When the Jets and the Sharks rumbled for control of their New York City neighborhood, a young Steve Vai watched in awe. Tony’s love affair with Maria, the sister of a rival gang member, ended tragically, but it spawned one of the greatest guitarists in modern history.
“That just nailed me,” Vai says of the movie West Side Story. “It had everything in it that I loved: theater, drama, story, incredible musicianship, songwriting, and composition.”
Before Vai, now 58, ever picked up a guitar, he was composing — a 7-year-old child prodigy spurred by the passion of one of the most emotive musicals of all time. “Some of the first memories I have are the realization of the infinite creative nature of
At the age of 12, he began studying under the indelible Joe Satriani. Vai went on to play with the likes of Frank Zappa, Motörhead, Meat Loaf, and Whitesnake.
Vai is now touring with guitar-god supergroup Generation Axe, made up of Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi, and Vai. The five will shred the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood Monday, December 10, with their unique style of largely instrumental, intricately technical rock.
“There is one backing band and five crazy guitar players,” Vai says of Generation Axe, in which each guitarist plays by himself and in various combinations with the others. “So you’ve got these five beautiful, distorted guitars playing in lush harmony.”
Generation Axe is more a project than a group. Each member is an accomplished solo artist, but they all get together periodically to tour. The music leans toward heavy metal, sometimes with rapid, complex shredding and other times with prolonged, impassioned interludes.
Generation Axe has never made a studio album, but Vai says he hopes to soon. In the meantime, a live album — Generation Axe: The Guitars That Destroyed the World, Live in China — will be released in the coming weeks.
“It is outstanding,” Vai says of the record, which he mixed and produced from recordings of last year’s Asian tour. “You talk about favorite achievements? I’m always having them.”
Listing Vai’s accolades would take pages. A few include three Grammys, the 2012 Les Paul Award, and 16 “Best Of” awards from Guitar Player.
Though Vai is primarily lauded as a rock guitarist, he created some of his best work for symphony orchestras, such as the mind-blowing nine-and-a-half-minute “For the Love of God,” from his 1990 album, Passion and Warfare.
“I probably have five or six symphonies sitting on the shelf, and I’m planning on a huge studio orchestra project in Europe in 2020 to probably record all that material,” he says.
Despite long days in the studio, Vai doesn’t consider his status as a musician his most important role in life. “I’ve always been interested in esoteric principles and spiritual writings,” he says. “I have spent my whole life reading and practicing and trying to get closer to the self.”
Vai says “the self” is the part of each person that is connected to the universe, at peace, and unafraid. “When I was very young, I was afraid of being famous because I was under the impression that if you become famous, you go insane,” he says of the fear he developed from a story his aunt told him.
The incident deeply affected Vai, who went on to spend the better part of his life studying spirituality. He is a huge fan of the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and is reading Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles for the fourth time. “The message is aimed at a complete reversal of the way we think,” Vai says of the book. “That has had a profound impact on me and what I focus on.”
Through his studies, Vai says he has been liberated from the worries of his youth. “Fears are just an illusion,” he says. “They are thoughts in the head that don’t really exist.”
Vai finds solace in his beliefs, even when people are sometimes less than kind to him. “It’s easy to say in your mind that it’s fine... but to actually see what it would feel like to be completely OK with people who don’t resonate with you?” he says. “That’s big, and there is incredible freedom in that.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone hating a guy who has entire internet pages devoted to tattoos of his likeness. In fact, from his face to his guitar to his logo, images of Vai grace the bodies of thousands of adoring fans.
The adulation does not seem to affect the musician, who remains humbled by his spirituality. Asked about his crowning achievements, he is more grateful than proud. He says he is fortunate to have been blessed with “the quirky uniqueness of my musical inner vision” and sees all people as equally capable in their own ways.
Even so, there is one
Vai says he leads a surprisingly simple, drama-free life: working out, going to the movies, stealing the covers from his wife. He even finds time to get his fingers sticky and do something good for the environment. “I’ve got the little girls out back now,” he says of the two beehives he tends in his California backyard. “I used to have seven colonies, and one year I got 620 pounds of honey. Friends got honey for years.”
Though Vai is apt to understate his influence on legions of wannabe guitar gods, there will always be fans who so revere his musical genius that they proudly ink his face permanently onto their skin. Still, Vai remains unaffected. He is thoughtful and reflective as he explains his appreciation for those who find value in what he calls his “crazy musical meanderings.”
“When you’re you, you have a completely different perspective of you than anybody else, and my perspective of me, more and more, is to be simple,” he says. “Be friendly and be creative, and just try your best to be a blessing in the world.”
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