The following article is an edited transcript of a conversation between world-renowned guitar virtuoso Steve Vai and Newsweek Radio. You can listen to the full interview in podcast here:
Step into an exceptional journey alongside a man whose name echoes through the corridors of musical greatness.
Steve Vai isn’t just a guitar virtuoso; he’s a creative force that defies limits. Beyond his unmatched skill on the guitar, he’s navigated the complexities of fame and fortune, emerging as an artist who has conquered the psychological and spiritual pitfalls that often accompany success.
Join us as we uncover the layers of Vai’s remarkable career, exploring how his artistry intertwines with personal growth, making him not just a guitar legend but a resilient and visionary creative mind.
Jesse: Thank you for inviting us to your recording studio. How is life? Are you happy?
Steve Vai: If things get any better, I’m going to explode. I’m a very happy guy. I really am. I can’t say it’s been the case my whole life. There were challenging times, like anybody else. But I was fortunate.
When I was young, I was one of those wondering what’s going on. I remember being 6, standing on my front lawn, pondering life’s mysteries. I didn’t design this body. I was just put in it. Why? What’s happening?
I had a nice childhood, five kids, lots of love, though my dad’s struggle with alcohol caused some family dysfunction until he quit when I was 12. That was a blessing. I got to know him. My family was always supportive. Music was a warm, easy place during my adolescence. It’s where I felt at home, especially during those individual, changing and sometimes lonely moments. Music and the guitar became my escape.
As a teenager in the ’70s, I was deeply into rock and roll—Led Zeppelin, Queen, Deep Purple, Aerosmith. Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to be a composer and studied music through high school. My brain mixed these two passions.
Looking back, my love for the instrument was the most crucial thing. Imagining things I couldn’t do and working on them until I could, finding melodies that sparked emotions—playing and practicing brought me joy. I never played the guitar to get famous or for any expectations. I just loved playing.
I thought I’d be a high school music teacher after graduation, but my love for playing kept pulling me. Opportunities came easily. Zappa, Alcatraz, Dave Roth, Cooder, Whitesnake—they asked, and it was a simple “yes” or “no” based on whether I could contribute. When it came to my solo music, I had a cup.
Jesse: Was it the same questioning that caused your pain in your early 20s?
Steve Vai: Yeah, that wondering about existence. I was more metaphysical back then. But there’s a difference between metaphysics and spirituality. Metaphysics is about the outside world, while spirituality delves inward. Through spiritual studies, I found a center that brings me peace.
Jesse: Crossroads gets mentioned a lot. Do you still get asked about it?
Steve Vai: More than anything else. It’s the reason many found me. Portraying Jack Butler was tapping into a dark place I had. Initially, fame was unsettling. But eventually, the ego took over, believing the recognition. It was intense, leading to a dark projection I could portray.
Jesse: What made you transition toward rejecting negativity?
Steve Vai: It’s a sense of power lording over others that doesn’t work. It led to depression. I made a conscious choice for a quiet mind and a peaceful heart. “Aha” moments come when you seek peace and make better choices. My biggest was understanding the illusion of time through Eckhart Tolle.
Jesse: Mentors played a significant role in your life. Tell me about Bill Westcott.
Steve Vai: A brilliant mentor. He taught me music theory from seventh grade onward. He trained me to compose, analyze classical music. Joe Satriani applied music theory on the guitar. He was another mentor. My friend John guided me musically and introduced me to progressive music. Then there was Frank Zappa. He taught me about the music business, recording and irreverence.
Jesse: Satriani mentioned you showed up with a guitar, sans strings. Why?
Steve Vai: I couldn’t afford strings, and I couldn’t fix them when they broke. I was a bit better than others in technique, but comparing myself to others often led to insecurity.
Jesse: Passion and Warfare stands out. How do you feel about it now?
Steve Vai: It’s a special album, a lot of work. I’m grateful for it. The process was incredible, but I never imagined it’d be so popular. Capitol initially didn’t know how to market it, but after a move to Relativity, it went gold.
Jesse: Where does your music come from? Do you create it, or is it coming from some other source and coming through you as a vessel?
Steve Vai: Well, I think it comes from the same place everybody’s comes from, it’s just an infinite well of creativity that exists in all of us. Everybody’s creative, bar none.
You can choose not to use your creativity, you can squash it. But you can’t eliminate it. Your own unique personality, your authentic personality. And that authentic personality I’ll call is the best of you. It’s that part of you that likes you. It likes everything about you. It likes the clothes you wear, it’s comfortable in your skin. It makes no excuses for the sexuality that you prefer, or the kind of music you like, or whatever it is, your authentic personality doesn’t judge others. It doesn’t blame. It doesn’t condemn, it doesn’t hold grievances.
It’s beyond that, because all that stuff holds you back. And it obscures your uniquely creative impulses, because everybody has something in their life—now I’m talking about everybody. And it doesn’t matter: your intelligence level, your IQ, your status, your wealth, your color, your size—none of that matters. But there is something that feels natural, on a creative level, and joyful. For everybody, it makes sense to them.
Matter of fact, they can’t even figure out why it doesn’t make sense to others. You know, it’s your natural creative instincts, as opposed to your fantasy, which is created by the ego. And always leads to some kind of suffering. So when you’re engaged in your natural creative instincts, you’re connected to that pool, you’re connected to the creative impulse of the universe, which is where all those ideas come from, with all the good ones. They’re meant for you, they’re tailor-made for you, based on your interests, those things that are clear to you. And your tools.
I’m built to be a rock and roll guitar player. I just happen to be a natural musician. I’m not a natural player, I have to work really hard. I know natural players. I’d work really hard, but music is very natural. So when your creative inspirations come to you, from that pool, they’re tailor-made for you, for your joy. And you know that they’re the right inspirations because they come with a couple of signposts.
One of them is the feeling of enthusiasm. And then along with it comes the knowing that you can do it. It’s not a belief that you can do it. It’s a knowing, like, yeah, I’ve got to do that. You’ve got to put in the time. But the time is the fun part. That’s the process when I was sitting there all those years, my teenage bedroom on Long Island, practicing hour after hour after hour after hour. It required zero discipline. It was all passion. I have no discipline. I mean, of course within it there’s certain types of discipline that’s needed, but it was all a joy.
So this is why I could tell you nothing in the music business was ever really challenging for me. I’ve got life challenges, but not there. Because I always followed my natural instincts. Now, the way they come out, and the way they show themself is specific to the interests of the person that is coming through.
So with a guy like me, you just get things like Flexible, Passion and Warfare and Inviolate. I’ve got a quirky kind of kooky sensibility sometimes, but there’s an intensity behind it. So conversely, the ego will give you certain inspirations, too. But those inspirations come to you as a little voice in the head that you talk to all day, that plots and plans and tries to figure out the future, or laments the past, and it says stuff, and I’ve had many people come to me as young kids—they’d say, “I want to be a world-class rock guitar virtuoso.”
But they have a tin year and they don’t want to practice, so you couldn’t stop me from practicing. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t better or worse, it’s just that their ego is creating an imaginary future scenario where the goal is success and fame and money, and Grammys and magazine covers and winning awards and all that stuff in order to be happy.
Jesse: To be happy is the real success?
Steve Vai: Well, that’s the worldly success, they believe that once I achieved those things, then I can be happy. But this is an illusion. Because you can only ever be happy now. And many times, it’s not uncommon that somebody may do that, and they project into the future, but it’s not the thing that’s meant for your joy, because as you’re going through it, you’re miserable. You’re blaming, and you get to the goal, and you fail. And if you fail, you blame the world.
And then for the rest of your life, you’re a miserable son of a b****, because the world didn’t deliver to you, or didn’t recognize your greatness. Conversely, you can do the same thing and have worldly success, you get that big hit, or whatever. And it’s never enough. It’s never enough for the ego, it will never be enough. How do I know that? I know. And it’s hard to express because unless you do it, and you realize, well, wait a minute, I got all those things that I wanted, and I’m still a miserable son of a b****. As a matter of fact, it’s worse.
And this is why a lot of very successful people get into drugs or kill themselves. To be able to recognize those creative impulses that are really meant for you. That is the answer to your question. Where does it come from? There are certain signposts, and one of them is the feeling of enthusiasm for the creative idea. Not the egoic fulfillment of it.
Jesse: That battle between the heart and the mind, your heart is going to tell you the truth.
Steve Vai: Yeah, directly in the right place. Your mind is going to meander, we’re sloppy thinkers, you can’t figure out any of that stuff. But when you get a proper creative impulse, you know it. And as you’re doing it, you just feel good.
Now, the problem that a lot of people have is they may be very well-suited for a particular creative thing like laying bricks, everybody has something, and when they’re doing it, and a lot of people are doing it, they love their work. But when you’re doing it with love, there’s a quality that flows into what you do and that’s your gift to the world, but the conditioning of the world tells you bricklaying—that’s not good enough. It says no, you can’t be the guy that makes the strings, you need to be the guy that’s on the stage playing them and being famous. It’s all f***** up. You know the ego f**** everything up in your head and it does it to you unconsciously. So the spiritual path is about recognizing in yourself how the ego is sabotaging the quality of your life and your creative function.
G3 Tour Featuring JOE SATRIANI, ERIC JOHNSON, STEVE VAI
January 23, 2024, Tucson, AZ – Rialto Theatre
January 25, 2024, Highland, CA – Yaamava Resort & Casino
January 26, 2024, Scottsdale, AZ – Talking Stick Resort Ballroom
January 27, 2024, Las Vegas, NV – Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino
January 29, 2024, Spokane, WA – First Interstate Center for the Arts
January 31, 2024, Seattle, WA – The Moore Theatre
February 1, 2024, Salem, OR – Historic Elsinore Theatre
February 2, 2024, Reno, NV – Grand Sierra Reno
February 3, 2024, Oakland, CA – Fox Theater
February 5, 2024, Fresno, CA – Saroyan Theatre
February 7, 2024, El Cajon, CA – The Magnolia
February 9, 2024, Los Angeles, CA – Orpheum Theatre
February 10, 2024, Los Angeles, CA – Orpheum Theatre
For more information on shows, ticketing and VIP packages, go HERE.
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Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.
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