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The Master’s Approach: Play Like Steve Vai

(Image credit: Juan Navarro Gimenez/Getty Images)

If you were tasked with playing something in the style of Steve Vai, you might be a little intimidated.

After all, he just released what many are considering to be one of the greatest guitar-driven albums of the century, Modern Primitive.

This acclaim is not surprising, however. Vai has been pioneering outlandish guitar methods since the early Eighties. The thing is, crazy whammy tricks and squealing pinch harmonics are only surface-level vanity techniques when you look at Vai’s guitar playing as a whole.

In order to play convincingly in Vai’s distinct style, one must get past the flashy maneuvers and understand the intricacies of his melodic mannerisms. This means doing more than just noodling around in the Lydian mode. Breaking down exactly what it is that causes you to instantly recognize a signature Vai lick is the path to revealing the real secrets of his sound.

While there are countless answers to the question of “How do I play like Vai?”, there is one very unique tactic he employs that also can be applied to your own playing. I’m always a fan of being able to harvest approaches rather than straight licks, and this lesson will allow you to do both. The concept I’ll show you is called octave displacement.

In the lick above, we have a standard line that moves in a linear fashion down the neck. It sounds good, but it doesn’t have any Vai magic yet. Octave displacement is essentially choosing specific notes in a given lick like this one and replacing them with an octave of themselves to form a new, more majestic sound. The video below will allow you to see how I reached the end result, and when you play the original lick versus the lick with octave displacement, you’ll undoubtedly hear the Vai tonality shine through.

The next time you’re working on a solo or transitional line between chords for an original song, or even just improvising over a backing track, try to infuse one of your own licks with this Vai-style approach. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover something on the instrument that hasn’t been done before, just like Vai has done and continues to do today.

Tyler Larson is the founder of the guitar-centric brand Music is Win. His insightful, uncomplicated guitar lessons and gear demonstrations along with entertaining, satirical content about life as a musician receive tens of millions of video views per month across social media. Tyler is also the creator of the extremely popular online guitar learning platform, Guitar Super System. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Tyler has been teaching guitar for over a decade and operates a production studio in Nashville, TN.