An A&R guy once walked into the studio and told Steve Vai to remove all the pinch harmonics from a record because they sounded “like a dying whale”

Steve Vai, onstage at "Las Noches del Botanico" festival in Madrid
(Image credit: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

Just as one does not simply walk into the kitchen of L’Arpège and tell Alain Passard how to cook the duck, it is simply bad etiquette for the lay person to stride into the studio and tell Steve Vai what he can and can’t do with the electric guitar.

And yet such people exist, often gainfully employed in the music industry in the specialist branch of A&R, and as Vai can confirm, such instances have been known to happen. 

Vai was speaking to MusicRadar about the writing and recording of his new album, Vai/Gash, the “straight ahead” hard rock album he made with his best friend on vocals, the late Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombretto, as a soundtrack for the open road; something to listen to when they were biking. 

Such records present the artist with unalloyed freedom. When recording with bands, however, there is always compromise, decision making by committee. That’s fine, all part of the process, but sometimes outside influences can be unwelcome.

Like when he was recording with “a big band” – he was naming no names here – and an A&R man took a particular exception to the pinch harmonics. And the scene that Vai describes is a little like someone storming up to the pass at L’Arpège and asking for every grain of Sarawak pepper to be removed from their plate.

“I had an A&R guy come into the studio of a big band I was recording with, and I was playing harmonics,” Vai recalls. “Now, you know what a harmonic is? It’s a squeal. It’s part of my style. It’s part of most guitar players’ styles. And he goes, ‘What’s that?’ And I go, ‘Oh, it’s a harmonic. You pinch it with your finger and…’”

…And, well, what’s wrong there, right? But whatever frequencies Vai was jamming between index, pick and thumb of his right hand they were not resonating with this A&R guy.

“He goes, ‘No, don’t do that. It sounds like a dying whale,’” says Vai. “And I said, ‘It’s a pinch harmonic!’ And he goes, ‘Well take it out. Take it out.’ It is all over the whole record and he says, ‘Take them out. Take them all out.’”

Vai let’s out a laugh, and explains that he did what every good professional guitarist should do on such occasions. Be firm but diplomatic. “I said, ‘Fuck you!’” he laughs. “Well, in so many words.”

Vai/Gash is out now on all formats via Favored Nations. The full interview with Steve Vai, in which he talks Tom Waits, the joy of reconnecting with Whitesnake at Hellfest, and the freedom of playing stripped back rock rhythm guitar is coming soon to MusicRadar. 

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.