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'You Are The Direction That Things Are Heading': Steve Vai Talks Generation Axe, Guitar's Evolution

Courtesy photo

Steve Vai launched Generation Axe in 2016. Though Vai and his longtime friend Joe Satriani had performed a variety of G3 tours, which bring together three headlining-level guitar players, each with a solo set, Generation Axe differed in significant ways. For one, it's five players: Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme/Rhianna fame, Zakk Wylde, known for his work with both Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne, and Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders. Moreover, the players share the stage throughout the night, teaming up in unexpected but exhilarating combinations.

Following the initial American run, the members reunited for a Spring 2017 run through Asia (a forthcoming live record, Guitars That Destroyed The World documents that tour) and, now, a second North American leg. Vai spoke with KMUW about the tour, which visits three area markets this weekend, including the Uptown Theatre in Kansas City on Thursday, November 15, Salina's Stiefel Theatre on Friday, November 16 and Saturday at the Brady Theatre in Tulsa, as well as the ongoing evolution of the guitar itself.

Interview Highlights

Generation Axe must have gone well the first time you toured it here in North America and through the Asian run because you're all coming back.

It was fantastic. It was one of those things where we got into and we didn't quite know what to expect. But it turned out so much better than we could have expected. We tried to do a Europe run but the biggest challenge with Generation Axe is everybody's schedule lining up. We couldn't do that but hopefully, maybe, at one point we will.

We decided a good time has passed to do another U.S. tour and I'm actually working on a live record that was recorded from those Asian shows. I gotta tell ya, it's turning out so great. I had no idea. Well, I had an idea.

It's a unique record because it's what we do with the show. There's one backing band and then various guys come on and off the stage in various groups, so to speak. Then we have all of us at the same time, but it's organized. It's not just a mess of guys jamming. There are these beautiful harmonies.

I know you've known most of these guys for a long time but to actually get in and play with them must have been different. What things did you learn during that first tour?

There's so much to learn from each one of them because they're all pioneers in their field. They're all completely accomplished professionals that have been around for decades. Except for Tosin, he's new but still a force to be reckoned with beyond.

There are several things you learn. One of them is you refine your professionalism. You learn to listen more carefully because there's a lot more going on than normal. You learn how to step back when it's time to step back and you learn how to push yourself beyond your capabilities. When you're standing next to guys like this, they're all so unique in what they do and they're all very confident in their uniqueness, it pushes you to delve deeper into your own unique capabilities. That's one of the nice things about playing with other guitar players and another one of the reasons that I put this thing together, because I knew it would push me to keep refining. These guys are great partners for that.

Credit fourniermalloy.com

You mentioned Tosin, who uses the extended range guitar. You introduced the seven-string guitar through Ibanez many years ago. What did you think of what Tosin was doing with the extended range when you first heard it.

When I first designed the seven-string for Ibanez, I used it a particular way. I knew, instinctively, that if young musicians saw the potential in it for their ideas, it was going to evolve into something pretty incredible. That was made very apparent to me when I first heard Korn. They had taken the seven-string and taken that low potential way, way beyond what I was doing. That was a beautiful evolution to see.

Then there was that whole underground movement of seven-string bands and players that created a whole subculture. But then based on the way us humans like to evolve our creativity, it went from seven strings to eight strings and there's people with nine strings. I knew that eventually somebody was going to come along and that seventh string or eighth string and start doing something even more unique than conventional metal at the time.

That's Tosin. He was the first one that I heard taking that instrument, especially with the eight strings, and doing something that really ticked off a lot of the things that I like about heavy music and music in general. His music is complex but it's listenable, it's dense in its harmonic and melodic structure, meaning that it's not just regular kinds of chords. I love that. Rhythmically, it's unique. I worked for Frank Zappa for six years, in the band and also transcribing music. I was confronted with a lot of rhythmic challenges, even the evolution of certain kinds of rhythmic notation. But what these guys are doing now was off of my radar at the time. You can hear it in Tosin's music. It's the continuous evolution of things and Tosin, to me, is the guy at the forefront of that.

When you were starting out, did you ever wonder what guys like Les Paul thought about what you were doing?

Yeah. I suspect that he was thinking similarly to the way that I think when I see these new players coming along. I'm two generations removed now from new players. You had the kind of thing I was doing in the ‘80s and then the ‘90s came along and the guitar turned into something different. It was more of a tool for the song. Then, in 2000, that's when that underground metal movement of the intense shredding playing started to emerge. In 2010-20 I see this whole other kind of movement that's more in the line of acoustic guitar playing. Real evolution's going on there. But the regular kind of playing has gone back to this superhuman kinds of chops. I see people shredding on the instrument and say, ‘Whoa!' They really honed their chops.

I would have to think that it's inspiring, that you begin saying, ‘Where can I go with my technique? Where can I go with my compositional tools?'

Absolutely. There's always inspiration to be found in anything if you decide to look for it. Les Paul had chops, then, all of a sudden you've got guys like Eddie Van Halen and Satriani and Yngwie who redefined what chops are. There's guys doing that now. When I started I was fascinated with having great control of the instrument and if I wanted to blow with crazy chops I wanted to have them. I worked really hard. I was taking my cues from the people that I was listening to in the ‘70s, all the really great players like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore. That's where I came into the world and took a look and started to take it from there in a sense.

You can't pantomime somebody's musicality without sounding insipid. I was lucky enough to discover my own harmonic inner voice. But keeping chops up like that your whole life is tough. It requires a lot of time and focus. I have enough chops now where I'm satisfied but I'm most interested in evolving in the realm of phrasing.

There are these conversations happening now about the future of guitar and people saying that people aren't picking it up like they used to, that people are becoming DJs, etc. What do you make of that?

I don't think about any of that stuff. It's all nonsense. People get conditioned by what they read in the papers or watch on TV. When I start seeing myself being conditioned by what somebody else is doing or saying, a little red flag goes up immediately and say, ‘Don't worry about any of that. Just do what you like!' That's my credo for any of that discussion about the guitar is dead or this is happening or that's happening or this in vogue. I don't listen to any of that stuff. Why would I? Why would anybody? Why would in anybody? Unless they're interested in being a trend-mongering kind of pantomiming of the genius of somebody else kind of a player? The thing that I recommend is: Find out what really interests you the most and excites you in your inside, not based on what you think you should be excited about because somebody else is or because this is the direction that things are heading. You are the direction that things are heading when you find music within you that's most exciting and unique and grounded in your interests.

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.