An Interview with Legendary Guitarist, Steve Vai

Kevin Keating
Steve Vai (Photo: Kevin Keating)
Steve Vai (Photo: Kevin Keating)
Generation Axe, the amalgamation of 5 of the greatest rock guitarists of our lifetime, returns to the Fox Theater this November (tickets here) for an encore performance! Trust us on this, the night of November 7th will be an absolute epic showcase of truly spectacular, technical guitar work that you just can't miss. We caught their last show over 2 years ago (review here), and can't wait for the return of Tosin Abasi, Nuno Bettencourt, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, and Steve Vai. Although possibly not household names among rock radio or the iTunes generation, each of these guys are (or have been) lead guitarists behind some of the most formidable rock bands or artists of the 80's, 90's and current day -- bands like Animals as Leaders, Whitesnake, Extreme, David Lee Roth, Ozzy Osbourne, and Frank Zappa. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to speak with the legendary Steve Vai a few weeks ago about what we can expect this time around, life on the road, and his fans around the world. You can find our full interview below and be sure to get your tickets to Generation Axe at the Fox before they sell out!

SFBayAreaConcerts: Steve, thanks so much for your time today.

Steve Vai: Thank you, thank you! And we’re absolutely thrilled to be performing up there.

SFBayAreaConcerts: The last time you played up here was at the Fox Theater with essentially the same line-up of musicians. We had a chance to speak with Nuno last time around who explained the structure of the evening and how each of you came together. I guess it’s safe to assume that you’ve had a blast with each other and why change something if it’s not broken? [Ed. note: you can find our interview with Nuno Bettencourt from 2016 here.]

Steve Vai: Right. We did that American tour and it went so well. We actually went to Asia and had a fantastic tour. Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan. It went so well that we wanted to keep it going. The momentum is good. And the biggest challenge with these tours is just getting everybody’s schedule together.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Well, it looks like this time around, you're replacing Matt Garstka on drums with JP Bouvet. How did that come about?

Steve Vai: Well, Matt is a tremendous drummer. And one of the biggest challenges in this show is finding the right drummer who can play Tosin’s material, which is pretty obtuse and complex but beautiful. But a lot of times, the brain muscles of the musician that can play that music isn't usually accompanied with what's needed to play rock music. You know? Slamming, rock and roll. And Matt is great. Matt held it down but it was a tremendously challenging position due to the amount of rehearsal, sound checks, very long sound checks, and very long intense shows. So that beats the heck out of a drummer and Matt started to develop some concerning issues with his hand. So he had to bow out of the tour. And he recommended JP.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Okay. Had you heard of JP before?

Steve Vai: No. He was one of these new kind of players that understand the really complex stuff but can also rock out, it’s very hard to find really.

SFBayAreaConcerts: I can imagine.

Steve Vai: Yeah, he just came in and just nailed it, just totally nailed it. We first tried sort of having a show with both of them, just kind of switch hit for some sets. But then, eventually that wasn’t working out as well. So JP took over. And Matt was a dutiful solder and unfortunately, he had to bow out.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Well, you've got some time before the tour actually kicks off. Are you playing around with the format of the show at all?

Steve Vai: Well, we don't want to come back and do the same show. We're looking at different ensemble songs perhaps and I'm switching up my set with different songs. And the overall experience that we're trying to achieve is not just crazy guitar. It's got some real nice moments, there are vocal moments. One of the highlights of this presentation in general is the way that we play some of these ensemble pieces together in 5-part guitar harmony. That’s been proving to work out really well. The lineup is the same. We really enjoyed touring with each other, like the tour is actually one of those things that when you're young, you kind of imagine it would be a really fun thing to do. And then you get into the business, you work hard and you go through your career. And every now and then, there’s like a little oasis that appears where a gig happens that's just easy. It's a piece of cake because everybody is grooving together and you don't have to do a whole show and everybody gets paid well.

It's good. It's really been fantastic. The only change I might make was, when we got to Asia, I put Yngwie on after me because he's such an intense player. After his set, it’s kind of lights out. The audience was pretty wailed. Because it's so intense and I thought for pacing that might work better and it did work better in Asia. Still fooling around with that for America.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Nuno described it last time as almost a relay race where you guys start out together and then break out for individual performances and pass the baton throughout the show before coming back together at the end. We were there at the show when you last played the Fox. We loved it. Is that essentially the same type of format where you'll start out the same with everybody on stage together to kick off the show then follow the same progression?

Steve Vai: Yeah, that's what we're shooting for. Yeah.

SFBayAreaConcerts: That's great.

Steve Vai: The format works great because when we opened with “Four Play”, it was a perfect opening number because it's got all that beautiful melody, it’s all harmonized and it gave us a chance to just come out with a bam. And then the show kind of kicks off after that with everybody's individual sets and grows through the show until we reach the climax, which on the last tour was “Highway Star”.

SFBayAreaConcerts: That’s great. So looking back at the last tour, do you have any specific highlights?

Steve Vai: The tour bus.

SFBayAreaConcerts: And is that what you're looking forward to out on this tour?

Steve Vai: Yes. Sorry, you can’t all be a part of it, but it certainly is an amazing experience because first of all, being out on the road, I love it. And these guys it’s their life. They know it well, they know how to balance everybody's vibration so to speak. And when we get in that tour bus, it’s like a club. It’s our own little club and the five of us, it’s not uncommon to be up until 6 or 7 in the morning on the bus just listening to music or talking, telling stories. I wake up in the morning with a sore mouth because I'm laughing so hard. We actually laugh incredibly hard for like hours. It’s just so much fun. But I know what you're saying, the stage highlights perhaps? And I think that when we come together and we’re playing in harmony together on things like “Frankenstein” or “Highway Star” or “Foreplay”, it's just a magic kind of feeling because you are connected to these guys on a very intimate musical level. It's a different kind of stage experience than if you're just up there soloing and playing melodies yourself or with a singer. You need to listen to each other very carefully and find that melodic space in between everybody’s notes. We nailed that and it's just so uplifting when you’re a player and you’re hearing it.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Well, it's amazing to be in the audience. It’s absolutely incredible to hear you guys play and you specifically. So I can't wait for the show but I can only imagine being a fly on the wall on the tour bus as well.

Steve Vai: Oh my God!

SFBayAreaConcerts: I can only imagine.

Steve Vai: It's quite unbelievable.
Generation Axe: Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Tosin Abasi (Photo: Kevin Keating)
Generation Axe: Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Tosin Abasi (Photo: Kevin Keating)
SFBayAreaConcerts: So I guess it was after the last time, Generation Axe played Oakland. You came through on your own with the Fillmore Show for your 25th anniversary of Passion & Warfare (review here) and you also hooked up with Sammy's 4th annual Acoustic-4-A-Cure.

Steve Vai: Yeah.

SFBayAreaConcerts: And I'm sure you've been in the Bay Area many, many times over your career. Do you have any specific stories or favorite memories of the Bay Area that you could share?

Steve Vai: Well, there was a time when we were recording Eat ‘Em and Smile (iTunes) when I was with David Lee Roth. And we were up at Fantasy Studios so I actually had an opportunity to spend some time up there. And I've been traveling close to forty years now. I've reached the two million mile mark on American Airlines. And that's just one airline. And so, I have a feel for various cultures around the world and the vibe of a city or a country. I’ve recognized that different cultures, different societies, countries and even towns. They have a specific kind of a feeling and vibe and that's reflected in the audience response too. Like when you go to South America, they're just insane, or Spain. And I especially enjoy Northern California and the Bay Area performing up in San Francisco because it's a completely different feeling up there. Well, supposedly, there’s a meridian point that runs through Northern California, which kind of, in folklore, gives an area particular kind of vibe so to speak. And I feel that. You become sensitive to these kinds of things when you travel as much as I do. And it's just a very light, simple, easy kind of vibe in the San Francisco Bay Area. And it's reflected in the audience. They enjoy the music. They’re polite and cheer and they're very loose, it’s a very loose kind of micro-culture so to speak.

SFBayAreaConcerts: I wonder if how it's changed over the years from your perspective, if at all?

Steve Vai: Well, 40 years in some respects is a blink of an eye. But technology obviously has changed the whole Northern California area with the companies that create products there. And what I’ve noticed in a lot of cities is they are continuing to clean up themselves. Most of them, like if you go to downtown LA, you can see that it's growing. Most cities in the world just sort of slowly evolve artistically, architecturally and you can see that in San Francisco. Some cultures don't; they regress actually. And some of that’s due to migration of refugees or just the rebalancing of the people that are coming in. But San Francisco is pretty solid. And I've always felt that it had a constant growth to it.

SFBayAreaConcerts: And the reception with the fans too?

Steve Vai: Yeah, because as you go through your career in the beginning, if you're lucky and you're reaching a lot of people, usually the audience is younger and there’s a particular type of enthusiasm. And then as the years roll on, and if you can stick with it and keep performing. The attitudes change. There could be sort of a calming down and just people wanting to come and see the show but if you stick with it through the years, eventually you get this core audience that just really gets you and they’re interested in anything you're doing. And there's a different kind of respect level. So fortunately, for me, I've been sticking with it for so long, and am just really enjoying the fans that have sort of gravitated, and made me one of their target artists to support. That's really nice.

SFBayAreaConcerts: That's great. Well, it’s been fantastic being able to speak with you and thank you for continuing to tour and making the music that you do. We can't wait to see you in November.

Steve Vai: Well, thank you man. We’ll see you at the show. Enjoy!

#buttons=(Ok, Go it!) #days=(20)

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. Check Now
Ok, Go it!