Devin Townsend says seeing Steve Vai play guitar made him give up shredding

Devin Townsend and Steve Vai
(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/Redferns / Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Devin Townsend’s six-string style is heralded by fans of progressive music – and the guitarist himself has even admitted that he’s pretty good at soloing, even if he doesn't love doing so – but there’s one aspect of guitar playing that the Canadian has largely shied away from in his music.

Namely, Townsend recently revealed in an interview that he made the conscious decision to give up shredding – despite having an affinity with its associated techniques as an aspiring young guitar player – because of one standout experience with Steve Vai.

Speaking to Ultimate Guitar, Townsend recalled how witnessing Vai – one of the guitar world’s most virtuosic shredders – at the peak of his powers was enough to deter him from embarking on the road to shred guitar stardom. 

When asked what made his playing style veer away from technically orientated music and why he dropped the dream of becoming a shredder, Townsend simply replied, “I got a gig singing for Steve Vai.”

Elaborating on what is a perfectly understandable answer in itself, he added, “When I was a kid, I remember learning how to sweep and tap and all this. Then I moved to LA, I was 19 years old, 20 years old, and I was sitting beside Steve Vai in his studio. 

“I was so fortunate,” Townsend continued. “And I was watching him play and I was like, you know, it's like you're in a wrestling match and you have to tap out. I was like, 'You know what? I think I'm gonna write my songs. He can be the guitar God.' Because he is.”

"I was watching him play and I was like, 'Nah, I'm good. I'll play rhythm.'”

As for what specifically prompted Townsend to abandon his quest to perfect his shredding chops, he cited the level of discipline required to master the ability, as well as its incompatibility with what interested him musically, as key driving factors.

Townsend continued, “By watching him and seeing the level of discipline that he had to put into being that guitar player, I realized that wasn't my goal. As I got older, I started realizing that my way of writing, you know, writing with the weather, writing with the environment, is much more in line with my truth, than woodshedding and being faster than everybody else. 

“When I was a kid, if I'd seen some of these dudes that are playing now, I would've been like, 'Holy shit, man.' But that being said, I don't want to play like that. It doesn't interest me musically.”

In other Townsend news, the prog-metaller recently sat down for a conversation with Guitar World, during which he revealed why he thinks Gibson Les Pauls don’t particularly flatter him, and why digital amps are better than analog ones.

On that latter point, he offered, “When you ask people about their favorite amp, the acceptable responses are always the cork-sniffin’ ones like the Dumble or some Super Overdrive that’s been hidden away since 1956. And you’re allowed to say that, because that’s sexy. But if you go around telling people it’s an Axe-Fx, people go ‘That’s sacrilege!’

“When producers ask me to re-do it through some hissy old amplifier, I’ll go down that rabbit hole but I always come back to digital because it’s clean and I can control it,” Townsend continued. “What people find problematic with the Axe-Fx is that it gives you all the options to make something fantastic or monumentally shit. It’s up to the user.”

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.