As a young guitar player, one of my first “woah that’s insane” moments into what was possible on guitar, was when my guitar teacher started getting me into cool guitar based music. I must have been around 13, 14 or so.
He introduced me to records by Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai; and these three players quickly became my guitar heroes.
I remember hearing Joe Satriani’s “Surfing with the Alien” for the first time, and having my mind blown – I ran to my my mum and dragged her into the living room and said “listen to that, it’s incredible!”
I remember when my guitar teacher got me “Facing the Animal” by Yngwie Malmsteen and I was completely blown away by the tone of his guitar, the clean speed at which he could pick – the lead lines and the riffs were mesmerising.
(Embarrassing story: For the first few months of listening to Yngwie Malmsteen, I called him “Marmsduke”… I get a bit mixed up with names sometimes….)
I remember listening to Steve Vai’s Fire Garden record, and wondering how on Earth he made his guitar make those sounds. The songs on that record were awesome, it’s still one of my favourites.
I just knew that one day, I had to play guitar like those guys.
I always wondered what it would be like to meet these guys… but I never thought that, one day, I would ever play guitar on stage with any of them…
I would day dream about it while I was at school, but I didn’t think it would really happen…
At least, until it did happen… and I found myself playing on stage with Steve Vai.
It was at an event that Steve Vai ran called “Vai Academy”. The idea was that Steve Vai and his band hang out with everyone at a nice hotel for a week. There were talks on different aspects of the music industry – Vai brought in different guest speakers who talked about topics like album production and mixing, to management and publishing deals. All the guest speakers were part of his personal team – his lawyer, his manager, his mixing guy, his guitar tech; it was a fascinating insight into how things ran behind the scenes.
There were also a few different guest guitar players; Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Guthrie Govan and Vernon Reid were there. They each talked and did some jamming with the attendees.
It was pretty cool. I remember seeing the event advertised and just knowing that I had to go. It was being held at Saratoga Springs, New York State. So I go onto the website, re-read the order form 50 times or so, enter my information and press the “buy now” button…
… and I was signed up to goto the event.
I had already bought a ticket for Hellfest Metal Festival that year, which is an awesome heavy metal festival in France. Hellfest ended one day after Vai Academy began… so it looked like I was going to be leaving Hellfest a day early. This around the time I started to write the songs for Impetuous Desire.
The logistics of getting from Hellfest (France) to Vai Academy (USA) were a bit crazy. I road tripped to Hellfest with some friends and took an extra bag in the car. I left the festival a day early, leaving my camping stuff in their car (I would collect it back in the UK a few weeks later). I got a train from Clisson (the small town in France where Hellfest is located) to Nante (the nearest airport), and flew from Nante to Madrid International Airport in Spain – my route was slightly longer than it needed to be so that I could get a cheap flight.
I ‘slept’ on a bench in Madrid airport overnight, and flew the next day to Boston, USA. My connecting flight from Boston to Saratoga Springs was on a tin can inter-state flight… and terrifying!! Every 15 minutes the plane would horrifically lurch in the air, yawing from side to side or dropping a few metres. The pilot flew most of the flight with his knees and didn’t seem too bothered… I held on to the seat in-front of me pretty tightly. The old lady next to me looked slightly amused.
Eventually I arrived at Saratoga Springs, jumped in a taxi to the hotel, checked in, took a shower (I’d been travelling for 48 hours… ), and goto sleep. A comfy bed made a nice change from a campsite in France and a bench in Spain.
At the event, we had lectures / talks during the day, then Vai and his band would jam with everyone (one at a time!) in the evening. They would often stay up until 3am or so to make sure everyone got to jam with them, which was really cool of them.
There were some intimidatingly good players there, but after a couple of days, I managed to pick up the nerve to have a go and play on stage. I figured I wouldn’t get many opportunities like this again, and it might be now or never, so I got up early that day so I could spend 2 hours with my metronome warming up.
The day slowly rolls by, well I say slowly, there were the great talks at the event, but I was finding it hard to focus, knowing that later in the evening… I would be going on stage with Vai… the evening draws closer, and I found myself in the que to get on stage…
And then I did it – 2.5 minutes on stage, playing with a guitar player I had admired for nearly my entire guitar playing life.
The idea was we get on stage, and play a riff, Vai and the band would pick it up pretty quickly and jam on it, we could improvise over the top and then Vai played a bit with you over the riffs, with the band jamming. I modified one of the riffs from the bridge on Tonight, from my record Impetuous Desire, played it to Vai, and his band picked it up pretty fast, so I started to play…
Oh man was I nervous! I think I must have come down with a bad case of “nervous shred syndrome”, because I tried to play every note I could!! When I finished and walked off the stage, I had to sit down because I was shaking so much.
I think I played ok. I played some cool stuff. I didn’t use much note articulation (at that point I didn’t think about or practice that aspect of my playing very much), but it was cool. I had a lot of fun, and I’m glad I did it.
It was the most fun I’d had with my trousers on (at least… at that point… I’ll tell you more about that in a couple of days).
Being there for a few days, I got to get a bit of a feel for who Steve Vai is. He was just a cool guy… I struggle to think of any other way to describe it. He made time for everyone, answered every question. You could tell he was getting very tired towards the end of the events, staying up to 3am each night jamming with everyone who wanted a go, but he kept going. it would have been very easy for him to say “that’s the end for today” and get an early night, but he didn’t, his band and himself just kept going.
As fate would have it, his hotel room was on the same floor as me, and I bumped into him a couple of times in the hallway and stair well. Which was the most bizarre thing…
… can you imagine meeting one of your heroes, someone who inspired the course of events in your life… in a hotel hallway?
Unfortunately, every time I bumped into him, I said exactly the same thing:
Me: “Err…. hey, you’re Steve Vai”
Mr Vai: “…Yes, thank you”
… he would politely smile then walk off to whatever he was doing.
Cue me banging my head against a wall. Talk about being star struck – I think my IQ went negative every time I talked to him!
Still, it was pretty awesome. Playing on stage with him was such a blast.
I made a promise to myself – that would not be the last time Vai and I play on stage together.
I don’t know when the next time will be… but I’m looking forwards to it.
In the meantime, here’s a video of myself and Mr Vai, from that jam session we had, I hope you enjoy it: