Steve Vai: Why Frank Zappa Was Different Than Other Rock Musicians of His Era

Legendary guitar maestro Steve Vai looked back on his time working with Frank Zappa. Vai, who initially joined Zappa as a transcriptionist and then got to play as a member of his live band, discussed this recently in an interview on Kip Winger’s YouTube channel.

During the chat, Vai was asked to weigh in on where he would be at now if he didn’t end up working with Zappa. The question came up after Vai talked about the Broadway show and musical “West Side Story” as his “musical awakening” when he was a kid. He then replied by explaining (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“Well, that’s a tough one. Because after that ‘West Side Story’ experience, my sister was listening to like Led Zeppelin. And that was it. That’s when the whole guitar thing came in, but nothing was really pushing my buttons in that time.”

Frank Zappa & Steve Vai

“I mean, yes, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and all of that, but it didn’t satisfy my compositional… You don’t compose that stuff.”

And then he heard Zappa’s music. Vai added:

“Then suddenly, I heard Frank Zappa’s music. And that was a stunner because it had everything in it that no one else was doing that I was looking for. It had composition, like intense composition. It had rock band compositional elements, it was free, it was funny, it had comedy. It had wicked guitar playing, it had rock sensibilities, blues. So Frank was sort of like this go-to.”

Steve Vai Talks About Zappa Audition

“And the melodies he wrote — oh my god, they’re so beautiful. How I ended up in his band was, I just thought ‘Wow, it was wild.’ Like, to this day, I look back and it’s like, ‘Did all that really happen?’

Of course, this is an almost impossible question to answer. “What ifs” are generally like that, but this particular one is even more difficult. After all, his work with Zappa made Vai a musician he is today. So he concluded by saying:

“So for Frank not to have been in my life, on a personal level? Oh, jeez, that’s a tough one. That’s a real hard one. I would have probably been looking… There’s nobody else that could replace his offering, you know?”

Playing with Frank Zappa "I was scared to death!" STEVE VAI

Of course, getting the chance to work with such a musical giant as a young musician must have been daunting. In fact, Vai was pretty much an 18-year-old kid at the time. A talented one, of course, but we’re still talking about Frank Zappa.

In an interview from a few years ago, Vai admitted that he felt “petrified” in front of Zappa. When asked whether he was intimidated around him, Vai replied:

“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]”

FRANK ZAPPA & STEVE VAI - Black Napkins

Nonetheless, Vai still had confidence in his talent, knowledge, and skills. He knew that he could contribute to Zappa’s music:

“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.'”

So what was the secret? Well, it’s not much of a secret at all since he used nothing but the pure power of his work ethic. Vai continued:

“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.”

Frank Zappa - Montana (A Token Of His Extreme)

“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.”

Steve Vai joined Frank Zappa as a transcriptionist in 1978. After about a couple of years, Vai then started playing in Zappa’s live band. He continued working there up until 1983 when he moved on to his own projects. Apart from working on his own bands, and eventually his solo project, Steve also built his home studio and started his record label.

Steve Vai - Flex-able [Full Album]

1984’s “Flex-Able” was his first debut album as a solo musician. However, it wasn’t until “Passion and Warfare” in 1990 that he got more attention as a solo artist. In between those two, Vai also got the chance to work with David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, and Whitesnake for their self-titled 1987 album.

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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