Steve Vai Explains How Actually Difficult It Was to Play in Frank Zappa’s Band

One of the most influential guitar players of all time, Steve Vai reflected on his work with Frank Zappa back in the day and some of the biggest challenges that he faced. Vai initially joined Zappa as a transcriptionist and eventually got into his live band as well.

Appearing in Vintage Rock Pod, Steve recalled how he got in touch with Frank, saying (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“I was 18 and I was going to school at Berkeley. I didn’t even have a phone, I was using my friend’s phone. He was very nice, oddly enough, knowing Frank. Later, when I got to know him and work with him, I thought it was very odd that he took that phone call from me. Because I was basically just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a fan.'”

Frank Zappa & Steve Vai

Vai then added how he knew Zappa was an Edgar Varese fan. And wanting to impress him, the young guitarist dug up some of Varese’s scores, which were rare at the time, and sent them over to Zappa, along with the music he transcribed.

However, the one piece that he needed Vai to transcribe was “The Black Page” — the infamous piece, originally done for drums and melodic percussion, that’s notorious for being incredibly challenging to perform. Steve continued:

“I did a transcription of the ‘The Black Page’, and I sent him a tape of my band. I snuck that in there, and then he… I spoke to him again, and he was very positive about the tape and wanted to try me out for the band. But when I told him I was 18, he thought that was too young.”

The Most Difficult Rock Song to Play Live: Frank Zappa The Black Page

But on the other hand, Frank was pretty excited about Vai’s musicianship:

“But he was impressed enough with the transcription that I did, that he hired me to be a transcriptionist. He started paying me I think it was $5 a page to listen to his music and write it down.”

“He sent me a big giant score, called ‘Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation’, and also the actual music for ‘The Black Page’ with a note that asked me to ‘Play it as fast as I can.’ So I made a tape of myself playing ‘The Black Page’, and I sent it to him.”

“The next thing I knew, the next time I had called him, I caught him in not such a good mood. If Frank didn’t want to talk, I mean, he was just like… There was just space.”

Mo 'N Herb's Vacation, First Movement

Nonetheless, Zappa praised Vai without him even knowing:

“Then I saw this magazine interview he did in a San Francisco magazine, and he was talking about me, and the tape that I had sent him of ‘The Black Page’. And I couldn’t believe it, I’ve never really even seen my name in print. And there was Frank Zappa talking about me, it was really cool.”

Going further into the matter, Vai was then asked about when he ended up getting hired for Zappa’s live band, to which he replied:

“Well, he didn’t. What happened was, a couple of days after my 20th birthday, I moved to California. And I moved right down the street from him.”

Steve Vai Performance - Throwback Thursday From the MI Library | Musicians Institute

“I just started going up to the house and once you start going up to the studio… If you have something to offer, it will just suck you in and you end up recording all this stuff. And that’s what happened.”

When the interviewer said how this must have been a huge “dream come true” moment for him, Vai simply said how incredibly scared he was”

“I was scared to death. [Laughs] I was very young and it just seemed surreal. Next thing I know, I’m at Frank’s studio, and there’s Vinnie Colaiuta, and Terry Bozio, and Tommy Mars, and I’m like, ‘Wow.'”

Frank Zappa 10/31/81 Live At The Palladium

“And he’s given me all this wild music to record. It was fun because they were fun guys to hang out with. Frank was just kind of amazing just to sit and talk with. He was a great conversationalist. He always had an opinion about things and he always gave you his attention. And he listened when you spoke. And he was always interested and interesting.”

Of course, playing for someone like Frank Zappa must have been a pretty challenging experience. And Steve confirms this by revealing actually how incredibly wild things were when you’re out on tour as a member of Frank’s band:

“Being a musician in Frank’s band required certain tools and it wasn’t the kind of band you get into to learn how to perform. You learn how to play high-information music under pressure while laughing. You had to keep your attention on Frank at all times.”

Frank Zappa - Sinister Footwear II (live in NYC, 1981)

“I couldn’t really play to the audience, because Frank was conducting certain things. At any time during the entire show, he could give you a signal. He had various signals he would give you that would mean do this in a song. If he went like this, that meant whatever you were playing played reggae. Or he would go like this, and whatever you’re playing, you got to play it and five-eight.”

“Or he had this one really great, where he’d walk around. He’d go like this, and that meant whatever you were doing play it heavy metal. Big balls. So you really have to keep your eye on Frank.”

“We did probably two shows a night most of the time with long soundchecks, where he would write and record. We had about 80 songs that you have to memorize. He would pick the setlist, he would write the setlist five minutes before the show. And it was different every single night.”

Frank Zappa "- Illinois Enema Bandit -" Palladium 1981 [HD 720p]

“It was a real challenge for someone like me because I had a fascination with playing the very complex lines on the guitar. So Frank finally had a guitar player that he could give all these very challenging, dance, melodic lines and they’re all written.

And the daily schedule, according to Vai, looked something like this:

“So you wake up at 9 am and you go to the airport and you fly to the gig. Then you get from the car and you go directly to the gig. You do a long soundcheck, and then you have 45 minutes before the first show. Then there’s 45 minutes before the second show.”

“By the time we got back to the hotel, it was two o’clock, 1 am or 2 am. And I had to practice because I don’t know what songs he was going to call the next night. So I deteriorated pretty quickly.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 69), Helge Øverås (Zappa 16011977 01 300)

  • 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 and brands like Sam Ash.

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