How to Play Guitar Like Steve Vai

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In this world, there are good guitar players, great guitar players, and guitar players that transcend the instrument itself. That last one is Steve Vai. His amazing guitar tricks and stunts have made him an outlandish performer. Many hopefuls pick up the guitar just to be able to capture his flashy sonic magic. But not everyone can. 

Luckily, behind every one of Steve Vai’s tricks, there’s a telling secret. One that you can use to eventually play the guitar in his likeness. 

How Steve Vai Developed His Play Style

It’s hard to imagine what kind of musical journey a player like Vai would have gone through to sound like what he does today. But it’s no secret that great guitar players aren’t born into existence; they’re shaped and molded to be great.

For Steve Vai, this journey involved an enthusiastic high school music teacher who instilled a taste of music in him. From there, he went on to learn guitar from none other than Joe Satriani himself. And to cap it all off, he formally learned composition at Berkeley, which landed him right alongside Frank Zappa.

If you follow his path closely, you can make clear connections between his influence and his playing style. His attention to detail comes from a love of music. His guitar skills are a direct product of Satriani’s mentorship. And his focus on the bigger picture is a direct result of writing music for ensembles during his time studying music. It all came together to develop his playing style and make him the music maestro that he is. 

Playing in the Style of Steve Vai

Steve Vai has a cemented place in the hall of guitar greats, something that happened as a result of his great guitar playing and personality. His playing is riddled with many techniques and traits that he made his own. When you decide to take the leap into capturing his style, these are the playing habits you’ll need to keep in mind.

Abuse the Whammy Bar

One can’t get far into the Steve Vai style of playing without a whammy bar. For Vai, a whammy is more than just a tool. It’s an extension of himself. Something he refers to in interviews calling it his “third arm.”

This is all thanks to the fact that his very first guitar, a used Teisco Del Rey, was fitted with a Bigsby style whammy bar. To him, it’s as much a part of the guitar as the strings. That’s why his use of it in songs tends to be generous. 

A good way to incorporate his signature whammy tricks is to imitate them off his albums. Practice nailing the sound just as you hear it. Once you’re able to understand the physics behind it, you can start experimenting with the tonal side of things. 

Steve typically tends to use his whammy by starting a note a perfect fourth below itself. He will slowly ease off the whammy until the note starts to settle to its actual pitch. This creates a dramatic opener effect that gets featured in many of his intros.

Exaggerate to Accentuate

Another classic Steve Vai ‘ism’ is to exaggerate his playing. Both with his playing and his hand movements. Through this, he is able to bring life to an otherwise straightforward set of notes. 

The most common use for this is to highlight the main melody of his track. Take something like For the Love of God. It’s a song with a standard melody that anyone can follow. But it’s spiced up at every turn by incorporating wide string bends, whammy, and pinch harmonics into it. 

Getting comfortable with this approach requires playing around with ideas until they become second nature. You can start with throwing in a harmonic or bend every odd bar of a riff or melody. When it starts to become normal, you can start spontaneously, adding it to your playing. 

For the full Vai experience, you can add in wild hand movements and guitar faces. This adds a bit of personality and interest to your playing, which works well for live performances or stage settings.

Move in 5ths, Harmonize in 4ths

You can tell a lot about a guitar player by the way they move around the neck. Some do it with a fast flurry of notes, others take a targeted approach, and Steve Vai does it in fifths.

A lot of his solo albums feature tracks with riffs that move forward in perfect fifths. This is a technique that he commonly shares with Satriani. T

The idea is to induce a sense of grand movement that sounds big. 

Vai then takes it up a notch by harmonizing these movements with fourths. This results in an effect that can only be described as equal parts epic as it is meaty. 

Adding this into your playing can take your scalar runs to new heights. The next time you want to move down your strings, consider doing it in fifths based on the scale you’re in. When it starts feeling natural, harmonize it by pinching harmonics near the neck pickup of your guitar.

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Throw in the Occasional Shred Run

Steve Vai isn’t a shredder in the classical sense. But he does have his moments. Even a song as gentle and intimate as Whispering a Prayer can be touched up with a few high gain shred moments. 

Appropriate shred runs in your playing can serve to diversify it and add melodic interest to a linear style of riffing. Ornamenting it with unison bends, tapping, and string switching are some of Steve Vai’s most common methods. 

Just make sure it’s not out of turn. Vai is careful about his approach to writing and playing sections. Even something like a shred run is designed to be musical in nature. While sections like this showcase technique, their primary focus should be able to serve the song as a whole. 

Using a high bend or a pinch harmonic to end the shred section and transition back to the song’s melody is a classic Steve Vai move.

Use Circular Vibratos

Someone that bends and contorts their guitar strings for a living should know a thing or two about technique and accuracy. And it just so happens that this makes Steve very aware of how he’s executing techniques like vibratos.

There are two main ways of playing a vibrato. There’s the finger pulling method of moving the string up and down. And then there’s the classical method that has your finger roll back and forth. 

Steve Vai uses none of these methods. Why? The first one results in an uneven vibrato, and the second one makes the note go flat. Instead, he chose to devise his own method that combines both techniques, i.e., the circular vibrato. 

It’s simple enough to use and results in an accurate vibrato that’s even across the board. To get it going, start off with a classical vibrato. Then move the string up and down like a standard vibrato. You’ll find your finger going in a circular motion with the string keeping a steady movement. 

The circular vibrato is what gives a lot of songs the Vai touch. It goes as flat as it does sharp and can be used to go as wide or narrow as you want. 

Use Octaves to Dress Your Lines

The guitar world is no stranger to octave lines being used as parts of guitar riffs. But if there is anyone who uses them as tools of expression, then that’s Steve Vai. His unique sprinkling in of octaves sets his playing apart from the standard pentatonic fare. 

Using octaves to beef up the melodies is one of Steve Vai’s signature moves. Songs like Tender Surrender uses licks that are either doubled with octaves or notes in a melody shifted up or down an octave. It makes the larger than life sound that Vai likes to have in his songs. 

Another common method is to tap into or out of an octave. He does this frequently with solos where he plays a note and then pulls off into the octave below. When done properly, the effect is a seamless switch that bottoms out the note gently.

Experimenting with these octave techniques will yield unique Vai like tonalities to your playing. Especially in contrast to other pitch-bending techniques like whammy. 

Use Lydian for Solos

Steve Vai is known for his versatility to play a variety of modes and scales for his songs. But occasionally, he can be found favoring a certain tone color over the other. 

His solos are a prime example of this, where he targets the classic sharp 4 note, giving his solo a brief Lydian vibe. It’s the tonality that’s most commonly associated with him, which provides you with a good opportunity to emulate his sound. 

You can even use this concept to switch over from a major scale. Just hit the sharp 4 at the apex of your solo to draw attention and add flavor for a few bars. You can switch back by either resolving to a fifth or settling into the root. 

Don’t Get Complacent with Practice

An Important thing to keep in mind when playing like Steve Vai is getting comfortable with his playing tendencies. To effortlessly reciprocate his personality into your guitar playing, you need to live and breathe it.

Even Vai himself is no stranger to this concept. He is known for cracking down hard on his practicing routines. This is something that’s a leftover habit from his teenage days of sitting down and practicing scales for three hours every day.

n interviews, he’s gone on record saying that he’ll build a practice routine of finger stretches, picking techniques, scales, arpeggios, theory, and transcription. All in all, this routine costs him ten hours of his day. But it’s a cost that’s worth the end result.

If you’re a guitar player looking to play Vai, then there’s a lot to be learned from this approach. The point is to keep pushing yourself into a state of familiarity. Before you can play his licks well, you have to be able to play them at all. And once you can master them, you can sprinkle them into your playing.

Slide Your Way to Notes

The design of a guitar makes it possible to play a note in many different permutations. Even so, there are accepted ways of moving around the neck that make the most logical sense and require the least effort. But if Steve Vai followed convention, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

When Vai wants to play a note that is several intervals apart, he won’t just switch a string to fret it. Instead, he’s been known to slide into the note on the same string. A move that not only achieves wide stretches across the fretboard but also adds a touch of portamento to his playing. 

Getting into the habit of sliding into notes can open up your string vocabulary greatly. Start by perfecting your travel to the far reaches of the fretboard comfortably. Your start and stop points should sound smooth before considering implanting this technique. As soon as you get it down in practice, incorporate it into a melody to bring it forward. 

Play Out of the Box

To end it all off, make sure that you don’t get tied down in mediocrity. Throw away all your preconceived notions about guitar playing out the door and be open to experimenting. 

Everything about Steve Vai is about being unconventional. Whether it’s the guitar playing or his persona, he’s made a point about being comfortable out of the box. That’s part of why he has gained success as a guitar figurehead. 

If there’s anything you learn from his career, it’s about being bold to get the right sounds. Ear screeching high pitched bends may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for Steve Vai, it’s the penultimate vehicle of expression.

Try some of these out for yourself to add that Steve Vai feel to your playing. 

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