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Steve Vai: "I’m 59; keeping up those chops isn’t as interesting to me. It’s all about the bizarre and quirky ways to phrase"

Steve Vai performing live
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“This one really felt like the lightning struck,” says Steve Vai, of the Generation Axe tour that came to fruition some three years ago, with Nuno Bettencourt, Tosin Abasi and Zakk Wylde joining forces with him for quite possibly the most shredtastic run in electric guitar history.

Recorded in China, their new live release - Guitars That Destroyed The World - documents four brilliant minds, each gifted in their own inimitable way, standing firm as undisputed masters of their instrument.

Much like the legendary G3 tours with lifelong friend and fellow virtuoso Joe Satriani, the concerts saw all of its stars sharing the stage at the end of the night - though Generation Axe also witnessed the guitarists collaborating with each other individually throughout the set.

Each player has their unique voice on the instrument but we all play in the same playground, so to speak

“Hopefully we can bring it to the UK at some point!” continues Vai.

“When I wrote the list of people I wanted for the tour, I wanted to stick with rock and metal players. I still wanted it to be very diverse, different kinds of people who have contributed to the genre very effectively. Which everybody has… each player has their unique voice on the instrument but we all play in the same playground, so to speak. It all came together as the blend of various colours.”

While the sheer sense of musicianship is just about as serious as it can get, one of the lighter moments arrives when Bettencourt introduces his signature rendition of a classical great, known to fans as Flight Of The Wounded Bumblebee.

“Fuckin’ Vai’s making honey again!” he jokes, before the finger-twisting chromatic workout that preceded Extreme track He-Man Woman Hater on 1990 album Pornograffitti. There is actually some truth to that story…

“That’s Nuno for you, haha!” laughs Steve, before telling us more about his lesser-known hobby.

“But yes, I am a beekeeper. My wife and I moved to a property about 23 years ago and it had been vacant for a decade. I wanted to plant some fruit and trees, she wanted a garden, so after some research I discovered honeybees are an excellent way to pollinate. It’s a fun hobby, really, and very simple yet very interesting.

“Honeybees are fascinating creatures… and they make honey! I thought I was eclectic enough to give it a try and really enjoyed myself. At one point I had several colonies, we had over 600 pounds of honey… they were really pumping!”

For many fans, hearing you and Yngwie Malmsteen pair up for Black Star feels like history in the making...

“This was something I’d been dying to do for decades and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It was one of my highlights from each night.

“Yngwie is a very accomplished and supreme musician. He has incredible ears and I don’t know if he’s shared his ear with another guitar player in the past like he did on this.

There’s no reason to compete in Yngwie's mind. There’s no threat, and I think that’s necessary in order to go into the deeper realms of listening and responding

“We’ve been very close for many years, friends for like 30 years. We’ve always respected each other. When we did the G3 tour, we bonded more and became buddies - that’s when we became really good friends. That’s important, because it allows the vulnerability of opening yourself up in your playing.

“When I listen back to that recording of Black Star, I marvel at how we’re playing off each other and every sentence is spoken together. It’s quite remarkable. I was thinking maybe this is just me thinking this because I’m involved and hear it as metal poetry… but it sounds like a lot of other people get it, too.”

The way you play off each other near the end, bringing the dynamics right down, is incredibly light and delicate...

“That delicate part of Black Star requires two people to be connected in a musically intimate way. There’s vulnerability and opening that allows the space for each of us to contribute. It’s like having a great conversation with somebody. That’s how you get the good stuff!

“There’s no reason to compete in his mind. There’s no threat, and I think that’s necessary in order to go into the deeper realms of listening and responding. Nobody does what he does and that’s a beautiful place to be. That’s the way I feel in my mind and that’s the way everybody should feel... nobody can do you better.”

That seed of confidence can clearly inspire a lot of creativity…

“It will enable you to expand in your most unique potential. There’s a big lesson there: competition cuts at the root of your ability to grow. In reality, you can only ever compete with yourself.

“A more healthy way of looking at competition is inspiration. When I was on this tour, I was watching of all these guys and felt so inspired by them. I couldn’t do what they do, but it inspired me to go deeper into what I do.

“All of the tracks are exciting - like how we came together for Frankenstein or on Highway Star, playing Ritchie Blackmore’s historic solo in harmony. It’s the kind of thing I’d loved to have seen as a kid!”

You recently started using Synergy Amps. What converted you?

I don’t do modelling. Synergy Amps feel like they're at the forefront of technology

“I’d highly recommend anyone reading this to go and check out what it is. Conventionally, you have an amplifier, you plug in and that’s it. Maybe it has two channels or three channels, but it’s one amplifier.

“That big fat Marshall or whatever it is you use has two stages: the preamp and power amp stage. Most of the tone comes from the preamp - that’s where most of your gain and tone comes from. The preamp section feeds into the power amp, which then amplifies that sound; of course it colours it a bit but not nearly as much as the preamp.

“Synergy developed this system that uses modules where you have analogue preamp sections of historic amplifiers, many of which are based on highly sought-after boutique amps like Friedman, Diezel or Soldano. It’s the preamp sections spec’d out to the nth degree.”

Though it’s not modelling...

“It’s not modelling, I don’t do modelling. This feels like it’s at the forefront of technology. You can get Fender amplifiers - I have the Bassman and Deluxe - then Marshalls, like a Plexi. There are two modules per rack, each with two channels. Using three means I have six amplifiers with 12 channels, plus I have my Legacy in the loop, too.

“I’ve tested them forensically against the real thing. It’s not profiling; it’s analogue-powered. For my shows, I will be changing through modules, and it’s so nice… I’m not confined to one amp with two channels.

“I see great things in store for this technology. From the Synergy I go into a mono out, fed into a Fractal Axe-Fx III, which is like a space station. The most powerful piece of outboard gear I’ve seen or heard, matched in power by transparency and quality. Then I go into a Synergy 100W power amp, which feeds my cabinets. It’s more elaborate than that, but that’s the gist of it!”

You recently unveiled your Morley Bad Horsie Mini wah, as well as the premium series of Ibanez JEMs...

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“I’ve been so fortunate working with all these great companies who are looking to expand and do different things. My career with Ibanez has been extraordinary… I still can’t believe it. Looking back I think, ‘Holy mackerel, how did that happen?’

“The JEM has been so consistent and successful for 33 years. Its sister guitar, the RG, is one of the biggest-selling guitars in the world. The Strat is first and then it’s neck and neck between RGs and Les Pauls.

“It’s like the gift that keeps on giving, but most importantly it’s the guitar I love playing. It has this personality virtually shaped like my mind and body. At the next NAMM, there’s a very nice surprise coming… expect a first from us!”

As for other recent activity, you appeared on Jason Becker’s latest album Triumphant Hearts, as part of an all-star cast of guest collaborators...

“What a beautiful experience that was. I’ve known Jason from before he had the disease and saw him suffer through the decline. I have to say his contribution will have a historical impact.

“Here is a guy suffering unthinkable limitations… he can only move his eyes. And yet I get emails from him that are long and funny. He still has an incredible sense of humour. Somehow he made that record with those limitations - it’s an incredible phenomenon.

“With help from people like you, it will get recognised. The music is inspired and it’s beautiful. I’m convinced it’s because of the limitations he suffered and is still suffering; it opened an awareness for this inspired music to flow through him.

“I was very honoured when I got asked to be part of the project - everyone that contributed felt very humbled and honoured, too.”

You did a 25th anniversary tour of your landmark Passion And Warfare album. Any plans to do more around its 30th?

I know there are a lot of guitarists who find value in the music and I wanted to do it for them… it took me many years to believe them, though! It’s only when I saw my face tattooed on people’s bodies I thought, ‘Uh oh!’

“It was a challenge… that record is hard to play and we did it from beginning to end. It was hard work, but a lovely way to pay homage to a record that had such a pivotal impact on my career.

“I know there are a lot of guitarists who find value in the music and I wanted to do it for them… it took me many years to believe them, though! I just thought everyone was just being nice. It’s only when I saw my face tattooed on people’s bodies I thought, ‘Uh oh!’

“Some players found that album really young and it ended up soundtracking their lives - just like how Led Zeppelin II, Queen II, Kiss Alive!, Billion Dollar Babies, Romantic Warrior and Yellow Brick Road did for me. They have a real place in my heart because they were there for me in my formative years. I turned to them for comfort and enjoyment. They created an appreciation for not just music but life. So I know how your music can have an effect on other people.

“I don’t see myself as a world icon - nothing of the sort - I’m just a guitar player. There are many people in the world; if what I do is attractive to a small group that loves it like I do, that’s my audience. To be honest though, I don’t think I’ll do another Passion And Warfare tour...”

What do you think is the secret to modal playing and getting the most out of scales like Lydian?

“On an academic level, it’s good to know what the Lydian scale, how it’s structured and why it gives you that feeling you get when you hear it. Obviously it’s the fourth degree of the major scale which has a raised fourth… that’s good to know, but not necessary.

“The most important thing to remember when you’re playing modally is what the atmosphere of the mode feels like to you. What it sounds like is one thing, but what it feels like - the quality of that mode, that’s when you’re owning that mode.

“Look at it as an open field. One thing I like to do in Lydian is play every note in the scale except that raised fourth until the last note or close to! That will change the whole atmosphere.”

Then, of course, there are the more outside Lydian-associated scales you’ve used…

It’s miraculous how different modes open up completely different worlds, yet they’re all the same notes from the parent scale

“Another thing worth experimenting with, which I started doing many years ago, is using the Lydian #5 scale. It’s a whole different neighbourhood, yet the houses are kinda the same. It’s from the melodic minor scale, as is the Lydian dominant scale, but they all sound different.

“It’s miraculous how different modes open up completely different worlds, yet they’re all the same notes from the parent scale. When you start altering tonalities and start using these other scales, you have the other modes connected to them.

“Understanding and experimenting will add to your arsenal of creative tools, which means more colours for your paintings. They will help deepen your creativity when it comes to atmospheres.”

Are there any new techniques you’ve been focusing on particularly over the last year or two?

“You’ll get a kick out of this new thing I’m working on, then. My other interview hasn’t called yet so I’m going to chew your ear here for another second as I know you will find it all interesting!

“I call it joint shifting… it’s when you bend the note with one finger and hit another note that isn’t bent, then while you hold those you bend more. It’s like finger independence. Hold, bend and release notes while they’re all ringing together.

“It’s not conventional and is actually really hard. I just finished a song that has a lot of that in it. I can’t wait for people to hear it, because young players might hear it and take it to another level - which will be some freaky shit!”

So that means the follow-up to 2016’s Modern Primitive is on its way?

I’ve found the best way to improve is to imagine myself doing something beyond my capabilities

“Oh it’s coming; I’m working on it right now. It’s different, sounding very stripped-down and trio-based.

“For the past two years, in my mind’s eye, I’ve found the best way to improve is to imagine myself doing something beyond my capabilities. That’s how everything has been coming out, like this joint shifting. I just imagine something I can’t do and then I work on it. I’ve found it keeps things fresh and interesting.

“I’ve started having visions about playing in new ways… it’s not like they’re fast. I’m 59; keeping up those chops isn’t as interesting to me. It’s all about the bizarre and quirky ways to phrase, moving all around the neck. It takes months and months to develop through undisturbed and focused time. And then you have this new vantage point… that’s what makes it so rewarding.”

Generation Axe - Guitars That Destroyed The World: Live In China is out on 28 June via earMUSIC and available to preorder now.