Steve Vai reunited with Yankee Rose “Swiss Cheese” guitar after 36 years

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Steve Vai/Instagram/Warner Bros.)

Back in 1986, Steve Vai used a rather unusual six-string – one he dubs the “Swiss Cheese” guitar – during the shooting of the music video for David Lee Roth’s Yankee Rose.

Built by late luthier Joe “Jem” Despagni, the electric guitar was the first to feature a monkey grip handle – at Vai’s request – and features a green body with red indents resembling, as its unofficial name would suggest, Swiss cheese.

And while Vai planned to use the guitar for subsequent touring following the video shoot, it was stolen along with three of Vai’s other six-strings at Pasadena’s Perkins Palace during rehearsals for Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile tour, not to be seen again by the guitarist for almost four decades.

But now, all these years later, Vai has, at last, been reunited with the radical instrument, and tells the story of its recovery in a new post on social media.

“Reunited, and it feels so good,” he says. “Oddly enough, after going missing 36 and a half years ago, my custom Joe Despagni ‘Swiss Cheese’ guitar was finally returned to me.”

As Vai explains, he regarded Joe Despagni as one of his best friends growing up, and shares how Despagni built him some of his wildest guitars, including the Flame guitar and the Lightning Bolt.

He continues: “The guitar was discovered by young Iván González Acosta in the attic of his grandparents home in Tijuana, Mexico not too long ago. It seems the people that lived in his grandparents house before them purchased the guitar somewhere along the way and it was just stuck in the attic only to be discovered recently when they were reorganizing things.

“When Iván discovered this guitar, he posted some images online and they came on the trusty radar of our very own Mike Mesker. Mike is the authority on the history and specifics of all my guitars. 

“Mike started reaching out to Iván and after some time he was able to arrange a drop off where Iván was met by Mike, Doug MacArthur and myself. Thanks to Mike for his solid vigilance in bringing this guitar home.”

Despite sitting in an attic for well over three decades, the “Swiss Cheese” guitar is in remarkably good condition, Vai says.

“The condition of the guitar when I saw it was a shocker,” he explains. “It’s as if it was put in the case and never played for 36 years. The colors are still vibrant and the neck is in great shape.”

He concludes: “Thank you Iván for your kind consideration and for reuniting me with this piece of my history. Receiving this guitar feels like an old friend has returned home after so many years to jam with me. I believe that we will make a wonderful ham and Swiss sandwich together.”

Vai’s proposed sandwich pairing carries its own significance: mentor Frank Zappa once told the young virtuoso his guitar tone sounded “like an electric ham sandwich”.

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Sam Roche

Sam is a Staff Writer at Guitar World, also creating content for Total Guitar, Guitarist and Guitar Player. He has well over 15 years of guitar playing under his belt, as well as a degree in Music Technology (Mixing and Mastering). He's a metalhead through and through, but has a thorough appreciation for all genres of music. In his spare time, Sam creates point-of-view guitar lesson videos on YouTube under the name Sightline Guitar (opens in new tab).