When you think of shred-guitar, you can’t help but at least think about Steve Vai. From lightning fast solo runs to long sustained Pink-Floyd-esque melodies, Vai absolutely knows what he’s doing.
Steve Vai is one the most copied guitarists, and that’s not just limited to his playing style, but his tone as well. Vai is one of those guitarists whose tone you can instantly recognize, and is incredibly hard to copy.
If you go on message board forums asking about how to get Steve Vai’s tone, you’ll mostly likely get responses like: “Only Steve Vai can sound like Steve Vai.”, and “Tone is all in the fingers.” While this is true to some extent, the gear plays a huge role in what actually comes out of the speakers.
If you want to emulate Vai’s tone, you’ll have to start at the basics. More specifically, his drive tone. Steve Vai has used many different types of gear over the years, but there’s two pedals that have helped him for a long time, the Ibanez Tube Screamer, and the Boss DS-1.
Seems kind of disappointing, right? One of the most legendary and hard to copy tones come partially from such widely available and somewhat overused pedals. You’d think that his tone comes from a collection of boutique equipment, but in reality it’s all relatively simple.
This is actually a good thing, as it’s easier to get your hands on the same equipment he uses.
Who is Steve Vai?
Steve Vai is an American guitar virtuoso who was incredibly popular in the 80’s and 90’s. HE played alongside some of the greats, including Joe Satriani, Frank Zappa, and even as a replacement for Ynwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz.
Steve Vai is known as a solo musician, and has released countless records including “Flex-Able”, “Alien Love Secrets”, and “The Ultra Zone”.
Vai has been sponsored by Ibanez for a very long time, and even has his own ‘JEM’ series Ibanez guitars that are very popular.
But now, onto the pedals – the Tube Screamer and the Boss DS-1.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Probably the most legendary drive pedal in existence. The Ibanez Tube Screamer has been used by so many legends. Many of the most legendary rock albums have been recorded with the Ibanez Tube Screamer somewhere. Some of the guys who’ve used the Tube Screamer are Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kirk Hammett, Gary Moore, and in this case Steve Vai.
The Tube Screamer is supposed to be used in front of the amp as a boost to compress and saturate the amp’s own drive. The Tube Screamer can be used on a clean amp as an ‘amp in a box’ type of tone, but there’s better pedals for that purpose.
The Tube Screamer has had several iterations over the years, including the TS808, TS9, and the Tube Screamer Mini, which is what Vai uses.
Steve Vai uses it the way most people do. He puts it in front of the amp, with the drive fairly low and the level fairly high. The tone knob acts more like a mid boost rather than a filter sweep (like it does on most pedals and amps). It’s hard to tell where he sets this knob exactly, and it most likely changes regularly.
His Tube Screamer is basically always on, unless he’s playing crystal clean passages. He combines the tone of his Tube Screamer and that of his Carvin Legacy amps to create his signature creamy drive tone. This is the base for his tone.
Specifically, Vai uses the Tube Screamer Mini. It’s a small version of the 808, and it sounds just as great. These are very easy to find and very affordable, so it’s a great addition to any pedalboard, not just those inspired by Steve Vai.
Boss is probably the most recognisable pedal maker. Almost every guitarist has a Boss pedal on his board. The combination of great sounds, indestructible construction, and reasonable pricing has been the formula for legendary pedal-maker status.
One of the most famous Boss pedals is the Boss DS-1. This little orange box of doom has been responsible for countless legendary tones on countless records. What makes this pedal great is how versatile it is. It can be used in a similar way to the Tube Screamer at low gain. At higher gain this pedal can push tons of gain into your amp. It’s definitely got enough gain for metal, and even more.
This doesn’t mean this pedal is perfect. It’s kind of hard to dial in a tone that’s really good. The tone control gets incredibly fizzy above halfway, and the same goes for the gain control. This pedal can be used as a fuzz onze the gain is above halfway, though, so it’s very versatile.
Steve Vai uses this pedal as a secondary gain stage. The Tube Screamer is his primary gain stage, with which he pusues his amp into low-gain drive. The Boss is used to create tons more gain for high-gain passages and solos.
He doesn’t use the pedal to boost the gain on his amp, but to create dirt on it’s own, as practically all distortion pedals do.
This pedal is also a very affordable and easy to find pedal. There’s tons on the used market going for less than 50 dollars.
Other pedals Steve Vai uses
Steve Vai doesn’t just use overdrive and distortion, but he uses a plethora of other effects as well. Most notably, the MXR Phase 90 and the Digitech Whammy DT.
MXR Phase 90
The MXR is probably the most used Phaser pedal out there, and for a reason. It’s an incredibly easy to use and great sounding Phaser. There’s not much more to say here, as it’s just plain great. An example of a song he uses this effect in is ‘For the Love of God’.
Digitech Whammy DT
The Digitech Whammy DT is a bit of an oddball. It combines a pitchshifter and an expression pedal. The footswitch can be used to control how far the pitch bends. This pedal is often used to create artificial divebombs, or very extreme pitch-squeals. Vai uses this in a multitude of ways, including both examples above. Examples of songs he uses this effect in are ‘Touching Tongues’ and ‘Asian Sky’.
Steve Vai is one of those guitarists that fall in the category of ‘often copied, never replicated’. He is undoubtedly a guitar virtuoso, and whether you like shred solos or not, you have to agree he’s one of a kind.
His guitar tone is also something it’s often copied, but never replicated. It’s nice to see part of his tone comes from pedals that are so accessible and affordable.