Born: June 6, 1960 in Long Island, NY:
"Steve Vai's guitar wizardry is so profound that in earlier times he would have been burned as a witch." --- Brad Tolinski, Guitar World editor
In modern times, it seems perhaps more likely that Steve Vai is an alien. The unworldly music which fills his new Epic release The Ultra Zone does nothing to diminish that impression - this is an extraordinary album, drawn from a place in the heart to which precious few achieve access.
Acclaimed rock guitarist Steve Vai began playing guitar in his teens, when he studied under local guitar teacher Joe Satriani (now a famed solo musician). After high school, Vai studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, then moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune. Within a year he came to the attention of gonzo musician Frank Zappa, who was impressed by Vai's amazing technical ability and tremendous knowledge of Zappa's own large repertoire; Vai soon joined Zappa's band as "stunt guitarist," earning a reputation as one of the most talented hard rock guitarists in the industry.
In 1984 Steve Vai made his solo debut with Flexi-Able, then joined the local metal band Alcatrazz. In 1986 he joined former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth's backing band for the Eat 'Em and Smile album. Following the recording of Roth's 1988 album Skycraper, Vai temporarily joined Whitesnake, filling in on guitar on their 1989 effort, Slip of the Tongue. He then returned to his solo career, recording 1990's acclaimed Passion and Warfare. Several more all-instrumental solo albums followed; his most recent, 1996's Fire Garden, is the first to add vocals to the mix. Vai's latest project is G3, an album and series of tours with fellow guitar wizards Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson.
For sheer breathtaking facility on a guitar, Steve Vai is unmatched in the rock world. But the things that fascinate and move Vai as an artist soar a million miles beyond the concerns of most archetypal guitar gods. Starting with his groundbreaking Passion and Warfare album and throughout the years since, Vai has consistently used music as a microscope peering into the human spirit, with equal attention paid to both the darkest obsessions and the most exalted impulses contained there.
From the depths of his sonic laboratory, the forever restless Vai discusses how making what would likely have been the most amazing guitar album of all time wasnt enough for him:
This album took a lot of twists and turns during the recording. Two years ago, I set out to record the most incredible guitar album ever, to unveil the most intense, provocative guitar playing of my career. But my direction radically shifted while going through tapes of stuff Ive recorded over the last few years for an upcoming 10-CD boxed set.
I fell so in love with some of that music that I just had to put it out on a real record, and it created a different focus - more on the compositions and less on the guitar playing. And it also took me away from the band-oriented sound I was planning on using and led me back towards playing everything myself. That allows me to reach into the very twisted side of my musical psyche, where the work of composers like Stravinsky, Bernstein, Sondheim and Zappa hold sway.
The breadth of the albums scope is instantly apparent from the stunning opener, The Blood and Tears. Samples of Indian prayers are woven throughout a melody and chordal structure of great power and simple beauty. While the guitar solo features traditional Vaian fireworks, the composition as a whole offers ample proof that Vai is not about flash, but rather about presenting the results of his ongoing spiritual quest with deep native wisdom and all-abiding love.
Vai does not take music-making lightly, and hell often go to near-unprecedented lengths to achieve his goals; take as an example the intensely emotional Windows to the Soul: On that song, I really wanted every note to mean somethingI wanted to create a piece of music that pulled the listener and myself in different directions than a conventional soaring ballad would.
I made a loop of the main arpeggio and played over it for two days, 15 hours a day. I went through every emotional phase there is - I played it with sheer joy and with tremendous anger, and I played it totally bored out of my mind. If you do that long enough, you can get to the point where you can actually hear what youre playing as a listener. You can send signals to yourself and hear them coming out of the amp.
Thats what I call getting into the Ultra Zone. Thats what the phrase means to me, and its how an artist achieves anything worthwhile. Thats why I chose the name for the album. Hopefully, the music can help others get to a similar place.
The title track uses techno bass-and-drum techniques as a starting point, but refuses to stop there: I like to evolve rhythmically and try different thingsfor instance, the techno beats on The Ultra Zone are an interpretation of modern trend music, combined with what I can do well - playing the guitar. I get weary of ambient samples that just come and go. I love melody first and foremost, and had to figure out how to combine those things.
Vai's very twisted side gets its most unabashed airings on the mind-melting Voodoo Acid (which marries an irresistibly deep dance groove to a full-technicolor array of shifting sounds and textures, all in the service of a narrative fable which manages to make being threatened by a swarm of bees sexually alluring); Oooo (where Vai plays call and response between an impossibly heavy guitar riff, soaring, heavenly synthesizer squiggles, and eerie choirs - the type of quirky juxtaposition which only he could bring off as organically as a 12-bar blues); and Lucky Charms (ferocious complexity made truly charming, as a heavenly band of munchkins float through the pieces rhythmic labyrinth).
Two tracks come across as relatively straightforward guitar showcases - although with Vai at the helm, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it seems Frank and Jibboom are micro-studded with enough terrifying playing to keep guitar aficionados weeping for years. Both tracks are tributes to great guitar innovators taken too soon; the elegant Frank is for Vais mentor Frank Zappa. Regarding Jibboom: That is a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Vai says. I heard the song Scuttle Buttin and was inspired to write that. Its actually based on one of the first riffs I ever wrote. If I want to listen to great guitar playing, I put on Stevie Ray. Hes like raw honesty rolled into six strings and a cool hat.
The Ultra Zone is primarily instrumental, but Vais vocal performances cover a whole lot of ground, with a sureness that defies the easy categorizing of critics and fans who like to keep their guitar heroes in a box. He brings us into the tortured soul of Silent Within completely and convincingly, and turns on a dime to invite us into the warm heart of a committed lover and friend on Ill Be Around. Clearly, Vai is not afraid to be versatile. I like to hear a lot of different elements in my music, he understates. Some songs are comical, some are sensitive and tender and some are of a downright spiritual nature.
At a time when so many musicians are content merely to mirror the tragedies of the modern world, Steve Vai, while acknowledging the existence of such sadness, seeks to provide a glimpse of a better life and succeeds time and time again. The Ultra Zone is a major achievement from a musical alchemist of the highest order.