Steve Vai: Into the Light

Portions of this interview first appeared in Goldmine Magazine in 2013.
The interview was conducted by Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb Wright.
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By Jeb Wright

Going Into the Light: An Interview with the Vinyl Guitar God Steve Vai

By Jeb Wright

While Steve Vai’s solo output is a bit of an acquired taste, no one can say that the man is not, perhaps, the most talented soloist in the history of the instrument.  He cut his teeth jamming out hits with Alcatrazz, The David Lee Roth Band and Whitesnake in the 80’s and 90’s, and before that took guitar lessons from Joe Satriani in the early 70s and was then schooled by none other than musical guru Frank Zappa. 

During his solo career, Vai has pushed the boundaries of both technical executions on his instrument and the visual art of his live performances.  One thing is clear, when discussing a live show and the making of an album with Vai he is concerned with quality over quantity.  He proves his words by the lengths he has gone to make the vinyl release The Story of Light album the best that it can be.

In the interview that follows, Vai gives us a history lesson on what makes a good LP, from cutting the master to the gatefold sleeve, even sharing some of his favorite memories of buying albums as a young man.  We also discuss his breakthrough commercial moment as the guitar player for David Lee Roth, after Diamond Dave walked away from Van Halen. Vai admits to some back stage excess, as well as how he was initially terrified by the live reaction of Roth’s maniacal fans at the beginning. 

At the end of the day, this guitar hero comes across more like a regular music fan than the exalted King of the Electric Guitar that he has been made out to be, which, considering he really is the King of the Electric Guitar, is pretty darn cool.

Jeb: Before we go any further Steve, this was a hard interview to schedule.  You’re staying up all night and sleeping all day.  Is that a creative thing, or just how you live?

Steve: It is not something I do normally; it’s rare.  When I have a lot of work to do, I work at night because it is quiet.  I get into my own little world.

Jeb:  You are releasing your new album on vinyl.  Tell me why. 

Steve: There is something very romantic about vinyl.  It is a kickback to your youth.  You get the vinyl album and you get the album artwork. 

I used to just stare at album covers all day long.  Then you would get something like Led Zeppelin III and I would listen to the album and play with the wheel; it was great. 

Jeb: It really is sad that we have lost the art of the album cover.  Jazz records would have so many liner notes that it was like reading a short book.  The music would be over before you were finished!

Steve: It was a nice experience.  Now, you don’t get anything other than the download.  And that’s okay, but it is a different listening experience. 

Years ago, I had my old turntable around, and my two boys were younger then.  My one son, whose name is Fire, found the turntable and he didn’t know what it was.  I told him what it was and ended up getting him a turntable.  We got all of my records out and he would just listen to records all day; it was really great.  I gave him all of my old Zappa records and we put one of them on and immediately there was just a different quality to it.  There was such clarity and richness. 

Jeb:  My daughter, Cassidy, is 24 and she wanted a turntable a few years ago for Christmas because she started listening to records. 

Steve: My wife bought me a really nice turntable because I had a really crappy one.  I wasn’t listening to vinyl much then, but when she got me the really nice turntable, I started listening to records again and, then, I went shopping for records.  It really is a lot of fun.

I was just in Holland and there was this great funky cool record shop and I bought this huge box set of the Velvet Underground.  It was like two hundred dollars, but I love it. 

Jeb: The Story of Light is a trilogy, so are all of the parts on vinyl?

Steve:  I never ran vinyl on Real Illusions because that was with Sony and they were not going to release it on vinyl.  Alive in an Ultra World I released on vinyl and, of course, this one. 

When everything is done with this trilogy, I would love to release it on vinyl, but I will have to get the rights from Sony. 

Jeb: The Story of Light was released on double 180 gram vinyl.

Steve: Vinyl has a quality to it and a texture.  Like anything else that is mass produced, companies have figured out ways to do things less expensively, as if you save a nickel, here and there, it adds up. 

The quality of the vinyl is based on its weight, as I understand it. 

The best quality for carving is 180 gram. The way the stylus carves into the lacquer, you can carve deeper. When you do that, you get better frequency response. 

How an LP really works is rather bizarre.  The vibrations are cut into the vinyl and you make these masters.  The quality of your listening experience is not the cables, or the turntable; it’s the stylus.  If you have a crappy turntable, but you a have a really good diamond head stylus—you can spend a fortune on a really good stylus- if you do, then you will have a much better frequency response. 

Jeb:  You are very intimate with both the digital and CD version of The Story of Light and now the vinyl; do you hear a big difference? 

Steve: More than hearing a difference, you feel a difference, and I find that very interesting. 

Way back, when CDs were becoming popular, and vinyl was taking a backseat, I was doing a lot of research, because I wanted to make the best product I could, and part of that was using the best gear that I could find. 

So much of that is subjective, but I had a very interesting conversation with Bernie Grundman, who was telling me that they had done an experiment where they took several hundred people and they played them music that was done in analog, and then they played them the same thing, but the whole process was digital; they did this for two different groups. 

One group listened to the vinyl and one listened to the digital.  I am paraphrasing, but the people who listened to the digital had a higher level of agitation.  The people that were listening to the vinyl had a more calming listening experience. 

Now, I don’t know what that means when compared to today’s digital world, as this is when digital was first coming out.

When I listen to The Story of Light, there is a difference you can hear, in that the CD is, obviously, a little cleaner and crisper, but the vinyl has a warmth and a rounded-off fatness, so to speak.  It is sort of the difference between getting into a warm bath and getting into a cold bath. 

Jeb: You have worked with Bernie for some time.

Steve: I have been working with him since the second David Lee Roth record, Skyscraper.  In this project, Bernie was telling me how more and more people were doing vinyl.  Through the years, I would go into his mastering lab and, in the beginning, he would do everything on vinyl, as there was no digital. When he mastered Passion and Warfare, that was on vinyl.  He had the lathe set up and everything.  Through the years, it started getting dustier, and it was taking a backseat.  When the resurgence started happening, he broke it out and spiffed up his gear.  We did a promo video where we showed his lathe carving the lacquer. 

Jeb:  Tell me why you chose to master this at 45 rpm. 

Steve: The faster the speed, the better frequency response you get.  The slower the speed, the more information has to go across the stylus in a shorter distance. When you cut at a quicker speed, you get a better frequency response. 

Jeb:  I like that you didn’t just throw this out on vinyl, as some companies are doing.  You’re interested in the whole package. 

Steve: I don’t need to worry about the economics, so much.  What is really exciting, to me, is to follow that lead that takes you to the best quality that you can get. 

Granted, my records don’t sell millions of records, but it is nice to create something that is the best that you can do.  I will make an analogy, but I don’t want to sound pretentious…Van Gogh was an interesting case.  He was poor and he was a little crazy, but when he painted he always used the best canvas and the best paint that was available at the time.  It was really expensive back then, but he just couldn’t use anything else.  Today, his works are treasures for us.  I take the Van Gogh approach, not that I think that the future of my work will be as important as Van Gogh’s, but it is nice to go the extra yard. 

Jeb:  People who collect these new vinyl releases want that great sound, but they also want a great package.  The Story of Light has a gatefold jacket and an eight-page booklet. 

Steve: It is a fun process and I know what it was like.  People who lived the experience of listening to music know how exciting it is when one of your favorite artists is getting ready to release a new product.  I remember, as a kid, just waiting and waiting for an album to come out, and then you get the album, and you open it up, and the more there was, the better. 

I don’t know if it is because I’m not a kid anymore, but I kind of lost that thrill.  Well, if Tom Waits releases a record, then I get a little bit excited.  There are CDs that I get excited about, and I buy them, or I go download them.  Like I said, there is something romantic about buying vinyl.

A lot of companies, what they do in order to get on the vinyl bandwagon, is really kind of a tragedy.  They take a CD—you’ve got to understand, that even back when records were converted to CDs, the labels would take the master, either the vinyl masters, or if they had a conscience, then they would take the master tape, and convert it to digital.  The converters that were used during the beginning of the digital era were not as good as they are today. 

They would make these digital masters and then what they would do is burn the masters to CD.  A lot of people believe that the CD is a one-to-one match to the master, but that is not necessarily the case.  Bernie could write a book about it, as he explained it all to me.  So, you get these CDs that have a lot of errors in them.  They are converted at shitty bit rates with shitty converters. 

When the vinyl resurgence hit, a lot of times, they would just take the CD and use it as a master to burn a vinyl, which completely defeats the purpose of what vinyl is good for, just in order to sell a record. 

If any of my records were released on vinyl on Sony that would probably be the case.   When they made a vinyl release for Sex & Religion, that probably was the case, as I didn’t have any control over that. 

For The Story of Light, I wanted to do my best.  I did record the record digitally, as I don’t use tapes these days when I am recording.  The digital converters I use are state of the art.  When I mastered for the CD, I mastered digitally.  When I was mixing the record, I mixed to digital, but I also mixed to analog.  I have half-inch analog tapes mixed specially for vinyl.  I brought those tapes to Bernie. The record is actually mastered from an analog tape.

Jeb: Do you care if you sell five hundred, or five million of this project?

Steve: It would certainly be great to sell five million, but if I sell five hundred, I am okay.  To make one of these LPs is very expensive… not including the extra cost of mastering to analog, or mastering to vinyl, which is very expensive, but the package is also very expensive.  You have the artwork, the booklet and the expense, as it is the 180 gram record…it costs me $13.00 to $15.00 per record.  It has to be sold at a level to where I at least make back what I have into it—I don’t want to lose money on each record.  And it is nice to put a couple of bucks in my pocket. 

We did a run of a couple of thousand and they sold out before they even shipped.  I don’t think I am going to make anymore.  I made a couple of bucks, but I also made a product that I think people will really like. 

My fan base is very solid, but it is not very big. You’ve got different levels.  I can tour and go any place in the world and do great, but when it comes to when I release a CD, it is different.  I pretty much know how many I am going to sell.  It is really a nice place to be, because I know what I can expect. 

For every artist, there is a hardcore following, which for me is a couple of thousand people, which is really good.  They are interested in getting anything that I do.  I did it for them, but I can’t see that I’d sell a lot more.  This way it is in demand among them and it kind of creates a mystique. 

Jeb: Are you a music collector, or do you have a music collection?

Steve: I don’t really collect, but I do have a nice little collection.  I don’t go look for rare stuff.  I just like to buy stuff that I like.  The rarest records I own are some of the ones that I owned when I was a teenager; I still have them all. 

I will go out and buy vinyl because I get a nostalgic kick from it.  The only thing I collect, as a hobby, is hot sauce. 

I don’t even have a lot of rare guitars.  I don’t collect them, but I do have some, because I only buy guitars that I like.  The guitars that I play are the Ibanez JEM’s, as I designed them and they are very suited for me.  I do like Stratocasters and Les Pauls, so I have a couple.  I have a few Strats.  The idea of spending $300,000 on a ’59 Burst Les Paul is not on my radar. I wouldn’t even buy them if I had the money.  I am not attached to things like that. 

Jeb:  Tell me about The Still Small Voice

Steve: I am working on that now.  I started hanging out with these orchestra crowds because I like composing and I have been doing it my whole life.  It is hard to get your music composed by an orchestra. 

Some time ago, a friend of mine in Holland commissioned me to write two hours of music for the Holland Metropole Orchestra.  It was a great project and I released Sound Theories, which is the moniker I used for any of the orchestras that I do.  When it came out, it was pretty successful and it got the attention of other orchestra and symphonies.  I was commissioned to write a piece by The North Netherlands Orchestra; a symphony.  It turned out really great; it’s called “Expanding the Universe.” 

It went so well they asked me to do another one.  These things take forever.  To write a forty-minute symphony takes five months, of ten-to-fifteen hour days.  I did “The Middle of Everywhere” for them and that one went so well they invited me to compose a special piece of music for a Stravinsky special that was coming up.  It is part two of the “Middle of Everywhere” and it called “The Still Small Voice.” 

The thing that is different between this and the “Middle of Everywhere” is that I play guitar on “The Still Small Voice.”  I wanted to do something different.  I didn’t just want to get up and jam with the orchestra, so I came up with this idea for a fifteen- minute piece of music where I just hold one note of music throughout the entire piece.  I have a sustainer on my guitar, so the note just sings and it doesn’t stop.  The orchestra just weaves in and out of this one note.  The note takes on all of these different dimensions and shades because of the harmonies that surround it.  I thought it would be a cool idea and we will find out. 

Jeb: I hope this does not come out the wrong way, but I have to say I like to see you perform more than I like listen to your CDs.  To be honest, I enjoy the DVDs more than I do the CDs.

Steve: That is not an uncommon thing that I hear because my music is an acquired taste.  Some people really like it, but you know what I am talking about; it’s weird to a lot of people.   Maybe not weird, but it is different.  I can’t help it and I don’t want to help it.  You get an idea for something and you go for it. 

The performance I really enjoy.  I enjoy being a performer and putting on the best show that I can.  I like moving with the guitar and I am that guy that makes funny faces.   I change my clothes a lot and I try to bring as much production value with the budgets that I have.  Visually, for some people, they enjoy that. 

I hear everything from, “I don’t like his music, but I like his show” to “I like his music, but he looks like a weirdo.”  It really doesn’t matter to me; what are you going to do?  You just keep doing more of it and having them trying to figure it all out later.   

Jeb:  The main visual aspect I am talking about is your guitar playing.  I am more of a Foghat guitar player than a Steve Vai guitar player. 

Steve: Oh man, Foghat.  I used to play “Slow Ride” in high school. 

Jeb:  My point is that when you see what you are playing, added with what you hear, it makes it an intense experience. 

Steve:  Well, thank you.  There is certainly nothing insulting to me about that!

Jeb:  I know we have been talking about very creative things and classical music, but I want to go back to April 1, 1983.  I watched MTV and really hoped that David Lee Roth was doing an April Fool’s prank when he said he was leaving Van Halen. 

Steve:  A lot of people were hoping that. 

Jeb:  When he put out Eat ‘Em and Smile we were wondering how Dave can bring someone into the fold that would rival Edward Van Halen.  You were really jumping into the big leagues. 

Steve: Well, it all happened pretty quickly and I was secluded in Dave’s basement.  I didn’t really know what was going on. 

I was a Van Halen fan, too.  I was a huge fan.  The thing that was going through my mind was, first of all, don’t try to rival Edward.  If I had done that, I would have been a fool, because you can’t do that.  Edward is Edward, and I have deep, deep respect for him. 

When I went into that situation I didn’t feel comfortable trying to compete with him, because you can’t compete with him; he is un-compete-able.  I didn’t see it that way at all. 

Inside of me, being a kid that grew up in the ‘70’s, every day was Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jethro Tull, and Alice Cooper…I was the kid in the bedroom with the tennis racket jumping from bed to bed with the music blasting.  I loved the energy of rock, and I really loved playing rock. 

By the same token, there was a side of me that was interested in esoterically compositional music and that is why I liked Frank [Zappa] so much.  When the opportunity to play with Dave came along, it was an opportunity for me to get excited for what I knew I could do in the ‘rock arena’, so to speak. 

I just really looked at it like I was going to do the best I can and that I would let everybody else figure it out.  If I thought that I had to replace the guitar behind the voice, then that would be too much to even negotiate. 

Jeb:  Did you know Greg [Bissonette] and Billy [Sheehan]?

Steve: I knew Billy. He recommended me to Dave.  They were trying out other guitar players at the time, but once we got together, it was really obvious that it was a great match.  We auditioned Greg and that was the first time I met him. 

Jeb:  Dave made smart choices with his band.  If this had not been a great rock album, he would have looked bad.

Steve: David Lee Roth, at the time, had quite the momentum.  He was the quintessential rock star and he oozed charisma. Even before I got into rehearsals with him, he was very conscious about what he wanted and he whipped me into shape.  I didn’t know how to move on stage, as I am very gawky.  I had the body of an upside down question mark with hair. 

David started taking me to the gym and he really was good for me.  Dave was amazing and I learned so much from that guy.  He would get on stage and he really ruled the world.  It helped that he had a great band. 

It really was a special time to play that kind of music.  It was a great time to be a rock star during the peak of the ‘80s.  It was a really great experience. 

Jeb: Where and why did you guys do a Spanish version of the album?

Steve: I don’t know; I didn’t have anything to do with that.  I think the idea behind it was that the Spanish market, the Latin market, is huge and nobody had done it.  Dave took the master tapes into his studio and he sung the whole album in Spanish and it actually sold pretty well.  I get the royalties [laughter].

Jeb:  I am a Max Webster fan and I heard that you guys recorded a song of Kim Mitchell’s that did not make the album. 

Steve: We did that when we were doing demos.  “Kids in Action” was the song.  It was good.  We sat in Dave’s basement for like a year.  A lot of times we would play cover songs just for fun.  We had to choose at the end, and what made it on the record is what Dave wanted.  We rehearsed in Dave’s basement every day.   

Jeb:  Talk about the intro from “Yankee Rose.”

Steve: That came from the guy that made Flex-able.  I am a bit of a corndog, and I am a little absurd, and I was wondering what I could do to make it really cool.   I had this technique where I would make the guitar sound like it was talking.  We just did it and it worked. 

Jeb: Billy gets a sole writing credit on “Shy Boy.” 

Steve:  That is a great track.  Billy was a big Van Halen fan and he told me that he wrote that song for Talas.  He played it for Dave and Dave loved it. I am glad he did, because that track is pure adrenalin. 

The coolest thing for me about that track is that I worked really hard on the guitar part, and I knew it was going to be really chaotic and wild. 

I hardly ever did this…when I built my solos, I used to punch through stuff.  I would do it, and then go back and punch in and fix it.  “Shy Boy” was a song where I just blasted through it in one take.  A lot of the tracks- most of the tracks on that album- were that way.  I was just on fire; I was at my peak. 

Jeb: You play that style very well.  When you look back at Eat ‘Em and Smile, what does it mean to you?

Steve:  It is a star on the wall, man.  I look back at the whole process…I remember getting into his band, being in the band, in the basement.  I would hang out with David and we would go rock climbing together. We’d all go out to eat. 

We went to New York City to the Power Station and we recorded there, which was so great.  Everything was handed to you on a silver platter.  The record came out and it went immediately Platinum.

I remember the first show we did…I had played in arenas with Frank and the audiences were really great, but with David it was different.  We didn’t really know how people were going to take the record.  We didn’t know if they were going to like it because there were a lot of expectations.  It was a good thing that we had a powerful record, but when we got out on tour, it was just a shock. 

First of all, I had no idea those kinds of things really happened backstage, and then back at the hotel… but they really do—more than you can imagine.

I remember the first show, we got out on the stage and we went on autopilot and we blasted through the first three songs.  Afterwards, Dave does this thing where he just stands there and the audience would scream.  They screamed for ten full minutes and the screaming was so loud and so piercing that Billy and I looked at each other and we were scared.  It was an experience that I had never had before.  It becomes like a mob mentality and it just fueled the performance. 

Those shows were like… they were just on fire.  I look back on that whole period and it was one of the funniest, freest, most exciting times for me. 

Jeb:  Why didn’t you stay?  Did you know you had more to say on the guitar?

Steve: I am a rock musician in my heart, but there is a lot more that I want to do. I knew, and I even knew back then, that those kinds of things are fleeting. I was lucky that I got in when it was right. 

We did the next album, Skyscraper, which did well, but was not quite as well received as Eat ‘Em and Smile.  It was a great tour as well, but after that, I just knew that these were my early days.  I even knew that with Whitesnake.  I knew it was not what I wanted to do with my whole life.