On Finding Your Own Voice: Steve Vai's Wise Words


Many who ask me about my influences are surprised to know that Steve Vai is among the greatest of any. Even more than Eddie Van Halen, who inspired me to play the instrument, Vai had a style and voice that resonated with me immediately. I spent a lot of time studying his playing on the albums Eat 'Em and Smile and Skyscraper with David Lee Roth and on his seminal solo album Flexable. Without realizing it at the time, I was trying to transform myself into a mini-Steve Vai.

Around the time Skyscraper was released in 1988, MTV aired an interview with Steve Vai. What he said created an epiphany and has resounded ever since. The topic was teaching

What happens when you teach is you learn a lot about yourself and your relationship with your instrument. The important thing—if you are going to teach—is to get them to realize that their own expression on the instrument is the most important thing and not being able to do the same lick I did in "Big Trouble"...

As much as I did not want to admit it at first, I was much more interested in the licks he played than in finding my own voice. In fact, I had not even considered such an exploration. From that point on, I stopped imitating Vai's playing. 

This realization also coincided with my first experience hearing live jazz. My then-teacher, Mark Burkert, took me to hear Jimmy Bruno's trio at a venue in downtown Philadelphia. Prior to this introduction to jazz, music improvisation was completely foreign to me. I was intrigued by how musicians could make up accompaniments and solos on the spot.

Learning how to improvise forced me to pay attention to my own voice as a guitarist, among many other things. Fortunately, I heeded his words and avoided becoming a second-rate Steve Vai. Little did I know that the same message that had such a substantial impact on a twelve-year-old kid would be the same one I continue to exhort to students today.

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Dr. Seth Greenberg