It’s one thing to learn the guitar, but it’s another to master it beyond human comprehension.
But that's exactly what Steve Vai has achieved since he first picked up the six-stringed instrument in the early '70s – establishing a legacy which has critics and musicians universally agreeing that Vai is one of the greatest at his trade of all time.
Of course, even virtuosos have to start somewhere, and Vai revealed his humble beginnings as a guitarist and that fateful moment when lightning struck and his ambitions were realised.
“I was five years old and this kid [who] was perhaps eight came to school with an electric guitar and was strumming and playing it,” he explains. “I was stunned, had an epiphany and immediately fell madly in love with the instrument.
“I was shy and never thought I would be any good, and was perhaps afraid of being criticised or didn’t think I was good enough to even play. But then one day when I was around 12 years old I heard 'Led Zeppelin II' and that was it.”
Vai would be taught some of his most valuable lessons as a guitarist at the age of 12 by Joe Satriani – a like-minded contemporary who even back then encompassed a wealth of knowledge he was able to share with Steve.
“I was given many guitar lessons by Joe, on and off for three years. There was a tremendous amount of information and technique I learned from him. Joe was always great, even when he was 15. Perhaps the thing about Joe that left the biggest impression on me was that everything Joe played, even if it was just a scale or finger exercise, sounded like music. It was like every note was sacred.”
Despite having released eight albums since his recording career officially began in 1984, sold more than 15 million records worldwide and won three Grammy Awards, Vai says that even he is still learning more about his instrument of choice.
“I don’t think we ever stop learning, whether it looks that way or not,” he says. “How could we? We are never the same people from one moment to the next. I’m constantly inspired to write and play music. It’s quite a life blessing.”
Vai has also collaborated and shared the stage with a smorgasbord of artists, ranging from Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth to Alice Cooper. However, Vai says his favorite musical partnership happened before he even knew how to play the guitar.
“There are things that I’ve learned and enjoyed from every artist I ever worked with but my favorite collaboration was when I was eight years old and in a band with my younger sister Lillian. It was just her and myself. I played the bongos and she actually played a little guitar with one string on it, but we banged on anything that made noise and deeply loved every minute of it.”
Perhaps jamming with his sister was most satisfying because not only was it one of his first tastes of playing music, but also because it was before Vai was introduced to the unkind beast that is the recording industry.
“It was total freedom without any worries or cares. We didn’t have to think about what was going to come out of us, it just came out and we shared that creative energy with each other unquestionably and unconditionally.
“We never fought, and were not concerned if our songs were good enough, how we were going to get them recorded, how we were going to get a record deal, if they would make enough money for us to live on, if our music was going to be accepted and if people were going to like us or not.”
With all things said and done, Vai has some simple pointers for all the budding virtuosos out there.
“If you’re interested in being a virtuoso, it’s easy. Just practice all the time and don’t think of anything else, but enjoy the process because going through it is all the fun.”
Steve Vai Plays Qpac’s Concert Hall Tuesday July 16. To win tickets to the show, click here.