“We could do anything we wanted with our hair and our clothes in front of tens of thousands of people. We were gods!”: how guitar legend Steve Vai survived Whitesnake

Steve Vai holding a guitar and David Coverdale with massive hair
(Image credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Ross Marino/Getty Images)

The transformation of Whitesnake from acclaimed British blues rockers into big-haired MTV darlings was one of the more unlikely success stories of the 1980s. But after the multi-million selling 1987 album – aka Whitesnake – mainman David Coverdale was forced to recruit a new guitarist. Enter former David Lee Roth sideman and six-string god Steve Vai. In this classic 2011 interview, Vai looked back on his time as a ’Snake, and his role in 1989’s divisive Slip Of The Tongue album.

It’s always difficult to see what’s behind a mountain, and even the things in front of it tend to get overlooked because of the massive eye-drawing majesty of the monument itself. Whitesnake’s massive 1987 album was a mountainous collection that overshadowed everything else in the Whitesnake canon and most of the surrounding releases as well. They had to invent new numbers to measure how many copies it sold. In the wake of 1987’s stratospheric success, this band were welcomed into rock‘s superstar bracket. 

But far from enjoying his laurels on Olympus, mainman David Coverdale was keen to exploit his deification and wanted to write and record a new album with all speed. But even gods have problems and in 1988 Vivian Campbell left Whitesnake with what was to become infamous acrimony. Coverdale even told Classic Rock scribe Dave Ling: “I honestly don’t think Vivian Campbell would know artistic freedom if it bit him on the private parts.”

The injury to the insult was sustained by guitarist Adrian Vandenberg whose wrist issues left him almost unable to play and in constant agony doing so. Enter one of the world’s most iconic guitarists, Steve Vai, who was fresh from the David Lee Roth band.

“At that time in the 80s when rock bands like that were very popular, record labels were signing anyone that had that sound and the right hairdo,” explains Steve Vai, reflecting on his experience of Whitesnake before joining. “But like all genres it was only a small percentage of the stuff being released that was truly authentic, inspired and sincere. 

“When that Whitesnake album [1987] came out, it just levelled the field. It had a huge impact on the industry. It was great music and it was played with attitude and it ruled radio and MTV for all the right reasons: it was very authentic and very passionate… I mean, come on, it was David Coverdale! He’s just miles above the pantomime rock crowd.”

Coverdale came from the gentrified lineage of British rockers Deep Purple, which carried cache in America. That said, it wasn’t the blues rock and white soul of pre-87 ’Snake that captured the US imagination (and libido). But while singles from the album stormed the charts, many grumbled about the Americanisation, selling-out and hair-metal bandwagon-hopping of the band. It seems that Steve wasn’t a voice in that backlash…

“It was very appropriate for David to blow up like that with Whitesnake,” he says. “Being from Deep Purple and that very English rock movement in the 70s was a rich tradition. After Ian Gillan left Deep Purple people thought, what’s gonna happen next? But then Burn and Stormbringer came out and were very well-received in the US. And he’s no poser or faker! He really had the goods! There’s no way he was going to go away [after Deep Purple].”

Steve Vai with David Lee Roth

Steve Vai with former employer David Lee Roth (Image credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Far from flipping through the ‘usual suspects’ rolodex of hired-gun guitarists, Coverdale had noticed Vai not from his recent stint with the DLR band (and his mind-boggling guitar-work on tracks like Yankee Rose) but from a movie starring Ralph Macchio (AKA The Karate Kid), Crossroads. The infamous duel scene can still be viewed on YouTube, where Ralph and Steve have a blues-style shred battle. It’s not hard to see why David was so impressed.

Steve – who was initially taught guitar by eminent shred peer Joe Satriani – cut his teeth with Frank Zappa before playing in Graham Bonnet’s Alcatrazz and then David Lee Roth’s solo band after he left Van Halen. And so Coverdale punched in Steve’s number…

“When I heard from David, I was immediately interested because it was Whitesnake,” he remembers. “The music has integrity, it wasn’t just about hair. I thought I could contribute if given the opportunity, I just wasn’t sure what the new music was going to sound like...”

But as it happened the music was all already written. Adrian Vandenberg and Coverdale had written all of the songs for the album and the band planned to update 1980 hit Fool For Your Loving just as they had done on 1987 with 1982’s Here I Go Again.

“It turned out the music was all written and David approached me just to play the guitars. He has a particular passion level: if you talk to David about a song he’s almost like Freddie Mercury in how he gets so animated about it. He’ll throw his arms out and say, ‘It’s gotta have bollocks here!’” he says in an admirably Cov-like accent. “It’s really wonderful. And that’s what he’s listening for in his players. In some sense it was a bit of a crapshoot for him, because while I have certain blues sensibilities I’m not a classic blues-type player. But he thought it would work.”

And so the band headed into the studio to record Slip Of The Tongue.

“What was really wonderful about joining the band for me was that David gave me an empty pallet and just said, ‘Do whatever you want’. I think there were one of two songs where I just altered the chords a little bit, but for the most part I didn’t have to think about writing anything because they were all already written. I would listen to the tracks and I would imagine the guitar parts, then record them. I’d send the recordings to David and he would comment. As it turned out he pretty much liked everything. There was the odd change he wanted, but for the most part he liked everything I did. 

“The shock was probably from Adrian’s point of view because he had written these songs and he was probably hearing the guitars a particular way. He never intimated it to me, but I can only imagine that what I had done was nothing like what he expected. But he was very gracious.”

Whitesnake - Fool for Your Loving (Official Music Video) - YouTube Whitesnake - Fool for Your Loving (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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As with any piece of music that Steve touches, his guitar work is unmistakeable. While Adrian was a consummate hard-rock guitarist, Steve lent Slip Of The Tongue his inimitable style: the lilting, haunting eerie tones; the flaring and frenetic fills, and the awesomely intense solos.

“When I joined the band I didn’t know if his hand dilemma was an excuse or not,” proffers Vai. “But I discovered that it was a really serious situation: on tour he had a lot of trouble and had to soak his hand every day and so on. 

“Adrian’s a wonderful guy, we enjoyed playing together in the band. He was very respectful but it must’ve been extremely difficult for him, so I was very sensitive to what he wanted.”

Steve admits that he was initially against the idea of re-recording Fool For Your Loving but that A&R man John Kalodner insisted. In the end Vai worked up a lavish version of the song dripping in signature Vai histrionic fret-work, and while it impressed, a more restrained version was used in the final cut. 

“I think there was a flipside version called the ‘Vai Voltage’ mix that had all the crazy shit on it. In hindsight I think they made the right choice, at the time I was much more snooty about it. It’s always dangerous when you’re doing a hit song.”

The 1987-guise of Whitesnake had already suffered a backlash from many of the long-standing blues rock-loving faithful. But then songs from Trouble and Lovehunter hadn’t found themselves on the airwaves and TV like Is This Love. Yes the roots-rock minions were unhappy with the American line-up and subsequent sound, but the album had taken the band to another level. 

The blues fans were never going to be endeared to the sounds of Slip Of The Tongue but surely the people who loved Still Of The Night and Is This Love would be enamoured with the wonton sleaze of Cheap An’ Nasty and the pleading romance of Now You’re Gone

“A backlash to Slip Of The Tongue was to be expected because they were coming off the back of a record that sold 25 million copies!” he laughs. “It’s virtually impossible to avoid. For the most part, people liked it but there was criticism that I wasn’t a blues-rock guitar player – which some people were still expecting. I’m American and I’m quirky and I love blues, but I just don’t express it like that. I thought it was a pretty good match. I’m a little more animated than your average blues-rock player. The stuff I do is a little quirkier.”

It goes without saying that by this time the band were a fair distance from the bouncy rock, rhythm and blues of previous line-ups, but Vai’s playing added to the existing raunch and swagger with a hint of the unknown, the unpredictable and the possibly dangerous. The thrusting riff of Judgment Day and the aforementioned pinches and squeals of Kittens Got Claws add an apt animal chemistry; even the restrained opening notes of Fool For Your Loving amplified the melancholy of the original.

“Yeah,” reflects Steve. “Slip Of The Tongue is a great record, especially when you’re not seeing it in the shadow of the record that sold 10 times as many.”

Steve Vai onstage with Whitesnake in 1990

Steve Vai (right) onstage with Whitesnake in 1990 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Suitably impressed, David invited Steve to join the band as a full-time member for the coming tour, They played to ravenous and rapturous crowds all over the world and co-headlined the 1990 Monsters Of Rock festival (their third time appearing and second headlining). The band hit their peak as the 80s hair/sleaze/glam rock and metal scene was about to implode like a dying star. But no one was complaining.

“We could do anything we wanted with our hair and our clothes in front of tens of thousands of people. We were gods. The music was heavy and intense. But I knew it was fleeting.”

Steve had had a sound that was only in his head, but now it was on his own record, and people were loving that record. While Steve’s life was gathering pace, David’s was in troubled waters. After 10 months on the road David decided that Whitesnake would go on hiatus.

“David was going through a lot,” he says carefully. “You’d have to talk to him about the details... but he was saying, ‘I’m going to take a hiatus and when I re-form the band I don’t really know what it’s going to be.’”

David was in fact getting divorced from Tawny Kitaen his wife of only two years and star of more than one 1987-era Whitesnake music video. The band had been going for over 10 years and David had spent many years in Deep Purple, it was time for a rest.

Not only that but the 80s had come to a close: it was the end of LA supremacy and big hair. Sure the rising stars Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row had big hair but their music was infused with a punk and heavy-metal aggression respectively, a million miles from the glitter and spangles of hair heirs Poison and Warrant. The genre that sang of Satan, heavy metal itself was about to become a genuine beast as bands such as Megadeth, Metallica and Pantera were on the verge of handing in their dissertations on a new kind of sonic brutality that would take the whole world by storm. And to top it all off, grunge was waiting in the wings to vilify all the vices and excess – the very tenets of the 80s faith – that the decade had celebrated. It seemed like fans wanted anything but what the 80s had given them. The writing was all over that wall. Maybe David’s rest had been well-timed.

Whitesnake - Now You're Gone (Official Music Video) - YouTube Whitesnake - Now You're Gone (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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Cut loose, David disappeared from the public eye. The remains of the then WS line-up took some time off but rejoined to release an eponymous record under the moniker Manic Eden in 1994 with Ron Young, singer of the band Little Caesar.

Out of sight, but not out of mind, David was soon back at music and had teamed up with Jimmy Page for a very different kind of album, Coverdale And Page. Its more roots, blues and soul feel led to much speculation about what really happened at the end of the Slip Of The Tongue-era and what led to the demise of Whitesnake…

“Sometimes people think that because there was a lead singer and a guitar player that there’s some sort of animosity,” explains Steve. “It wasn’t like that at all.

“I got to watch him on stage every night and he’s just extraordinary: he never made excuses, he just got up there and sang his ass off night after night. And offstage he was a perfect gentleman. He’s great to be around.”

Slip Of The Tongue charted at number 10 in both the US and UK charts and has gone on to sell over a million copies since. The album also birthed hits in the title track, The Deeper The Love, Now You’re Gone and Fool For Your Loving. Again. Just as David has admitted having a newfound appreciation of the record, so many have discovered and rediscovered the album as a great collection of hard-rock songwriting delivered with the passion David so valued. So Steve, did you ever accidentally call him Dave?

“I made that mistake once…” Vai says smiling. “He was very nice to me about it, but he did let me know that that was not his name…”

Originally published in Classic Rock Present: Whitenake