Joe Satriani Recalls What Steve Vai Was Really Like as a Guitar Student: ’Hey, You’re Going So Fast!’

Guitar legend Joe Satriani reflected on his early days as a guitarist and giving Steve Vai guitar lessons when they were kids.

Apart from being one of the most influential guitar players of all time, Satriani also made a huge impact as a guitar teacher. Apart from Vai, he gave lessons to a bunch of other guitar players who ended up becoming big names in rock and metal music — Kirk Hammett, Alex Skolnick, and Larry LaLonde, just to name a few.

And according to what Joe said in a recent appearance on Ultimate Guitar’s On the Record podcast, Steve’s progress was insanely fast. There are only four years apart between the two guitar legends. But back then, Steve was only 12 years old, so this was a massive difference.

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“People had seen me play for about a year at parties and high school dances, and Battle of the Bands, and I started teaching a bunch of kids that asked for lessons,” recalled Satriani of his school days. And Steve was one of the kids from the same school.

“He was just one of them who showed up,” Satch continued. “He actually took lessons with a friend of his because they couldn’t afford the $5 per lesson. So he and Frank Strawson would come together.”

However, after only a handful of lessons, Satriani realized that young Steve had great potential:

“But after about three or four lessons, I took Steve aside and said, ‘Hey, you’re going so fast, and Frank is at another pace. I can’t really do the two of you at the same time. So we might want to think about figuring out how to do a private lesson.'”

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This proved to be one of the best decision he ever made. Eventually, Vai would raise to greatness. And with his earliest steps as a guitar player and a musician, it was Satriani who helped him start down this path.

“It really did work out because he was just on the fast track to greatness,” Joe continued. It was just so obvious — he had the drive, the commitment, he had great ears, his fingers were huge, and he had a really good facility with them as well.”

“He was very well-coordinated with both hands and had a great sense of timing. All those things add up to just being a fantastic musician. So, teaching him was really a lot of fun.”

What’s more, young Steve was incredibly disciplined for his age. And it even kept his teacher on his toes:

“He learned everything that I asked him to learn every week. It was amazing. I was so young. I’d only been playing a year, so he caught up with me pretty fast. He was one of those students that made me think, I’ve got to learn something new before that kid shows up.”

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At the age of 18, Steve Vai joined Frank Zappa as a transcriptionist. Eventually, he would also join Zappa’s live band, which ultimately turned things around for him.

As far as other of Satriani’s students go, he says that they were all incredible in their own unique ways.

“They were all really surprising,” the guitar legend replied after being asked what others were like. “Every time you get a chance to just do a one-on-one lesson, you really learn a lot about that student and their personality.”

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“What I learned over and over again was that talent shows itself in so many different ways. You can’t look at a student and think, ‘Well, if they don’t have this particular asset, then they’re not worth my time, or they won’t move forward.'”

“What I learned is that when you have a young Charlie Hunter, following a young Kirk Hammett, following Alex Skolnick and Kevin Cadogan, and you have all these different personalities, and they all had something very unique.”

“They didn’t necessarily share the same physical talents, but they definitely were different personalities. They definitely liked different kinds of music and different players. But they all had this magic inside of them where they wanted to play music.”

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“They wanted to invent something musical and share it with people and that drove them to seek out a path that was their own. So not only did I love recognizing it, but I knew that I had to do that as a teacher, so that I wouldn’t waste their time.”

“I wouldn’t try to change them or bend them in my direction, my job was to figure out what is the information that’s going to make them smile, what is gonna make them feel like they found something they can work with, and give it to them and say, ‘You do what you want with it. Don’t copy me.'”

“They were so young. I was in my early 20s, but the difference between teenagers and kids in their 20s, I mean, it’s huge, really. It’s just another generation and they turned out to be monster musicians and they contributed to the way music sounds, they had a fantastic affect on it, which is amazing.”

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Photos: Hreinn Gudlaugsson (Joe-satriani DSC05259), Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 08)

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.