It seems we’ve come far enough to hit the thirteenth entry on the list. Huh… I’m actually a little surprised by this.
Anyhow, if you don’t know what I’m doing then I’ll sum it up by saying that I’m righting a serious wrong. Pundits and magazines (such as the heathens at Rolling Stone Magazine) have been putting Jimi Hendrix at the top of the list and calling him the greatest guitarist to ever play the instrument.
Well, that’s bullshit. It’s not just bullshit, I can show you why it’s bullshit. In fact, I’ve shown you why it’s bullshit twelve times already! At this point, I’ve already proven my point. Yet, I like writing these and y’all seem to enjoy reading them. So, we’ll keep going until one of us gets tired of it.
If you want to see the complete list, click this magical blue text and it’ll take you to a page where you can see all the previous entries. I sometimes forget to update that page, but I just did.
I’d like to say that nobody should be surprised by my next entry to the list… But, that’d be terribly misleading and it seems some folks would be surprised. (I bet you can’t guess who’d be surprised by this one?!?)
#12 Steve Vai
First, let’s establish something. Steve Vai is cooler than any of us will ever be. (Unless he’s reading this, in that case he’s exactly as cool as one of us might be.) He looks this cool:
Second, we need to remember that I said it might come as a surprise to a certain someone that he’s on this list? Well, that someone would be the crack-smoking wonder-junkies that call themselves music writers for Rolling Stone.
Those stupid sons of bitches didn’t even put Vai on the list! They made a list of the 100 greatest guitarists – and Vai isn’t even on it! That’s not an oversight, that’s abject stupidity. Guitar World put him in 10th place. He’s even won three Grammy awards. Really, RSM? Really? Not on the list?
I think we can safely conclude that all ‘greatest guitarist’ lists are stupid – including this one. I’m not actually sure what else we can conclude, except for the sheer ineptness of the editorial staff at RSM. They should be repeatedly lashed with a brick in a pillowcase, preferably by angry ex-fans of the publication.
So, who was this guy?
On June 6th, 1944, the Allied Troops stormed ashore in a little operation the historians like to call D-Day. 26 years later, on that exact date, Steven Siro Vai was born. Is there a connection? Nope… I just figured I’d point it out.
When Via was just 5 years old, he’d walk up to a piano and noticed that higher notes were to the right and lower notes were to the left. This is what he has to say about that moment:
In that very moment, I had a full-on epiphany. I was flooded with the instinctual realization of how music was created and how it worked from a theoretical standpoint—the whole language of music was very obvious. I also understood immediately, instinctually, and unequivocally something that has only deepened through the years that the creation of music is an infinite personal expression. I realized that I could do this, I could make music, and it could be whatever I want.
A year later, now six years old, he saw an older boy playing guitar in his school’s auditorium. This is what he had to say about that experience:
When I saw that guitar and I saw this kid playing it, I knew instinctually that I was going to play the guitar someday, and that it would be my instrument. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just knew. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
By 1971, he had begun playing the guitar, citing motivations from music like Led Zeppelin and (oddly) the sound track to West Side Story. His musical influences included Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, and none other than Jimi Hendrix.
In 1973, Steve would begin taking lessons from another guy who lived in New York. That guy isn’t yet on this list – but you can bet your ass he’s going to be. In fact, he’s been discussed a few times. Who was he? None other than Joe Satriani.
This would lead him to attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. To put it mildly, you don’t get into Berklee unless you’re pretty good already. There’s not too many music schools that I’d place higher – maybe Juilliard?
Vai would get his start in the music industry when he just 18. His initial start was doing transcription for none other than our 12th guitarist better than Hendrix, Frank Zappa.
You want to talk balls? Vai was in college when he transcribed “The Black Page” and sent it to Zappa. He also sent him a demo of his current band. Zappa, of course, hired him. I’m not sure it’s possible to be more cool than that? I’m telling you, Steve Vai is as cool as a polar bear’s toes.
In other words, Vai knows his shit. He knows more about music than is reasonable to know. He knows more about music than I’ll ever know. He’s a prodigy or a virtuoso. Except, unlike many of that title, he’s also cool.
He’s played with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, Alcatraz (replacing Malmsteen), Ozzy Osbourne, and obviously Frank Zappa. He’s played with tons of other people and, more importantly, he’s spent a whole lot of time playing with himself!
Ha! I crack me up.
No, really – he’s had a very prolific career as himself.
I’m writing this draft on a Saturday. I have a “lesson” already done and in the chute. It’s about the Ibanez JEM. So, you’ll have already had the chance to see that. In other words, you should already know that he designed/co-designed at least one guitar.
Well, he did more than that… He designed the first commercially available 7-string guitar, known as the Ibanez Universe. Oh, I should add that there’s multiple variations of both of those models – and he’s pretty much had a hand in all of them.
No, I don’t mean he put his name on them – I mean he literally had a hand in the development and design of those products, not entirely unlike Les Paul. That’s right, I just compared Steve Vai to Les Paul. I told you, he’s that cool.
Of course, there’s more… There’s a lot more. What else has he done?
Well, you recall how I mentioned his transcription for Zappa? You remember how I heaped praise on Zappa? Well, to transcribe Zappa, you need notation that doesn’t actually exist.
Wait… That’s not right! The notation does exist, you can get the Frank Zappa Guitar Book!
Yup… That notation didn’t exist until Vai made it exist. More importantly, that notation is still being used by other composers and transcribers. He permanently changed the way our music is notated. (Hendrix set a guitar on fire!)
That’s pretty cool, right? Well, that’s not the end of it, either. Nope… You should know that I am pretty wordy and that I tend to pick some fantastic musicians for this list. Let’s see what else Vai has done, shall we?
Have you heard of the Alien Guitar Secrets ‘masterclass?’ They travel around giving masterclass lessons as they go. They roll up into a new location and teach experts how to be masters. Yeah, that’s pretty cool. He absolutely doesn’t have to do that. He’s been doing that for like a decade now.
Evolution pickups from DiMarzio? Yup, those high outputs with their signature scream… Vai had a hand in that. He’s worked with Eventide but mostly to just suggest concepts which they incorporated into their effects processors.
How about those delicious Carvin amps? You know, like Joe Motherfuckin’ Walsh uses – the Legacy series? Yeah, you can thank Vai for those and Carvin for letting him help them. He’s been working with them for over two decades.
Go back to him giving the masterclass lessons… Remember how I said he didn’t have to do that? Well, he doesn’t. You know what else he doesn’t have to do? He doesn’t have to play in places like South America, China, or even remote areas in Russia. But he does. He’s often the first Western musician they’ll have seen live. He was also the first Western musician to appear on Chinese television – and, more importantly, was the first rock act to play on said television.
Yup… I told you the fucker was cool! I halfway expect he’d come do a show in your backyard, if you asked him nicely. He lives music. The music lives in him. If there’s one artist so far on this list that truly embodies music, with great symbiotic traits, it’s probably him. (That’s just too hard to quantify and be objective about.)
When he dies, I expect the autopsy will reveal that he’s got music in his blood. How that happens, I’m not sure – but it’d explain so very much.
Notably, he also went to school. While he was initially on Zappa’s payroll, he stayed in school. He spent that time learning not just about theory – but how to abandon theory and how to appreciate the smallest intricacies. If you play, you may find that some of his work will (if you understand the theory) feature a whole track that’s just meandering around in a very, very small subset of obscure theory.
He can do that. Not only can he do that, he can do it well. I told you that he was cooler than you or I would ever be. Shit, he didn’t just design a guitar – he designed a guitar with a handle. Alright, that handle thing still kind of baffles me but I’m going to pretend that idea was brilliant. It must be because, after all this time, they’re still cutting out that slot for a handle.
Besides, who am I to argue? If he put it there, then it belongs there. It’s a very distinct guitar and I’m pretty sure just holding one gives you a +10 Charisma and Cool Status.
I can’t figure out how to link (with certainty) to an article that’s just scheduled and not published – but this link might work. If you’re unfamiliar and haven’t read my article about the Ibanez JEM, I’d seriously recommend having a peek.
How about I shut the hell up and let Vai speak for himself?
I’d like to link to the studio version, it’s a little cleaner, but I really want you to be able to actually see what he’s doing while he’s playing. I want you to see how complicated and precise his playing is. Keep in mind that some of his earliest experience was with Zappa. Keep in mind how precise Zappa was.
Told ya he was cool!
This next one is probably my favorite Vai song – and it’s a great deal of fun to play. If you don’t mind stepping away from the tab, there’s a lot of room to just take this into a great jam session.
He sorta reminds me of Bono from U2 – except Vai is actually cool and not pretentious. (Call me, Steve – I want to jam with you!)
I spent a lot of years across the river, in Cambridge, MA. Frankly, I’d say Cambridge counts as Boston. As such, this next one has some significance to me and I truly enjoy it. I suspect you will enjoy it – or at least be impressed by it. This is not a live video, but a studio version.
Yup… He is pretty cool. He’s also a complete and total master of his instrument. He’s more adept than Hendrix ever dreamed of being and, without a doubt, belongs on this list. If there’s an argument to be had, it could only be that he warranted being placed higher on the list.
I like to leave you with one for the road, and this week is no different. I would like you to be able to enjoy his vocals and him playing an acoustic guitar. (Yes, yes he is able to sing and he does sometimes play an acoustic.)
Again, I’m really glad you enjoy reading these, because I enjoy writing them. I love the comments and enjoy watching the hit number climb. I like to hear how you were influenced by these artists. i like to hear who you think should also be included. I like to hear your words of encouragement and your thoughts about my choices.
Thank you. Thank you for letting me guide you through this list. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read the results of my keyboard smashing. I hope you’re entertained and educated by these works. I hope they inspire you to create. I also hope they inspire you to write your own list and share it with the world.
If you’re interested in helping, please let me know. I’m open to help! In fact, I could certainly use some. I don’t need money, but someone correcting typos, and maybe making things read better, would be nice. I find it really hard to proofread my own work. Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!