STEVE VAI On The 1990s: 'I Was The Poster Boy For Everything That Was Wrong About Playing The Guitar'

July 6, 2019

Guitarist Steve Vai recently spoke with Australia's Heavy magazine. The full conversation can be streamed below. A few excerpts follow (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET).

On the recently released GENERATION AXE live album:

Steve: "It was different from many things that I've done in the past, but it's always nice to kind of realize a dream, realize a fantasy. Creatively, this was an idea that I had bouncing around for many years, but it just needed the right time and the right folks... We're really happy with the way it came out. It's a very good-sounding live record. It's hard to fix crazy, distorted guitars, but I think it's very good-sounding."

On why the album was recorded in China:

Steve: "The Asian audiences are fantastic. Out of all the shows, the one we did in Guangzhou, China had the best-sounding room and the best acoustics, so that's basically what was used for the foundation of the record."

On how he approached the other guitarists in GENERATION AXEZakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi:

Steve: "At first, I created a list that was more genre specific. I had a column for rock and metal and one for blues and one for acoustic even and fusion, in the thought that it would be cool to build the brand and mix it up in the future. But I'm primarily a rock guitar player, so I created a list of all the players that I thought would be the most appropriate for something like this. The first four guys I reached out to were Tosin, Nuno, Yngwie and Zakk, and they were really into it. The biggest challenge is finding the right time, because everybody is so busy. They've got solo careers, and they play with bands and stuff. The liked the idea, [but] there was a big question mark over what's going to really happen with the personalities, because we're all kind of crazy. It was magnificent — we really bonded as friends and brothers, supported each other and really came together to play. Everybody saw the big picture, and they were excited about it."

On those four guitarists:

Steve: "I was looking for diversity, but within a particular genre — the rock/metal genre. I was looking for guys that had really made great contributions for the instrument and who were also very confident in what they did and had a voice and were secure in what they did... You need guys that also know how to get along and are fun. I think that most of the time on this tour, we were laughing. We all were on the same bus, [and] we all stayed up until four, five, six in the morning, telling stories, listening to music, laughing."

On arranging material for the group's live performances:

Steve: "Everybody had enough respect for what my suggestions were that they went with it, and if there was something that could be better, we would discuss it. There was no time where somebody was outside of their comfort zone. If a song was suggested and somebody didn't groove with it in their mind, we just threw it out and went to something else... Being a solo artist for so long, and being the guy that writes and produces and mixes and engineers all my own music, I always feel like I have to do it all, and I have to come up with all the ideas. But I realized that everybody contributed great ideas. We always looked for something better... That was our goal for everything that we did."

On the different roles he's played over the course of his career:

Steve: "With David Lee Roth and WHITESNAKE, my job was be that guy that fit the mold of the '80s. The '80s was a great time for rock guitar. We were all influenced by those incredible musicians in the '70s like [Jimmy] Page and Brian May and Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore. In the '80s, the guitar was more in pop music — pop/rock, so to speak — but then when the '90s came along, the whole face of guitar-playing in popular music just changed overnight, basically. Things like shredding were considered taboo in a lot of circles. There was a period there in the '90s for a guy like me — I was, like, the poster boy for everything that was wrong about playing the guitar. In one decade, I couldn't [not] open up a magazine and find extraordinarily wonderful things written about me, and in the next, I could not [not] open up a magazine and see the worst things being said. But things change again, and I just kept sticking to what I enjoyed doing. History doesn't remember those times in between trends."

On following his own path:

Steve: "A lot of times, I'll kind of feel like there's a certain direction I should probably go, but then I get inspired to do something that's completely in a different direction, and I just can't help it. I always just kind of follow my instincts. They've always served me well, and every single time I've ever done anything calculated, it's been terrible — it doesn't have the freshness or the uniqueness or the inspiration. I don't go back and listen to it. There's songs that I have that are calculated, [and] I find myself never listening to them. That tells me something. I look back at the ones that I still love to listen to, and I remember what it felt like when the ideas for them came and when I was creating them... I've just decided that for the rest of my life, I'm going to make as much music as I can that's interesting to me [and] for the people who find it interesting."

One of the most influential names in the guitar world, Vai has worked with the likes of Frank Zappa, helped create the first commercially sold seven-string guitar, and started the "G3" show series with fellow axeman Joe Satriani.

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