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.”

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