Steve Vai on his long fingers, long feet, long arms, and…“you know”



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 one-time 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.”

To hear the audio of my 1990 interview with Steve Vai subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman of the Guess Who, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Alex Van Halen, 1995
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

…with hundreds more to come

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