Steve Vai on cocky G3 tourmate Yngwie Malmsteen and tormented “genius” Devin Townsend



By Steve Newton

I was a tad taken aback when the press release came in announcing the lineup for Joe Satriani’s 2003 G3 Tour. It wasn’t a surprise to see long-time G3er (and former Satch student) Steve Vai’s name on the bill. But I didn’t expect to see Yngwie Malmsteen shaking out his perm; the Swedish metal maestro fell off my radar somewhere in the mid-’80s.

When I spread the news to the other music scribes in the Georgia Straight’s editorial department, my esteemed colleague and fellow guitar freak, Alex Varty, offered an uncharacteristically blunt assessment. “That’s a lot of notes!” he remarked, before the paper’s other semi-pro picker, John Lucas, had a chance to.

Malmsteen rocketed to guitar-god status in ’84 with the Rising Force album, which showcased his ability to play, at unfathomable speed, the kind of scales favoured by classical composers. But he also developed a reputation as a temperamental egomaniac. So when Vai rings in from his home studio in Encino, California, I feel compelled to bring up the latter topic.

“I’ve known Yngwie since he came to America,” he replies, “and I think that people are intimidated by his confidence. He’s so confident in what he does that maybe he comes off as cocky sometimes. I think to know Yngwie is to really, really like him, but to not know him is to think maybe he’s pretty self-centred.”

Vai has no quarrel with the assumption that there’ll be plenty of notes flying around at the Orpheum Theatre when the latest G3 configuration comes to town on Tuesday (October 14). All three featured guitarists will be set to shred, but it hasn’t always been that way. On the first G3 outing, in ’96, Satriani and Vai were joined by Texas Strat master Eric Johnson, who favours taste and tone over speed. Subsequent G3 tours have included Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Fripp, and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci.

“I’ve been fortunate in the sense that every musician that has come on board, besides being a gentleman, has been tremendously talented,” Vai notes. “You know, like with Eric Johnson, watching him play, his approach, his touch, his technique. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it more than John Petrucci, because they both offer completely and utterly different things, but both were valuable and inspirational to me.”

On previous G3 jaunts, guest guitarists have been invited to join the extended jam that always takes place when the trio of featured players finish their separate sets. So far, surprise appearances have been made by Journey’s Neal Schon, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Queen’s Brian May.

“Usually it’s an open invitation, whenever we get to a particular city, for any accomplished musician to come up and jam,” Vai relates. “I mean, there’s so many wonderful players out there. I’d love to see Jimmy Page and maybe Jeff Beck come up, people like that. And I think [Rage Against the Machine’s] Tom Morello would have a lotta fun if he came up with us.”

When the G3 tour hits the Orpheum, there’s a chance the evening’s guest will be local metal hero Devin Townsend. Before forming the internationally successful hardcore act Strapping Young Lad, Townsend was Vai’s singer and cowriter on the 1993 Sex & Religion CD. He can also rip it up on guitar, as Vancouverites discovered when the two traded licks at Vai’s Commodore Ballroom show in ’93. “Devin’s always invited to come up and play,” the lanky virtuoso states. “He is a genius, and I really reserve that phrase for special people. He’s a very tormented guy, in a way, and that reflects in his music. It’s unbelievably, brutally heavy, yet it’s tremendously melodious and enchanting.”

When not performing as part of G3, doing session work, and releasing solo albums, Vai concentrates on his role as president of the guitarist-oriented Favored Nations label, home to such primo players as Allan Holdsworth, Greg Koch, Tommy Emmanuel, Adrian Legg, and Marty Friedman.

“Labels are very complicated to run,” he says, “and there’s a lot of economics that need to be addressed. My partner and I started this label, not necessarily to make a lot of money, but to perform a service for the kinds of music that we like. I mean, I can’t criticize contemporary music unless I’m gonna try to do somethin’ about it. And Favored Nations is sort of my way of waking up every day and fighting that fight.”

Steve Vai sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On whether he’s ever attempted to play classical licks at breakneck speed the way current G3 tour mate Yngwie Malmsteen does. “No. I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what Yngwie does, amazingly. But for me to sit and play that kinda stuff, it’s been done, you know—and it’s been done by him. Why the fuck should I do it?”

On getting blown away by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons’s guest appearance on a previous G3 tour. “Lemme tell ya somethin’. I stood on that stage, flailing away, like I normally do. Joe [Satriani] was to the left of me, Billy Gibbons is to the right of me, and Billy played one note. I looked at Joe and our eyes were about as wide as an eight-year-old’s on Christmas morning. I mean, it sounded like a thousand-pound violin or something! He couldn’t play nearly as fast as me and Joe, but you know what? He just reeks of class and integrity, and that’s the kinda musician you want.”

On whether Gibbons’s economical approach made him question his own frenzied, 20-notes-a-second playing style. “I love what I do, and I don’t slow down for anybody.”

To hear the audio of my interviews with the legends of rock subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
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
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman of the Guess Who, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
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
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
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
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
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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