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 Leading up to BRIDGE Festival, we step -together with Niels Guns (journalist; guitar freak; storyteller)- into the world of guitars, guitarists, guitar music and guitar gear. Niels touches the sensitive chord with tantalizing background stories and hands-on interviews, in the series 'Guns about Guitars'.

A crash course Steve Vai

Steve Vai, headlining BRIDGE Festival on Saturday, May 13, is a great innovator of the guitar. For nearly fifty years he has been stretching the limits of his instrument. Using a few concrete examples, Niels Guns explains a few "inventions" and surprising approaches in Vai's playing that will hopefully give you a “quick course” in Vai.

 By Niels Guns


‘Talking’ through his guitar

The Jazz Discharge Party Hats (‘impossible guitar parts’ Frank Zappa) / Yankee Rose (conversation with David Lee Roth) / The Audience is Listening (Passion and Warfare) 

"In the search for what can be done with a guitar, Vai manages to find incredible human intonation. Nobody can talk through his guitar like Steve Vai. Or shout, whisper and sing: Vai makes his instrument sound incredibly human. Frank Zappa caught on to that, too, when he had the young Vai dub some of his monologues by his young star guitarist in the early 1980s. It eventually resulted in The Jazz Discharge Party Hats and The Radio is Broken, songs on which Vai knew exactly how to find the tones of Zappa's voice. That's not so easy. When we talk, we don't always do it exactly on the beat or on the whole tone. It takes a very open approach to your instrument to be able to imitate it. Like no other, Vai embraces dissonant sounds and dares to emphasize them precisely. Later, Vai perfected the technique of "speaking with his guitar," which you can hear, for example, in "conversations" with David Lee Roth in Yankee Rose or The Audience is Listening on Passion and Warfare. That human intonation weathered into more than a gimmick and is deeply ingrained in the now 62-year-old American's playing. When you hear one note from his guitar, you immediately know who you're dealing with."

Embracing mistakes

Blue Powder (Passion and Warfare) starting from 0min45 

“Every guitarist experiences it from time to time: you press a string just a little too fanatically and the thing flops right over the neck resulting in a terrible sound. It is perhaps exactly the kind of 'mistake' Vai talked about in the anecdote about magnifying mistakes in order to use them to your advantage. After about 45 seconds on Blue Powder, you hear a few odd high notes where Vai deliberately pulls the strings over the edge of his neck. In this way, he is actually mastering the 'mistake' and incorporating it beautifully into the ballad.”

Impossible notes

Frank (The Ultra Zone) starting from 3min36

"As I wrote above: something innovative happens on every new Vai album. The first time I heard the song Frank (indeed named after his great teacher Frank Zappa) on The Ultra Zone, I rewound the CD after three minutes and 36 seconds. And again. And again. "How does he do that?", I heard myself say out loud after hearing a note that he gradually drops and dies out in a bizarre way. As if the sound breathes its last in a few breaths. The answer to that question lies in the way Vai controls his tremolo like no other. Or abuses it, it depends on how you look at it. Vai uses the thing all over the place. Sometimes he lifts his instrument on it, resulting in a bizarre screech. But somehow -probably through endless practice- Vai manages to ensure that those sounds never come off ugly."

‘Joint Shifting’

Candle Power (Inviolate) starting from 1min18

"Also on Vai's latest studio album Inviolate is another novelty. When he wrote the song Candle Power, he set out to do something completely different. No pick, no distortion and the song had to contain a new technique. So he came up with a way to press several strings simultaneously: joint shifting. A few strings up, the other strings down. In other words: an idiotic bone-breaker of which it is first of all crazy that you think it up and even more crazy that you can perform it. Every guitarist knows that your guitar detunes slightly when you press one string. Pressing several other strings simultaneously creates a kind of counter-pressure that undoes the dissonance. The way Vai did this on Candle Power is completely new. It gives that typical alienating Vai sound that makes you think for a moment, “Hey, what am I hearing? Only to realize moments later, that you are listening to Steve Vai Himself, the man who refuses to resign himself to the fact that his instrument has already given away all its secrets. His fingers hurt throughout when he came up with the new technique, he said in an explanation of the song. Something that is, of course, super cool: inventing something that has never been done before. In doing so, he said he hoped other guitarists would take the technique and use it in an even wackier way. Something I haven't heard past as of yet.”


Renewal of the guitar itself

"Not only is Vai innovative in guitar playing and composing, he also plays an important role in the development of the instrument itself. No, he was not the first to play a seven-string guitar. Guitarists in the Middle Ages were already doing that, as were jazz guitarists in the first half of the last century. But it was the Ibanez UV7, a signature model for Vai, that was first produced on a large scale. And that caused guitar music by other artists like Korn to sound a lot "heavier" in Vai's slipstream because of the extra added low B string.

There are a few more interesting novelties that Vai was involved with, such as the "Monkey Grip," a handle that makes it easier to pick up a guitar for a moment. Or the magnetic backplate that ensures you don't have to screw endlessly to change a few strings.

Admittedly, sometimes Vai flies off the handle, too, when it comes to innovation of the instrument itself. The Hydra, for example, is a monster of a guitar: an instrument with four necks. A harp, seven-string, fretless bass and guitar all in one. And a thing that any physical therapist would probably be head-shaking at watching his guitar-playing potential patient put it on."

Quest as a composer

“Ever since his early childhood, Vai has been interested in musicals like West Side Story and other orchestral music. In his younger years, when he played as a 'stunt guitarist' with Frank Zappa, that predilection was only fueled. We are lucky in this respect in the Netherlands, by the way. Other orchestral excursions, such as with the Noord Nederlands Orkest and the Metropole Orkest (with whom he is now also playing at the Muziekgebouw), also took place in the Low Countries. During BRIDGE Festival we will get to hear new orchestral work. This again promises to be full of different influences and surprises. Because even as a composer of orchestral music, Vai has by no means reached his limits.”

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