Steve Vai – His First 30 Years, is narrated and written by Alan Berry, with Mark Enochs and Vai himself credited as co-writers. Berry, whose credits include similar documentaries about Black Sabbath’s seminal albums Masters Of Reality and Sabotage, has pulled together an expansive narrative that charts the rise of a Grammy-winning guitar great.
It follows Vai from childhood, growing up in Long Island, learning guitar from Joe Satriani, progressing through the Berklee music school system before making his bones in the inspiring yet unsparing environment of Frank Zappa’s band…
Fans are familiar with the chapters in Vai's story: Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, starring in the movie Crossroads as the devil’s own guitar player, Whitesnake, and then a solo career that redefined instrumental rock guitar, with a partnership with Ibanez that has revolutionised the design of the electric guitar.
All the major staging posts in the first three decades of Vai’s career, from Satch student to designing the JEM signature guitar with Ibanez, and releasing the seminal Passion And Warfare album, aged 30, where the film reaches its conclusion. But Berry fills in the gaps.
He doesn’t shy away from the difficult material – the period in Vai’s life where he suffered depression and anxiety – nor the light stuff. There are some very funny anecdotes in here that make give fans a full picture of Vai. Who know, for instance, that he drove an ice cream truck, and that it would get him out of trouble then back into it within 24 hours? You might never eat a tuna sandwich again.
What drives him through all of this, what pulls him forward and continues to do so? Speaking to MusicRadar in March, Vai said it was satisfaction he took from taking on a challenge, besting it, and making the most of the opportunities that gives you.
“Satisfaction is addictive,” explained Vai. “My style was accidental and innocent, because I sat there and thought, ‘I like this. As a matter of fact, I really like this. Okay, here’s a challenge…’ And then you complete the challenge and it is an opportunity for you. That’s the way it was in teenage Steve’s mind. Can’t do it, but wanna do it… That is all I ever needed, and that was all I ever had.”
That ethos has served Vai well over the years. He advised us to keep searching for inspiration in all places, and when the idea comes – even if it sounds too simple to have merit – it is our job to seize upon it and use it. Or to keep pushing to play something you never thought possible.
“You know what tickles me the most?,” he said, wiggling his fingers, air guitar style. “going, ‘Holy shit! It worked! It worked better than I thought, and it sounds more obtuse than I could have imagined.”
Of course, not all of Vai’s ideas are close to being low-hanging fruit. At least, not in the everyday sense. As Berry’s documentary reminds us, some of Vai’s greatest creative epiphanies were hard won, such as being halfway through a 10-day fast when it came time to record one of Passion And Warfare’s standout tracks, For The Love Of God.
“I was trying to push myself to the limit,” Vai said. “When it came time to record ‘For the Love of God,’ my fingers were totally gone. I needed to be in that state of mind to record this song, and I was in absolute pain because of my fingers.”
You can watch Steve Vai – His First 30 Years above, or head over to The Tapes Archive to read a transcript.