How to play guitar like… Steve Vai

Nail the virtuoso's tricky licks

How to play guitar like Steve Vai
(Image: © Mario Rimati/Splash News/Corbis)

Steve Vai an unmistakable sound and approach to guitar. Schooled - among many others - in the heroic widdle and awesome rhythm playing of Eddie Van Halen, jazz luminaries such as Wes Montgomery and the crazy quirkiness of Frank Zappa, he seamlessly blends musical styles into his own technically gymnastic hybrid.

His love of jazzy octaves is explored in clean chordal tracks such as Sisters and Call It Sleep. His fast legato and tapping can be heard on Bad Horsie. His iconic three-string sweep picking features in Tender Surrender and Blue Powder, while odd time signatures crop up in The Attitude Song and Windows To The Soul.

Sliding octaves

This lick uses fingers and thumb to pick the string skips; playing fingerstyle means you can put all your concentration into the large slides. It's a good idea to break this one down phrase by phrase until you're confident with the movement. Use gentle thumbstrokes for a jazzy tone on the closing chords.

Sliding octaves audio (right-click to download)

Sliding octaves tab (right-click to download)

Superimposing arpeggios

This legato idea uses a Cmaj7 arpeggio (C E G B) over an F chord. The B note is a #4th over the F note, implying one of Steve's favourites: the Lydian mode.

Superimposing arpeggios audio (right-click to download)

Superimposing arpeggios tab (right-click to download)

Tapped major 7th arpeggio

This Amaj7 lick includes fret-hand (shown in squares) and pick-hand taps (circles). The rhythm is tricky, so practise slowly to begin with.

Tapped major 7th arpeggio audio (right-click to download)

Tapped major 7th arpeggio tab (right-click to download)

Three string sweep arpeggios

Make sure you pick each triplet with a run of three smoothly connected downstrokes in this Lydian lick. Use an upstroke on each grace note.

Three string sweep arpeggios audio (right-click to download)

Three string sweep arpeggios tab (right-click to download)

Scoops and pinched harmonics

Use huge scoops on the first two notes by depressing the whammy bar as far as it'll go before picking the string. Adding vibrato will give the lick a Vai-like warble.

Scoops and pinched harmonics audio (right-click to download)

Scoops and pinched harmonics tab (right-click to download)

Odd time chord stabs

Use 'down up'-style alternate strumming while you learn the rhythm. Once you've got a feel for it and how it sounds over the backing, try using downstrokes only (apart from the very end of bar 2, where the rapid-fire chords need to be strummed quickly) because this will sound stronger and steadier.

Odd time chord stabs audio (right-click to download)

Odd time chord stabs tab (right-click to download)

Stay up to date with the latest gear and tuition.
Subscribe and save today.