Steve Vai: The Alien Beekeeper

vai-01One thousand years from now, musicologists will have had ample time and perspective to refine the short list of musicians and composers from our times, whose work significantly influenced the evolutionary ladder of music. Unquestionably, Steve Vai will be on that short list.

They say you really get to know someone when you spend a day golfing or fishing with them.  A day or two in TrueFire’s studios does the trick too, and we were fortunate enough to get that opportunity with Steve during his session here for his first TrueFire course, Alien Guitar Secrets: Passion & Warfare.

Steve gave up a free weekend in-between big gigs and tour dates to shoot the course with us in St. Petersburg. During this same time, he was also working on the release of Modern Primitive and the 25th Anniversary edition of Passion and Warfare. Plus, he was juggling a million details related to the world tour that he was about to start just a few weeks away.

The man certainly had his hands full and yet, the moment he walked into the studio, it appeared as if he had all the time in the world with a singular focus to present what turned out to be one of the most engaging and inspiring courses that we’ve ever produced.

“Consummate pro” doesn’t even come close to describing Steve’s work ethic and overall vibe in the studio. The moment he took the hot seat in front of the cameras, the shoot was on and we all just buckled up for the ride.

Everyone who knows Steve personally, or has worked with him, will tell you what a great guy he is. We can now chime in ourselves and tell you firsthand that this is indeed true. Besides his well-established genius as a guitarist, composer and producer, Steve is also passionate, humble, charming, savvy and everything else that you’d want your guitar hero to be.

Jeff Scheetz, our Director of Education, interviewed Steve for this issue of Riff. Rather than asking him about specific licks and techniques, he explored Steve’s unique philosophical approach to life, music and beekeeping.

JS:vai-02 As a player you appear to have a deeper philosophical understanding of music than most musicians. Obviously you also have an incredible technical ability. When you started out playing, did you have that deeper philosophical approach from the start – or were you just a technique-obsessed teenager like the rest of us?

SV: I believe I was mostly a technically obsessed teenager when I started playing the guitar, but with a deep, but unconscious passion and interest in music and the instrument. I don’t believe I possess a more philosophical understanding of music than many others; it’s just that through the years, although music was a passion, I was also one of those people who was trying to figure out and understand the nature of humanity. That led me through many different kinds of studies in the field of esotericism and spirituality. This just causes me to speak somewhat differently about things.

JS: What advice can you give a student in order to help them gain more insight and a better understanding of the “big picture” of being a musician?

SV: I believe the most important aspect of being a musician, or in being or doing anything, is to identify with what it is that you want. That’s really the big picture. Sometimes this can be more elusive than it seems. The challenge is that sometimes people don’t know what they are really interested in because the clarity of their passion is obscured by insecurities, egoic desires, and conditioning.

I always try to recommend looking within yourself for the feeling of enthusiasm and excitement when contemplating what it is you would like to do. It may start out as a very subtle feeling of interest and joy. Many times an exciting idea pops into your head, but it can be followed by a ‘but.’ ‘But I can’t because…(fill in the blank)’. This is when a person really needs to cut through the mind chatter and just follow their bliss without any excuses why they can’t. Your bliss is accompanied by feelings of well being, enthusiasm, clarity and simplicity in your now. And if you are in that mental ‘Ultra Zone’ you have access to your instincts and those instincts will arise in you as inspired thoughts and impulses to take various actions.

Once you have a relatively clear picture of what it is you would like to do, then the thoughts of what to practice will be clearer. Some people may find themselves more interested in scales, riffs, technique, theory, and honing their skills, while others are more interested in writing songs right away. In any event, there is no wrong way to do it. If you know what you want, then your instincts will guide you.

vai-04But there needs to be some kind of balance between technique and going deeper than the technique. It’s difficult to get deep if you have very limited technique, but only you know how much you need to fulfill your desires. If a person decides they really want to be a virtuoso-type guitar player, then there will be no resistance in the process of practicing your ass off. You will naturally gravitate to that and you’ll know it’s the right thing because it’s exciting to you.

Some people dread doing scales and exercises, learning theory and things that develop a fierce technique. If that’s the case, then ultimately being a virtuoso is probably not for you, and that’s fine. In any event, knowing what you want, ‘the big picture’ will guide you and then there’s no wrong in anything you do. Ultimately there’s no wrong in anything you do anyway, but perhaps that’s another discussion.

vai-05JS: As you look back on your career as a player – is there any moment or even an “era” that stands out to you where you started to have a deeper appreciation for guitar?

SV: Not really. When I look back it seems as though that appreciation was always there and if anything it grows a little everyday.

JS: What is more important to you for your sound and playing your best – your guitar, or your amp/effects?

SV: Obviously they are both important and they are joined at the hips, but perhaps I would reach for the guitar first.

JS: How is live playing different now in the age of everyone having a phone and recording every moment? Do you think that has changed the mystique of “live” for the worse? Or maybe made it better in some way?

SV: Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective, but ultimately when you’re in the moment of playing live there’s usually no thought about any of this. The connection you have with your instrument is based on the degree of presence you have with it and if you are very present while playing, then it doesn’t matter what anyone is doing around you. But I will say that to some degree there is more of an awareness that anything I do on a stage is going to be recorded and possibly uploaded to social media, so maybe it keeps me on my toes a little more. In that regard it helps.

JS: As a teacher, what is the first thing you think about when you are trying to take a student from where they are, to where they want to be?

SV: Perhaps first I’m trying to identify with where they would like to be or a goal they may have. Then I try to get them to understand that where they are right now is fine, because sometimes people can be very frustrated with where they are at and this can cause a lot of resistance. Then I’ll poke around by asking questions about where they would like to be, but the most important technique I can use is to get them to actually feel what it would be like to be where it is they would like to be. If you can feel it then it must follow. If you can actually imagine what it feels like to have already obtained the goal, then the path to it will reveal itself to you naturally. It must. Reaching any goal or manifesting anything is a three-step process. First it has to arise in you as a thought, second is the visualization of it where it transcends from being a thought to an inner visual picture complete with the feeling of it. The third step is to align yourself with your goal. That basically means having positive expectations of the manifestation. Then the path will be clear in a step-by-step, in your now, forward momentum.

vai-06JS: As a beekeeper for many years, has beekeeping shaped your guitar playing philosophy in any way? Are there any lessons learned there related to guitar or has it been more of an escape?

SV: They are fascinating little creatures, and they make HONEY! How cool is that? When I’m with the bees, I’m very present and perhaps that somehow flows into my musical creativity. You need to be present when you are playing with bees. I also notice what an amazing social structure they have and how they work together so well. It’s inspiring.

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