This archived article was written by: Nathan Manley
I was“youtube-ing,” looking for an instructional guitar video and came across one of Guitar Center’s “Sessions” that had recently been posted. The artist spotlighted was Steve Vai, who’s arguably in the top-five guitarists alive. But it wasn’t his reputation as a shredmaster, as was his inspirational message that captivated me long enough to finish the video.
He talked about how he found success in a business of uncertain variables, urging those who have the determination to pursue a similar career to always stay true to their core, focusing on what drives them and to always cultivate our strengths. Good advice for anyone in any walk of life. Having this mentality helped him forge through moments of uncertainty and inadequacy during his career, and to develop his own unique style. Although he’s had challenges, he claims “I’ve never worked a day in this business” because Vai has always felt that “playing the guitar was my juice.” I can definitely relate to that feeling.
Vai’s career as a solo artist started in a roundabout way, and is actually revered as music theory genius. At 17, he notated and tabbed all of Frank Zappa’s work, eventually sending it all to Zappa. One year later, he was not only his new lead guitarist, but was helping Zappa write music for his latest album. After playing lead for a few other hair-metal bands in the 80s, he eventually broke away to venture out into the solo-guitarist world.
I had no idea how extensive his library was. Starting in 1984, he debuted “Flexable” and 23 albums later, he’s still going strong. Granted some of these are compilations and “best of” type albums, but their nonetheless evidence of Vai’s unrelenting drive for perfection. Hands down his most ambitious project in the last 30 years was producing a completely unique live album.
From a music theory standpoint, every region of the world has a different musical flavor. By listening, anyone can tell the differences between a haunting Celtic melody, or French Parisian waltz, or even a Eastern European type polka without knowing much about music. A lot of these different sounds are evidence of there native instruments. So Vai decided to tap into all of these different regions to theorize each one and catalogue them all. Now the really cool part is that he studied all of this music and wrote a new song for each respected country, and than debuted that particular country’s song live in the native country.
Now because of logistical issues, he got better recordings in different countries. For instance “Giant Balls of Gold,” the song written for Poland was actually recorded in Greece and Germany’s “The Black Forest” in Scotland. But all in all, Vai stayed true to his vision for each area of the world. Spains song “Iberian Jewel” Vai plays a classical flamenco style guitar. “Blood & Glory” intended for the U.K. is reminiscent of Queens guitarist Brian May who is obviously British, and had a unique he got by playing with a quarter instead of a guitar pick. One of the only vocal pieces is Australias “Light of the Moon” which takes the melody right out a famous Australian waltz.
But I wonder how some of these native people feel about “their” songs? So I got Luiza Vana, one of our foreign students from Romania, to listen and tell me how accurate Vai was at interpreting her homelands music. The song is titled “Babushka” and starts with a distinct gypsy feel using an accordion. Luiza really likes it and feels that it genuinely encompasses Romanias style. She says “it reminds me of a part of Romania called Maramures, and other parts of the song sound like Ciuleandra,” a famous Romanian song. I’d say it passed the test.
The crowning piece of the album is Mexico’s “Whispering a Prayer.” It has all the right elements for a great tune, but for me he displays the most technical guitar improvisations of the whole album during this song. You can just feel the passion coming from his fingertips with every note, inspiring me to become a better musician. Ultimately “Alive In An Ultra World” is a great album to enter the eccentric world of Steve Vai, and to a gain a unique cultural experience.