with Beverly McClellan
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Steve Vai is a virtuoso guitarist, visionary composer, and consummate producer who sculpts musical sound with infinite creativity and technical mastery. At age 12, he started taking guitar lessons from Joe Satriani. At 18, he began his professional musical career transcribing for, and then playing with, the legendary Frank Zappa. More than three decades, 15-million in album sales, and three GRAMMY Awards later, Vai has proven himself, in his own right, one of music’s true originals.
Vai’s work has been recognized with a long list of awards, including an even dozen from Guitar Player. Most recently, the TEC Foundation honored him with the prestigious Les Paul Award, created in 1991 to salute those who have set the highest standard of excellence in the creative application of technology. Past winners include Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, and Bob Clearmountain. In bestowing it on Vai, TEC noted, “Steve Vai’s sheer breathtaking facility on the guitar is acclaimed in the rock world and beyond… Vai has dedicated his talents to creatively advance the language of music. While many artists fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai remains unclassifiable. He is a musical alchemist of the highest order.”
The latest product of Vai’s alchemy is 2012’s The Story of Light, his 16th solo album. It follows up the 2009 live tour de force Where the Wild Things Are, and comes out on Favored Nations Entertainment, founded by Vai in 1999 to present works by musicians who have “attained the highest performance level on their chosen instruments.” The label’s roster features artists including Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Lukather, Eric Johnson, Billy Sheehan, and Larry Carlton, and more than 70 releases.
Vai’s full discography encompasses more than 60 albums, including many with Zappa, others from his stints with David Lee Roth (just after he left Van Halen) and Whitesnake—at the peak of its popularity—live releases, collaborations, compilations, and orchestral works. Highlights include 1990’s groundbreaking Passion and Warfare, and 2007’s Sound Theories Vol. 1 & 2, performed with theNetherlands’ Metropole Orkest. Vai’s other orchestral compositions include “The Middle of Everywhere,” which had its world premiere in 2011 with the Noord Nederlands Orkest, whose director Marcel Mandos said, “Steve Vai’s music can easily compete with that of famous contemporary composers.”
The Story of Light follows the cosmic journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment, and redemption. It continues a narrative arc begun on Vai’s 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections (his last solo studio release). Largely instrumental, The Story of Light spotlights guest vocalists including singer-songwriter Aimee Mann—dueting with Vai on “No More Amsterdam,” which she also co-wrote—and Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on The Voice, appearing on “John the Revelator.” The track was inspired by a vintage recording of blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, whose acid-soaked vocals are sampled in the mix as well.
Throughout, Vai’s lead guitar lines bend sounds and listeners’ minds in equal measure. Looking ahead, he envisions a third set of songs that will unravel the mysteries and reveal truths woven through The Story of Light and its predecessor. The completed trilogy, envisioned as cinematic—even operatic—in scope, will include lyrics, narration, and visuals.
Vai’s signature instruments include the Ibanez JEM guitar, which he designed in 1985 with first-of-its-kind features including the floating tremolo and the monkey grip. The JEM is now one of the longest running, most successful signature series guitars in history, and for over a decade its sister model—the RG—is second in worldwide sales only to the Fender Stratocaster. Also for Ibanez, Vai designed “The Universe,” the first commercial 7-string electric guitar. This instrument inspired a revolutionary metal subculture that started in the mid ’90s. Among his many other innovative collaborations with equipment manufacturers, he designed the Steve Vai Legacy V3 series of all-tube amplifiers with Carvin Corporation.
In the film realm, Vai has credits including Executive Producer for the acclaimed 2008 Hank Garland biopic Crazy, in which he also appears as Hank Williams. In the 1986 feature Crossroads, inspired by the legend of blues icon Robert Johnson, he appears as Jack Butler, “the devil's guitarist”—and collaborated with Ry Cooder on the music scenes.
In 1998, Vai established (with Ruta Sepetys) the Make a Noise Foundation to provide instruments and music education to young musicians without means. “Music educates the whole person as an integrated individual. It educates the mind, the senses, and the emotions,” says Vai. “Those interested in music should not have to sacrifice their ability to develop important skills and express emotions due to limited financial resources.” A Steve Vai Guitar Scholarship will be awarded in 2012 as part of a collaboration between Make A Noise and the Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music.
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