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Steve Vai

"When I'm playing, and I'm in the moment of just sitting and playing, there's a lot of freedom in my head, and melodies. I love when I just play and the first thing that comes to mind just comes out. It's very liberating." In this episode, Ernie Ball artist Steve Vai discusses his influences, his history with playing guitar, and his Ernie Ball strings.

Transcript

Steve Vai:
When I'm playing and I'm just in the moment of just sitting and playing, there's a lot of freedom in my head and melodies, I love when I just play and the first thing that comes to mind just comes out, you know? And it's very liberating.

Steve Vai:
I was very young when I first kind of woke up to music. I think I was like four or five. I remember I walked up to a piano and I hit a note and music just became clear to me, you know, the process of creating music. When I was about seven or eight I think, I saw a young boy playing the guitar in my school and I walked into the auditorium and he was like nine or 10, when you're seven or eight, somebody that's nine or 10 is like a God, especially if they have a guitar. That was a very powerful moment. It was like a moment of clarity because I just saw it and I just, everything kind of went away. I just saw this guitar hanging off of this young kid and immediately fell in love with it. I just instinctively understood what it was. It was like it was always there, but I didn't find it until then. And as soon as I saw the instrument, there was an immediate connection.

Steve Vai:
When I was 12 my sister came home with Led Zeppelin II and the moment that I heard Heartbreaker, the fantasy of playing the guitar, it switched from wishing that I had a guitar to desiring to play one to right at that moment when I heard that, the intention was solid and I said, "I'm going to play the guitar." And I had a friend that had a guitar that he never played and it was one of those Tesco Del Rey's, you know? And it was hanging on the wall in his bedroom and I bought it for five bucks and that was it. I mean, that guitar, I did everything with it. You know, they say, "Oh, I used to sleep with my guitar." Every night it was in the bed, but I'm not really natural at playing an instrument oddly enough. I had to work really hard at the guitar.

Steve Vai:
There was a music store in Roosevelt Field, which was the big mall at the time where I lived and that was called Matthews Music. And I would just go in there and drool, you know, just ogle it all, the guitars and all the little accessories and everything. And I was 12 years old and that's when I bought my first pack of strings and they were Ernie Ball strings. There are certain things that always represented the higher quality things in the business. A Les Paul, a Strat, DiMarzio pickups, you know what I mean? As a kid, like those things have a mystique and Ernie Ball strings was at the top of that because they were just cool, there was something about them. So that's what I bought. And they were expensive for me because they weren't cheap strings, but I got them anyway, you know, I would save and I'd get them. And the first time I got them I didn't even know how to put them on. I took them to Joe Satriani and he showed me how to do it.

Steve Vai:
The gauges haven't really changed. I'm basically a nine through 42 guy. Sometimes I go heavier on the low end. It's based on how long I've been on tour because you can sit and play in your room all day, but when you get hit the deck, everything changes, just the way you play. So after a little while, my fingers get real strong, they get more powerful when I'm on tour. So I like to have a little more fight. So I might move to some heavier, lower ends but I usually stay at the nines on the top.

Steve Vai:
When you're a musician or in any field, there's two basic levels of understanding and creating your craft. One of them is the technical side, the technique, and in any field there's a period where you have to kind of own up and get some technique. Now for someone like Allan Holdsworth, his desire for having a particular technique to get his point across was different than Kurt Cobain's. They're both valid because they're both individuals that have a particular message. So there's the technical side, and for a musician and guitar player, it could be years of honing your craft to get the technical side together. But then at some point you have to go deeper than the technique, you have to get in touch with your instincts, your musical instincts.

Steve Vai:
And people say someone like Kurt Cobain wasn't a great guitar player. Well, was he a virtuoso guitar player? You can argue not. But was he effective? Try to play like Kurt Cobain, it's not that easy, you know? Or Billy Joe Armstrong, I mean do you ever see him play? It's visceral. Every note in every chord pops. Do you know what I mean? It sounds like a a giant orchestra, that's hard to do, but it was in his head and he required a particular technique, amount of technique to follow what he was hearing in his head. For someone like myself, I wanted it all. You know, I wanted effortless, what seemed almost infinite technique. I still work on it every day and I wanted the deeper, I wanted the melody. So for me it required a lot of technique.

Steve Vai:
I never made the decision to be a musician. Do you know what I mean? Because if there was a situation where I was going to make a decision that would have meant there was an option and I never felt like there was an option. Everything that has come to me in my career really came to me. I didn't go out and look, all's I did was follow the one thing that was most thrilling and exciting to me and that was creating music when a new idea came up.

Steve Vai:
No concern about the future really, and the future took care of itself beautifully, better than I could've ever possibly orchestrated. Find what you love and throw yourself into it and the rest will take care of itself. Now I know that sounds cliche and almost impossible to believe, but that's what happened to me. And like I say, it doesn't mean that you don't go out and kind of put your feelers out for things you'd like to do. But frankly, nothing that I looked to do except for the music ever really turned out with as much of a surprise and a delight in it as the stuff that just came seemingly out of nowhere.

Steve Vai:
One of the greatest fulfillments that you can experience is when you touch your creative side and whatever you bring into the world is enjoyable for you. And that's very fulfilling. So the guitar has been that for me. Other things too, but the guitar, most of all, I've always viewed it as a instrument of infinite creative expression.

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