Ode to Steve Vai


1990 was a pretty pivotal year for me. It was my last year of high school and my obsession with the guitar was starting to hit a fever-pitch. 1990 also turned out to be the swan-song year for “guitar rock” as Nirvana came on the scene and completely tipped everything over. But, it was also the year Steve Vai released his second solo album Passion & Warfare, which was a real watershed album for me in terms of what instrumental rock could sound like.

I first learned about Steve from the movie Crossroads and the first David Lee Roth solo videos on MTV. Soon, this guy was everywhere in the guitar world. You couldn’t pick up a guitar magazine where Mr. Vai didn’t make an appearance.

It was also around this time (give or take) that Ibanez released the Steve’s signature JEM guitar. It is arguably the pinnacle expression of the Van Halen-inspired “super-Strats” of the 80’s. The lines were aggressive, the pickups were nice and hot and it boasted a bold look (which is saying something considering the times). As soon as I saw it, I wanted one.

But they were pricey. Way too pricey for a kid about to leave home for college. So I stuck with my reliable old heavily-modded HSH Strat. Frankly, I always felt that it had a lot in common with Steve’s “Green Meanie” Charvel from his Zappa and Flexable days. For the time being, it was as close to Steve Vai as I was going to get.

Fast forward nearly a quarter-century later (oh lord, how it hurts to write that) and one afternoon I stumble across the perfect JEM in a Craig's List ad. 48-hours later I have the guitar in my hands that I’ve coveted longer than just about anything else in my life.

The quality of construction of this instrument cannot be overstated. The attention to detail is obvious at every level. The “tree of life” inlay is gorgeous as well as functional. The silver mottled pick guard gleams like marble. The neck is smooth and lightning-fast. The pickups scream. Even the case is amazing—it’s easily the nicest one I’ve ever put a guitar into.

While I can’t say that my playing has gotten any closer to Steve Vai, it’s really hard not to feel inspired to play with this guitar in my hands. I’m usually the first to downplay the role of gear in playing. Getting too obsessed with acquiring the “right stuff” quickly becomes a hole that you just can't ever fill. But I do think that certain pieces of gear simply inspire us in ways we can’t really understand. That is the reason to have an object, not for prestige, but to elevate your desire to play.

So, thanks Mr. Vai for being such an inspiration and a fun enigma to puzzle over. I still get goosebumps from your writing and playing.