Over the course of a more than 40-year career, Steve Vai has routinely transformed what would appear to be outrageously impossible into something very, very possible… and still also pretty outrageous. From his days as Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitar” player to his more recent expansive and exploratory solo work, Vai has continually challenged notions of traditional guitar playing and composition – and on more than one occasion even reimagined the very instrument itself. Which, he’ll admit, is not necessarily his intention.
“I don't sit around and say, ‘Okay, what can I do now that pushes the boundaries?,” Vai explains about his approach to the guitar. “What I do say to myself is, ‘Okay, Vai – what are you going to do now that's going to interest you, that’s going to fascinate you, and that’s different than anything you've done before?”
The answer to that question comes in the form of Vai’s newest and 10th solo album, Inviolate, a nine-song opus that (sorry Steve) does indeed push the boundaries of instrumental guitar music – this time out, Vai quite literally invented not just a new guitar, but also a new guitar-playing technique.
At the same time, Inviolate presents his most focused, streamlined and perhaps invigorating music in years. “It’s very ‘Vai,’ whatever that means,” he says, and then laughs. “Someone else might be better than me at explaining what that is. But it’s just very honest music. Because a lot of my records, they're long and there's a lot of concepts and playing around with stories. This one has none of that. This is nine pretty dense all-instrumental compositions that I wanted to capture and record so I could get out there and play them live for people.”
The desire to bring these songs to the stage was central to Inviolate’s conception. Early in the pandemic, Vai was deep into the recording of a very different record, one comprised primarily of solo acoustic songs with vocals. But as we’ve all learned over the past few years, sometimes the universe has different plans for us.
In Vai’s case, he was sidelined with not one but two serious ailments – three torn tendons in his right shoulder that required surgery, and a bout of trigger finger in his left thumb that eventually froze the digit entirely, making it exceedingly difficult for him to play his instrument. By the time he got through the recovery process, the world was beginning to open back up and he was staring down – rather excitedly – a slate of more than 200 tour dates. And so the acoustic album went on the backburner, and the decidedly more made-for-the-stage Inviolate came to life. And to be sure, it’s easy to imagine Vai and his band exploding onto stages in 2022 to the electrifying strains of the new album’s barn-burning, melodic-shred tour-de-force, “Avalancha,” to give just one example.
But while that song, with its alternately grinding and throttling rhythm attack (courtesy of drummer Jeremy Colson and bassist and longtime Vai musical compadre Billy Sheehan) and long, legato strings of exceedingly hooky, high-wire guitar lines, represents the artist at his most straightforward and accessible, much of Inviolate finds him delving deep and wide – in some cases deeper and wider than ever before – to plumb the furthest reaches of his abilities and creativity.
The most fully realized example of this would be Inviolate’s mesmeric opener, “Teeth of the Hydra,” a sinuous, Latin-fusion-tinged composition that Vai wrote and recorded with a one-of-a-kind custom guitar he coined the Hydra. But calling the Hydra a mere guitar is selling it way, way, way short. Built in conjunction with the designers at Hoshino and based on a “steampunk motif” idea of Vai’s, the Hydra is a beast of an instrument – a one-bodied, two-headstock-ed, three-neck-ed creature that encompasses, among other things: seven- and 12-string guitars; a four-string bass; sympathetic harp strings; half-fretless necks; single-coil, humbucking, piezo and sustainer pickups; floating and hardtail tremolo bridges; phase splitters; and much, much more.
“It's an incredibly-built machine,” Vai says. “I told the guys at Hoshino, ‘Anything that you think is conventional, don't do that.’ This was an opportunity to exercise brutal creativity. And they went beyond.”
As did Vai in his performance. Throughout the track he employs the Hydra’s full range of tone and timbres to craft a guitar part that sounds, in its expansiveness and expressiveness, positively alive. “The interesting thing about the song and the guitar is that it all came at the same time,” Vai says. “It was one of those ‘inviolate’ inspirations – boom!”
That said, he continues, “I knew that I needed to create something with the Hydra that sounded like a real piece of music. It couldn’t be just a novelty. Because if you knew what my hands were doing, and how I'm using my left hand to create phrasings that work when I can't pick a note because my right hand is off somewhere else…my god. But the finished piece had to stand on its own. It couldn't sound like I was just trying to juggle stuff.”
While “Teeth of the Hydra” pushes the limits of what two hands can do on one instrument, another Inviolate track, “Knappsack,” finds Vai taking a more streamlined approach. Vai composed and recorded the song following his shoulder surgery, at a time when his right arm was in a sling (or, as his surgeon, Dr. Knapp, called it, a “knappsack”), and thus was able to use only his left hand when playing the piece. Difficult? Sure. Although when he released a video of his one-handed performance earlier in 2021, he says with a laugh, “pretty soon after I started to see some clips of young kids pulling it off, too. It's really fascinating.”
Those kids will likely face a greater challenge attempting to take on another Inviolate track, “Candle Power.” For this one, Vai not only set up parameters outside of his comfort zone (Strat-style guitar; clean tone; no whammy bar; no pick), but also – why not? – developed an entirely new guitar technique that he calls “joint shifting.” The core concept there, he explains, is to enact simultaneous multiple string bends in opposite directions, which “requires bending only the top joint of the finger independently from any other finger.” And while he acknowledges that bending multiple strings is not a new concept in and of itself, “I had not seen any of it done in the way I envisioned it,” he says.
Like “Knappsack,” Vai released “Candle Power” an accompanying performance video earlier in 2021. But he added a little something extra to the version that appears on Inviolate, with a newly recorded drum track from fellow Zappa alumnus Terry Bozzio (to that end, additional crack players who lent a hand to the record include bassists Bryan Beller, Philip Bynoe and Henrik Linder, keyboardist David Rosenthal and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta).
Other spots where Vai steps outside the lines? Try “Little Pretty,” a dark-toned fusion-funk workout played almost exclusively on a Gretsch hollow body guitar. As for what led Vai to the unusual (at least for him) model, he says, “It’s on the wall with all the other guitars, and I’d always just look at it and go, ‘One day I’m going to play you…’ ”
Or cue up “Apollo in Color,” where Vai’s soaring runs on his Ibanez PIA signature guitar (the newly-designed model’s first appearance on a Vai studio album, it’s worth noting) are surrounded by filigrees of sound played on all manner of exotic stringed instruments. “I thought, ‘Okay, what can I do to color this thing up?’ ” Vai says. “So I pulled out all these little acoustic instruments I've collected through the years and I said, ‘I'm going to use every one of them somehow.’ ” These included a cavaquinho, a saz, a sitar, an oud and more. “Some of the instruments, I don't even know their names,” Vai admits with a laugh.
But perhaps the biggest stylistic departure for Vai is the album’s seventh track, “Greenish Blues,” which, true to its title, is an actual (gasp!) blues song. Or, at least, Vai’s version of the blues. “I've never really been an authentic blues player,” he acknowledges. Although, he adds, “I haven't really been an authentic anything. You would not turn to me to hear the blues or jazz or classical or fusion or even straight-ahead rock, you know? There's always weird stuff going on with me, and it's always very quirky.”
That said, he also points out that, like most players, “one of the first things I learned on the guitar was the blues scale. I thought I discovered the holy grail. Virtually everything I’ve played since then is derived from that scale. When I’m ‘mode-ing’ around the neck, I don’t think of Lydian or Mixolydian or finger patterns. I think, ‘blues with altered notes.’ So, in that respect, I guess everything I do is my quirky version of the blues – ‘greenish blues.’”
In essence, it all comes down to finding your own voice, and then having the courage and conviction to follow your musical and creative instincts wherever they may take you – something Vai has never been shy about in his playing.
“One of the great things about the guitar is you don't need to be a virtuoso to express your creative vision,” he says. “I mean, Bob Dylan plays the guitar perfectly well for his expression. So does John McLaughlin. You just need to decide how much technique you want or need to get there. For myself, I came out of the chute wanting and needing it all. So when it comes to my music, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything or conform to anything. I just love to think up creative ideas, and then use whatever skill I have to manifest them.” Which is what he has done, yet again, with Inviolate.
“An inviolate inspiration is one that comes to you completely pure,” Vai explains. “It appears almost in its completeness, and there’s a recognition of it as being right for you – perfectly right for you. There’s no excuses in it. There's no fantasy in it. There's just a recognition of ‘yes.’ And then you capture that in a way that’s authentic to your unique creativity. Hopefully, that’s what I’ve done with this record.”