STEVE VAI DISCUSSES CREATING THE HYDRA AND HOW HE WAS ABLE TO PLAY THAT ONE INSTRUMENT TO CREATE A SONG
Greg Prato for Brave Words spoke with guitarist Steve Vai, excerpts from the interview appear below.
Brave Words: How has the tour been going thus far?
Steve Vai: Well, it feels great. It was a little bit precarious in my mind before I came – because my last full tour was six years ago. We’ve done like a couple of gigs between then, but the last gig was like, three years ago. So, you never know. Things change, and I didn’t know how I was going to respond when I got on the stage again, because there’s nothing like being on tour to keep your fingers in shape. And your body. I had some physical challenges – with my fingers and shoulder. As a matter of fact, I had a second shoulder surgery about three months ago. And interestingly enough, the moment I got on stage, I just felt at home…It takes a little time to get your sea legs together when you’re on tour. But it’s coming along really nicely. And the show is a little different than in the past. I noticed I’m working on being more focused as a player – as opposed to moving around so much. And who knows? Maybe that will change. Right now, I’m just very content to be playing the guitar for the people that are interested.
Brave Words: Let’s discuss the new album, Inviolate.
Steve Vai: Every artist tries to diversify from one project to the next. Sometimes, the change is subtle. Sometimes, it’s dramatic. Like, if you hear Flex-Able and then you hear Passion and Warfare, you would never expect that the same guy made those records. And then you listen to Sound Theories – which is a double orchestra record – these are very different. But there’s still the DNA of the melodic intent that runs through everything an artist can do when they’re writing everything. So, Inviolate has that DNA in it. To me, it feels more free…I feel that at this point, I don’t have to placate to radio…well, I always felt that way – or any group, genre, or anything like that. And I think the fans that like what I do appreciate that.
So, Inviolate was a nice opportunity for me to stay focused on instrumental guitar – sort of rock tracks – that cover a gamut of the expression that I enjoy doing. And there’s some interesting things on this record – I kind of hit some milestones that were much more subtle in the past. One song in particular is Knappsack, where it just came out. I only had one hand to play, and it just seemed like a great idea to write a song with one hand. And I had a great response to it…And Teeth of the Hydra and the whole construction of that thing – that was ambitious, but successful. And I think that it raised the bar on my level of ability to entertain. It’s probably one of the more entertaining things for the fans that I’ve ever done. And I’m so happy about that – at 62. I cut a lot of fat out of the record…
Brave Words: How did you create the Hydra guitar that you play in the Teeth Of The Hydra video?
Steve Vai: I’ve always had a fascination with multi-neck guitars – ever since I saw Jimmy Page with the double neck [a Gibson EDS-1275]. That was the start of it. And I pursued that in my career by developing various multi-neck guitars – the heart guitar with the triple neck. But I never really felt like I accomplished anything truly musical with one of them…the idea came probably about ten years ago to create three records…but the first was going to be all clean tones, the second was going to be my more normal distorted thing, and the third was going to be ungodly heavy. So I thought, ‘Ungodly heavy…and I just have one instrument to use. I’ve got to do something different.’ And the idea to create some kind of multi-neck instrument that had a bass, a 7-string, a 12-string, and these harp strings – that came back then, like ten years ago. But when you get these ideas, you can either act on them instantly, or you’ve got to wait until they make their way to the front of the line…
So, the construction of the Hydra took my entire career, basically – if you consider the evolution of the influences. So, when it finally started to move its way to the front of the line, it was probably about seven years ago that I saw this Mad Max movie [2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road], and I saw the guy play the guitar at the front of the truck, and the guitar was very ‘steampunk And it was just cool. It was wicked – blowing flames and all this stuff. And the ham in me just lit up, and I’m like, ‘OK, I got it. I’m going to make it real.’ So, that inspired the steampunk motif…[and then I gathered a] the list of things I wanted to have in this instrument. And they were three-quarter size bass neck with the first two strings fretless, 7-string, 12-string with half of it fretless, 13 harp strings, guitar synthesizer, piezos, sustainers, sample and hold features. All of these things, that I’m just going to pack it all in there – because if this is going to be the only instrument in the track, it’s got to have options…So, seven years ago was the beginning of the slow construction, and then it just went through iterations…
…once we got that far, we built a prototype, that I call the Hyena. But eventually, the Hydra was built and I got it. I knew all along that I wanted to create a piece of music on it that was compact – where that was the only instrument playing, with some keyboards and drums, of course. So, in my mind’s eye, I could see myself navigating this thing. I didn’t know what the music was going to be, but I was absolutely sure I could do it…But the process needs to be an enjoyable one, and it was challenging for me, but it was very enjoyable. And I knew first I wanted to make sure I had a good song – the song has to be first, the melody. Melody has always been very important to me…So, I just started really slow. And then just imagined…and it happened.
When I watch the video, a part of me just can’t believe it. Because I’m a guitar fan – like everybody else who is watching. I love the guitar. And I love seeing fascinating things on the guitar. And when I finally finished the video, I was able to watch it without criticizing it… So finally, when we finished it, I’m watching it, and like every other guitar player that finds it fascinating, I’m like, ‘What the heck is going on? How did that guy do that?’ And then I remember how I did it- started really slow. I had the idea – which isn’t a brilliant idea – but I had the desire, and that’s all that you need. And then I just did it really slow and built it. It looks extraordinary, but really, just do it.”
Read more at Brave Words.