Stevie's Enormous Mouth
Steve Vai started working for Frank Zappa as a music transcriber in September 1979. Some of Steve's transcriptions were published in 'The Frank Zappa Guitar Book' (Munchkin Music, 1982). Shortly after he joined as a transcriber, 'Frank asked me if I'd do some overdubs for 'You Are What You Is'. So I ended up redoing about eighty per cent of the guitars on the album. He had me down to rehearsal and I got the gig.'
'Going on the road with Frank Zappa at such a young age (twenty) was a bit traumatic', remembers Steve. Tommy Mars recalled a particularly traumatic incident for Radio 1's Air Sculpture, the first part of their FZ documentary, broadcast on November 20 1994. Tommy: 'I remember one time that we were finishing up rehearsal; it was the second or last day of rehearsal when everything had to be memorised and it was a particularly difficult body of material that we were doing. The show 'Entertainment Tonight' was filming us at the same time and Steve was in the band; it was his first tour (Fall 1980). I forget the tune we were doing but it was incredibly difficult and we all had to have our music memorised. Well, they were up on Steve's hands with the camera and I don't think he had ever had the film crew next to him before. It's a bit unnerving sometimes and rather violating, let along the fact that this was like his first or second time that he'd ever done it straight from memory and we were going out on the road in three days, and we have this Halloween show that we're doing live on MTV. Steve started to forget some parts and he made a few clams.
'And Frank got really pissed at him and devastated him, you know. 'I don't even know if you're roadable' and, you know, 'If you clam up on this little thing, imagine what you're gonna do on 'Saturday Night Live'.' And poor Steve revered Frank so intensely. He didn't really screw up, he just made a few clams. I think maybe Frank was feeling weird about something and he just lashed out. It really was terrible on Steve. He lost it and said 'Frank I'm sorry, I don't want to disappoint you.' And Frank, his retort to that was 'You know, I don't know if you're roadable.' This was like the kiss of death to Steve. So, I talked to Frank after that. I said 'What were you doing? Do you want this kid to have a nervous breakdown tonight?' He said 'Why? Do you think he took it that hard?"'
Steve made a guest appearance on the first night of the Zappa's Universe concerts on November 7 1991 which lead to another concert of Zappa compositions in April 1995. 'Conductor Joel Thome had originally put Zappa's Universe together in New York and those shows were the basis of the record. I played several pieces on that and received a Grammy for playing on 'Sofa'. Anyway, Joel had been trying to put it together again and we have been working on five or six pieces of my own. When he arranged to do the Zappa music with the Seattle Symphony, I was really excited about doing it.'
Do you think your technique is at its peak now; or were your chops sharpest when you were playing with Zappa?
My technique with Frank was not nearly as good as it is now. Although I may have had more chops, you know. I mean they were sloppy chops. Maybe back with David Lee Roth during 'Eat 'Em and Smile', my chops were maybe at their height, but right now my taste factor is so much better. (Oh yeah? -Ed) My maturity as a musician and a guitar player are at their peak.
There's a rumour that you transcribed the solo from 'Inca Roads' from memory while you were on the tour bus.
Oh huh huh. Where did you hear that?
It was last April's Guitar World.
Oh that's funny! I thought I only mentioned it to somebody once. But yeah, I did. I love that solo so much.
What are your favourite musical memories of playing with Zappa?
We were playing 'Zoot Allures' and it was the soundcheck of a gig in New York. Frank played one of the most incredible solos I've ever seen him do, ever. He was just on and he was connected and he went for it. It was the most incredible solo I ever saw him perform. And believe me, I've seen and heard more than probably anyone else, you know.
Was it recorded?
No. I remember I had a dream once that it had been recorded and we listened back to it. But it was just a dream (laughs).
What was the most challenging guitar playing that you did with Zappa?
Oh boy – I could write a book about, that. Just songs that were really hard to play on the guitar execution-wise. You know, they weren't made for the guitar. Songs like 'Mõggio', 'Envelopes', 'Drowning Witch', 'Sinister Footwear', 'The Black Page'... Stuff like that was like – woah! Stuff I really loved too like 'RDNZL' and 'Sofa' where he used to let me really, really play.
You've said that you've had some of your most profound musical experiences playing with Zappa. Could you explain what you meant by that?
Well, with Frank ... (sighs). I didn't realise it until afterwards when I saw how difficult it is to create and come up with inspiring things. I would flashback on Frank and soundchecks and stuff, when he would just sit there in front of the band with a smile on his face or breaking into laughter ... He would just compose the wildest stuff right there on the spot. Really beautiful stuff and then throw these weird twists and turns into it. And the way that he manipulated the forces of music to do his bidding was quite a spectacle. There's your quote (laughs)!
The title of your Alien Love Secrets album is almost the same as your widely misunderstood Guitar Player column from a few years ago ('Martian Love Secrets'). Is that where the title came from?
Pretty much. I always liked 'Martian Love Secrets' and I wanted to use it some place else with more significance. But the word 'Martian' sounds so confining; 'Alien' sort of gives it a bigger picture. But the actual phrase was written on the wall of a toilet in the men's bathroom at the Record Plant in 1970 that Frank read. So there you have it!
(Interview conducted and article written by Douglas J Noble, a musician and music journalist based in Edinburgh. He is a regular contributor to The Guitar Magazine, and is the music director of the international Jimi Hendrix magazine UniVibes (Coppeen, Enniskeane, Co Cork, Ireland). (And if you think TD is somewhat fetishistic about our act, then you should see UniVibes!! -Ed))