Steven Siro Vai or just Steve Vai was born June 6, 1960) is an American guitarist, composer, singer, songwriter, and producer. He was voted the 10th "Greatest Guitarist" by Guitar World magazine, and has sold over 15 million records. A three-time Grammy Award winner and fifteen-time nominee, Vai started his music career in 1978 at the age of 18 as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa, and joined his band from 1980 to 1983. He embarked on a solo career in 1983 and has released eight solo albums to date. He has recorded and toured with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, as well as having recorded with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Spinal Tap, and Ozzy Osbourne. Additionally, Vai has toured with live-only acts G3, Zappa Plays Zappa, the Experience Hendrix tour, as well as headlining international tours.
Vai has been described as a "highly individualistic player" and part of a generation of "heavy rock and metal virtuosi who came to the fore in the 1980s". The launch of the Ibanez JEM guitar developed and co-designed by Vai was described as the "exact moment the entire guitar landscape was reshaped". He also designed the first commercially produced seven-string guitar, the Ibanez Universe, which was used by nu metal artists in the 1990s. He released his first solo album Flex-Able in 1984, while his most successful release, Passion and Warfare (1990), was described as "the richest and best hard rock guitar-virtuoso album of the '80s".
Steve Vai, a descendant of Italian immigrants, was born in Carle Place, New York on June 6, 1960. He is the fourth son of John and Theresa Vai. He described his first experiences with music as, "at the age of five I walked up to [a] piano, hit a note, and noticed that to the right the notes go higher and to the left the notes go lower. In that very moment, I had a full-on epiphany. I was flooded with the instinctual realization of how music was created and how it worked from a theoretical standpoint—the whole language of music was very obvious. I also understood immediately, instinctually, and unequivocally something that has only deepened through the years that the creation of music is an infinite personal expression. I realized that I could do this, I could make music, and it could be whatever I want."
It was a year later, at the age of six, that Vai experienced his first introduction to the guitar, remembering that, "I saw this nine-year-old boy playing the guitar in my grade school auditorium, and that was another epiphany that I had. It was my first recognition of the instrument. When I saw that guitar and I saw this kid playing it, I knew instinctually that I was going to play the guitar someday, and that it would be my instrument. Don't ask me how I knew, I just knew. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen."
As a young child, Vai was influenced by the music his parents had listened to. One album in particular that he cites as his "musical awakening" was the original motion picture soundtrack to the 1961 film West Side Story. At age eleven, Vai was introduced to the contemporary rock and progressive music of the era, and after hearing the guitar solo to Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" at age twelve, decided to begin playing the guitar.
In 1973, Vai began to take guitar lessons from fellow New York native Joe Satriani, and played in local bands (The Ohio Express, Circus, and Rayge) throughout his high school years. Vai cites artists such as Jimmy Page, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, as well as jazz fusion guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Al Di Meola as some of his major influences in that time period.
In 1978, to further pursue his interest in music composition and theory, Vai attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. While at Berklee, Vai began working for Frank Zappa as a transcriptionist, and in the middle of his fourth semester, moved to California to start his career as a session and touring artist for Zappa. Also while at Berklee, Vai met his future spouse Pia Maiocco, with whom he has been together since; they have two children.
Early music career (1979–1986)
In 1978, Vai sent both a notated transcription of Frank Zappa's "The Black Page", and a recording of his college band "Morning Thunder", to Zappa. Impressed by this, Zappa responded by putting Vai on salary as a transcriptionist to transcribe his work, which included pieces from the Joe's Garage and Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar albums. After leaving Berklee College of Music and moving to California, Vai auditioned for and became a full-time member of Zappa's band, going on his first tour with Zappa in the fall of 1980. Zappa often referred to Vai as his "little Italian virtuoso", and Vai is frequently listed in the liner notes of Zappa's albums as having performed "stunt" or "impossible" guitar parts.
After moving on from Zappa's employ in 1983, Vai bought a house in Sylmar, Los Angeles, where he built his first professional studio. During this period, Vai formed two bands (The Classified and 777) as well as writing and recording a large amount of music that was not originally intended for release. Out of this material, Vai compiled his first studio album Flex-Able. He created his own record label, Akashic Records (later Light Without Heat Records), which he used to take Flex-Able directly to distribution channels. Flex-Able was released in January 1984.
Steve Vai began his rise to public acclaim in 1983 when, shortly before the release of Flex-Able, his composition "The Attitude Song" was published in Guitar Player magazine. The song centered itself on a main guitar riff in the time signature 7/16, played over a rhythm section centered in 4/4. Each following section of the song showcased a number of specialized techniques (such as two-handed tapping, whammy bar acrobatics, sweep picking, alternate picking, multi-part harmonies, and odd phrasing) used in angular and exaggerated ways that were unique to the song at the time. Interest from the public eye grew more so when Vai's song "Blue Powder" (a demonstration for the Carvin X100b amplifier) was published in Guitar Player as well, which showed the virtuoso side of Vai's compositional process. Also in 1986, Vai was cast in the blockbuster film Crossroads as the Devil's guitar player "Jack Butler". In the famous "duel scene" between Vai and Ralph Macchio's characters, Vai wrote and performed all guitar parts with the exception of the slide guitar, which was performed by Ry Cooder.
In between solo work, Vai replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in June 1984 as the lead guitarist of Alcatrazz, with whom he recorded the album Disturbing the Peace. Vai left shortly after the subsequent tour to join David Lee Roth's band.
With David Lee Roth (1985–1989)
In 1985, Vai joined David Lee Roth's post-Van Halen band as lead guitarist, together with former Talas Bassist Billy Sheehan on bass; and former Maynard Ferguson drummer Gregg Bissonette on drums. The foursome's debut album Eat 'Em and Smile, released on July 7, 1986, was both a critical and commercial success, reaching number four on the Billboard 200 albums chart and selling over two million copies. Guitar World magazine editor Brad Tolinski commented on Vai's playing at the time, saying that "Steve Vai's guitar wizardry is so profound that in earlier times he would have been burned as a witch." Retrospectively, Eat 'Em and Smile is frequently evaluated as one of the greatest rock albums of the 1980s. The group's Eat 'Em and Smile Tour began in August 1986 and continued through February 1987.
Roth's subsequent album Skyscraper, released in 1988, was produced by both Roth and Vai. Like its predecessor, the album was a commercial success, reaching number six on the Billboard 200 chart. In 1989, following the successful Skyscraper Tour, Vai departed from the band.
In 1985, after having joined Roth's band, Vai designed the JEM guitar, a unique instrument that incorporated a series of groundbreaking designs that have since become staples in feature throughout the guitar industry. Vai began working with Ibanez in 1986 to develop the guitar, and the first production Ibanez JEM 777 guitars were released in 1987.
From 1985 to 1990, Vai recorded Passion and Warfare at his home studio, his second studio solo album. After leaving Roth's band in 1989, Vai bought out of his Capital Records contract and signed on with Relativity Records for the release of Passion and Warfare, which was completed shortly after he began recording the guitar parts for Whitesnake's Slip of the Tongue album, where he replaced the injured Adrian Vandenberg.
Upon its release in February 1989, Slip of the Tongue sold over three million copies worldwide, reaching number 10 on the Billboard 200 while Vai joined the band on their thirteen-month world tour.
In September 1990, Vai released Passion and Warfare through Relativity Records, and within the first week of release, the album had reached number 18 in the Billboard 200, selling over a million and a half copies worldwide. Passion and Warfare won Vai a number of awards such as Guitar World and Guitar Player's "Best Album" and "Best Rock Guitarist" awards. Passion and Warfare has been cited as one of the most pertinent instrumental albums released.
1990 also saw the release of the Ibanez Universe, the first production seven-string guitar, co-designed by Vai in conjunction with Ibanez. Vai left Whitesnake in 1990 to pursue his own musical avenues, and formed a band that included Devin Townsend on vocals, T. M. Stevens on bass, and Terry Bozzio on drums. The group released Sex & Religion on July 23, 1993, that was described as visceral in nature, combining a compositional and progressive metal rhythm section with Devin Townsend's vocal arrangements. After the following tour in support of the album, the group disbanded. Vai began working with Ozzy Osbourne in 1994, with whom he wrote and recorded the Ozzmosis album. Due to label conflicts, the album was re-written and recorded with Zakk Wylde on guitar. In 1994, Vai won a Grammy award for his performance of "Sofa", from Zappa's Universe.
While recording his fourth studio album Fire Garden, Vai took time to record and release the stripped down EP Alien Love Secrets. A departure from the often highly compositional and heavily produced style of his previous projects, the seven-track EP was recorded in four weeks and released through Relativity/Epic Records on March 21, 1995. Vai cites this record as one of his favorites, saying "The recording and release of Alien Love Secrets marked another turning point in my personal evolution. I was more concerned with making the record that I wanted to make, and not worry about what some others thought I should be doing."
On September 17, 1996, Vai released Fire Garden, 19-track double album, through Epic, with the first half being primarily instrumental while the second half featured Vai on vocals. After the release of Fire Garden, Vai joined his former teacher Joe Satriani, along with guitarist Eric Johnson, for the second installment of the ongoing G3 concert tours. On each G3 tour, three guitar-centric headlining acts are chosen to perform their own sets, and then collectively jam to fan favorite songs at the end of the show. G3: Live in Concert, a video of the 1996 tour was filmed in Columbus, Ohio and released on June 3, 1997.
In 1998, Vai independently released a performance footage DVD of Alien Love Secrets. Also in 1998, Vai started the Make a Noise Foundation with his then-manager Ruta Sepetys. The goal of the foundation was to provide funding for musical education to those otherwise unable to attain it. Today, Vai often auctions items in his possession with proceeds going to the foundation.
In December 2001, Vai recorded two performances at The Astoria in London, with his band The Breed (composed of former David Lee Roth bandmate Billy Sheehan, guitarist/pianist Tony MacAlpine, guitarist Dave Weiner, and drummer Virgil Donati). This live show was released independently in DVD format as Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria, London in 2003, and was Vai's first of many successful live concert DVD projects. In 2004, Vai released twelve tracks from the DVD in an online only release.
2001 saw the limited release of The Secret Jewel Box, a conceptual ten-CD box set containing unique material from various eras of Vai's career. Four compilation albums (The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1; Mystery Tracks – Archives Vol. 3; Various Artists – Archives Vol. 4; & Vai: Piano Reductions, Vol. 1) included as part of the box set, were released to the public both in 2001 and the years following. Also in 2001, Vai's record label Favored Nations released No Substitutions: Live in Osaka. The release, which Vai himself produced and engineered, won him his second Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Album in February 2002.
While most widely recognized for his stature as a rock guitar player, Vai is also a musical composer fluent in the composition and arranging of orchestral music. In May 2004, Vai premiered "The Aching Hunger", a project commissioned by the Netherlands Programme Service and performed with the Netherlands' Metropole Orchestra. "The Aching Hunger" performances consisted of two parts: the first showcasing Vai's original contemporary orchestral compositions, and the second consisting of Vai (on guitar) playing newly arranged material from his catalog with the orchestra. This project yielded both the Visual Sound Theories DVD and the Sound Theories Vol. I & II album, which were recorded in 2005 during multiple "Aching Hunger" performances and released in June 2007. While "The Aching Hunger" and its following releases started Vai's public career as an orchestral composer, Vai had been composing since he began a music theory class (taught by Bill Westcott) in high school. In speaking of Westcott, Vai says "He taught me how to write, compose and appreciate music. There was no greater musical influence in my life."
In 2005, Vai released Real Illusions: Reflections, the first installment in an ongoing three-part trilogy concept album. Each of the three installments to the series contain material (songs, lyrics, and both spoken and written narration) with particular relationships to the storyline, purposefully left out of order. Upon the release of the third installment, Vai intends to complete a fourth album of material, which will then be released with the previous three installments and completed storyline in order. In speaking of the storyline, Vai says "It's a human interest story, about the human condition. ... It's a story about this man who has a traumatic experience in his life, and it drives him insane. We see the story through his eyes. It also involves the town he lives in and this stranger that enters the town who's like a shaman; he builds this giant edifice, like a reflecting pond, and when people come to it they see aspects of their personalities and identities and discover things about themselves. There's some comedy involved, too, but it's pretty esoteric. It's about a lot of lofty principles, so it's not a bad idea to dish this all out slowly." The installments to the series will be released over periods of time, with the second, The Story of Light, having been released in 2012.
In 2006, Vai joined the Zappa Plays Zappa tour as a special guest, alongside additional Zappa band alumni Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock. In 2008, for his performance of "Peaches en Regalia" from the Zappa Plays Zappa tour, Vai won his third Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Having always enjoyed the aspect of teaching and sharing his experiences in life and in the music business, Vai began a series of "Alien Guitar Secrets" masterclasses in 2006- a touring masterclass in which Vai holds open forum discussion about his own experiences in the music industry, explains the key principles to understanding success, plays to backing tracks (often inviting class attendees to jam with him), answers questions, articulates key points of guitar technique, and more importantly goes beyond the technique and into the more profound esoteric principles at play (see Notable contributions for more on this).
In support of Sound Theories Vol. I & II and Visual Sound Theories, Vai put together a new band for a five-month world tour of the United States, Europe, South America, and Australia. While evaluating unique options for the band (which included ideas for a horn section or percussion section), Vai began auditioning violin players to compliment the new lineup. This new band, known as the String Theories band, featured previous The Breed members Jeremy Colson (drums) and Dave Weiner (guitar and sitar), along with new members Bryan Beller (bass), Alex DePue (violin), and Ann Marie Calhoun (violin). During a month of twelve- to fifteen-hour a day rehearsals, Vai and the band perfected the performance (which consisted of pieces from Vai's catalog, arranged by Vai to include the two violins). The tour began in June 2007 and ended in December the same year.
Midway through the String Theories tour in 2007, Vai recorded a performance at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, which yielded the acclaimed 2009 live concert DVD and Blu-ray release of Where the Wild Things Are. Certified gold in the United States and Canada, Where the Wild Things Are showcased the diverse musical range of the String Theories band, with pieces such as the visceral Grammy-nominated "Now We Run", to the dynamic ballad "Angel Food".
2007 also marked the 20th anniversary of the production of the Ibanez JEM guitar, a milestone which was commemorated with the 20th anniversary JEM model. Made of an acrylic body with three-dimensional "swirl painted" interior, this guitar can be seen in the beginning of the Where the Wild Things Are DVD. In 2008, Vai announced the release of his signature Ibanez Jemini distortion pedal, a twin distortion pedal with both a custom overdrive and lead distortion section.
Steve Vai started his recording career in 1980 with Frank Zappa, and has since recorded with a plethora of artists and bands. In 1983, Vai began his career as a solo artist with his release of Flex-Able, and solidified his place as a virtuoso rock guitarist with his acclaimed 1990 release of Passion and Warfare. His discography consists of nine studio albums, two EPs, two special albums, eight live albums, twelve soundtracks, twenty compilation albums, and six DVD releases.
Passion and Warfare (1990)
Sex & Religion (1993)
Fire Garden (1996)
Flex-Able Leftovers (1998)
The Ultra Zone (1999)
Real Illusions: Reflections (2005)
The Story of Light (2012)
Modern Primitive (2016)