STEVE VAI (1960–). One of the most recognizable guitarists on the rock scene over the last twenty years, Vai, along with his erstwhile teacher Joe Satriani, has only worked within established groups for short periods of time, instead having established a successful solo career of largely instrumental albums.
After graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Vai started his professional career in 1979 as a transcriber for Frank Zappa, going on to play guitar for Zappa’s band for several years. Leaving Zappa in 1984, Vai released a pair of self-recorded albums, Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers, which were Zappa–influenced, instrumental works.
Soon after, Vai took his impeccable chops and became something of a hard rock hired gun, first replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in the Graham Bonnett–led Alcatrazz, recording the 1985 album Disturbing the Peace with the band. Also in 1985, Vai turned in a delicious performance in the film Crossroads, playing the devil’s guitarist whom Ralph Macchio’s character has to play against in a guitar duel.
Vai’s next stop was with former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, whose strategy after Van Halen was to enlist virtuoso players and let them strut their stuff. Vai and bassist Billy Sheehan didn’t disappoint, pulling out all the stops in the studio, on stage, and in a series of seriously funny and entertaining videos for the album. As a result, Vai became a mainstream star, idolized by guitarists and guitar fans all over the world, a fan base that would go far in sustaining Vai later in his solo career. Vai stayed with Roth for two albums, 1986’s Eat ’Em and Smile and 1988’s Skyscraper, leaving just after the latter’s release.
1988 was also the year that Vai became an endorser of the Japanese guitar company Ibanez, which released Vai’s signature model guitar, the Jem 777, which he has played ever since. Later in the year, while working on his solo album, he was asked to join Whitesnake, who were at their peak of popularity, getting ready to follow up their massively successful 1987 Whitesnake album. Vai joined the band, playing on the 1989 album Slip of the Tongue. His solo album Passion & Warfare came out the same year and was a significant hit, going gold.
Leaving Whitesnake after completing the Slip of the Tongue tour, Vai assembled his own rock group featuring veteran musicians bassist T. M. Stevens, drummer Terry Bozzio, and singer Devin Townsend. The band, dubbed VAI, released a single album, 1993’s Sex & Religion, which failed to meet Vai or the public’s expectations, and the group disbanded shortly thereafter, with Vai going back to his solo career. He has continued to release solo albums ever since, and in the late nineties began the annual G3 guitar tour, which he co-headlines with Joe Satriani and a revolving third guitarist.
Discography: Flex-Able (Epic, 1984); Passion & Warfare (Epic, 1990); Sex & Religion (Epic, 1993); Alien Love Secrets (Epic, 1995); Fire Garden (Epic, 1996); Flex-Able Leftovers (Epic, 1998); The Ultra Zone (Epic, 1999); The 7th Song: Enchanting Guitar Melodies (Sony, 2000); Alive in an Ultra World (Epic, 2001); Live Around the World (Sony, 2001); Real Illusions: Reflections (WK, 2005); Live Album (Sony, 2007); Sound Theories, Vols. 1–2 (Epic/Red Ink, 2007); The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1 (Favored Nations, 2002); Mystery Tracks Archives, Vol. 3 (Favored Nations, 2003); The Infinite Steve Vai: An Anthology (Epic/Legacy, 2003); Archives, Vol. 4 (Favored Nations, 2005); Original Album Classics (Sony/BMG, 2008).