“He had this mystique to die for. There were rumours of him being nasty and mean. But he could play his ass off”: Steve Vai salutes the genius of Ritchie Blackmore

A portrait of Steve Vai and a photo of Ritchie Blackmore performing live
(Image credit: Future/Fin Costello/Redferns)

Steve Vai might not play like Ritchie Blackmore, but the US six-string wizard is one of the few guitarists whose reputation matches that of the former Deep Purple legend – in fact, the latter once called Vai his favourite guitarist. In 2012, Vai – a member of the extended Purple family, thanks to his time in Whitesnake alongside former Mk III line-up singer David Coverdale – contributed a blazing version of Highway Star to Re-Machined: A Tribute to Deep Purple's Machine Head, marking the 40th anniversary of Purple’s iconic sixth album, Machine Head. At the time, Classic Rock spoke to Vai about his love of the British rock pioneers, Blackmore’s unique mystique and how to take a classic song into “another dimension”.

How did you get involved with the Re-Machined tribute album?

I get offers to do these kind of records all the time and I usually don’t do them. They’re usually done really badly and just slapped together. But I knew the people who approached me about Deep Purple, and I know that they do great work. Then, when they told me the other artists that were doing it, I felt like it was a real tribute. 

Is Highway Star one of your favourite Deep Purple songs?

When they told me I was going to be doing Highway Star, I was like, ‘Oh my god, how cool. I have to do this.’ What I didn’t know is that there are two versions of Highway Star on the album. What was funny was that I was talking to my buddy Joe Satriani, and he goes, ‘Yeah man, there’s this Deep Purple tribute record and we [Satriani’s supergroup Chickenfoot] did Highway Star.’ And I said, ‘That’s funny, because I was just recently approached to do Highway Star for a Deep Purple tribute record too. Obviously it’s not the same thing, because why would they have two versions of Highway Star?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we just got in under the wire and recorded it live.’

Have you heard Chickenfoot’s take on the song?

Yeah. It really is fantastic. And then I was told, ‘Yeah, this is the same record and they want two versions.’ I said, ‘Why would you want two versions of the same iconic song?’ and they said, ‘Just for that very reason.’ It seems Highway Star is the most beloved Deep Purple song and not as I thought Smoke On The Water. This is what they told me.

What were you aiming for in your version of Highway Star?

I really wanted to take it to a different dimension, not a better one, because how can you do something better than what Ritchie Blackmore did? I wanted to take an interesting artistic approach and it is in no way meant to be disrespectful.

Were you a big Deep Purple fan when you were growing up?

Yes, of course, very, very much so. Ritchie Blackmore and that band were one of the important cornerstones of my youth and I am still very much a huge Deep Purple fan.

Do you remember when you first heard Machine Head?

It was one of the first records I heard. Yogi Bear And Friends, The Mothers Of Invention’s Freak Out! and Machine Head. My brother had it. He had Who Do We Think We Are too on cassette and it just nailed me. I listened to Rat Bat Blue and Woman From Tokyo over and over. It was so beautiful, so when he got Machine Head after it, I was all over it. 

What do you admire about Ritchie Blackmore’s playing?

His confidence. His control. His vibrato. His tone. His ‘Give me whatever, I’m gonna make it sound great’ attitude. His ‘devil may care, this is what I do, go fuck yourself’ attitude. When I was a kid, he created this mystique to die for. There were these rumours of him being really nasty and mean. I shouldn’t say nasty and mean, maybe just difficult with the press. Then you watch him on the California Jam festival, and he’s smashing his guitar into the camera. But he could just play his ass off. His intonation was stunning and when he bent a note, it just sounded great. 

What is it about Deep Purple’s music that endures? Why are we still talking about the band and Machine Head today?

They’ve got good songs, they have an authentic core to them, and there was a chemistry between all the guys in the band. And they were all being honest with what they wanted to do. You don’t get the impression that anybody in that band’s mind was someplace else. 

Which Steve Vai song would you like to hear Deep Purple cover?

I wouldn’t ever want to put them through that kind of torture.

Perhaps they wouldn’t consider it torture?  

I tell you what, I’ll write one specifically for them.

Originally published in Classic Rock Presents Re-Machined: A Tribute To Deep Purple’s Machine Head

Kevin Murphy is a writer, journalist and presenter who's written for the Daily Telegraph, Independent On Sunday, Sounds, Record Mirror, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Noise, Select and Event. He's also written about film for Empire, Total Film and Directors Guild of America Magazine.