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Generation Axe Players Breathe Together, Celebrate Guitar Together

Courtesy Photo
Gutarists Tosin Abasi, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Nuno Bettencourt.

Guitarist Steve Vai talks about a tour that brings him together with four other master guitarists, Generation Axe.

Guitarist Steve Vai probably received his greatest career boost when he joined David Lee Roth’s band for the 1986 album Eat ‘Em and Smile. The record spawned a major chart hit, “Yankee Rose,” and soon placed Vai on the cover of guitar magazines around the globe. By the end of the decade he had joined the band Whitesnake, where he enjoyed more chart success, before he began a solo career that lasts to this day.

On his current tour, Generation Axe, he’s joined by four players with similar backgrounds. Nuno Bettencourt’s band Extreme had a hit with “More Than Words,” and the guitarist also contributed to Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat.” Zakk Wylde has played on some of Ozzy Osbourne’s biggest hits. The two outliers on this tour are Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders) and Swedish-born neo-classical performer Yngwie Malmsteen. Although they haven’t had sizeable hits, they’re still two of the most recognizable players of their kind.

Vai has participated in the G3 tours since the 1990s, which usually find three players performing solo sets before joining a jam session at the end of the night. Generation Axe differs because players join each other on the stage throughout the course of the night and share a backing band.

“I always thought it would be really cool to have five very talented, accomplished guitar players actually playing really cool harmonies together,” he says, “with organized parts—and then jamming and whatnot. Then the quest was to find five players. Fortunately, for me, the top guys on my wish list were available.”

If any fans were concerned that the five voices might not gel, Vai says that everyone kept one thing in mind: Playing in an ensemble such as this might make them better.

“You have to massage yourself out of your comfort zone because it’s easy to get locked into one way of doing things,” he says. “It is a challenge to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable. But something very special can come from that. Because then there’s a connection. When you connect on that level, you’re better than pieces. Pieces come together and make a whole that transcends any individual artist, and everybody gets that.”

Playing as an ensemble brings the players together in another way—and it’s not just a matter of proximity.

“This is a concentrated effort, where everybody, at times, just actually has to breathe together. The intimacy of the communication that we need to have to do this right is different than any other kind of jamming situation I’ve ever been in,” Vai says.

Generation Axe also provides listeners with some top-rate showmanship to accompany the music. Vai, for one, says he can’t help but engage with the audience in a big way.

“With me, the ham is cooking, man,” he says. “I just love being a ham on stage. But the music has to resonate. If these guys were all performance, it would get boring quick.”

A large portion of any Vai-related audience is people who play the instrument themselves. Vai says he remembers how deeply in love he fell with the guitar as a young man, and notes how important it is that young players stay focused on one thing: being themselves.

“I just remember when I was a teenager—12, 13,14, 15—the guitar was just so cool. Just to have one and to play notes on it. It just sounded great and all your heroes played it,” he says. “That kind of thing, when it’s there, should be cultivated. Because it’s fun. It’s great. It’s a lifelong enjoyment. But the thing that cuts at the root of a lot of peoples’ potential to even play the guitar, pick it up, is just the thoughts in their head about it.

“They have all this desire and passion to play the instrument but a lot of times there are these little voices that are saying, ‘Well, if you decide to play the guitar you have to be the best,’ or, ‘If you decide to play an instrument, then you have to have a career.’ That gets really heavy. Then you have to be ‘better than,’ then there is, ‘I’m worse than.’”

“So, when I talk to kids, the thing I point out most powerfully is to look at the thoughts in your head and get a gauge on how they make you feel and if they don’t make you feel good, then try to change the thought to something that feels better," the guitarist says. "Then the natural enthusiasm that’s in you to play the instrument will arise.”

Generation Axe visits the Stiefel Theater in Salina Saturday evening and the Uptown Theater in Kansas City Friday night.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.