Steve Vai on the importance of music theory: “A person has to balance how much technique they need to get their point across”

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

While there are some guitar players who hail from a strong academic background and possess theoretical know-how, there are others who are known for their relaxed, self-taught approach to playing.

Steve Vai firmly fits into the former camp – having been educated by Joe Satriani before attending the famous Berklee College of Music – while players such as the late Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of whom couldn’t read music, honed their craft by listening and replicating.

Vai does, however, see the value in both approaches, and recently spoke of the importance of having both a strong grasp of technical knowledge and the ability to harness an intuitive, emotional playing methodology.

When asked by Carl King about how his own playing style developed to incorporate both aspects, Vai responded by saying an appreciation of theory is important in any field, and is essential for those wanting to “get their point across”.

“Well, it's hard for me to tell, because I've always wanted it all, you know, and I was always fascinated with music theory,” he said. “I wanted to understand it; it looked like beautiful language and art to me. And I instinctively knew that if I understood all of the academics, that it would help me in that other side, going deeper than the technique, which is really where the good stuff comes from. 

“In any field, whether it's sports, business, or art, there's a period of time where you gotta hone your vessel, where you got to focus on technique,” Vai added. “And the amount of technique you need is dependent on what it is you want to do. You know, I've always liked the idea of being able to play the guitar a particular way, and writing a particular type of music. So I needed a lot of technique.”

Though an appreciation of theory is, according to Vai, necessary for most players, the guitar legend does admit that the “longevity” and emotional impact of a piece of music is dependent on factors that go beyond the text book.

I've always liked the idea of being able to play the guitar a particular way, and writing a particular type of music. So I needed a lot of technique

He continued, “When you take someone like Bob Dylan, he doesn't need a lot of guitar technique to get his point across, you know. So, a person has to balance how much technique they need to get their point across. 

“A lot of times, it's easy to get fascinated with the technique and carried away with it. And there's nothing wrong with that. Because there's people that enjoy watching people that are just incredibly amazing with their techniques. 

“But the longevity and the effect of a piece of music on somebody, I believe has to do with the other dimension – how deep you go beyond the technique, so to speak. That's always been a natural interest in me.” 

It’s a combination of his technical prowess and this “natural interest” in the “other dimension” that turned Vai into the player he is today. 

“There were periods of time when I would focus on academics and writing and the music would sound that way. And I still do that sometimes just as an expression,” he concluded. “But usually, the academics just become a tool, the technique becomes your creative tool, as opposed to you being the tool of the technique, so to speak.”

Vai’s theoretical knowledge will no doubt be coming in useful over the next few months for the guitar legend, who is currently in Finland recording with the Tampere Filharmonia Orchestra.

“It’s orchestra time again,” he wrote on Instagram, “and this mighty symphony of over 100 players will be recording my most dense and abstract compositions. And away we go!”

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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.