’It Seems so Stupid to Me’: Steve Vai Explains What He Dislikes About Conventional Guitar Models

Guitar legend Steve Vai addressed his not-so-conventional approach to guitars and what he dislikes about the usual guitars, such as Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls.

Vai, who’s well-known for his signature Ibanez JEM guitars, appeared in a recent episode of the Vintage Rock Pod podcast and looked back on how he actually managed to make someone put his ideas to life. These were the 1980s and he was just out of Frank Zappa’s band. All of the companies and even smaller luthiers didn’t want to stray from the usual Fender-style and Gibson-style molds. And yet Vai went into a completely new direction. He explained (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“Working with Frank — I realized if you want something, you can just build it. Or, if you want to change something, you just change it. So it was kind of sacrilegious to alter guitars. Like, if you had a Les Paul or a Strat, you don’t drill holes in it. But Frank did that. So I thought, ‘Well…'”

Going into more detail about Strats and Les Pauls in terms of their limitations, Steve said:

“There were certain things, certain aspects, about conventional guitars that I like, but there were limitations. I liked Strats but I wasn’t crazy about the sound, and the single-coil pickups weren’t rock and roll for me. I didn’t like that it only had 21 frets.”

“And the Les Paul… I loved Les Pauls, but they didn’t have whammy bars.”

The next step was to find an independent luthier who would actually make some of these guitar designs that he had in mind:

“So I just decided to go to this little music shop and design a guitar for me. It was very naive, very innocent. I had no expectations of anything happening with it except for me. But it really had some creative innovative things worked into it.”

Steve Vai's Wild Guitar Collection | Interview

“I didn’t know. I just said I want 24 frets on a Strat-style body. That was unique at the time. The cutaways should be like ‘this’ so I could reach the notes.”

Reflecting on the conventional old guitar designs established by classic manufacturers, Vai said:

“It seems so stupid to me that they would make guitars with cutaways and frets, but you can’t reach them. Nobody wants to shake up the applecart. So I’m like, ‘No, you gotta cut it away.'”

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Going into more details, he said:

“And then the pickup configuration was unique because it would split coils in certain positions. I didn’t know any of this. I would just say ‘Hey, can you make it do this?’ It had a floating tremolo and this was the first time they existed like that because the Floyd had just come out. I wanted to be able to pull way up on the whammy bar.”

But what he got wasn’t enough and Steve just decided to make his own adjustments:

“I just looked at it and I realized there was just some wood in the way so I hacked it out. And that was like the first floating bridge. So I had this guitar and I had four of them made.”

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Of course, once he started working with David Lee Roth in the mid-1980s, offers from big guitar companies started pouring in. Everybody wanted their models to be in Steve Vai’s hands. But he still preferred his custom-made guitars:

“And when I joined Dave Roth’s band, a lot of the guitar companies were interested in having me endorse their guitars. But I said, ‘Well, thanks. But I got this one.'”

But the idea of a company making these guitars according to his specs? That was a new thing:

“And then they said, ‘Well, we’ll make it for you.’ So I thought, ‘Well, that would be convenient if I had a company making me the exact guitar that I designed and that I liked.'”

However, things were not that simple. They’d just end up making what they usually make and send it over:

“I sent out the design, I said, ‘Make me this guitar.’ And inevitably, I said, ‘Whoever makes the best one I’ll use.’ And inevitably, they’d send me back their guitar with my name on it.”

“Because a lot of times, signature series guitars for a guitarist are the brand’s standard guitar with a couple of, like… Certain fret wire, a certain kind of pickups in it. It’s not a reconstruction of the entire guitar. That didn’t become popular until later.”

Steve Vai - "30 years of the Ibanez JEM"

Eventually, Steve would find the best option — Ibanez. As he added:

“The JEM was one of the first because it was a whole rebuild. Even when Ibanez sent me, when I sent them the JEM, I said ‘Make me this.’ The first thing they gave me was this…”

“They did the same thing the other companies did. They gave me their guitar, their idea of what I would like and I hated it. I’m like, ‘Why did they give me that guitar? It has nothing to do with what I want.’ Then Ibanez said they got it. They’re like, ‘Okay, we better make what he wants.'”

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“Then they made the JEM, and I thought it was fantastic. Now I had this company making this guitar and then they said, ‘Well, we’d like to make this for other people.’ And I thought, ‘Huh, well… Okay, but…’ and then you work a deal.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 56)

  • 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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