Steve Vai Recalls Odd Method He Used to Learn Frank Zappa Songs Due to a Very Tight Schedule

In case you need to learn a lot of songs in a short period and keep your repertoire perfectly intact, Steve Vai has one pretty unconventional method. According to what he said in an interview with Chanan Hanspal, when he was in Frank Zappa’s live band back in the early 1980s, he actually tried to learn some parts in his sleep.

Recalling the very tight schedule that the musicians had on tour, as well as Zappa’s incredibly challenging demands and constant changes, Vai spoke up on this method (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“There are certain techniques I used to try to memorize the melodies because there was so much. One thing I used to do is kind of like sight-reading. I tried to get to the point where I could sight-read it slowly.”

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“Then I’d record it, and then I put on headphones and go to sleep. And I have a timer on the cassette to turn on in the middle of the night and play these melodies over and over in my head while I was sleeping. Because I figured well, ‘Maybe that’ll reach my subconscious.'”

Sure, it might seem odd. But as Vai adds, he delivered so maybe the method really did work. He added:

“And I delivered. I look back at it and I think, ‘How did I do that?’ I mean, I was just a kid. I was 20 years old on the first tour.”

Steve Vai about Frank Zappa

Now, one would think that he’s exaggerating and that there was absolutely no need for such a thing. However, Vai explained how there was barely any moment when he could practice on tour. And there was a lot of stuff to practice. He explained:

“It was rough, because with Frank, we wake up at 9am, you got to get to the airport, get on a plane, you arrive in a city.”

“And when you’re in Europe… There was still customs at every border and money exchange and all that… Then you go directly from the airport to soundcheck, and you soundcheck up until doors.”

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“And during soundcheck, Frank would just change things around and write new music and it was constant. Then you get offstage after soundcheck, and you had 45 minutes before the show.”

What’s more, the band had a decent amount of songs in their repertoire and Zappa would end up changing things right before they went on stage. Now, mind you, these aren’t exactly the simplest pieces. We’re talking about Frank Zappa. Vai continued:

“We had about 80 songs, and maybe there’s 15 songs in a show. So Frank would write the setlist five minutes before we went on the stage, and it was different every single night.”

“And 60% of it was just death-defying guitar parts. Then we’d finish the show, take a break and do another show. A lot of times, it was two shows in one night. And by the time you get back to the hotel, it’s 1am.”

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As a result, young Steve, who was about 20 years old at the time, had to use every moment he could to practice and be up to Frank’s standards. Needless to say, he was under a lot of pressure:

“I had to use any spare time because I had to keep all the songs fresh under my fingers. So I wasn’t sleeping, and I was in a state of stress. I was stressed out because I didn’t know what song he was going to call. We might not play approximate for a week or something, and then I’ll see it on the list. So I had to keep all the songs fresh.”

“And that was the challenge. It was all about, ‘You wake up and you just work your ass off, and then you go to sleep’. It was great training, but it really psychologically beat me up.”

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This is in line with what Vai said in another recent interview. Reflecting on what it was really like to be a member of Frank Zappa’s live band, he offered:

“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.”

“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.”

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“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.”

“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.”

Photos: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 62), Mark Estabrook (Zappa)

  • 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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