Steve Vai Argues That He’s Not a Natural-Born Guitarist, Explains Difference Between a ‘Great Player’ and a ‘Great Musician’

There’s no guitar player like Steve Vai out there. Sure, you can try and copy his style, but he’ll just come up with something new and you’ll have to start all over again. But that’s exactly what makes him so great. It doesn’t come down to his playing skills, which are also pretty incredible by the way. But it’s mainly about his ability to find new ways to express himself through the music itself, not just performance tricks.

Steve Vai - Teeth of the Hydra (Official Music Video)

But as he explained in an interview with Carl King, he isn’t a “natural.” It sounds crazy when he says that, but as Vai elaborated, he has to work really hard on it. He explained (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“When I look at myself now, I feel that music in itself always felt very natural. I always had sort of a very easy – there’s a lot of simplicity in visualizing something musically, and then translating it.”

“But the thing where I’m not so natural – which I say to people and they think I’m crazy – but it’s [when] I’m playing an instrument. The guitar is the only instrument I can play. And I have to work really, really hard, because I’m not natural.”

“I know this because I’ve taught many people, and their ability to improve just dwarfed mine; if any of them put in the kind of time that I put in, they would have at least my technique, if not a lot, lot more. But as I was mentioning before, that doesn’t necessarily make you an effective, great musician. It can make you a great player or technician, and that’s fine.”

Steve Vai - Little Pretty (Official Music Video)

While discussing the topic, Vai also added that you don’t need to be super-skilled on an instrument in order to be able to compose great music. It’s all about knowing what the instrument can achieve and understanding the theory behind it and the music. He said:

“But the odd thing is – and this is not uncommon for a lot of composers – they can compose for any instrument; I can do that, I can compose for a completely accomplished pianist, but I can’t play the piano at all. It’s the weirdest thing. And I’ve tried, and it was just like, ‘I’m not even gonna get into this.’ But I can go up to the piano, hit one chord that I like, and compose a symphony around [it]. It’s all [in] the visualization.”

“And when it comes time to writing for various instruments in the orchestra, you just have to study what their capabilities are, what their limitations are, where they sound the best. And that’s just study, it’s just the academic portion.”

“If you’re going to write for the harp, which is one of my favorite instruments to compose for, you really have to understand the mechanics of the harp, or what a harp player can do. And because there’s pedals that you have to keep track of, and there’s certain hand abilities and reaches, hand-over-hand, and you have to write it a particular way so they understand it…”

Photo: Fermatta Escuela de Música (Fermatta Master Class Series Steve Vai (4189501452))