One morning, after having given his first show as a guitarist for Frank Zappa, Steve Vai he met the boss at breakfast at the hotel. “AND? How was I?” she asked. Zappa told him that he considered him a great musician, but that his notes had sounded “like a ham sandwich.” Vai did not understand how. He had the Strat, he had the Marshall. “The sound is not in the equipment, it is in your head,” Zappa concluded. The slogan seemed distant and esoteric to him, until later.
“Over the years, I changed my attitude towards touring,” Vai tells a Page 12 from his studio in Los Angeles, while preparing a new landing in Buenos Aires to play this Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. at the luna park (Av. Madero 420). “With Zappa, when I was just starting out, it was very difficult because I didn’t know how to take care of myself. We had to fly every day, we did two shows a night with his sound check, and the music was very difficult, he had to practice a lot. And he was like, ‘I’m never going on tour again, this is for the birds.’ But then I knew that this was going to be my life, so I concentrated on the things that I did love about touring.
-Everything is good now. I like long flights because I can listen to music and read. I enjoy being with the band and crew, the moments leading up to the show, the walk up to the stage. But my favorite part is connecting with the public through my notes. Finding beautiful melodies and psychologically projecting them right into the hearts and minds of the people. The shows are less “Rock and roll, go crazy”, and more hypnotic. I like to hypnotize with performance. Finding the headspace to communicate with the audience, that never gets old.
How do you prepare to achieve that effect?
-First, we do long sound tests, I like to jam and record them. About an hour before the recital, I warm up for about twenty minutes, and then I start preparing. I shave, I put my clothes in order, and I love it, it’s like a meditation. Even putting on my clothes is a kind of honor. We hug, someone gives a harangue, and just before I go onstage I take a few moments to create a mental stage where I can touch every single person in the audience, and be the best entertainer I can be. It is a very powerful moment of visualization. I call the stage situation the “ultra zone”, where you live like a trance and you become hyper-present for everyone.
It is not the first time that one of the most outstanding guitarists in the world says he sees himself as a “entertainer”. He’s also something of an illusionist, one of those guys who can make the nearly impossible seem possible, part of a generation that in the 1980s led a revolution over the very concept of the electric guitar. In your case, with the disk Passion and Warfare as a maximum exponent.
It is difficult to avoid that thought when you see him wielding “La Hidra”, a guitar that he premiered for his now penultimate solo studio effort, Inviolatewhich brings him on a tour of Latin America. An unprecedented design that presents three necks, two tuning machines and violin strings, among many other peculiarities, on whose design he worked for more than five years together with Ibanez.
The protagonist clarifies: “There was a time when I did not recognize that in myself. When he was young he wanted to hit the right notes, have a good sound and connect well with the band. Once I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin, I realized that I am an entertainer, a service provider.. If you go to a concert, you want to see something stimulating. Some want to escape from normal life, from work, politics, whatever is outside the room. You just want to feel good. My goal is to deliver something that is interesting, engaging, fascinating, seemingly impossible, uplifting, and joyful.”
while turning it Inviolate was continuing its course, the 62-year-old American musician – he will turn 63 this Tuesday – released another plate in 2023. A rarity already from the title: Wai/Gash. A material that waited three decades to see the light, and that is not too similar to Vai’s solo journey. There are eight direct hard rock songs, with marked verses and choruses, some dotted with guitar solos and a strong eighties pulse.
-Who was “Gash”, the singer?
-Johnny “Gash” Sombrotto was a friend of mine from the East Coast. A tough biker from Long Island, an Italian New Yorker. A phenomenal, funny, charismatic, unpredictable, crazy person. In the early ’90s he moved to California and we started riding motorcycles together, which is what we loved. At the time I decided to record a handful of songs that would capture the feeling of freedom and empowerment that riding a motorcycle gives: you are with nature, usually with friends, with that powerful machine under you, and you can go wherever you want. I love ’70s and ’80s rock, I knew it had to be tight and straight music, I wanted the songs to be melodic, high up and with simple lyrics. So in a week I recorded this very quickly.
-How did he get into the record?
-When I had to do the voices, I didn’t even know that “Gash” could sing. He didn’t know either, he wasn’t a singer. I tried to sing myself, and it was a disaster, I don’t have a rock and roll voice. But she had recognized something in John’s voice. I asked him to come to the studio and when he started singing, I couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth. He sounded so authentic, charismatic, borderline comic. All those things were part of his personality. He didn’t know what it was like to be a rock star, but he was.
Why didn’t you take it out then?
-I needed to finish creating the disk Sex & Religion. But “Gash” died in a motorcycle accident, I was destroyed and I kept it for more than thirty years. I listened to it from time to time, and I liked it. It was simple, something very different from the rock stuff that my solo music had already done. He reminded me of that feeling of empowerment, and also of John. Last year I decided to take it out. I was thinking of fixing it up, maybe creating some instrumental songs, but then I decided to take the tapes just as I had left them and send them mixing. I was very surprised by the response, it was even broadcast on the radio here in the United States. That was shocking, I had never heard my music on the radio. It’s a great little record.
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Steve Vai: “I like to hypnotize with performance” | The American musician will play this Tuesday at Luna Park