ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 25, 1997
By Steve Newton
On the cover of his Grammy-nominated Alien Love Secrets CD, Steve Vai strikes a pose while covered in metallic-blue body paint. He’s got his hands over his face and is peering out from between fingers that are so long, you’d think one of those multilimbed creatures from Alien had implanted itself on his noggin. It makes you wonder if having monstrous digits like that has helped much in his becoming one of today’s true rock-guitar virtuosos.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, for me it’s a blessing,” says Vai, contacted under the curious pseudonym “Mr. Lasher” at a Rochester, New York, hotel. “Because I love my long fingers; I think they’re real elegant. I’m very lanky—I’ve got long feet and long fingers and long arms and…you know. But as far as playin’ the guitar, I don’t know if it’s helped me. Sometimes it’s a hindrance, you know, because there are certain things I’d like to do but my fingers are just too long. They take too long to move from one thing to another ’cause they’re so big.”
Anyone who’s seen or heard Vai burning up the frets would be hard-pressed to believe that the 37-year-old guitarist gets slowed down by much of anything. His elongated mitts certainly haven’t hurt his recognition by the likes of venerable Joe Satriani, who made Vai the number one choice to accompany him on the historic G3 tour, which visits the Plaza of Nations on Friday (September 26). Satriani probably felt that Vai’s mighty hands held promise when he started giving him—along with the likes of Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Primus’s Larry LaLonde—guitar lessons in the ’70s.
“When I was a kid, Joe was like the great guitar player in town,” says Vai, “and I started with lessons from him—I mean, I went to him with a pack of strings and a guitar. He was always very special, and he had an air of musicality to him that was unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Although he acquired some early professional experience as a sideman for Frank Zappa—to whom he pays tribute during the G3 jam on Zappa’s “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama”—most rock fans became aware of Vai when he appeared as the tall, dark, and semicrazed guitar flinger in David Lee Roth’s 1986 “Yankee Rose” video. As much as Roth’s patented hog-in-heat howl, Vai’s scorching guitar work helped win acclaim for the former Van Halen frontman in the finest hour of his since-sunk solo career. (The fact that Roth’s band at that time was rounded out by onetime Satriani drummer Gregg Bissonette and bass god Billy Sheehan didn’t hurt either.)
The easily bored Vai didn’t stay in the Roth camp for long, though, and in the last spandex days of the ’80s, he was seen cavorting onstage as a touring member of Whitesnake. Considering how he’d honed his talents with Zappa, Vai seemed to be seriously slumming as his advanced licks accompanied vacuous crotch-rock ditties such as “Slide It In”. Although his own solo albums have proven popular enough to move more than 2.5 million copies, Vai still enjoys the status of a musician’s musician, so how does he view his previous mercenary role as a hired gun for rock stars?
“In any situation that anybody looks back on,” he says, “there’s things that they have fond memories of and things that are, you know, terrifying. There are things that I regret, but for the most part I had great times. You know, touring with David Lee Roth was an experience unto itself, which rock bands these days just don’t get to experience.”
One of Vai’s more recent forays into the commercial hard-rock world saw him conspiring with another of metal’s fading wild men, Ozzy Osbourne. Vai cowrote the song “My Little Man” on Ozzy’s latest album, Ozzmosis, and even though the legendary bat biter can hardly sing anymore, Vai claims that he’s still a fun guy to be around.
“When I was workin’ with Ozzy, hangin’ out with him, it was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had with anybody,” he declares. “He’s really a unique caricature, and to see him in his element is quite amusing. He’s a real special guy. I mean, he’s Ozzy, you know!”
Some highlights of Vai’s wide-ranging career include his performance as the devil’s guitar player in Walter Hill’s 1986 blues movie, Crossroads. This time last year, he performed his original scores for guitar and 60-piece orchestra in a collaboration with conductor-composer Joel Thorne, and in ’94 he won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance for his work on the critically acclaimed Zappa’s Universe.
The man Zappa once dubbed “my little Italian virtuoso” is also proud of his previous project with Vancouver musician Devin Townsend, who sang on Vai’s Sex & Religion CD of 1993 and performed with him at the Commodore around that time. Townsend has since gone on to form his own industrial-thrash recording act, Strapping Young Lad.
“Devin was a lotta fun to work with,” says Vai, “and he’s an incredibly talented kid. I mean he’s really, really talented, and when you get somebody that talented, you can’t hold ’em down. It’s like putting a wild bird in a cage, you know. They gotta fly.”