Steve Vai warns touring is so expensive now “you are lucky to break even”

Steve Vai
(Image credit: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

Steve Vai has warned that the costs of touring have spiralled and that bands are lucky if they can break even, confessing that his 2022 European tour in support of Inviolate was the “most challenging” tour he has put together.

The Inviolate Tour Europe was Vai’s first in six years, and speaking to Meltdown on his Talkin’ Rock show on Detroit radio station 101WRIF – a conversation in which he confessed to owning around 200 electric guitars, with 15 per cent of his collection "lost in the wind" – Vai described a post-Covid touring landscape as “kinda deranged”, in which there were bus shortages, support shortages and rising expenses. 

Things are getting better, said Vai, but the bottom line is not what it used to be, and the financial challenges of putting a tour together are causing even larger acts to shorten their schedules.

“Trying to get out on tour after Covid was incredibly difficult for musicians, because everything was kinda deranged,” he said. “You couldn’t get a bus. Buses sat for tour years, and you can’t do that. All the bus drivers went to drive trucks, so we didn’t have bus drivers. You couldn’t get gear. You couldn’t get help. And it was real difficult. The European tour I did was the most challenging tour I ever done, but we got through it. Now things are getting oiled. Things are starting to come back together nicely.”

Vai was speaking in support of his new album, Vai/Gash, an album he recorded with the late Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto on vocals, which was finally released last week after it had sat on the shelf for 25 years. Gash and Vai were close friends who bonded over biker culture and a shared love of Harley Davidson motorcycles. 

I have a lot of friends who are cancelling, big bands, because they just can’t get the numbers to balance

Around 1990, Vai wanted to write a straight-up rock album to soundtrack bike rides, and Sombrotto, who had no previous experience as a frontman, turned out to have the perfect voice for the material. 

“Something in me wanted to get him in the studio and see how he would belt over these biker type songs I had demoed, but nothing could have prepared me for the voice that came out of his mouth,” recalled Vai in a statement. “I had to think, off course he sounds like that because that’s him, confident, authentic, fearless but with a light-hearted intention. This was the voice I wanted to hear wailing over these slamming rock tracks. I was stunned.”

Around that time, Vai was working on Sex And Religion and never had the time to finish it, intending to return to it later in the decade. After Gash died in a motorcycle accident in 1998, Vai sat on the material indefinitely.

“I just became so disheartened I threw the whole thing on the shelf for 25 more years,” he told Talkin’ Rock, revealing how one of the eight tracks they recorded was co-written with Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe

As for touring, Vai is going to be spending the rest of 2023 on the road, returning to Europe in March before heading to Mexico and South America, then across Asia, India and through into Africa. “I am fortunate,” he said. “Tickets just went on sale and remarkably there are gigs selling out in one day, and that is a nice surprise.”

And maybe those advance sales are mission-critical, too, because the financial realities Vai talks about for touring musicians are squeezing them at both ends. Acts can afford slow sales when the margins are so slim.

“It’s remarkable,” Vai said. “Before you do a tour, you get all the gigs, the guarantees, you look at what your bottom line is, and it has changed, brother. First of all, unfortunately, the promoters and stuff are challenged in [being able to] pay what they used to pay, and it is just so much more expensive. The buses, and the fuel, and shipping gear to Europe? Oh my god! I couldn’t believe it. You are lucky if you break even. I have a lot of friends who are cancelling, big bands, because they just can’t get the numbers to balance.”

Fiscal challenges or not, Vai’s tour schedule is crammed for 2023, and yes, he is taking the Hydra on the road with him. Head over to the Steve Vai website for full dates. 

Vai/Gash is out now on CD via Favored Nations/Mascot Label Group, with a vinyl release to follow on 24 February. 

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.