This summer I've had the tremendous fortune of attending the 2015 incarnation of the Vai Academy in Vail CO. When I saw the names Steve Vai and Eric Johnson as headliners, I knew that I couldn't pass up an opportunity to get close-up to two of my all-time favorites. As it turned out, meeting a couple of my "heroes" wasn't all that I got in my time in Vail.
I came home a bit stunned from the experience. I tried to keep expectations in check, but they were all exceeded by a country mile and in a lot of ways that I didn't expect. Probably the biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed meeting with so many like-minded guitarists.
A small space full of guitarists can go one of two ways: everyone gets into "look at me" mode or people check their cool-cards at the door, listen to each other and appreciate each person's skills and unique sounds. From the opening moments of the camp, Steve and the crew established an incredibly open, welcoming, positive attitude. Sure there were going to be some players that were "better" than others—but it didn't really matter.
I had the fortune of meeting some really interesting people at this camp. They came from many different places, with different goals, different tastes and different backgrounds. But for one week we were all bound by our mutual love for this instrument, and the joy it brings to all of us. In many ways, five days wasn't enough to get to know all of the great attendees of this camp.
The master classes taught by Steve, Eric and Sonny Landreth were all top-notch. Sonny's class in particular opened up a lot of new ideas related to slide-guitar playing that I'd never even considered. I wasn't the only one either as I noticed a lot of nods and gasps of understanding as Sonny showed us one creative application of the slide after another.
One thing that wasn't to be found in these sessions was the answer. That is, the "one thing", the bit of hard-earned, insider, concrete knowledge that could be dropped on the eager masses. Steve didn't have a tried-and-true technique for his fluid alternate-picking. Eric didn't have a recipe for his fast-flowing lines up and down the neck. If you came here looking for that, you were bound to be disappointed.
No, the real gold is in reading between the lines. It's getting a sense of the player, who they were and where they are in the lives and careers now. Steve didn't show me how to bust out some of those exhilarating picked lines, but he did teach us to stop and appreciate the moment we're in (good or bad). That's worth a whole lot more than "chops".
Eric didn't show us how he moves so effortlessly through different modalities. But he did teach us to be fearless in experimenting and to have faith in the process of "just screwing around". He also treated us with a close-up of his unique impromptu compositional style. He may not have been able to articulate everything he did in words, but your eyes and ears could learn a lot just by observing.
One of the big delights were the two classes taught by Musicians Institute's Stig Mathison on melodic development. Being the head of the guitar department at MI, Stig is both a great musician as well as a very articulate teacher. His first session was so popular that he was asked to put together a follow-up session on the spot. His forthcoming book on melodic development is going to the top of my reading list when it's finally released.
Jamming With Steve
One of the biggest highlights was getting to jam with Steve and his amazing band. Every single attendee ("camper") had the opportunity to do this. Most, regardless of skill-level, took the advantage of it.
Different campers jammed on different nights. I was in the last group which meant I had all week to think about what it was going to be like and if I was up to the challenge. I spoke with a lot of other campers during the week about their experiences. Nearly everyone I spoke with told me that they were terrified at first, but were glad they did it.
Finally, when it was my night, I queued up for a chance to do something I might not ever get to do again. Like so many others, my mind was filled with all sorts of doubt. Would I be good enough? Would I embarrass myself? Dear god, what would Steve Vai think of me?
I desperately ran through several finger-exercises in an attempt to warm-up as well as dissipate some of the nervous energy. After about five minutes of this I realized I was getting nowhere with this attitude. I pocketed my pick, took my hands away from the guitar and decided to just pay attention to what was going on around me. Instead of worrying about my hands or what I was going to play, I listened to the other campers on-stage. I looked around and tried to take in everything I was hearing, seeing and feeling. I desperately wanted to etch this moment on my brain, every sound and every color.
When it was finally time for me to go on-stage, the reflexes took over. I already had a game-plan in mind (a little two-chord vamp in D Dorian) so we didn't waste time asking each other what we wanted to play. I belted out the opening chords and two measures later the band picked up the groove and we were off and running.
Of all the things I wanted to accomplish while I was up there (aside from not throwing up), was really listening to Steve and trying to have a musical conversation. That meant keeping my eyes up (as much as possible) and my ears open. Having watched a lot of other campers, the anxiety of the situation often left them in their own little worlds, totally oblivious to Steve's cues. I was determined not to do the same thing.
After the groove was established, Steve pointed at me to take the first lead. I started building up a melodic center, but always kept my eyes and ears open for when Steve wanted to join in. What started out as longer 4- and 8-bar leads, quickly diminished into smaller divisions as we traded phrases back and forth. At some points we played in unison and other points played complementary phrases. We didn't have to use words, just the look on our faces and the notes we played. It was an unbelievable experience in having a musical conversation.
I'd like to think that I gave Steve something meaty enough to play over, and was a good partner for the musical volleys we were tossing back and forth. I do remember thinking at one point, "gee we've been playing longer than I thought. Steve must be enjoying this!" Whether that's true or not, I felt like I achieved what I set out to do.
After we finished, I shook Steve's hand and quickly exited the stage for the next camper. I would have loved to talked more with Steve about it afterward. When you feel like you've "nailed it", who wouldn't want confirmation from a player of Steve's caliber?
And in the end…
In the end though, his opinion of me doesn't really matter that much. I didn't fly all the way to Vail to have Steve, EJ or Sonny tell me I was good. What's the point of that? Likewise, I didn't fly out there in search of the answer. What I got was what I hoped for the most—inspiration to play, to grow and to improve. What I ended up with was so much more.
It was a real privilege to be able to attend Vai Academy. I realize that not everyone can do something like that. After getting back into my car after landing back home, it was hard not to feel blessed and humbled by the events of the week. I hope Steve is up for it again next year. If so, I'll do my damnedest to get back, reconnect with friends and see how we've all grown in the last year.