Funny thing about rock guitarists: the more skill they have, the less seriously some people take them. While violinists, drummers and pianists are applauded for their technical proficiency, virtuosos of the electric guitar are often seen as the musical equivalent of overly musclebound bodybuilders.
As one of the fastest, flashiest axe-slingers alive, Steve Vai has learned to take the flak with the flattery. “What one individual sees as moving and inspiring in one performer, another may see as a form of total wankery,” offers Vai, who was aptly billed as a “stunt guitarist” during his days as a member of Frank Zappa’s band. “I’ve been the subject of it all, from ‘America’s best-kept secret musical genius’ to ‘His parents should have been neutered.’ After a while you just stop paying attention, and while critics are trying to figure it out, you just keep creating.”
Vai’s newest creation is The Story of Light, the second installment in a trilogy of concept albums titled Real Illusions. With its wealth of over-the-top instrumental acrobatics, the album will do little to change the opinions of Vai’s worshippers or his detractors. One of the most innovative tunes is “Gravity Storm,” in which the guitarist mimics the sound of tremolo bar dives by way of disciplined pre-bends and releases. Vai says he still finds it challenging to execute this song’s exacting double-stop bends (notes played on two adjacent strings that are bent simultaneously). “I only nail the double-stop bends half the time when I perform them,” he admits. “Oddly enough, because of what comes before it and after it, those double-stop bends are one of the more difficult things I ever tried to do on the guitar. It’s like holding up a 30-pound weight with one hand and a five-pound weight with the other and then trying to fly.”
Another standout track from The Story of Light is “John the Revelator,” a hard rock remake of a gospel-blues traditional first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson. Listeners who remember the 1986 movie Crossroads will instantly be reminded of Vai’s role in that film as the ego-driven Jack Butler, who traded his soul for blazing guitar chops and worldly glories.
As it turns out, the believability of Vai’s Crossroads performance was no accident. “Jack Butler was a real guy, but I didn’t even realize how my ego came in the back door and led me into a dirty black hole I almost did not escape from,” the guitarist states. Between his overnight rise to fame as a member of David Lee Roth’s band, the added exposure from Crossroads and his subsequent acceptance of a rumored $1 million offer to record and tour with the hair metal band Whitesnake, the ’80s found Vai possessed by what he calls “a blinding sense of superiority that felt perversely good.” As he explains, “There’s a perverse sense of empowerment one can have when you don’t care about anything or anyone. But it eventually will consume you. You become what you think—the universe will see to that.”
Just as the well-intentioned, down-to-earth Eugene Martone ultimately dethroned Jack Butler in Crossroads, the gentler aspects of Vai’s nature triumphed over his dark side in the end. “Frankly, most mental suffering is due to the ego,” he muses. “The ego will eventually crack, and some light can come through.”
In Vai’s experience, this is when artists can do some of their best work. “I believe we all have some kind of special gift or clarity for something that feels very natural and exciting to us,” he notes. “It could be the simplest little thing that we don’t even see because the insatiable appetite of the ego feels like it needs to do something that is grand, or change the world, or rule the world. We need to allow ourselves to get out of the way enough for the inspiration to arise. And oddly enough, it’s when people do just this that their creations have a tendency to be outstanding and exceptional.”
Steve Vai plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $30/adv, $34/door. For more information, call 423-1338.