Birthday greetings go out today to guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who’s hyper-fast, impeccable taste, and flexibility on his instrument have not only solidified him as one of the greats of the 1980s, when he gave one Frank Zappa a new musical shingle to build his long and storied career on, but it also solidified Vai as one of the greatest guitar players of all time.
Born on June 6th, 1960, it’s even more spellbinding when you realize that Vai is only 52 years old today; he’s had a Grammy-winning career that seems to have spanned generations and lifetimes. He started playing guitar at the age of 13; a year later, he was mentored and taught by another guitar virtuoso, Joe Satriani. Vai’s influences were the A-listers of rock and roll: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Brian May (Queen), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Glen Buxton (Alice Cooper band), and even jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
While attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Vai had done a transcription of the legendary Frank Zappa (a mean guitar player in his own right) track “The Black Page,” from Zappa’s 1976 tour de force album Zoot Allures. He also did an instrumental for drums, and played guitar as well, and sent the entire package to Zappa in 1979. Zappa’s response was so positive, he hired him immediately to do transcriptions for his then current album Joe’s Garage and the ensuing Shut Up and Play Your Guitar series. The transcriptions were published a few years later in a book entitled The Frank Zappa Guitar Book. All this led to Vai performing guitar overdubs on Zappa’s 1981 release You Are What You Is, and Vai eventually became Zappa’s full-time lead player, being coined in the liner notes of Zappa records quite correctly as the one who played “impossible guitar parts.” In tours that followed, Vai would challenge audience members to bring musical scores to see if he could sight-read them on the spot. The eclecticism of the legend of Steve Vai was beginning to take shape.
After leaving Zappa in 1982 and moving to California, his first solo album, entitled Flex-able, was released. Vai then became a musical jack-of-all-trades; he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen as the lead guitarist for Graham Bonnet’s Alcatrazz; played on Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth’s first two solo albums Eat Em and Smile and Skyscraper, (in which Vai popularized a sound of his guitar that emulated “talking,” most evident on Roth’s hit “Yankee Rose” from Eat Em and Smile) and was in Whitesnake for a spell and played on Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid record.
In 1990, Vai released his second solo album Passion and Warfare, and stunningly performed more “impossible guitar parts” on the release (in particular a track called “For the Love of God” which was recorded in one take). The record was critically acclaimed and ultimately elevated his acclaim even more. A few years later he was part of the original G3 concert series, created by Joe Satriani and featuring Satriani, Vai, and Eric Johnson. Vai continues to play today, still making the oft appearance on someone’s album, releasing a new solo album every so often (he’s released eight to date), still touring, and still firmly affixed in the musical public eye.
Vai remains and continues to be a standout in an ocean of many great guitar players, a trailblazer for sure who spanned genres and musical moods and shades and continues to craft and reshape new roads with his influence, passion, and breathtaking approach on his respective instrument, components which are the ingredients for any successful artist in any genre of art. Happy Birthday, Steve Vai!