Skip to main content

Steve Vai says he wept tears of joy when he finally figured out how to play his beastly, triple-necked Hydra guitar

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Larry DiMarzio)

Steve Vai says he cried tears of joy when he finally worked out how to play and write on his new Ibanez Hydra. One of the biggest stories to come out of Vai’s 10th studio album, Inviolate, the Hydra is a steampunk fever dream inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road and made real by Vai and Ibanez.

The instrument was years in the making, a triple-necked, custom-built electric guitar with a unique hybrid build incorporating 7-string guitar, 12-string guitar, a three-quarter scale bass guitar, plus sympathetic harp strings, MIDI, phase splitters and a host of pickup options. 

It’s not a beginner’s guitar, and yet it made a beginner of Vai, who described playing it as effectively learning a new instrument. 

The joy was so great that I had to stop for a minute, and take moment of appreciation to the universe for supplying that idea and sticking with me

Speaking to MusicRadar, a conversation you can read in full this coming Friday, Vai said he wept tears of joy when he finally worked out how to play the Hydra. Writing the Teeth Of The Hydra, managing to balance melody atop bass and chord parts on one instrument, gave Vai a sense of satisfaction that overwhelmed him.

Steve Vai

(Image credit: Larry DiMarzio)

“I’ll be honest with you,” says Vai. “I’ll be intimate here, and I don’t apologise for this, and I don’t feel guilty, there came a point when I was working on the Hydra, and I was working on a section, and all of a sudden it clicked. And I saw myself doing it, I started to weep. 

“The joy was so great that I had to stop for a minute, and take moment of appreciation to the universe for supplying that idea and sticking with me until it reached that point of joyous performance in an elegant, seamless, magical, mysterious way.”

The last to get written, the first to get mixed, it was only fitting that Teeth Of The Hydra should open the album. It was conceived with the Hydra in mind, a piece of music that could be performed with only keyboards and drums for backing. 

Vai says the Hydra sat untouched in his studio for nigh-on a year before he could touch it. “It was beautiful and terrifying,” he says. “It sat in the studio, on a stand. And it would hiss at me, y’know! [Laughs]”

It took six full weeks for Vai to build the independence and dexterity to play the Hydra. Watching him demonstrate the instrument, it’s noticeable how smooth his movements are from one neck to the next. Vai says there’s a lesson for everybody here: when faced with the impossible, you’ve just got to ignore the doubts at that back of your head and start playing.

Once you start doing something that seems impossible, it doesn’t seem so impossible anymore

“When I first sat behind the Hydra I just thought, ‘What were you thinking, Vai? How can you do this? You don’t have the independence. It’s impossible,’” he says. “A familiar little voice came into my head saying, ‘Shut the fuck up and do this. You got it. You have got to know that you can do it; you just have to put the time in. So shut up, get out of the way, and just do it.’

“What I just said is so important for those who are interested in manifesting their creative intentions to know; just do it. You start, and you shut up. ‘But I can’t… I don’t have the time… No one’s gonna like this. It’s gonna suck. It’s not going to make me famous… Why am I doing this? I can’t do this.’ Shut up and just do it, because your being knows; you are compelled to do it and then a miracle happens. Once you start doing something that seems impossible, it doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.”

Key to writing on the Hydra was keeping the melody going while swapping necks and building the composition with bass strings and rhythm guitar. Like any new instrument, the Hydra presents new possibilities but some limitations, too. Both would come in handy on Teeth Of The Hydra.

“It was hard because you can’t really fret things around, change keys too much,” says Vai. “I had to use open strings and melodies so I can switch, so it was really fun. It was like a Rubik’s Cube, where it seems impossible then finally you get it and it’s like, ‘Wow! I don’t know how I did that.’ But, eventually, you keep on doing the Rubik’s Cube and it’s like, ‘Okay, things become familiar.’”

Inviolate (opens in new tab) is out now on digital and CD via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group, with a vinyl release coming on 18 March.

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.