Steve Vai has been talking about the evolution of the electric guitar and recalls how it was Frank Zappa who introduced him to the then avant-garde technique of tapping, before Eddie Van Halen came in with "an epic transmutation of the guitar."
Vai was speaking to Evan Ball on Ernie Ball's Striking A Chord! podcast about his career in music, from his early days as a high-school music theory enthusiast, to Joe Satriani's life-changing tutelage, making his bones as a player with Frank Zappa, and how Eddie Van Halen's paradigm shift changed everything for guitar in popular culture.
Speaking on the contested origins of tapping – a technique exemplified and officially canonised as an article of pop culture on Van Halen's Eruption – Vai said Zappa's Inca Roads was the first time he heard anyone try it on record.
"Depending on who you talk you you’ll hear different stories about how tapping emerged," said Vai. "You’ll hear people say, ‘Oh no, it started decades ago!’ I can only tell you my recollection, my story. The first time I personally heard tapping was on a Frank Zappa song. It was Inca Roads and he used this pick, and he would kind of like tap on the neck with his pick, and that was one of my favourite solos.
"It was a big, long, beautiful, involved solo, recorded live in Helsinki. When I heard the tapping, I said, ‘That’s cool.’ And I started doing it, but was unrefined and it was more novelty based. And then, all of a sudden, there’s Edward."
Zappa's vision would soon have a profound influence on Vai. Aged 18, Vai was asked to audition for Zappa, before Zappa deemed Vai too coltish for the band. A couple of years later he was in, but not after some due diligence on Zappa's part, with a succession of auditions scheduled to see if Vai was ready for the material and for the road.
“It was tough," recalls Vai. "He was tough. I had to go through a lot of mini-auditions. I think Frank’s concern with me was taking a 20-year-old kid on tour. ‘Is he going to be able to perform? Is he going to be able to learn all this music and actually play it properly?’ I was put through a lot of different little auditions. I remember there was this one really difficult passage in a song called Wild Love, and it is a composed piece with all these polyrhythms, and I had to play that to him over the phone."
Vai's audition was not yet complete. He had to learn a setlist of songs as Zappa was putting his band together for a 1980 tour of the States. When he got to the audition, none of them were called. "He had to see if I knew how to deal with my sound."
Other trials included learning the first movement of Sinister Footwear – "it’s impossible! ... sheer terror! – and transcribing Zappa's solos.
"He had given me this guitar solo to transcribe," continued Vai. "And Frank’s solos were anything between five and 10 minutes long, and I transcribed it and I said, ‘Y’know, I could double that.’ And he said, ‘Go ahead.’ I learned it and really got a kick out of all these impossible things I was doing."
Ultimately, Vai made the cut, joining Zappa on stage. But, he explained, playing with Zappa was more than just a question of virtuosity. It taught him an appreciation of nuance and being able to take direction.
"Frank built music by any means necessary," explained Vai. "He would come in with written stuff and say, ‘Play this!’ Or he would pick up the guitar and cryptically play through something… He’d sing something to you. Any means necessary just to get the point across, and you just had to be ready.”