Legendary guitar wizard and three-time Grammy-winner Steve Vai is recognized primarily for three phases of his career: his time with Frank Zappa when he was merely 18, his tenure as string-slinger with David Lee Roth and, of course, his ongoing era of solo output. Beyond his contributions as a musician and line of Ibanez JEM/Universe guitars, he’s produced his own records as well as those of other artists. Vai co-produced Roth’s platinum Skyscraper, for example. Most recently, he guided Japanese pianist Miho Arai as she adapted 12 of his instrumentals, including his signature piece, “For the Love of God,” for 2019’s Piano Reductions Vol. 2.
In 2004, Vai was struck by the idea to record piano reductions of 11 of his own songs. Piano Reductions Vol. 1 with Mike Keneally was the initial result. “Many of my songs focus on melody,” he observes. “Sometimes the tracks are polluted with all sorts of instrumentation. That can have a tendency to obscure it slightly.”
When it came time for Piano Reductions Vol. 2, Keneally wasn’t available and pointed Vai to Arai’s YouTube channel, where she covered several of his songs. He soon discovered she was a hardcore fan––indeed, Vai’s logo is tattooed on her neck––and reached out. “Miho was here in LA and very into it,” he recalls. “She’s trained classically but is also a rock goddess. I’d send her a song and she’d work on an arrangement––I allow artists to come up with their own. She’d send it back, I’d make comments and then she’d rework it. When we had two or three ready, we’d go into Ocean Way and record.”
To coax the strongest studio performances, Vai finds it essential to understand an artist’s vision. “You need to have a psychological snapshot of their potential,” he asserts. “You focus on that and try to exaggerate it. You wouldn’t want to give an artist something to perform that they weren’t cut out for. But if you cultivate their interests and instincts, then you’re doing a great service.”
The genesis of musical ideas is often debated. How they mature into fully realized masterpieces, then, can often seem like magic. But Vai has long recognized that melodies carry a built-in road map for the songs they will ultimately become. “Whenever I feel inspired, I try to capture that much of it,” he explains. “That’s how I’ve written since I was thirteen. It’s where the seed of inspiration is.”
“If a writer hits a wall while recording, one option is to put [whatever they’re working on] away,” he continues. “Another is to sit and be still for a short time. You don’t try to figure out what the song means. You have to stop the voice in your head and be present for a moment. You listen and the song will tell you what it needs to be.”
Piano Reductions Vol. 2 dropped earlier this year via Vai’s Light Without Heat. He’s now neck-deep in the review of more than 53 hours of music recorded at last year’s Big Mama-Jama Jamathon, an event (which he hosted) that helped to raise $100,000 for LA foster agency Extraordinary Families. Vai remains an A&R rep for Favored Nations, the label he launched in 1999.