There’s not much about the electric guitar that confounds Steve Vai. He is the player who made his bones playing with Frank Zappa, the man David Lee Roth reached out to when he needed the best player in the world whose name wasn’t Eddie Van Halen to launch his solo career.
And with albums such as Passion And Warfare, Vai set the template for aesthetically bold and inventive instrumental guitar. But in a new interview with My Global Mind, the Grammy-winning virtuoso explained how there were some six-string feats beyond anyone, and that is playing the guitar in the same fashion as Yngwie Malmsteen.
When asked about his performance of Highway Star from the 2019 all-star jam Generation Axe, which was later released as a live album and saw him share the stage with Zakk Wylde, Tosin Abasi, Nuno Bettencourt, Vai said that his approach to covering the Deep Purple standard with Malmsteen required a different approach.
Indeed, it required being himself because, as Vai admits, no one can touch Malmsteen when it comes to hyper-kinetic neoclassical guitar.
“I can’t play like Yngwie; nobody can play like him,” said Vai. “What I did was take the harmony or melody of the song and play it the way I would do it. It was challenging because there were a lot of little fast runs with his fingerings and his tonal center, which is different than mine.”
Vai said it took work to get the part together, but one of the biggest lessons from the Generation Axe tour was that the competition was limited to each playing being the best they could be.
“Nobody can play like me. Nobody can play like anybody,” said Vai. “As to playing against each other, I’m Steve, and he is Yngwie. That is one of the greatest things about that tour; they are all extremely confident in what they do. They don’t compete with you at what you do.
“What happens is it forces us to compete with ourselves to be the best we can be. Zakk is being Zakk as best as he ever can be. We are all helping each other to push all sorts of aspects of being professional to stage appearance to communication to playing to off-stage etiquette.”
When MusicRadar spoke to Malmsteen in July 2021, he never mentioned anything about his playing style being difficult for the other artists to contend with, but the Swedish shred god’s legendary backline of Marshall stacks was another matter. Describing the sound as “an uncontrollable fucking elephant”, Malmsteen said his stage volume from his guitar amplifiers could be a chastening experience for the uninitiated.
“I play extremely loud but that is also part of the sound,” said Malmsteen. “When I did a tour with Generation Axe, and we were all playing together, Tosin Abasi always stands in front of my amps when we played together, and he has never done that before because he is younger.
“He has always used the Fractals and stuff like that. He said, ‘Dude! Your sound is fucking physical, man! It’s like… a physical thing, man. What the fuck!?” [Laughs] I said, ‘Yep, that’s what it is!’ [Laughs] That’s why I turn it away from myself!”
Asked if he would do another Generation Axe tour, Vai sounded as though he was up for it, but maintained that finding the space in people’s schedules was the biggest obstacle.
Vai also spoke about the design and development of his triple-necked Hydra guitar, and revealed that it was inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road.
“There was this one scene where they are going through the desert, and a guy is on the front of a truck with this wild-looking guitar bouncing around,” said Vai. “I thought that was cool, and it inspired me to create a guitar with three necks and harp strings.”
Vai worked with Ibanez’s design team at Hoshino to develop the ultimate steampunk guitar, a monster hybrid with three necks and two headstocks attached to the body.
With seven- and 12-string elements, a four-string bass sans headstock, sympathetic harp strings, half-fretless fingerboards plus a novel complement of electrics that includes single-coil, humbucking, piezo and sustainer pickups, plus phase splitters, and a combination of hardtail and tremolo bridges, the Hydra is a one-off.
And as soon as Vai took receipt of it, he wrote Teeth Of The Hydra – the track that opens his latest album, Inviolate, which will be released on 28 January through Favored Nations.