Watching Steve Vai play is more of an experience than an actual concert. It’s a fireworks display of tones, techniques and colors. He made his mark in the 1980’s playing for Frank Zappa, a feat that earned him great validation in the guitar community. Upon leaving Zappa’s band, Steve recorded his first solo album in a studio he built in his backyard. It featured absurd acrobatics which consisted of draw dropping technicality and it propelled him into a hugely successful solo career. Today he has made his mark as one of the greatest performers of our time.
Steve describes the mindset change that a performer has to undergo when on stage. “You can sit in your room all day and practice, but when you get on a stage and the lights are on, everything changes. Nothing feels the same as the garage. Your foot pedals, your sound – everything is different even if you did a soundcheck. People come into the room and it makes everything sound different.”
Performers can be faced with a multitude of challenges at a given show. Not every show is great, and an especially common problem is inadequate stage levels. Steve gives us some advice on how to deal with this issue. “It’s easy to be like a deer in the headlights. But you lose your note when that happens. What I’ve learned to do, most of the time, is just make believe everything sounds great. Relax and breathe – that helps a lot. The thing that’s making you freak out is that there’s people watching you.”
Steve describes the lights of show business to be a common denominator in stage fright. “Lights change everything. You can hardly see the audience most of the time. You can’t really see your pedals very well. That can freak you out if you’re not used to it. You kind of learn to go into an autopilot mode, and you zone out and zone in. The best way to get there is to relax by bringing your attention into relaxing and breathing. That grounds you, it brings you back.”
Relaxing is an important part of Steve’s regime before playing a show. “The effort usually comes in the preparation stages, I don’t think much when I’m performing but instead focus on getting my mind out of the way of what’s happening. When my attention is on the inner body and the focus is relaxing, everything moves seamlessly and elegantly. This can be a very challenging practice because the mind is so used to running about from one unnecessary thought to another and just getting in the way.”
Once you’ve invested the required effort in developing your technique, Steve describes the gigs as rather enjoyable. “The peak for a virtuoso guitarist is when you are completely present with the note that is flowing through you in your ‘now’. There is a freedom from thought but a sense of creative intensity, all emanating from a deep sense of stillness and peace. Everything just happens automatically and is inspired. I call that ‘The Ultra Zone’. With each performance ‘The Ultra Zone’ is embraced deeper and longer.”
Steve Vai’s great work is evident on number of great live DVD’s. He somehow always comes across as a confident performer and doesn’t seem to miss a note. He gives us some advice on capturing a great live show on DVD. “The energy from a stage is subject to how in touch you are as an artist. However you capture that energy, whether it’s with a handheld video recorder or 7 high-definition camera’s, a good portion of that energy is going to be translated. The intensity really comes from the band. I do my best to capture the kind of energy I want my band to portray.”
Although Steve has a portfolio of seamless live recordings, challenging moments could always arise at any given time. “I’ve had some serious trainwrecks where I’m looking going, ‘What the heck is going on here? What am I playing?’ It’s kind of rare, but it does happen where I just completely space out. Sometimes I space out and I don’t even realise it and the band is just looking at me. After the show they’ll be like ‘Hey Steve, you know you left out the first verse’ or something. But it’s rare that I can’t get back on track. The only time it’s a real challenge is if I break a string or something.”