Steve Vai’s tech Doug MacArthur reveals what is in the guitar legend’s rig when he is playing with an orchestra

Steve Vai and his tech Doug MacArthur
Steve Vai [right] and his tech Doug MacArthur (Image credit: YouTube/Steve Vai; Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

Steve Vai’s touring rig is not what anyone could consider carry-on luggage. You have the Axe-Fx III, and the tricked out 12-switch FC-12 floor-based controller. There are the Ibanez signature guitars, and many, many versions of them – the JEMs, the PIAs. Okay, his 'board is relatively simple, but then there’s the Hydra, and the complicated routing that goes with that. But what about when Vai has a date with an orchestra? 

Well, as Vai’s tech Doug MacArthur reveals in a new YouTube rig tour, that’s a different ballgame, and it might come as a surprise, but that’s an opportunity for Vai to dial things back a little and take a more minimalistic approach.

The date was 13 May with the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands. Vai and the Metropole have collaborated before. In May 2021, they had a three-week recording session, and this 2023 performance at the Bridge Guitar Festival, in Eindhoven, led by conductor Jukka Iisakkila, was a chance to play some new stuff. 

An off-date after the end of the European leg of Vai’s epic Inviolate Tour, it was also the chance to leave the Hyrda behind, to pick up a few favourites off the rack – EVO, of course, Vai’s number one JEM made the cut – and to travel light.

“Normally Steve has, like, a refrigerator-sized rack that we tour with all the stuff for the Hydra, a larger Axe Fx, and some other stuff,” says MacArthur. That was gone. In its stead MacArthur rolled in the super-compact Synergy Syn-1 preamp module, which features two channels driven by a pair of two 12AX7 tubes, running it through a pair of Fryette LXII 50-watt stereo power amps – a 6L6-driven favourite of Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher – and a pair of 4x12 slanted speaker cabinets.

The pedalboard is straightforward. Vai tends to fall in love in and out of love with a pedal. They go on. They come off. But those familiar with Vai’s rigs through the years might be asking themselves where the Boss DD-7 delay pedals are. 

There are typically two, set to different delay times. But for this set, MacArthur said it would have been impossible to be adjusting them between songs, and so Vai’s rhythm guitarist Dante Frisiello suggested they use a Fractal FM3 unit, which for many of us would do just nicely as a fly-rig. The FM3 could handle the delay and chorusing.

“It’s great,” says MacArthur. “You are able to program all these different patches, and its so stripped back compared to Steve’s normal Fractal with the FC-12. But it’s getting us by really well.”

There are fewer electric guitars than we are used to seeing. Here, Vai has his number one EVO JEM, FLO III, a floral-pattern JEM tuned down a whole step, and a FLO replica as a backup. 

As on Vai’s usual touring rig, his guitar’s signal feeds straight into his wah pedal, then into his signature Ibanez Jemini overdrive/distortion pedal, complete with swirl finish. MacArthur says Vai mostly uses the Tube Screamer green mode. There is a DigiTech Whammy, and a Boss volume pedal, and you can watch MacArthur explain some of these choices and the signal path in the video above.

There was one detail in the rig that MacArthur didn’t mention, and it’s one that Vai has previously described as the most important switch on his whole rig, without which he could not do the show, and that is the green button located above the volume pedal. What does that do? Well, thanks to Thomann’s rig tour with Vai from last year, we know all about that. It switches on the fan, blowing air into Vai’s face to make him look cool – and, of course, be cool, too. That helps.

The fan-shot footage in the video above will give you an idea of how all of this sounds. You can check out more of Vai’s work with the Metropole on his 2005 DVD, Visual Sound Theories.

Jonathan Horsley

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.