ibanez guitars is that they pay me a whole lot of money. But the truth is, I wouldn't play something that I wasn't comfortable with. It 's just my good fortune that it also ended up being a good business deal. They've just exploded.

So would you say that your sonic diversity comes more from your outboard gear?

Not really. The Jem guitars are ultra-flexible. In fact, when you go for that tubey, single-coil sound, the Jem sounds more like a Strat than a Strat. Ibanez guitars allow me to access any sound that I may need, without the tuning problems associated with other guitars. There is a certain romance about picking up a Strat or a Les Paul, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not really interested in collecting vintage instruments. That stuff goes right over my head. What I'm really drawn to is the music.

What are you currently using for amplification?

That's always a perplexing problem. Marshall has just come out with a new series that has some real nice qualities about it. In the studio, I'm currently using a Series 900 head through a Marshall power amp. That's the closest I've come to the perfect sound.

I used Soldano amps on tour because they are very reliable. They don't have that Marshall edge, but they are very consistent performers. Marshalls tend to be very temperamental -- they're like children sometimes. They put out so much and they slave for you -- but they also blow up.

I also have a Fender Deluxe that I've owned since I was 14. I use it on a few things, most notably the rhythm parts on "The Audience Is Listening."

What are your future plans?

I try not to be too strict with my plans. Every time I've tried to map the future, circumstances completely change. One project I would like to do is a two-hour video based around Passion And Warfare. I've already created a storyboard and have three videos recorded for it.

I'm also halfway through a Passion And Warfare novel. It's really out there -- a real metaphysical extravaganza. It's completely unabashed. I tried not to hold back any feelings, emotions or thoughts, so the story is very naked, personal and raw.

The Passion And Warfare album was inspired by events that happened to me when I was much younger, when certain realizations came into my life. I had reached a point where I started asking certain questions -- and sometimes the answers come. This was all melded together into Passion and Warfare. Each chapter in the book will correspond to a song on the album.

I'm also getting my kicks by doing things like jumping into Lake Tahoe or signing up for skydiving. But my biggest thrill is still playing the guitar. I still practice about six hours a day.

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