In the world of guitar players, there are few who have succeeded in learning, perfecting and then re-inventing the way which we look at guitar today, Steve Vai is one such player. He is respected by everyone for many different reasons, a lot of people respect is technical ability, or maybe his theoretical knowledge, and some just admire the amount of passion you can feel whilst listening to his Music.
I will be showing and demonstrating several excercises and riffs that either Vai uses himself or in his style to give you an idea of his unique sound. I will disect each excercise to give you an insight into the method behind the madness!! Don't be intimidated by the name on this page either, Vai himself would encourage anyone of any skill level to try and approach these excercises, so don't be afraid!! So grab a guitar get comfy and lets take a look into the mind of a mad man...
Above is a straight forward warm-up excercise. Its a great take on the basic chormatic scale. As you can see it starts with a basic 1-2-3-4, then mutates into 2-3-4-1, then 3-4-1-2 and finally 4-1-2-3. Obviously this can be performed with up/down strokes or all down strokes/all up strokes, its also a good excercise to do with hammer-ons and pull-offs.
For a good warm-up session aim to get do this repeatedly for 5 minutes. Obviously its a good idea to do this along with a metronome aswell, that way you can keep a track of how your progressing. Vai himself uses this very warm-up!!
Ok so this excercise looks at a 'rocky' riff in the key of Bb Major. This sort of riff can be found in the work that Vai did with the likes of David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. Try to perform this riff using downstrokes and pick quite aggresively. The last pentatonic based run starts with a scoop on the whammy bar into the 1st note, this sort of quirky extra gives a good Vai sound.
An alternative way to getting a Vai sound, if you don't have a whammy or maybe not that great at using one, would be to try slicing through each note to get an artificial harmonic and give a good Vai-esque squeal!!
The 5th fret harmonics and divebomb'ed down with a whammy bar quickly before being snapped back up to restart the riff. Again, if you don't have a whammy bar try just sliding up and back down the neck after the artificial harmonic.
Ok, so if any of you have seen the 7 String demo video Vai does on youtube.com you may well recognise this excercise because its almost the same riff but a string lower. No the reason I've used this is because it highlights on of Vai's melodic approaches to playing. Rather than just play a straight forward riff, Vai incorprates his melody playing into to it.
This technique is similar to the late Jimi Hendrix, in that Vai is playing the lead (melody) part aswell as the backing (rhythm) part at the same time. Its based around an E Major scale using the Open low E note as a pedal tone style note. The little quirk at the 11th fret A string is performed using a floating tremolo system and pulling up on the bar. The alternative here is to just bend the string a quarter note. The intervals and slides at the end of the riff are very reminiscent of Vai's playing. I'll take a better look at his use of intervals later in the lesson. Again try and work around a metronome for this excercise.
So now we'll start looking at some of the techniques that Vai implys whilst creating leads and solos. We'll start simple and we'll progress to the harder stuff later on. To begin with we'll look at trilling. As you may already be awar, trilling is simply hammer-ons and pull-offs in quick succession on two given notes to give a 'tremolo-like' effect without a tremolo. Vai uses this in both his melodys and solos.
The above excercise is actually an extract from Vai's song 'For The Love Of God'. He begins with a trill between the 15th and 17th fret, slides down to the 12th fret and trills between the 12th and 15th fret. Then he moves down a string and reverses the first 2 trills, so he begins on the B string with the 12th and 15th fret trill then moves up to the 15th and 17th fret trill. Then he finds his way back to where began and begins climbing up the neck before a slidefrom the 24th fret to the 22nd fret. Obviously if you don't have 24 frets you can't really do the last trill instead just add a wide vibrato on the 22nd fret. All of these trills are based on the Em Pentatonic scale, simply just using the top 2 strings.
So heres a look at legato. As you'll no doubt know Vai utilises a lot of legato phrasing in his playing and improvisation. In case you didn't know legato is an italian word which means 'tied together'. In guitar music it is performed by using hammer-ons and pull-offs to create a smooth sound.
Excercise 7 above is a demonstration of a straight forward run based on the A lydian mode, which incidently is a favourite of Vai's! When playing this excercise try to aim for when you pick the strings for it to not be too loud. This way the 'smooth' sound will continue even when switching strings. The best and smoothest way to do it though, is to use only hammer-ons and pull-offs even when changing strings.
This takes a lot of practice and finger strength to pull off but its worth it in the end. To begin with I'd recommend picking the strings lightly and trying to keep the pick noise down. Then as your fingers get stronger start developing your technique to not have to use the pick at all.
Now we're going to take a look at a coulple of picking excercises. Vai does an awful lot of picking and his alternate picking is VERY accurate. The sequence above is kinda based on the picked run that can be found in 'For The Love of God'.
Using 32nd notes, and based around the C Lydian mode, its pretty much a simple run up the neck, the tricky part is what fingers to use and for what position changes. To make this run easy I'd recommend using ALL of your fingers on your fretting hand. As you can see I've given youa guide above the tab is a series of numbers, these numbers represent your fretting fingers. If you don't know what fingers are what here's a little key for ya,
1 = Index Finger
2 = Middle Finger
3 = Ring Finger
4 = Pinky Finger
What I've wrote down for ya is just an outline, its the fingering I use for this run. I recommend experimenting and finding what fits under your ingers best. When playing this run, try to make sure you play strict alternate picking to give that 'harsh', 'strong' sound, it will take time but use a metronome and build up your speed making sure your playing is clean and precise.
Here's another picking technique that Vai incorporates a lot, Economy Picking, also known as Sweep Picking. Excercise 10 is an example of an extended sweep that Vai incorporates into his playing.
From the Low D note on the 10th fret to the D note on the 12th fret D string, is a Dmin7 arpeggio. The octave above however, from the 14th fret G string to the 15th fret on the high E string, is an Amin7 arpeggio. The dip on the 20th fret is performed using a whammy bar and simply diving down slightly and releasing again. From that C note to the D note on the 19th fret G String, is another Dmin7 arpeggio.
This little excercise ust takes a brief look at tapping. A lot of you that can already tap, will think this is a little bit simple for the likes of Vai, however more than ever his tapping licks are very simple. All thats going on above is we're using the 14th fret as the tapping area and simply climbing down an A Lydian mode with the fretting hand. It is simple but something like this is a great excercise to help with legato/tapped playing.
Heres a little technique that you'll instantly recognise in either sound or appearance if your a Vai fan!! Vai uses this technique very regularly especially over the past 5-6 years. The basic idea is that from note to note across the strings is using a perfect 5th interval, doing this creates a really pleasing sound to the ears. Each new sequence is simply the next note in a B Major scale.
The really trick part of this excercise is how you play the sequences. The 1st note of the sequence is played with the 1st finger, then use the 3rd finger for the 2nd note. Now the cool bit, the 3rd note is obviously the same note as the 2nd however play this using your 1st finger, then your 3rd again on the 4th note and swap your fingers again so you 1st finger replays that note. Then use you 2nd finger and your 4th finger on the last note. You'll find this a little hard to take to to begin with but its well worth it, and when you get it it will flow under your fingers without any problems!!
This last excercise I thought would be a bit of fun for people. Anyone thats heard Vai's playing knows he utilises the whammy bar on his floating tremolo to great effect!! As well as the usual divebombs and screaming harmonics he uses the whammy for other things. One way he uses it is as a vibrato, like Jazz players would use a bigsby when playing chords, and he'll use it like in the excercise above.
Basically the little triangles that are next to certain notes are whammy bar useage. To get this kinda of effect using a floating tremolo system, point the whammy bar away from the guitar. Then as you play the notes indicated hit the bar away from you to get a quirky sound. Vai uses this kinda of thing a lot in his solos.
There we have it!! A small insight into the techniques and sounds of Steve Vai!! You may have noticed in one or two of the excercie audio samples the sound of a wah, a wah wah is a great way to turn almost any playing into a Vai lick!! The one thing I will recommend is not necassarily to copy this stuff note-for-note, more take them as some cool ideas and try to include these techniques into your own playing!!
Keep it shredding guys!!!