Steve Vai: the soundtrack of my life

Steve Vai holding two guitars
(Image credit: Larry DiMarzio)

In his 40-year career, guitar god Steve Vai has played ‘stunt guitar’ for Frank Zappa, was briefly in Alcatrazz, risen to stardom with David Lee Roth and been an unlikely member of Whitesnake

But it’s as a solo artist that he has really thrived, and his new album Inviolate is a pure hit of the quirky, virtuosic music with which he made his name. Steve Vai embarks on a mammoth European and US tour in June.


The first music I remember hearing

My parents’ Italian polka music. But the first thing I heard that struck me as something I actually wanted to listen to was the soundtrack to [cartoon show] Yogi Bear & Friends. My parents actually got me the record, and, wow!

The first song I performed live

Ziggy Stardust, at a high-school dance with my band Circus. It was our first show, I was thirteen and had only been playing for nine months. I was weak with nerves walking to the stage, but when I got up there, put on my guitar and started to play, I felt completely at home and started to get into it. 

At one point I’m doing The Star Spangled Banner, I throw a shape and my guitar strap breaks. I go down, my knee hits my wah-wah pedal into the treble position and my head’s completely in line with the speakers. I got this ice-pick-in-the-forehead-type feedback in my ear, and fainted.

The greatest album of all time

Bone Machine by Tom Waits [1992]. I can’t even explain it. It’s as raw and honest an expression of an artist as I’ve ever heard. Tom has this way of capturing atmospheres. With the lyrics, the sound of the tracks, the way he’s singing it… it all works together in an organic way that paints a picture unlike anything in pop music. Another one was Frank Zappa’s Overnite Sensation.

The guitar hero

Jimmy Page was my first real guitar hero. To me he’s still an absolute class act when it comes to arrangement, production, his touch on the instrument, his choice of notes, his construction of guitar parts. And his phrasing is so unique – you could play his riffs, but it doesn’t sound like him. 

But contemporarily there are a lot of great players I go to. I like people who are doing things unconsciously towards their career – they just have a compulsion to do something artistic, and that flows into their work. Yvette Young is a tremendously artistic person and I love watching what she’s doing on guitar these days. It’s not crazy virtuoso stuff, but it’s organic and honest.

The singer

When I was young it was Robert Plant, later it was Devin Townsend. And it was amazing to watch David Coverdale sing every night. He never missed a note. He just delivered. I could say the same about Dave Roth. 

These days? Harry Styles. My wife has great musical taste, and turns me on to music that my snobbery wouldn’t have allowed me to listen to. She’s been playing a lot of Harry Styles, and I really like it. I know he was in a boy band or something, but I just like the way the records sound.

The songwriter

Again, it’s Tom Waits. You can introduce the historic songwriters – Bob Dylan, all the well-known ones – to the picture, but in the end it’s totally subjective, it’s personal. But I love Tom’s songs. Ask me again another day and I’d have a different answer.

The best record I made

I know it’s not uncommon for an artist to say “My newest record!” but it’s good to feel good about your music – you’re supposed to, you know? Every time I’ve made a record, I’ve been really content with where I was at at that time. You’re always progressing and changing, always reinventing yourself, so it would be likely your latest work. And I’m just so jazzed about Inviolate.

My guilty pleasure

I was always quietly a big fan of Michael Jackson. Cut through all the stuff the world does to him, and the picture painted of him, whatever it is, take all of that away, and that man was connected. When he would get into a groove and a melody, and when you listen to the stunning background voices, the way he constructed them… Yeah, man!

The best live album

Mott The Hoople Live [1974]. When I listened to it as a kid, that record represented that live ‘aroma’, you know? The atmosphere of a concert. And the sound. It was the way the songs were delivered, the way Ian Hunter sang them and the sound of Ariel Bender’s guitar. It was back when nobody was trying to impress each other with how great they could play, but how good a band they can be. Mott the Hoople was just rock’n’roll, you can’t put any other name on it.

My Saturday night party song

Black Dog is still electrifying to me, but the one that evokes in me the most intense kind of musical feeling is Born To Be Wild. When I was a kid, all through high school, whenever my band would play that song, whatever bar we were in, all my friends would just start destroying the place. When I hear that song I’m sixteen again, standing on a table at a club.

The song I'd like played at my funeral

Me, my wife and boys – they’re twenty-nine and thirty-two now – we’re a really close family, and sometimes we discover records and the songs go into a different realm, they become ‘special to the family’. Over the last year we’ve adopted the band Ghost. Tobias [Forge], there’s another guy who’s really connected. So if you come to my funeral you might hear a Ghost record.

Steve Vai's Inviolate is out now.

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.