Where have all the guitar gods gone? Sweaty Swede Yngwie Malmsteen, boy-next-door Eddie Van Halen, futuristic freak Joe Satriani, and Portuguese powerhouse Nuno Bettencourt have all but disappeared from the modern-rock scene, while terms like "shredding," "grinding," and "slamming" have been appropriated by skateboarders who don't listen to heavy metal.
Drop into a guitar store, however, and you're sure to find a feathered-haired, bandanna-wearing clerk who's nostalgic for the good ol' days. They'll happily argue whether Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page -- granddaddies on the guitar scene -- contributed more to the Yardbirds' 1960s garage sound or if Satriani's Surfing With the Alien album shreds more than Malmsteen's Rising Force. These guys can debate the versatility of an Ibanez versus a Fender Stratocaster, praise the multiple uses of a nylon pick, and wax poetic about the arpeggios on Al Di Meola's "Race With Devil on Spanish Highway."
In this domain, Steve Vai is king.
Like most of his contemporaries, Vai came to the genre via Jimi Hendrix. Born and raised on Long Island, New York -- a birthing ground for guitar gods -- he studied with Satriani, who was just a few years ahead of him in school. At 18, Vai was enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he whiled away the hours transcribing Frank Zappa songs to guitar. The exercise ultimately paid off: In the early '80s, he joined Zappa's band as the "Little Italian Virtuoso" and played on six of his albums.
That decade was dominated by the metal maestros. Van Halen had crossed over to the pop market, while guitar-driven bands like Def Leppard and Ratt governed MTV. Los Angeles was home to dozens of burgeoning hair bands, including Mötley Crüe, Hanoi Rocks, and Guns N' Roses, each of which featured a stinging, shredding lead guitarist. In '84, Vai threw his hat into the ring with his self-released album Flex-Able, which featured such technically perfect tracks as "Little Green Men" and "Call It Sleep." A year later, Vai replaced Malmsteen in Alcatrazz; soon after, he joined former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth on Eat 'Em & Smile, which was followed by a brief stint in Whitesnake. Study the photos of each band, and Vai is easy to spot, his tousled black hair standing out in a sea of peroxide blonds.
The 1990s proved to be the halcyon days for Vai. He released six albums that decade, including Passion & Warfare, Fire Garden, and The Ultra Zone. He created a seven-string guitar for Ibanez, the rocker instrument of choice, and he headlined a tour with his onetime teacher Satriani. Then, near the end of the century, something happened: Nirvana, a little band from Washington state, blew the hair bands off the charts. Overnight, the world went grunge, and guitar virtuosos like Vai were faced with two options: reinvent themselves or go underground.
Vai decided to stay and fight. He released a concept album, Alive in an Ultra World, which consisted of 15 songs recorded in -- and relating to -- 15 different countries. He issued an epic 10-disc box set, The Secret Jewel Box, and he began raising bees in his backyard. He grew a goatee and quit using so much hair product, but his guitar pyrotechnics remained finely tuned.
Last month, Vai released Real Illusions: Reflections, his first new album since 2001's Alive in an Ultra World. Like its predecessor, Real Illusions is a concept record, describing the spiritual awakening of fictional madman Captain Drake Mason through story and song. Apparently, it's the first of four installments in this self-styled rock opera.
Initially, the album is a challenging listen. It opens with a series of noodling, ear-piercing licks called "Building the Church," which shriek and soar for nearly five minutes. "Dying for Your Love," an ultramodern ballad, follows, Vai dramatically detailing the "kings and killers" that dictate Drake's life. Songs such as "Freak Show Excess" and "Under It All" clock in at well over five minutes of axe-grinding bliss, Vai pounding you into submission and demanding that you follow each note and chord progression.
Play it again, however, and you'll find yourself admiring Vai's wizardry. The man handles his instrument with the same precision you see from a chef at Benihana. Certain tracks, like "Lotus Feet" and "I'm Your Secrets," have a sweeping soundtrack feel, while "Midway Creatures" is a glorious, headbanging tune. "Firewall" sounds fabulously funky.
In Vai's capable hands, guitar virtuosity is more than alive and well -- it's thriving. This week, Vai is launching a two-month coast-to-coast U.S. tour, scheduled to stop at the New Daisy Tuesday. He'll be backed by the Breed, his all-star band, which features bassist Billy Sheehan and electric sitarist Dave Weiner.
Shredding and grinding on Beale Street. Expect the spandex and hairspray crowd to be out in droves. n
Steve Vai and the Breed at the New Daisy, Tuesday, March 8th, 7 p.m. Tickets are $22.