Steve Vai: 8 songs that changed my life

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Steve Vai has a well-deserved reputation as one of the great modern rock guitarists. But the thoughtful New York-born musician is convinced that his magnum opus is still to come.

“Over the next year and a half I’m looking to make three records that are different to anything I’ve ever done,” he reveals. “I’ve been seeing in my mind’s eye an evolution in my playing, imagining things that I can’t yet do and documenting them visually in my head. 

"I’m looking to make a deeper connection with the freedom of my creativity. There are certain physical limitations that enter your radar as you get older, so there’s no time to waste."

Educated at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Vai is one of the few classically-trained superstar guitarists, but he freely admits that his playing was shaped by songs on 12-inch vinyl. Here are eight tracks which have inspired his adventures in sound.


Leonard Bernstein: The Rumble (West Side Story Original Soundtrack, 1961)

"I was seven or eight years old when I first heard this and it completely captivated me. The story of the film is so powerful, dramatic and full of theatre, and when I heard the soundtrack I knew I wanted to be a composer. The Rumble is a real high-energy piece of music, and it moves so freely, not tied to a particular rhythm base or melodic structure, which I found inspiring. 

"My parents listened to Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Italian accordion music, comedy records, whatever, and those were all fine and good, but West Side Story is just a monolith."  

Sly And The Family Stone: Dance To The Music (Greatest Hits, 1970)

"This was the next record that had a huge impact on me. My older brother brought this home, and I loved the energy in it, and the melody and the groove: it sounded like a party. I listened to that record until I was blue in the face. And when I heard Dance To The Music live on the Woodstock festival eight track I loved it even more, because that was my introduction to capturing the excitement and energy of live music." 

Elton John: Burn Down The Mission (Tumbleweed Connection, 1970)

"This album had an incredible impact on me. When I was very young I had this very traumatic experience where myself and two other boys were playing on the railroad tracks, and one of the kids threw some metal pieces on the rail, trying to get them to ignite, and one did, burning him severely. 

"I was in a real state of anxiety and shock at the time, but then I discovered Tumbleweed Connection and totally immersed myself in it. It got me through one of the most challenging psychological periods in my life."  

Led Zeppelin: Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

"Hearing my sister Pam’s copy of Led Zeppelin II was the defining moment in me wanting to play guitar. That record was my everything. I’d always thought that a guitar was this untouchable, beautiful thing that I was unworthy of holding, but as soon as I heard the solo on Heartbreaker, something shifted in me, and I thought, I don’t care about my insecurities, I’m playing the guitar. 

"I bought a Teisco Del Rey guitar from a friend for $5 and started learning, and everything Jimmy Page represented was everything I wanted to be." 

Queen: Ogre Battle (Queen II, 1974)

"Ogre Battle is heavy in the most sublime way. There was a kid called John who lived a few houses from me and he introduced me to Queen at a point where I believed that Led Zeppelin was the only music in the world. After I heard Queen II, Brian May became my god, and I studied everything about his playing. 

"A few years later, when I was playing with Frank Zappa, I walked into the Rainbow bar in Los Angeles and he was standing at the bar. He was so kind and engaging, and he invited me to a Queen rehearsal the next day. 

"It was so surreal. I looked at his guitar, and I was like, Is that the actual Red Special? And he said, “Yeah, wanna try it?” So I picked up that guitar, and played through his rig, and to my chagrin, I did not sound like Brian May at all! What Queen did can never and will never be replicated, because together those four musicians were a unique force of nature." 

Frank Zappa: Inca Roads (One Size Fits All, 1975)

"One Size Fits All was another paradigm shift for me. Inca Roads was just the most fabulous piece of heaven I’d ever heard, it had everything that I was ever looking for in music. The guitar solo is one of the greatest guitar solos ever played by anyone, ever. 

"To get to play with Frank was beyond a fantasy for me. When I was 16 I accidentally came across his phone number, and starting calling him… and I was 18 before he actually picked up the phone. Luckily for me he was in a good mood! He has such a vast catalogue and it’s full of brilliant music: every time he released a new record it became part of my musical DNA." 

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite Of Spring (The Great Stravinsky Ballets, 1972)

"Stravinsky wrote a lot of music over a number of years which sounded quite conventional, but when he wrote the three ballets, The Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite Of Spring, it was almost like he dropped acid. Because what he wrote was revolutionary in the pantheon of contemporary composition. It was so radically different, it broke every conventional rule of romantic classical music and caused a sensation. 

"It was as if a monolith appeared on the planet and everything in contemporary classical music was measured by that. When I listen to The Rite Of Spring what I hear is brutal freedom. To this day, nothing compares."  

Tom Waits: House Where Nobody Lives (on Mule Variations, 1999)

"Tom Waits is my favourite living artist. When I discovered his music it stopped me dead in my tracks. And the first record of his that I heard was Mule Variations. When I used to play with David Lee Roth he was a huge Tom Waits fan, that was the only artist I ever heard him talk about with reverence, and to be honest I didn’t know Tom’s music at all then. 

"When I was in Whitesnake we toured with a band called Bad English, whose singer was John Waite, and I got confused and thought, “Dave loves this guy?” Finally a friend who’s a complete music snob recommended Mule Variations and I realised it was a completely different artist! And that was the beginning of my love affair with Tom Waits. This song is so deep and so rich, pure art.

Steve Vai is on Patreon.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.