Why Steve Vai Isn’t Into Vintage Guitars: ’I Like Guitars That Have Functionality’

Legendary guitar virtuoso and innovator Steve Vai revealed that he isn’t all that into vintage guitars and prefers instruments with more functionality.

Knowing that he’s one of the guys who helped push the electric guitar forward, it may not come as a surprise. Back in the 1980s, he was the first one to actually implement a few important elements that would give birth to commercially available “Super Strat” guitars.

But still — vintage for him isn’t the way to go. At least that’s what he told Dean Delray in the recent edition of the Let There Be Talk show.

#733 : Steve Vai #guitar

“The thing about vintage,” Vai reflected (transcript via Ultimate Guitar). “I make music based on what I’m feeling, like anybody else. When it comes to guitars, I am not an aficionado.”

“I can’t really tell you a lot about the guitar,” he added. “When I’m designing it, I know everything, the kind of neck, the fret dimensions, the ohmage on the pots, the wood — everything. But that information is kind of like boring to me in a sense.”

So instead of nerding out over all the details about tonewood or oddly specific electronic components, Steve admits that he has a different preference:

“And I like guitars that have functionality. So if you go in that room [his home studio] and look around, every guitar, there’s something unique that it offers. Most of them. Unless it’s just like a Les Paul, my few Les Pauls or whatever.”

His collection isn’t like the usual old-school rock star guitar museum. Vai continued:

“But there’s guitars — baritone guitars, there are seven-strings, there’s guitars with sustainers that have weird whammy. But there’s all sorts of things. And that’s what I like. I like collecting guitars that have unique functions.”

And, obviously, he isn’t against the idea of owning or playing vintage guitars. After all, Steve doesn’t seem like a guy who’d go about telling people how they should approach making and performing music. But he just isn’t into the idea.

Steve Vai "Inviolate Europe Full Set" Live 07.04.23@TeatroDal Verme

“There is a great romance in owning vintage, but I just don’t resonate with it,” the guitar virtuoso pointed out.

In fact, Steve admits that he did try to go down the vintage guitar path. However, he came to a somewhat controversial conclusion while trying to find the best Strat.

“I remember once, I was recording ‘Alien Love Secrets,’ and there was a song ‘[The] Boy From Seattle.’ And it required a clean single-coil Strat.”

“And I always wanted an old Strat, just to have it. And I had saved. Because, at the time, a really good old Strat was like $17,000. And I saved, and I had it.”

Steve Vai @ Visioninmusica 2023

So Steve set out to do some shopping. Being the big name in the guitar world, stores that had vintage stuff were okay with him borrowing and trying out a bunch of instruments.

“And I went down to all the music stores in Hollywood,” Steve recalled. “I said, ‘Bring me your best Strats, bring them to the studio.’ I sat for days and went through Strats — old Strat after old Strat.”

But what he decided to purchase was a little unexpected. Instead of getting one of the most expensive vintage guitars that he could find, it was actually a cheap copy that really stood out to him. Vai explained:

“I ended up buying a $500 Japanese knockoff Strat because it felt the best, and it absolutely sounded the best for what I was looking for,” Steve recalled.

Steve Vai - Tender Surrender - Live in Prague (29.04.2023)

And this is where he simply changed his mind on the matter, realizing that he shouldn’t be chasing something just because it’s old.

“And I said, ‘What am I chasing antique instruments for?’ They never really sound great to me, in a sense.”

“I don’t like new guitars, either. It’s like a new car. Some people like that. I like a new car, but a new guitar just feels too pristine. It’s not worked in. I like to get my sweat in it, I like when it gets a few bumps and grinds in it. So I’ve never really had an attraction for vintage. I definitely appreciate the romance behind it. But they’re expensive also.”

Obviously, opinions differ. And you have incredible musicians who swear by old instruments and even some very specific models made during certain periods. If you do decide on getting a vintage guitar, make sure to pay attention to all the details and ask around about what’s genuine or not.

Steve Vai - Full, Zepp NAMBA, Osaka, Japan (10/16/23) Tour 2023

As Joe Bonamassa said recently: “The vintage guitar market is a public pool filled with bull sharks and if you’re not careful, you’ll be consumed, lock, stock, and barrel by said bull sharks.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 58)


  • 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.