In the Grammy Award-winning guitarist Steve Vai’s early days, he played major arenas and embarked on recording projects with a myriad of high-profile artists. His seemingly meandering professional path led Vai to the precise place he longed for: releasing what just might be his best work yet, an LP entitled Inviolate.
He’s in the midst of a North American tour in support of the release, and on Oct. 22, this legendary axeman will bring his superb career-spanning full-band show to the Charleston Music Hall.
For such a huge talent, Vai is refreshingly humble about his rise to the big league.
“I was born in New York, on Long Island in 1960 and had a wonderful childhood there,” Vai said. “The music that first lit me up was actually the stuff that my parents had brought into the home. I vividly remember getting a hold of the soundtrack to West Side Story, and that really turned me onto the concept and the creative process of composing.”
Vai told the City Paper that later in the 1970s his attention turned to the music of Deep Purple, Queen, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, among others. Vai was so entranced by those all-consuming sounds that he wanted to find a way into that world. As such, he began playing the guitar himself around the age of 12.
Vai’s development was then nurtured and encouraged by his first teacher, who is another guitarist of note, named Joe Satrioni. “He just happened to live close by,” Vai recalled. “We became great friends. He was a little bit older than me and so he became my mentor for all of my high school years.”
Next, Vai attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He said he enjoyed this experience but his studies quickly got derailed by a job offer he couldn’t refuse. “I was communicating with Frank Zappa,” Vai said. “Frank initially thought I was too young for his band, but he agreed to hire me as a [music] transcriptionist.”
At first Vai diligently carried out this task from afar, but he soon found himself moving to California when his part-time work expanded into a full-time role as Zappa’s so-called “stunt guitarist” who could pull off particularly impossible guitar sequences.
Vai never finished his formal education or looked back. As Vai explains, “The reason people go to Berklee to begin with is to get a gig like the one I got with Frank, so I didn’t see the point of sticking around for a degree.”
That’s not to say that Vai’s learning had come to an end. “I was like a sponge trying to absorb everything I could, and Frank was like an explosion of freedom,” Vai said. “Frank would get a creative idea and just execute it. He never made excuses. He just did whatever he wanted. Seeing that approach was huge for me.”
This big breakthrough gave way to Vai’s long run as a gun-for-hire guitarist for the duration of the 1980s. At the height of his fame, Vai was making the scene and topping the charts with acts such as Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, to name a few.
In fact, at the time, Vai was even cast to portray the devil’s own guitarist of choice in the 1986 film Crossroads, which starred Ralph Macchio and was based loosely on the dark mythology surrounding the rise and fall of bluesman Robert Johnson.
For all of the fun and fandom that went along with it, the successes and excesses of that decadent decade gave way to some serious introspection on Vai’s part. According to Vai, that is why, from the 1990s onward, his (mostly) solo work has taken on a more meaningful, less commercial tone.
These days, with many well-received records and an assortment of industry accolades to his credit, Vai is completely comfortable in his own shoes, and still insistent upon walking in the direction he feels most called at any given time.
For more details and ticket info for the Oct. 22 show, visit charlestonmusichall.com.
Love Best of Charleston?
Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.