Born: 1960, Carle Place, New York
While many musicians fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai’s unique musical vision remains unclassifiable. After more than 35 years, Vai continues to use unbridled guitar virtuosity and soulful artistry to explore the spectrum of human emotion.
Vai first stepped into the spotlight in 1980 as a guitarist in Frank Zappa’s band. But Vai’s indelible contribution to music came during his solo career, which includes combined sales of nearly six million albums. His debut – Flex-Able (1984, self-released) – set the stage for Vai’s most influential and best-selling album – Passion and Warfare (1990, Relativity). The album expanded the lexicon of rock guitar and ushered in an era of guitar virtuosos in the early ’90s. From Flex-Able to his most recent Modern Primitive (2016, Epic), Vai creates a sound all his own by striking a balance between technical ability and poetic phrasing.
That obsession with running down the voodoo in his head remains the guiding force behind Vai’s ongoing musical evolution and what he loves most about being a musician. His desire to break new ground led Vai to a special performance with the 100-piece Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra this past summer in Japan. Together they performed a concerto for electric guitar called “Fire Strings” composed by distinguished Japanese composer and concert pianist Ichiro Nodaira. Learning the 20 minutes of raging, atonal electric guitar was the most demanding challenge of Vai’s career.
Growing up on Led Zeppelin and progressive rock, Vai has always had a penchant for the conceptual side of rock. While many of his albums revolve around a specific thematic axis, Vai considers Alive in an Ultra World (2001, Epic) the high point of his conceptual efforts. He wrote, rehearsed and recorded the music for the two-disc set, a contender for one of the most ambitious live albums ever recorded, during a 32-country world tour. Each song is dedicated to a different country – Bulgaria, Spain, and Romania to name a few – and reflects the flavor of each country’s indigenous music. Alive in an Ultra World includes “Whispering a Prayer (Song for Ireland),” which earned Vai his sixth Grammy nomination to go along with his 1991 Grammy win for best rock instrumental performance for his version of Frank Zappa’s “Sofa” on the live Zappa tribute album, Zappa’s Universe. In total Vai has 15 Grammy nominations and 3 wins.
In addition to his work as a guitarist, Vai is also a composer, beekeeper, founder of the record label Favored Nations, and cofounder of the Make a Noise Foundation, which donates to a variety of vital causes. He has also served as a trustee on the board of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Grammy organization.
“For the Love of God” on Passion and Warfare (1990)Steve Vai (Relativity/Epic Records)
“The Attitude Song” on Sound Theories, Vol. 1 (2012)Steve Vai, Metropole Orchestra (Favored Nations)