Steve Vai is a name that always gets dropped in discussion pertaining to the 100 greatest guitar players of all time.
Just ‘who is the best’ depends on what one’s musical temperament may be for the instrument. Materializing from the school of the late genius musical composer/guitarist, Frank Zappa, while attending Berklee School of Music, Vai developed a unique style and well-trained ear for the art of playing and transcribing music. He has played with so many different bands and genres throughout his career, showcasing his diversity as a rock guitarist, a composer, and a brilliant inventor of guitars and effects.
So, why is one of our favorite ax-men out in the blazing sun, tending to a society of venomous insects that most of us would rather keep our distance from? Because aside from entertaining the masses with a swarm of unearthly shredding, our hero can also be seen standing in the midst of a swarm of honeybees.
That’s right folks, Steve Vai is a beekeeper.
Let’s find out more about that, as well as his new album and tour, and how he became a guitar legend.
All music talk aside Steve, I hear you’re a beekeeper.
Yeah, my wife and I moved on to this property years ago that was vacant for ten years. All the foliage was dried up and dead and we wanted to beautify it. My wife wanted to plant some gardens and I wanted to plant some fruit trees. I was doing some research and discovered that honeybees are a really great way to pollinate. Keeping bees is a very simple hobby. So, I called my local beekeeper and he brought me a hive. I studied bees a bit and just became a real rewarding hobby. It doesn’t take much time, maybe and hour or month.The bees do all the work. The work comes in when you do the honey pull.
You wear a bee suit while in the apiary, I’m sure.
Oh yeah. I only get stung when I do stupid things like take my veil off. One time I was trying to catch a swarm in a tree and every time I looked up, my veil got in the way so I took it off and threw a rope around the branch and hit the swarm and it fell down my back. (Laughs) No, that wasn’t fun. If you have a really aggressive hive, the temperament of the hive is based on the queen.
If you have a queen who grew up in a rough neighborhood, you got to be really careful that you don’t piss the bees off too much.
It’s a dangerous job. But the reward of honey is worth it; lots of great health benefits.
Yeah, lots of health benefits. Although, honey is not good for babies. But yeah, it has pollen in it from the area that the bees live in. We collect pollen too. It helps build up a natural resistance towards certain allergens. It’s a great hobby, but it’s vital. When you’re a beekeeper, you keep the bees healthy, free from disease, and help them propagate their hive and encourage them to make honey. Some people feel that you’re stealing honey from the bee but they make tons and tons of surplus honey. It’s like a gift.
You’re also helping the honeybee population from its extinction.
We’ll, we need beekeepers and bees.
I had one hive that died and brought it back to health and they made seven other hives.
This is becoming an interview for the American Bee Journal. Let’s get into the music here. Your newest release, The Story Of Light, is one hell of a guitar album. Do you approach each album with a concept in mind?
It varies per project. Very diverse. One song maybe more compositional and dense or a song heavy and rock oriented. There’s a lot of continuity that runs through my work which comes from my inner musical voice. Sometimes I do get focused and create a record like Alien Love Secrets. I decided to strip it down and have just bass, drums, and guitar. Then my Alive In An Ultra World record that I composed based on cultural music around the world and went to those territories and recorded the songs live. The Story of Light is part of a concept that started with my last studio record Real Illusions, in which I had a story that I wanted to express over a series of records. The songs are more like depictions of characters and events. The plan is a future studio record to be the third installment.
Do you ever channel the guitar players that have helped influenced your sound and style such as Joe Satriani, Glen Buxton (Alice Cooper) and of course Frank Zappa, or do you focus on customizing your own approach at this point?
I think it’s a mix. If it’s a basic rip off of one of my heroes, I try to avoid it. It’s in your DNA. When you cut your teeth on a particular artist, it’s in you.
As we go through life we may be told certain things and everything we do has a certain reflection in the identity we created for ourselves.
We may not be totally aware of where it came from. When I write music, I’m sure there’s influences from Hendrix, Jimmy Page, to Zappa, to Joe Satriani who was my teacher when I was kid. In order for me to record something there has to be a unique musical voice that I’m contributing to.
You transcribed some of Frank Zappa’s guitar work. Was that just an offering from you or did Frank come to you. How did that fall into place?
The greatest tool is your ear. How your inner ear hears melodies and how you can identify with that in your head and make them real on your instrument. That has a a lot to do with ear training. I went through extensive ear training when I was at Berklee, transcribing. it did wonders for my ears. Especially Zappa’s music. I had one transcription I did for a piece of music of his called “The Black Page” . I sent him that along with a CD of my band and some scores of Edgard Varese that I got from the Boston Public Library.
Did you think he’d ever respond?
I didn’t know. I was 18. I had his phone number for many years. I’d try calling once every six months and was very shy. One day he picked up the phone and I caught him in a good mood and said that I’m a fan and I have these scores you might be interested in. I didn’t know if I’d hear back. There was a paper that he did an interview in San Francisco and mentioned me. Very encouraging, the things he had said. I had never seen my name in print but here was Frank Zappa saying I had a lot of chops and that I was going to turn into something.
At first I thought it was lip service, but when I got to know Frank and perform in his band, he doesn’t do lip service.
You got in to more popular music towards in the peak of the 80s -Public Image Ltd., Alcatrazz, and David Lee Roth, did you feel it was a retreat from composition and the more avant-garde songwriting and playing you do best?
Not at all. I really had to push my boundaries. I’m a rock guitar player at heart and those bands offered an opportunity to show my authentic rock roots as well as a different way of playing. I really had to push myself. When you’re stepping in a band that had Yngwie Malmsteen in it, you had to deliver or if you join David Lee Roth’s band, you can’t mess around. Those bands didn’t need dense compositional material. Like “Little Green Men” which is pretty dense or “There’s Something Dead in Here“. it was hard hitting rock music and I had to deliver it.
You innovate and invent a lot of musical accessories and equipment. Is that out of being dissatisfied with what is being manufactured or are you intrinsically into customizing your sound?
It’s a simple principle of ‘what can I do that’s interesting, exciting, and different from what I’ve heard?’
There are trained guitar players and then those who take a more free form approach to playing. Do you think guitarists need to learn how to play the instrument before exploring effects and just make noise with it?
I think a guitar player should do what they’re being pulled to. If you want to pick up the guitar and don’t really want to play it or learn scales, I think that’s great. I don’t think there are any rules. If you’re fascinated with music, like notation and composition, but you feel you should be in a rock band because that’s what everyone’s doing, then you’re cheating yourself out of enjoying the pleasure of your potential. If you really don’t want to play the guitar, but just want to use it to make noises, do it! it’s interesting that everyone feels they need to put things in boxes to do things a particular way. All the people that you know and I know, that have ever really achieved greatness, have marched to the beat of their own drum.
Understanding that is vital if you want to be a unique musician.
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