First hired in 1979 by Frank Zappa as a music transcriptionist, guitarist Steve Vai has just about done it all. Whether as a solo artist or playing with everyone from David Lee Roth to John Lydon, Vai's sheer musical ability has never been questioned. Undoubtedly a hired gun, Vai's career is nevertheless a fascinating journey across genres and personalities.
From a tour stop somewhere and in anticipation of tonight's show at the House of Blues, Vai answered a few questions via email about his lengthy career and how he's maintained his vegetarian lifestyle throughout it all.
Was Frank Zappa the greatest guitarist you have played with? If not him, who?
Greatest? You would have to define what you mean by greatest.
What was it like working with Public Image Ltd? That seemed like such a strange combination?
At face value I can see how it might look strange but Bill Laswell, the producer, was doing something creative and different. The project retained Lydon's musical identity but stretched out a bit. It took me the equivalent of one day in the studio. It was a wonderful project.
Was working with David Lee Roth difficult?
Only if you didn't have it together. He knew what he wanted and was very professional, and you needed to be on time and deliver. It was his band so he had the final say and that made some things much easier
Does winning a Grammy or any other accolade mean anything to you?
It's always an honor to be recognized for your contribution. Artists are both blessed and cursed with the desire to create. The creative ones do it because they are compelled to whether they are recognized for it or not. Some might say that they do it for themselves and don't care about the accolades and some might actually feel that way, but it's my experience that most artists would like their work to be appreciated by others. As much as I make my music because it's interesting and exciting to me, it's always a privilege when someone else finds some value in it.
You've also played with Whitesnake and Alice Cooper. Do you have to be extremely flexible to be able to fit in with new musical partners?
Professionals know what they want and other professionals know how to deliver what's necessary in a particular situation and whenever I would go into a situation with another artist that is a leader, I know what they need and I know what is expected of me and I do my best to deliver. I expect the same when I'm doing my own music. But working with all the artists I have, yes, there are differences but not such big differences. The thing you need to be flexible with is your emotional attachment to what you are contributing. It needs to be your best at all times, but if the artist you are working with wants something else you have to be able to throw away something that you may be passionate about and come up with something more appropriate.
How meaningful was it for you to play on the Zappa Plays Zappa tour?
It was nice to play Franks music again and to help Dweezil get the tour off the ground. He has done amazing things with it.
The Experience Hendrix tour featured an incredible line up of guitarists. Was it a competitive or collaborative atmosphere?
Everyone on that tour wants to deliver their best most respectful contribution to Jimi's music, the tour and the other musicians. In most respects it was a very collaborative experience. We were all there to celebrate our hero and his music. That was the pervading energy.
Is being a vegetarian difficult on tour? Not a lot of veggie restaurants in Texas.
It used to be more difficult 32 years ago when I became a vegetarian, but I never have any trouble. I'm happy with a baked potato, just hold the beef tongue!
Would you rather compose classical pieces more than rock songs?
I like doing both equally. Writing rock music can be just as challenging as classical type music, but it's easier to present. Writing orchestral music has some real liberating freedoms. Doing either is never a challenge in that I only write something if I'm inspired and then it's a challenge to stop.