Steve Vai recalls the time an A&R rep told him to ditch the pinch harmonics because they sound “like a dying whale”

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Mariano Regidor/Redferns via Getty)

In his own words – and, indeed, in the minds of just about every guitar fan who has ever heard him play – pinch harmonics are an integral part of Steve Vai’s sound. In a technical arsenal that somehow manages to make room for just about every fretboard acrobatic under the sun, the humble harmonic squeal often takes center stage.

Indeed, no-one armed with such knowledge would ever think about asking Vai to remove said six-string embellishment from his tonal repertoire – it would be akin to asking Eddie Van Halen to stop two-hand tapping.

Yet the virtuoso has now recalled the time one individual, who clearly didn’t have an appreciation for the pinch harmonic, tried to veto Vai’s use of the technique during the recording of Vai/Gash, because, well, he thought it sounded “like a dying whale”.

Speaking to MusicRadar, the Ibanez signature guitar owner reflected on his experience recording Vai/Gash, and recounted the unsolicited advice he received while working with an unspecified big band.

“I had an A&R guy come into the studio of a big band I was recording with, and I was playing harmonics,” Vai began. “Now, you know what a harmonic is? It’s a squeal. It’s part of my style. It’s part of most guitar players’ styles. And he goes, ‘What’s that?’ And I go, ‘Oh, it’s a harmonic. You pinch it with your finger and…’”

Ever the axe artisan, we can’t even fathom a time in which a Vai pinch harmonic doesn’t hit the mark – he could compose a pinch harmonic solo and it would still sound like music – but apparently for this particular A&R guy, the fretboard squeal seemed to land flat. Every single time.

Vai continued, “He goes, ‘No, don’t do that. It sounds like a dying whale.’ And I said, ‘It’s a pinch harmonic!’ And he goes, ‘Well take it out. Take it out.’ It is all over the whole record and he says, ‘Take them out. Take them all out.’”

It would take either a brave or foolish soul to instruct Vai how to curate his guitar parts (Jacob Collier falls into the former camp), and while we understand the process of music making is an entirely collaborative experience – one that invites the perspectives of all those involved – we can’t help but feel the line must be drawn when it comes to Vai and his technique.

Clearly, judging by his response, Vai felt the same way: “I said, ‘Fuck you!’ Well, in so many words.”

Of course, the pinch harmonic isn't the only technique that Vai's known for. Another aspect of his awe-inspiring playing style is concerned with vibrato – specifically, the innovative "circular" approach he pioneered, which is unlike any other guitarist's.

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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.