Guitar God Steve Vai
This winter, Steve Vai joins Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson on what has to be a dream triple-bill concert for guitar enthusiasts. On one stage, fans will see arguably the three most acclaimed rock guitarists of the post-'80s generation, players who together have brought instrumental guitar music back to the forefront of the rock scene.But Vai hopes the tour, dubbed G-3 (or Guitar-3), will be viewed as more than an on-stage showcase for guitar fireworks, or some in-person clinic for guitar aficionados."I hope it transcends just the guitar audience because there's great musical, theatrical entertainment at this concert," Vai said. "Don't be fooled into thinking it's just for guitar heads because it's real music and it's a different form of entertainment than you'll see anyplace else."That Vai would want the G-3 tour to be seen in a broader context makes sense when he talks about his own priorities in record making.Vai, who first came into prominence in 1979 as Frank Zappa's 18-year-old whiz-kid guitarist, clearly wants to be known as more than a player. And perhaps more than his other solo CDs (Passion And Warfare, Sex And Religion and Alien Love Secrets) Fire Garden gives him the forum to showcase other skills -- such as composition, and for the first time, his own lead vocals.That's not to say listeners won't find plenty of incendiary playing, not to mention some of the most outrageously fun guitar tones you'll hear on any record this year. But the quality of the songwriting on Fire Garden establishes once and for all that Vai's talents extend far beyond a guitar fretboard.Time and again, songs like "There's A Fire In The House," "Little Alligator," "Blowfish" and "The Crying Machine" stand out not only for the quality of the playing, but also for the appeal of the melodies, their dynamic changes in tempo and texture and the sheer emotional force the songs evoke.Especially impressive is "Fire Garden Suite," a 12-minute composition that is the centerpiece of the new CD. It features four separate movements, each with a distinctly different attitude and atmosphere."The 'Fire Garden Suite' the entire thing, the concept was there immediately," Vai said, discussing the origins of the song. "I knew I wanted four movements and I wanted the first one to be a certain way and I wanted to play it on electric guitar, and the second one I knew I wanted to play it on sitar, and I wanted the third movement to be acoustic guitar and piano. And I knew exactly how I wanted it to be and how the themes would interact. I even knew how to execute it. But actually doing it is so time consuming and work intensive. It's not like a jam session. Anything that resembles a jam session in that piece of music is purely coincidental."It's more focused on composition, I suppose," Vai elaborated. "And I just really enjoy doing that. I had to force myself to make that only 13 minutes, because I can just go on and on and on like that. But it's a side of me that I'm capable of doing so I figure do it. It's very rewarding to listen to it."As a vocalist, Vai -- while not exactly the second coming of Pavoratti -- isn't too shabby either. Seven of the CD's 17 songs -- virtually the second half of the CD -- are vocal tunes, and Vai displays a solid and expressive voice.Vai admits, however, that deciding to do his own vocals was a bit scary and it took a lot of work -- he studied for a time with vocal coach Warren Veridian."Well there wasn't much (about singing) that appealed to me because it's not an easy task for me," Vai said."But when it's there and it's happening, I really enjoy it. When my voice is there and it's in range and the melody is in the range, and I know what I want to say has a point to it, everything goes away except making that point. And I'm so immature as a singer really, I'm very young at it, and as a lyricist and all that stuff. But it's just another avenue of expression for me. I just felt it was about time. I know I have a long way to go and that I can improve because I've only just begun really. But we'll just have to see how it goes."Part of the reason Vai decided to handle his own vocals involved the obstacles he's faced in working with other vocalists. In effect, it was just simpler for him to do the singing himself."It's not a hard time in the sense that you think. It's not like oh, this guy is a bummer, he won't do what I want, and this guy is an asshole and we fight," Vai said. "It's not like that at all. It's like this. Music is such a gift to be able to perform and be able to listen to...I mean, music is real precious to me, and the experience of making it and communicating to people with it and working with people on it is just precious. And if I'm working with somebody who's unhappy because of certain things, it makes me unhappy, and that's why I say it's hard. It's not hard because I don't make it a comfortable environment or I'm a jerk or anything like that. I mean, I can be a prick, don't get me wrong. But if somebody else is like God, do I got to sit here and do this shit with this guy? That's hard for me. And for me to find people who are totally know what I'm into, know what I like, feel like they contribute -- because what they contribute is right up the alley, they feel totally on the same wavelength -- then I've found a life-long partner. I haven't found that person yet and I don't have time to go look for them. So I'm doing it myself. My arms are open wide, though."Always one of rock's busiest artists -- since his five-year stint as Zappa's guitarist, he's recorded and toured with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, made his four solo records and also contributed to several soundtracks -- Vai has been active on other fronts over the past year or so.In September, he joined a 60-piece orchestra for a performance in Rochester, New York that featured orchestrated versions of some of his music. Initially Vai intended to compose new music for the project, but between the Fire Garden project and plans for the G-3 tour, he ran out of time."I'm shooting to compose it after the G-3 tour, if I have time before I go to Europe," Vai said, noting he has had other offers from orchestras to do similar concerts. "It takes a solid month of 10-hour days."Also in the midst of the Fire Garden project, Vai spent three months writing songs with former Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne. Only one of the songs from that session was used -- "My Little Man" appears on Osbourne's recent Ozzmosis CD. But Vai was thrilled by the experience."What came out of it was our experience together, which was worth more to me than any songs that we wrote," Vai said. "And we wrote some great stuff. He used one of the songs. But I have a whole shelf full of stuff that's really great. But there were some politics involved with the record companies and what not that made it, it didn't really make sense for us to do a whole record at that time. But hanging out with Ozzy was one of the most, it was a moment in my life that I'll just cherish and look back on with the fondest memories because A, I was a huge fan when I was a kid, I mean a huge fan. And for me to sit there with the guy and the thing that amazes me, I've been with all these major league singers, and sometimes it was so hard to just walk on the egg shells. But with Ozzy, it was just fun. It really was just fun. I didn't have to walk on egg shells. You could say whatever you want, and he just was filled with great stories. He's a special guy, he really is. He's totally special. He's so out of his mind and cool. He's just cool."