By Christopher Scapelliti
Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai sat down for an enlightening Q&A with Ernie Ball CEO Sterling Ball at NAMM 2016. Ernie Ball has just started streaming video of the talk on its YouTube channel, and we found it to be both informative and inspirational.
Sterling and Steve begin by discussing Steve’s early experiences with the guitar and how his unique approach to it helped him create his own style without even realizing he was doing so. He also tells how Frank Zappa and Steve Lukather were influential to him in the Eighties.
At several points, Steve shares his philosophy about music and life, and what he has to say is inspirational and, we think, vital listening for anyone engaged in any artistic endeavor.
The video is at the bottom. To guide you through it, we’ve provided eight moments that really grabbed our interest and attention.
1. Jimmy Page motivated Steve to play guitar. (1:08)
“The music of West Side Story—that had a huge impact,” Steve says. “But then I heard Led Zeppelin coming out of my sister’s room. That solo in ‘Heartbreaker.’ I was 12 years old, and that was it. I said, ‘Forget it. I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m playing the guitar.’ ”
2. He never planned on telling anyone he played guitar, and he built his own style by just having fun with the instrument. (4:39)
Steve says he felt he could never play as well as the blues and jazz players he listened to. “So I would look for something that was within my capability that was different and interesting,” he says. “Because whenever I would do something that didn’t sound necessarily genre specific, it would be like, ‘Wow, this is cool!’ What I didn’t know I was doing was building my own style. Because I would look for peculiar, weird things.”
3. He’s always been fascinated by the business side of music and started his own label, Akashic Records, at 23. (7:00)
“You find things in it that you like, and then it serves you very well,” he says. “That’s the secret.”
4. He’s reviving his record label, Favored Nations: “It will be the home for all great guitar players.” (9:15)
“I’ve laid off for the last several years because I’ve been focusing more on my music career. But Jim Snowden, an experienced music business guy, has shown a tremendous amount of interest in coming in and resurrecting it. So we’re actually doing that now.”
5. Contrary to what people think, Frank Zappa wasn’t difficult to work with. (10:53)
“People think that Frank was tough,” Steve says. “He expected your best, and if your best was in a feel that he could incorporate into his music, it was easy.”
6. The most important thing he learned from Zappa was, “If you want to do something, you just do it.” (12:25)
“You don’t expect anybody to do it for you,” Vai continues. “You don’t make excuses for yourself why you can’t do it, and you don’t let anybody else’s opinion of what you do stand in your way.”
7. He was greatly inspired by the soloing of Steve Lukather in the Eighties. (13:28)
“He would do these long, gorgeous guitar solos, and they would build, and build, and build, and then just climax. And that was huge, because nobody else was doing that. Most solos were like, ‘Eight bars, done.’ ”
8. He’s an extremely inspiring motivational speaker! (18:12)
“Everybody is connected with their gift, and you should know that you absolutely, unequivocally, no exceptions—you have a gift,” he says. “And it could be anything that you want if you put your attention on it. The only thing that ever stops us from being able to express the uniqueness of our creativity is a thought in your head that tells you that you can’t.”
Have a look.