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Steve Vai recalls bonkers story of Vinnie Colaiuta sight-reading during Frank Zappa rehearsals

It’s well known that Frank Zappa’s band was a proving ground for would-be virtuosos. The band leader was a task master with a prolific compositional mind, and an output that was as challenging as it was stylistically eclectic.

During the 2019 NAMM Show, Zappa alumni Steve Vai and Vinnie Colaiuta joined The Sessions Panel hosts, Dom Famularo and Paul Quin to offer some advice and tell some anecdotes of their days playing with Frank Zappa.

The video above, recently uploaded to The Session Panels YouTube channel captures Steve Vai’s story which has become the stuff of legend, involving Vinnie’s sight-reading ability. It begins with a 20-year-old Vai moving to California to take-up his tenure in Zappa’s band.

“Vinnie was reputed to be this really great sight-reader, but Frank’s music - that’s a whole different world, you know.” the story begins. “Frank comes in with this piece of music called Mo 'N Herb’s Vacation and the drum part’s completely written out. Every step of the hi-hat…everything’s completely scored, with articulations and accents and everything.

“Vinnie’s sight-reading it. The tempo [of the song] is kind of slow, but the drum part and the melody is absolute insanity. The polyrhythmic, nested-tuplet stuff going on was like…17/3 with stuff inside of it. He’s sight reading it! Right? That’s bad enough.

“I’m watching him do this, and he did this one thing - I threw up my hands and said ‘That’s it’. Because I always wanted to be a great sight-reader, but when I saw this, I stopped.

“He’s got the music stand [to his right] and over here he has a little table, and there’s a plate, and there’s sushi on it. Now, when you’re reading music like this with these huge landscapes of polyrhythms you have to look at something - and this is being present. When Vinnie was looking at the music he wasn’t reading it, he was identifying it, like a mental snapshot - ‘Got it.’.

“So this beat is coming along and he plays one bar, 17/3. He gets a mental picture of it, and starts to turn the page. As he turns the page, his other limbs start reading what was on the previous page and right before he ended up finishing reading what was on the second page…he picked up the sushi and ate it in the middle of turning the page [while adjusting his glasses!]. And he didn’t miss a beat! Even Frank threw his baton!”

All-class, Colaiuta (who is sat next to Vai throughout), chimes-in with his own punchline, “Was it albacore? It was tamago I think.”

Stuart Williams
Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.