The Roth Journals

A Conversation with Steve Vai

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Mike Ragogna: Steve, you and Berklee are trying to set a record in Guinness by attempting to teach as many guitarists online as possible within a single lesson. How're you going to pull that off?

Steve Vai: Well, believe it or not, I don't do drugs. (laughs) I don't know how it came about, it's more or less for the promotion of the online class that's being taught at Berklee. When I graduated from high school, I went to the Berklee College of Music, I really enjoyed it. Through the years, I've been in contact with them on various things. They kicked off these online music lessons for virtually anything, you can go to Berklee and take these classes on all sorts of things about music. They are really great because you can be anywhere in the world--you sign in, the classes hold twenty people and have an instructor. It's very interactive...they wanted to develop these classes that were more specific to the techniques of artists. So, they approached me and I liked the idea because I always like teaching, I'm also a big proponent of music education.

I went to Boston and recorded an entire day of videos based on my experiences and the things I think are important. The way I approach teaching is more esoterically. So, they chopped all up and created these classes, it's over one semester, you can sign up and there is an instructor and they watch a video of me and they discuss it and they talk about the things I talk about. Once a semester, I go online and participate in the class and do a Q&A. They launched this in September and it did wildly well. In order to promote the class, the marketing geniuses came up with this idea, "Hey let's get Steve to create the biggest online live guitar lesson in history."

My first question was, "Did anybody ever do this before and is there actually a record?" You can make a record for anything, like I'm going to see how many pieces of Juicy Fruit bubble gum I can stick in my's not that easy. If you're seriously attempting to set the record or create some kind of a record, they send their minions and they examine it and they set parameters and you have to reach them. It became kind of a quirky little idea, and frankly, I think it's going to be a really great class. One of the reasons is because Nigel Tufnel did a commercial for it.

MR: Can you go into how the course is offered?

SV: Well, there are two basic things--one is the online course that you can sign up for, it's twelve sessions in a semester and I'm the only one that's filmed for it. The other is this thing happening Thursday which is a one time free online guitar lesson with me. I only have thirty minutes, so I have to blast people through a lot of stuff. There are just a few things that you can understand (about) the guitar, and you can just pick up an instrument and start banging stuff out. I've discovered that everybody wants to play the guitar, and if they don't, they are lying.

MR: Also, one dollar is donated for every person that takes the class online.

SV: Yeah, and God knows we don't know how many people we are going to get. Out of my Facebook friends, I'm at like 800,000 or something.

MR: What the hell, amazing. How'd you get that many?

SV: I've had that account for quite some time. I've never checked it, my web guys put it together. Then, when I started to look at it I thought, "This is very brilliant," then I started participating and posting stuff. It's great because it's a conduit to people who are interested in what you're doing. So, it just grew in one year about a half a million's just growing like crazy, it's fun. It's one of those things that technology is offering that is vital to independent artists and people who are looking to communicate.

MR: Okay, since we're kind of in this territory already, so what advice do you have for new artists?

SV: You see, I'm really against teaching my techniques necessarily because it doesn't matter. My techniques are me, and people who are interested in knowing what I do and playing like me, that's fine and great. (But) people want to discover their own self on the instrument, they want to do their own thing. They want to play all different kinds of songs or just find themselves. It's called "Steve Vai's Techniques," the class, but in reality, I show various ways that I do things, and I'm always encouraging people to discover themselves and to find the thing they are most interested in. It may have nothing to do with what I do on the guitar. So the way I like to teach is all encompassing, it's not from the bottom looking out, it's from the top looking down. When I'm speaking to somebody that's interested in playing the guitar, a good teacher tries to identify with the goals of the student, he helps cultivate those goals and the right path to discover them. That's what I try to do. It's not like, "Sign up here and play like Steve Vai" or "Watch this online guitar lesson and learn how Steve does stuff." There is a small minority of people that I think want to do that, but there are a lot of people that want to play the guitar. There are just a few principles that I've discovered through 32 years of being a touring musician and making records that I think can be helpful.

MR: That boils down to saying you have to find your own inner artist.

SV: I think you have to find your own inner goal, that's number one. What is it that you want to do? You have to know that; a lot of people don't know that. They know that they want to play, but a lot of people are just very apprehensive to play because of insecurities or they think they aren't good enough. The truth is it's because of the thinking, that's what I approach more. If I was going to give any one piece of advice, I would say try and discover what it is that excites you the most about playing an instrument. Visualize that, set some goals, and take it step by step. There's no way you can't achieve it, you just have to keep the excitement and stay excited about it. Nothing can stop you.

MR: Of course, people know you from your solo work, but you've also played with Zappa, Whitesnake, Joe Satriani, and many others. And Joe was your teacher as well as a colleague, right?

SV: Yeah, Joe and I grew up in the same town on Long Island. He was about three or four years older than me. He could really play, he was THE teacher in the town. My guitar lessons were sacred.

MR: You also came to the attention of Frank Zappa in an interesting way.

SV: Yeah, I was a big Frank fan. I got his phone number through this guy that stole a Rolodex from this recording studio in New York City, and it had all of these rock star numbers. Frank's was in there and I called his house.

MR: And he was fine with that?

SV: Well, it took me four years to get a hold of him. I didn't want to call a lot, and the first time I called, I think I was fifteen or something. His wife answered and she was very nice. I said, "You know what, I'm just a fan and I'm really sorry and I want to know if I could talk to Frank." She was very nice and said, "Well he's on tour, call back in 6 months."

MR: Any memories of Whitesnake?

SV: Well you can imagine how cool it must have been in the '80s to be in it and David Lee Roth bands. We were out there playing to 20 or 30 thousand people a night, living the life. It was a rock star scenario and I really enjoyed it. I played that rock star card for about five years and it was great fun. I can't even began to tell you all of the ecutrements, but I knew that I was going through it that it was relatively fleeting and it wasn't really how I wanted to create my catalog of music. That was really the thing that was most compelling to me, creating a unique catalog of music.

MR: You've also contributed tracks such as "For The Love Of God" and "Halo Theme" to Guitar Hero 3.

SV: Yeah, I have a bunch of tracks on a bunch of those games.

MR: Plus you did an "Experience Hendrix" tour.

SV: That was great last year, and I've also just committed to doing six more shows in May.

MR: What are you playing these days, what's your favorite guitar?

SV: I designed a guitar 25 years ago for Ibanez. It's called The Jem, and it's been wildly successful. It's the guitar I've been playing all this time because it's all of my idiosyncrasies.

MR: Is there a follow up course after this one at Berklee?

SV: There are no plans for that right now, but you never know. Eventually, I would like to build my own curriculum for my own teaching scenario. For right now, this Berklee class is a wonderful alternative.

(transcribed by Theo Shier)

Mike Ragogna
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