Steve Vai Explains Why Playing Fast Shouldn’t Be a Guitar Player’s Main Focus: ’You Become Just a Machine’

Guitar legend Steve Vai pointed out the importance of composition and why that aspect of musicianship is much more important than technical skill. Vai, who’s also well-known as one of the virtuosic guitar players, even often referred to as a “shredder,” pointed out the importance of having a proper melody in your music as opposed to playing fast.

Appearing in Kip Winger’s podcast, Vai was asked to reflect on his compositional work. Asked about the origins of that, he replied (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“If I was to outline the parallel universes of rock music and classical music, compositional music, in my life, it would sound something like this. I think it was on my sixth birthday and my mom got me a little ‘spin it’ organ. I remember hitting a note and recognizing the notes go higher to the right, and they go lower to the left. It was right at that moment, I had this sort of epiphany.”

Conversation with Steve Vai - part 1

“At that moment, there were two thoughts that came to me. One of them was, ‘This is music.’ I could see music, knowing that, ‘Oh, I see this is how it works’ and ‘Oh, that’s music…’ It was an instinctive feeling that the creation of music was infinite, and you have all of these colors and things at your disposal, you can do anything you want.”

Winger then asked Vai a pretty interesting question — is the electric guitar-playing Steve Vai the same guy who used to compose orchestral pieces? He replied:

“I have never really given it much thought, because I usually adjust to the situation. If I’m sitting in with the band, and if I have a guitar on, and I’m improvising, there’s a compositional element to that. It’s changed through the years.”

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

Going off on that, Vai also explained how playing fast, although a valuable skill, isn’t what your musicianship should revolve around:

“At one point, when you’re a developing musician, at least for me, it was all about, ‘Okay, these scales work, and I can play this scale, and I practiced it so much, boy, I can play it fast.’ but that gets tired.”

“You become just a machine, and it wears thin on you, no matter who you are. But melody never wears thin, and it’s infinite.”

Steve Vai - "Candle Power"

“There’s times, in my earlier days, where melody occasionally would just come out, and I’d never really recognize that. Usually, it was, ‘This is the blues scale. It’s got to work.’ But that was when I was a kid. Then, as things progressed, and my interest in compositional music improved – compositional music, or rock music; they serve a purpose. And that purpose is what are you hearing.”

And, according to Vai, this is when the magic happens:

“That’s when the best stuff comes out, when I just shut up, and I listen. Anybody that’s in the moment of inspiration, you back out, you get out of the way. And when I don’t get out of the way, then I’m intellectualizing what I’m doing or I’m exercising my hand memory, and I do that too. I’m not an inspired person all the time.”

Frank Zappa & Steve Vai

Back in the late 1970s, Steve Vai began working as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa. This was a defining experience for him as a musician. After all, just imagine having to transcribe the music that Frank Zappa came up with.

Vai soon became one of the members of Zappa’s touring band which, as you can only imagine, only further helped him improve on his skills. In an interview from a few years ago, Vai reflected on what it was like to be working with Zappa at such a young age and whether he was intimidated by him. He replied (via Ultimate Guitar):

“Oh, my God, yes! On one level it was petrifying. I was 18, and this was Frank Zappa. I was enamored of him. I would watch him and think, ‘OK, Frank is reaching for his coffee. What’s he gonna tell me? What the fuck am I doing here?’ All those things went through my head. [Laughs]”

Steve Vai about Frank Zappa

“But it’s funny, because at the same time, on a performance level, I was completely different. I knew I could contribute to his music, and I was fiercely confident. I was like, ‘Go ahead. Give me anything you want. I’m going to play it, and I’m going to blow you away. I am not one bit intimidated, because I know the secrets.’

“And my secret was just my practice ethic. Give me anything and I will break it down. I’ll learn it perfectly until I can play it with confidence to the point where you’re impressed.”

“And I did that. I did things that to this day I can’t believe – things like ‘The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ and ‘Sinister Footwear.’ I loved playing those things perfectly and as beautifully as I could. On that level, I wasn’t intimidated at all.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 08)

  • 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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