Behind the Curtain: Steve Vai

Rock Cellar Magazine

I have interviewed Steve Vai probably 10 times over the course of the past 30 years or so. Each and every time he has been nothing less than engaged, bright, articulate and totally willing to immerse himself in the moment. That is, when he was sitting there with you his mind wasn’t somewhere else though he was the type of person—as his huge output of work would attest—who was constantly balancing plates.

There was always an album to be completed, a tour to be arranged or some sort of guitar-driven activity requiring his time. Still, when you talked to Steve Vai, you were talking to all of him.

In this episode of Behind the Curtain, I’m going to talk about three moments when my life intersected with his. I’m going to tell you about the first time we met in 1985 and I loaned him an amplifier; the second encounter when he came to my house and gave me a guitar lesson; and the last time we met just a few months ago.

Though Steve Vai is now recognized as having one of the most remarkable and identifiable guitar sounds in the world, way back when he was beginning his professional career, young Mr. Vai was a little unsure about how to go about finding his signature tone. When Steve Vai first played with Frank Zappa in 1980, he had no real concept about how to produce a cool guitar sound.

He was still four years away from experimenting with guitar textures on his first solo album—Flex-Able—and hadn’t yet discovered the tonal magic that could come out of a piece of wood and six wires.

Sure, Steve could play any piece of music Frank put in front of him but he couldn’t find a guitar sound to save his life. Frank even said he sounded like a hive of buzzing bees. Steve knew it. He’d spent time honing his chops and learning how to read the complex music charts Zappa worked from rather than twiddling amp knobs and fiddling with fuzz pedals. Vai never did find a workable guitar tone and it was a problem that would follow him into his next band.

In fact, when Steve Vai joined Alcatrazz, the melodic rock band formed by former New England keyboardist Jimmy Waldo, Steve only had this broken down, buzzing, humming Strat hybrid. Impossible to believe but it was true.

Waldo hooked Steve up with Grover Jackson—the great custom guitar builder who was then pioneering the construction of beautiful guitars for everyone from Randy Rhoads to Jeff Beck—who was going to design an instrument for Vai.

Here, Jimmy takes up the story. I talked to Grover about doing something for Steve Vai, since he really only had one guitar which had problems. So Grover agreed and Steve and I went out to the factory late one day and ended up staying into the night. Eric Johnson happened to be there also so after closing the four of us sat around and talked while Steve and Eric jammed with no amps. Steve fell in love with the feel of the Jacksons but wanted a neck that Grover had only done for Jeff Beck.

This was a custom neck would take longer so Grover loaned Steve his own personal Charvel, which was a natural brown or something. Steve took the guitar and we continued the Alcatrazz rehearsals at Steve’s place in Sylmar. At some point, Steve decided he needed to be able to pull the Floyd Rose sharp much farther.

“He couldn’t figure out how to get it to do that since the back of the Floyd hit the body of the guitar. I suggested carving out that area some to give the Floyd room to go farther up.  Steve painted Grover’s Charvel green with some bike spray paint.

Steve’s guitar tech Elwood carved out the face of the guitar just behind the bridge. Before he did this, I assumed he had made some sort of deal with Grover about that guitar. But he hadn’t.

Grover was not happy about the butcher job and green paint so he just let Steve keep the Charvel. But he did go and make him several Jacksons. Steve used that Charvel on everything live and in the studio for Disturbing the Peace. He loved that guitar.”

Alcatrazz was camped out at Cherokee Studios on Fairfax Boulevard in West Hollywood to record the follow-up to their debut, No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll. That was the coming out recording for a then unknown Swedish wunderkind named Yngwie Malmsteen [and if any of you have read my earlier Behind the Curtain installments, you know who Yngwie was]. Yngwie cast a long shadow and Steve knew it. He was under pressure to prove he had been the right choice to fill Malmsteen’s shoes. Alcatrazz fans were used to hearing Yngwie blazing all over the neck of his scalloped Stratocaster and they expected the same from him.

Vai had all the tools—talent, technique and that extraordinary bright green guitar he had [ostensibly] borrowed from Grover Jackson—but he was lacking one piece: a workable amplifier. Steve was having confrontations with producer Eddie Kramer [Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin], which were probably borne out of frustration as much as anything else. He needed an amp and he needed one like yesterday.

Jimmy Waldo—talented keyboardist and a friend of mine for 30 years—called me and asked if I could bring down my Marshall 100-watt. I had a Marshall stack, which was sold to me personally by Jim Marshall after I toured the factory in England back in 1975.  It was standing in a corner in a corner of my guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills. One afternoon, I received a call from Jimmy. “Sure, man. I’ll come right down.”

[Note: Jimmy Waldo is currently producing rock bands and artists. There is nobody in the world who knows more about guitar players than he does. Give him a shout at if you have a project you need producing].

I jumped into my car and drove down to Cherokee Studios, which was only a five-minute ride down the hill. I unloaded the Marshall head and one 4×12 cabinet—they didn’t need both cabs—and brought them into the lounge.  When I walked in, I saw the various members of Alcatrazz in repose. Jimmy was sitting at a restaurant-styled booth in the lounge and staring at nothing while singer Graham Bonnet and bassist Gary Shea sipped cups of coffee.

Steve Vai & Steve Rosen

They looked like zombies and had apparently been waiting around for some time. I asked Jimmy what was going on and he motioned to the closed door of the studio. Inside, Steve Vai was triple-tracking a guitar line on one of the songs that would end up on Disturbing the Peace.

Eddie Kramer was inside the control booth doing battle with Vai. He was trying to explain to the guitarist over the talkback button that triple-tracking was overkill—the song didn’t call for it, the band didn’t want it, and he was running up the recording budget by the minute. Years later, Steve would admit he had been a total asshole in the way he dealt with Kramer.

But at that moment, all he cared about was meticulously layering three identical guitar parts, which were burning up studio time like feathers in a gas fire.

Jimmy walked me inside the studio and during a lull in the storm introduced me to Steve Vai. He stood up and extended his hand. I remembered he was pretty tall and very skinny but what really caught my attention were his hands. They were as long as tree branches and sculpted to fall perfectly across a fretboard.

He thanked me for bringing down the Marshall and as a studio tech rolled it into the room, we talked for a couple minutes about what he was doing and guitar players and stuff like that. He told me he was in the middle of laying down a triple overdub on a particularly fast and complex riff he’d written.

The amp and cab were set up and Steve plugged in. I wish I could say the sound coming from the four Celestions was like 10,000 angels singing but it wasn’t. You have to work with a Marshall to find the sweet spot and Steve neither had the time nor the knowledge to find it. It was a passable sound at best but Vai made it work. He continued battling with Eddie Kramer and insisted that this final pass was necessary. I sat and watched Steve track his guitar part and was astonished by his execution, phrasing and mind-blowing vibrato. Eddie said, “We have it” and Steve insisted, “No, we don’t.”

I exited the studio at that point and realized Steve was not going to back down even to someone as experienced as Eddie Kramer. It was a philosophy he’d carry with him for the rest of his career.

Years later, I asked Steve about that first moment we met. “You brought me down one of your Marshall bottoms to use,” he remembered. “You may not remember this but you were the first one to tell me about the David Lee Roth gig. You said, ‘David Lee Roth is going to be looking for a guitar player.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, right.’ We were in the studio with Alcatrazz and you told me.’”

I didn’t remember telling Steve about that gig but apparently I did. What I did recall was how pigheaded he had been in working with Eddie Kramer. So did Steve. “He was fantastic but really I was difficult,” he admitted. “You can ask him and he’ll tell you and it’s OK. I love Eddie. I learned a lot from him and I learned what a prick I could be. You think you know everything especially when you’re younger. You fight anything that goes against what you think is right. I fought a lot with him and that was probably the hardest thing for Eddie Kramer was working with me.”

Vai learned valuable life lessons along the way and eventually made up with Eddie Kramer. When he came to my house in the Hollywood Hills, some years had passed since we were first introduced. But he greeted me again like a long, lost brother. We talked about guitars and theory and he saw the Marshall amp standing in the corner and reflected on that moment when we first met and smiled at the memory.

At some point in the conversation, our discussion turned to my music. I had been playing guitar for some years and had been writing songs and putting bands together. I somehow found the courage to ask Steve to listen to one of my songs on cassette [this was pre-CD and digital). Where that chutzpah came from still mystifies me. I was not the kind of person to ask people I was interviewing to check out my music—and certainly not someone of the caliber of Steve Vai—and I’ll never know what prompted me to bring it up. But I did.

I put on the cassette and a song called Blow the Beast. Looking back on it, I realize now it wasn’t a very good song but at the time I thought it fell somewhere between Bryan Adams and Def Leppard. Steve sat on my couch and listened closely. I stood off to one side and watched him out of the corner of my eye. My heart was going to beat out of my chest and it felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I kept muttering to myself, “Does he like it? Is he tapping his foot? Is he going home?’

The song finished and Steve mentioned that my guitar was out of tune [it was] and it sounded like I was attacking the solo too forcibly [I had been].  He was very gentle and supportive with his comments and though I was embarrassed by playing the song for him, I was happy I’d done it. He suggested to lighten my touch and showed me some simple exercises. He picked up my guitar and ran through a couple things and when I saw how beautifully his fingers—tree branches—floated over the strings, I understood what he was saying.

Steve could have shredded me in that moment. He could have presented his criticism in such a way that it undermined what little confidence I had in my own playing and writing at the time. He didn’t do that. In his explanation, he took care not to offend or embarrass me. I never forgot about that exchange.

The third encounter with Mr. Vai occurred just a few months ago. I went to Steve’s house in the San Fernando Valley and we spent more than two hours talking about everything under the sun including a lot of non-music related subjects like spirituality, gratitude, stress and inspiration. We did the interview in his recently-constructed home studio, which he’s dubbed the Harmony Hut. It was a stunning monument to his success and featured all the gadgets and gizmos you’d find in any big league recording facility.

Covering two walls was his collection of guitars, which included hundreds of Ibanez instruments, double-necked pieces, and vintage acoustics. It was a far cry from the man who didn’t even have a guitar—or an amp—back in the day.

We were seated in Steve’s studio. He cradled an Ibanez and behind him stood the Carvin Legacy amplifer, his signature amp. It was a truly unguarded conversation and I admitted to Steve how desperately I wanted to be a working guitar player and songwriter but could never make a living at it. Which was exactly why I played him my song all those years ago.

His response touched me like few replies I’d ever heard from an interviewee.

“Steve, you have so much,” Vai admitted to me. “What you do as a writer and the people you’ve spoken to. You’re a great interviewer and you have an insight. You ask questions that can only come from somebody that gets it. You know me and you know my career. Ninety-nine percent of the interviews I do, they get the one-sheet [basic press release[ and they ask me those questions and then it’s even a chore to go to Wikipedia to find out who I am. I get it and I’m still courteous. I don’t expect them to have to go out of their way. But every now and then you come across an inspired writer and they see your potential and they know if you’ve hit the mark or not. You’ve got a lot of that kind of insight and maybe you found ways to express that unique side. And you just haven’t really identified with it because you’re thinking you’re never good enough. I feel that way.”

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