Guitar legend Steve Vai leads camp in Vail, Aug. 2-6
If you go
What: Vai Academy 2015: All About the Guitar
When: Sunday through Thursday
Where: The Arrabelle at Vail Square, Vail
Cost: $999 without accommodations, meals included; or $1,699 with shared room with two beds in a three-bedroom condo
More information: Visit www.vaiacademy.com for a schedule, a list of guest instructors and more.
Next week, guitar legend Steve Vai will bring his second Vai Academy guitar camp — All About the Guitar — to The Arrabelle at Vail Square, with classes, clinics and jams featuring guest instructors from the top echelon of the guitar world. We caught up with Vai to learn more about the camp, as well as his music career and his decades-long love affair with the guitar.
VAIL DAILY: What made you originally fall in love with the guitar?
STEVE VAI: My immediate visceral, first visceral, response to the instrument was, I was 6 years old, 7 years old, and I walked into the auditorium of my school and there was a boy who was 10 years old — and when you’re six, someone who is 10 is like a god — and he was playing the guitar. He was really playing it. The moment I saw it, I had an epiphany, one of those moments of clarity where everything stands still and you become very, very present, and it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. The way it was slug on his body, the sound it was making, the way that it looked — it was my first love affair with the instrument. It was a quiet love affair, though. All those years I fantasized about the guitar, I never felt worthy of playing it; I was afraid or something.
Growing up, I was interested in composition. I learned to compose music — I was fascinated with the little black dots, so to speak. My parents were listening to “West Side Story,” and that had an impact on me — the intense music, the melody, the drama, the story. But then my sister was listening to Led Zeppelin, and once I heard that, it was all over. I had to play the guitar. I was about 12 years old when I decided I wanted to play the guitar. I had a friend who had a guitar on his wall in his lonely teenage Long Island bedroom. He never played it. I thought it was beautiful. It was this cheap Teisco Del Rey guitar with all these pick-ups and this whammy bar. He said, I don’t want to play it; I’ll sell it to you for $5, and that’s when my world changed.
VD: What keeps the instrument relevant for you?
SV: The realization that the creation of music on the instrument is infinite and will never not be fresh and new. It’s a playground for your imagination constantly. And whenever I pick up the instrument, I see the infiniteness of its potential, and that just is a lovely thing because whenever you’re engaged in something, in a creative way, that gives you that feeling of enthusiasm for what you’re creating, it makes every day like Christmas. And it’s like that for me, every time. It’s never been any other way. Sure, there’s ruts that you can get into and dry spells, so to speak, but even through the dry spells, I feel that my inspirational army is gathering all of its tools together for another attack.
VD: What was the evolution like from being a sideman to solo artist to audio producer? What have you enjoyed about each of these aspects of your career?
SV: I was always fortunate in that, the majority of the time, I’ve engaged myself in things that I found to be very enjoyable. If I was, say, a musician hired by Frank Zappa, I found great joy in learning his music the way he wanted it performed. And then when something like the opportunity to play in “Crossroads,” the movie, came along, I saw how I could contribute in an effective way, so that made that interesting and exciting. And then when I was a sideman in those big rock bands in the ’90s — The David Lee Roth Band, Whitesnake — they were fantastic opportunities to get on a stage with a large audience and learn how to permeate that audience with my ego, so to speak.
All of the time, through all the years, I had two things in my favor that I think were great strengths, that I didn’t even know I was employing. One was my ability to visualize, and the other was my comfortable desire for independence. I’ve always been independent, and when I finally released my own album “Passion and Warfare,” my first huge solo record, that gave me the opportunity to be much more independent than I was before. It was a beautiful kind of evolution of independence.
VD: The 25th anniversary release of that album is coming up next year, right?
SV: It’s this year, but I don’t think the package for it is going to come out until next year. I came up with some ideas that are taking a lot more time than I would have expected. I kept saying, “Hey let’s try this, hey let’s try this.” It’s due tomorrow. “Let’s push the deadline.”
VD: Of all the people you’ve collaborated with and/or toured with, who was the most out there and why?
SV: There was an out there-ness to all of them. Frank Zappa had his unique, creative imagination, and some may consider that out there, so there was some pretty fun, far out, out there kinds of things with Frank. Everything else in comparison, that I’ve done, had its opportunity for moving outside the circle a bit, being a little out there, which was inexorable for me because I’m not really comfortable unless I’m a little left of center.
Most of those were in relatively conventional settings. But with Frank, it was anything, anytime, anywhere, as long as it’s interesting and funny and enthusiastic. Frank created a forum where you can express your potential in ways that you didn’t even realized you had, and that was one of the geniuses of Frank Zappa. … He had a knowingness of your potential beyond your knowingness. I know that sounds odd, but Frank was able to look at you and feel you and know what your potential was and would give you an opportunity to exaggerate your potential. That’s why musicians who have worked with Frank many times have a reputation of being these elite, top musicians. It was really Frank pulling it out of you, but he did it in a really organic way. He’d never ask me to sing a song the way Ike Willis or Ray White would sing it, and he’d never ask me to play something on the guitar that he knew was not really intuitive to me, but he saw an opportunity in me to have somebody play particular, bizarre melodies that never belonged on the instrument. So I jumped into those kinds of things and found myself doing things that I never thought I’d be able to do.
VD: You’ve been nominated for 15 Grammys and won three, along with quite a few other prestigious awards throughout your career. Do you put any stock into those types of accolades? What makes them important or not so important?
SV: On one level, yes, it’s a great honor to be recognized for our contributions because a lot of times musicians put their heads down and just grind away. It’s nice when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, guess what, you’re doing pretty good. Those kinds of awards are sort of inspirational, but I honor them for what they are.
On another level, whether they were there or not, I don’t think it would have changed my enthusiasm for writing a piece of music or for continuing to try to find innovative things to do on the instrument. They’re good on one level, but the challenge arises when you start creating an identity for yourself based on your accolades. The trap is in starting to create an image of yourself of being the one who has 15 Grammy nominations, three Grammy awards, all these awards here, magazine covers. It’s not hard to start creating a concept of yourself of being one of the great ones, and then that can easily overpower or overshadow, for a period at least, your connection with your true inspiration. Your place in the world becomes more important, and you start reaching for things to hold on to your cache. And that stuff all comes and goes all the time anyway.
I’ve gotten trapped in the ego coming in the back door, so to speak, from all of those accolades, but at the end of the day, you realize the vital thing is the quality of your inspiration, and that’s based on the quality of your consciousness, which is based on the quality of the thoughts that you choose to think in your head.
VD: Tell me about the second installment of the Vai Academy in Vail, Sunday, Aug. 2, through Thursday, Aug. 6. How did this annual guitar camp get started, and what makes it unique?
SV: I’ve always loved teaching, and I started giving guitar lessons when I was like 14, I think. When you teach, you learn, and through the years — I started probably 15 years or so ago — I started doing these, I call them Alien Guitar Secrets master classes. I just finished a tour of Brazil, 11 cities of master classes. I really enjoy that, and I was hoping that at some point I would do something like a camp because the camps started to become popular. I always put it off until thought I had a good enough idea that was somewhat different than a conventional, giant, three-day guitar lesson.
Last year, we did our first one, Vai Academy: Evolution of a Song. It was four intensive days of going through the process of discussing song inspiration, how to evolve your ability to find inspiration in writing music, and then there was a lot of academics involved, like how to protect your intellectual property, how to start your own publishing company and register their music — it’s essential, and a lot of musicians don’t understand it.
Then we actually wrote a song and recorded it with all the players, 150, and they saw the process of recording. I had engineers give classes on the best way to capture your music, how to treat the stereo spectrum in an audible way. They learned about EQ, mastering, about microphones, and then we mixed it, and then I had the professionals come in and talk about the music business. I think it’s vital that a musician understand at least the surface of the music business, so that they can navigate it and also learn how to protect themselves.
And then I showed them how to take their music and put it up online, instantly, to virtually all of the major digital aggregates all over the world. And then we had classes on marketing, how to market yourself, how to build a story, and it was fantastic.
But this year, I wanted to do something totally different. So the theme this year is the guitar itself. I’ll be having people come in that are giving classes on the actual construction of the guitar. Many players don’t understand why a guitar sounds like it does, the various tones that certain woods can introduce, the way a neck is built, why the necks sound a particular way, the infrastructure of electronics of the instrument, the way pickups work.
Last year, we had Guthrie Govan, Vernon Reid. And this year, we have Eric Johnson and Sonny Landreth, and every night, it’s just a huge, fun jam session, where I get to play with every camper — I call them campers, but it’s Vail, Colorado, in a five-star resort; there’s nobody with a tent (laugh). This year, the class is really going to be useful, interesting and engaging for people that love the guitar and are even just beginners at the age of 50, you know?
VD: Your CD-DVD set “Stillness in Motion” came out in April. What was the catalyst for that project, and how has it been received?
SV: Every time an artist goes out on tour, there’s always some kind of evolution in their performance, their stage presence, their technique. And I like to document that each tour. So on the last tour, I wanted to go out on a very long, extensive tour, so I could really focus on getting deeper into the note, so to speak. So I had this tour that had us through 253 engagements in 52 countries — it took two years — and I visited places I had never gone and that I was told no American artist had ever played.
I spent a month in Russia; we played through Siberia and all the way through Kiev when the war was on. There was one show here in L.A. that AXS, a cable TV station, wanted to film and broadcast live to about 35 million homes. So as part of the deal, I got all of the tapes for that. I received this beautiful nine-camera shoot of this show at the Nokia in L.A. and thought, let’s make this a DVD.
That was simple enough, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to have something that was different and unique, so I came up with this idea to create this bonus footage that is sort of a chronological tour diary, that has some kind of photo or video, on or offstage, form every place that we went. So you can imagine the massive undertaking because I had them collect all sorts of media from fans, crew, the band, my wife, myself, the Internet, and then put it in chronological order
That’s “The Space Between the Notes,” the 3 hours and 40 minutes of bonus footage. I feel that it’s one of my greatest achievements. It’s so interesting to watch how this band traversed the globe, twice, and what it’s like to be on tour. And what you notice is how happy we are. There’s no drama in my band, we love each other, and we love doing what we’re doing, and we’re constantly feeling gratitude. We cultivate the feeling of gratitude, and that’s extraordinarily powerful. It makes for a wonderful life experience. You can get some of that from watching “The Space Between the Notes.”