7 Tips on Playing like Steve Vai
While his sometimes wacky and over-the-top playing may not be for everybody, there’s no doubt that Steve Vai is an incredibly skilled guitarist. His highly technical style and inspiring music have influenced generations of guitarists.
Learning to play a Vai song can be a daunting task for an intermediate guitarist, but with dedication it’s definitely achievable. I’ve already created a guide that explains Steve Vai’s guitar rig which plays a big part in getting the right tone. Now let’s look at how to work on your technical skills and practice.
Over the years Vai has given great advice in interviews and in his masterclasses. Before reading through the tips below, take a few minutes to watch this video:
In the video Steve talks about the inspiration behind his song ‘Freak Show Excess’ on Real Illusions: Reflections, how he came up with different licks and how he worked on each one.
The below tips are based on various interviews I’ve read and watched over the years. They will give you insight into Steve Vai’s style of playing, his mindest on practice and guitar as well as the steps needed to develop the necessary skills to master his songs.
Even if you’re not interested in learning some Steve Vai songs, applying these tips to your practice routine will definitely help you grow as a guitarist and as a musician.
1. Pick a lick and practice it over and over and over
While you probably think you already do this whenever you learn a new lick or riff, it’s unlikely you take it to the level that Steve Vai does. Steve has stated over and over that he will sometimes sit and work on a single lick and play it for over an hour.
This is why when Steve plays something, he makes it look effortless. It’s because he’s spent a ridiculous amount of time playing that exact lick over and over to the point where it does become effortless and natural to him.
When you practice a new lick or riff, you will eventually reach a point where you’re happy with how it feels and can play it without any mistakes. My advice is when you reach that point where you feel it’s okay to move in, don’t stop. Keep working on it. Keep pushing yourself.
It will probably feel like overkill, but when you practice that lick past the point where you feel you can play it well, that’s when you push your skills to a higher level. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’ – keep working on it until it’s perfect, then work on it some more. Vai himself often says that he’s still working on his songs and trying to improve, so set a higher standard for yourself as well.
In the above video, Vai talks about how he worked on a 2 note lick and played it over and over and over to get it to fit under his fingers. That’s exactly the approach you should try here.
Example on how to use this tip
Pick a short lick from a Vai song you like. For example you might use the main melody from ‘For the Love of God’, but don’t pick a lick longer than that. Ideally it should only be a handful of notes. The shorter the lick is, the faster you will improve.
Start off by practicing it as you normally would. Work on it until you’re happy with it. When you reach the point where you feel you can play it fairly well, have a listen to the lick in the song and compare it to how you play it.
If you’re listening close enough, you will notice differences in how the lick sounds. The way Vai uses vibrato, the way he slides between notes and even the way he picks the string will be different to how you do it. The goal for this exercise is to try to learn to play like Vai, so after you identify any differences in how you play it compared to Vai, try to focus on those differences and work on it endlessly.
Over the next few days, work on the same lick over and over. After a while you will feel like you’re wasting your time as you may not feel like you’re improving any more. Whenever you feel that, push yourself further.
Steps for this tip:
1. Pick a short lick out of the song ‘For the Love of God’
While you can pick a lick out of any other song, as a starting point I recommend this song. The ‘Passion and Warfare’ album is an iconic Vai album so getting your hands on the transcriptions of that album will give you great insights into Vai’s playing style.
2. Have a listen to other guitarists attempting that lick
The reason why I recommended ‘For the Love of God’ is because there are a lot of covers of it on YouTube from guitarists of varying skill levels. Search for ‘For the love of god cover’ in YouTube and you’ll see a big list of covers from different guitarists.
Have a listen to your chosen lick in at least 10 different covers. You will hear that each guitarist plays your chosen lick slightly differently. Some will sound extremely close to the actual version, while others will sound dramatically different depending on the guitarist’s skill level.
As a more specific example, have a close listen to how each guitarist uses vibrato in the lick. Some guitarists will use an aggressive and fast vibrato, while others will be more subtle and may even use the whammy bar. Really pay close attention to every detail and how it impacts your the feel of the lick.
The point of this step is to hear what it sounds like when you only practice a lick until it’s ‘good enough’. Many of these guitarists would have practiced that lick until they were happy with it but no further than that. The whole point of this tip is to push yourself further than what feels comfortable. Many of the covers sound great, but you will still hear a big difference compared to Vai playing the lick. That difference you hear is the extra time dedicated to perfecting the lick over and over and really thinking about the articulation of the notes.
3. Work on the lick
Now that you have a feel for how the lick sounds and have heard other guitarists play that lick, it’s time to work on it to the point where you feel like it’s overkill. Over the next few weeks keep spending time working on the lick and improving it.
At some point you will feel like moving on to something else. Don’t. Keep working on that lick until you can basically play it perfectly at any moment without any mistakes.
It’s also worth mentioning that you need to really focus on the lick while you’re practicing it. It’s not good enough to merely play it – you’re only going to improve if you’re focusing on what you’re doing. So playing the lick over and over while watching TV isn’t going to cut it. That’s not practicing – it should feel like an effort when you practice the lick.
4. Pay attention to how that lick feels compared to the rest of the song
After a month or two, play the entire song (if you know it). You will find that when you get to your chosen lick, it feels completely different to the rest of the song. It will feel so familiar to you that the rest of the song just feels wrong. The lick should almost feel out of place because it sounds so good compared to the rest of the song. That’s the point of this exercise, to recognize that learning a lick isn’t enough – you need to master it.
Once you go through this process and you see the result of working tirelessly on a single lick, it will take your outlook on guitar to a higher level.
2. Jam with Steve Vai’s Naked Tracks
After years and years of guitarists around the world jamming to horrible sounding backing tracks, Steve Vai released a collection of his songs with the lead guitars removed. In other words, we now have access to a significant chunk of Vai’s discography to jam over with the lead guitar removed. It’s as close to playing in the Vai band as we’ll get.
Called ‘Naked Tracks’, there are currently 7 volumes available which cover albums from ‘Passion and Warfare’ all the way to ‘The Story of Light’. Here are links to each volume:
- Vol 1: Passion and Warfare
- Vol 2: Alien Love Secrets / Sex and Religion
- Vol 3: Fire Garden
- Vol 4: Alive in an Ultra World
- Vol 5: The Ultra Zone / Real Illusions: Reflections
- Vol 6: Where the Wild Things Are / Sound Theories
- Vol 7: The Story of Light (not found on Amazon but is available on iTunes)
All tracks are also available on iTunes so you can buy individual tracks if you’re not interested in the full albums.
From a learning point of view this is fantastic as it not only allows you to jam over the actual tracks, but it gives you a great chance to listen to the rhythm parts. I found I appreciated each track far more after listening to the rhythm section without the lead guitar.
Vai has a section of his website where he gives advice on how to jam along with each track, what key the song is in and other interested insights. He explains what he was thinking while writing the track as well as advice on what you could think about. It’s a great way to think about each track in new ways.
Steps for this tip:
1. Read through Steve’s advice for each track from this part of his website
Find out what key the song is in, what modes were used and what Steve was thinking.
2. Learn to play the song along with the track
This is a pretty obvious step, but learning the actual song and how it fits in with the rhythm track is an excellent goal for any guitarist.
3. Jam with the track and come up with your own unique version
In addition to learning how to play the actual song, try coming up with your own unique song with the rhythm track as your starting point. This gives you a chance to practice working on your creativity. It’s challenging because you will likely have the actual song in the back of your head. So try to forget the actual song and come up with your own melodies and licks that fit with the rhythm parts.
4. Import the track into an audio editing program
If you have a DAW like Pro Tools, Cakewalk Sonar, Ableton Live, or any other, import the track into it. If you don’t have a DAW, you can use Audacity, which is a free and easy to use audio editor. Once a track is in an editor, you can use it to practice in various ways.
Here are some suggestions on how to use the tracks in different ways:
- Loop a section and jam over it. This is a great way to learn and practice different modes.
- Slow the track down to help you practice difficult sections.
- Pitch shift the track to a different key and try to relearn some of the licks
- Pitch shift the track to a different key and jam over the top in the new key
Just like the previous tip where I recommend you spend a lot of time working on one lick, you should also spend a lot of time with a single track. Get to know the rhythm cues to the point where you can easily jump into the song at any point.
5. Learn the rhythm parts
These Naked Tracks allow you to hear the rhythm guitar parts far clearer than in the album versions. This gives us a great opportunity to take a closer look at Vai’s rhythm playing. Many of his rhythm parts are incredibly interesting and fun to play, so have a closer listen to them in the tracks.
If you’re an advanced guitarist, try to learn the parts by ear. In some songs it will be fairly simple while others will be more than enough of a challenge. Alternatively you can find transcriptions, but take advantage of the Naked Tracks and develop your ear skills.
3. Give Steve Vai’s practice workout a go
If you’re looking for exercises to build your technical skills, Steve’s intensive practice routine is the place to go. It first appeared in Guitar World magazine in 1990. You might have heard of the ’10 hour guitar workout’ or the ’30 hour guitar workout’ and Guitar World have put them both together in a book:
Since first published, guitarists around the world have been using it as the basis of a well rounded practice routine.
Here are some of the categories covered in the workout:
- Finger exercises
- Tapping, sweeping, vibrato, bending, harmonics, whammy bar
- Scales including pentatonic, modes, exotic
- Chords including memorization, strumming and improvisation
- Ear training
- Reading music
- Music theory
As you can see it covers a broad range of areas to give you a complete practice routine. In addition to actual exercises, Steve also talks about the mindset and philosophy on how to practice and work on your skills. This is as important or even more important than the actual exercises because without the right mindset, you’re not going to get the most out of your practice.
As a teacher I see it too often where a student thinks he’s been practicing, but really he’s only been mindlessly jamming or playing exercises. Learning how to get into the right mindset when you sit down to practice plays a massive role in how effective your practice will be.
It’s important to remember that while this is often referred to as the ’30 hour guitar workout’, you definitely don’t need to dedicate 30 hours per week to use it. The idea is that you can scale it down to the time you have available. So even if you only have one hour or less available each day to practice, you can still pick out the most important parts of the book to work on.
This workout routine is useful from beginners all the way up to advanced guitarists. Even if you think your current practice routine covers all important areas, it’s worth checking this routine out as you’re likely to be missing something important.
4. Turn new ideas into exercises
A common piece of advice you will hear Steve mention in interviews is to take an idea you come up with and turn it into an exercise. In the video at the start of this guide, Steve gives an example of a two note lick he came up with while jamming. He liked the sound of it so he turned it into an exercise and played it all over the fretboard while jamming.
Your initial reaction to this suggestion is likely to be along the lines of ‘I don’t want to turn my idea into an exercise because it will sap the feeling out of it and I’ll sound robotic’. But if you give it a go, you’ll find that the opposite happens. Your little cool idea grows and develops into something far more musical and interesting the longer you spend working on it. Your new lick will actually sound more natural and expressive the longer you spend working on it.
I tried this after the first time I heard Steve explain it and it was eye opening. I had a short lick and turned it into an exercise. Then I jammed with with the lick over a backing track for around 30 minutes. By the end of the session I felt far more confident in playing the lick and I had come up with a lot of musically interesting ways to make use of the lick. The next day I went back to the lick and spent even more time working on it. After a couple of days it was crystal clear how turning any idea you come up with into an exercise can take that idea to new levels.
That’s the real benefit of turning an idea into an exercise – it helps you ‘get closer to the notes’ (as Steve would say) and learn how to get the most out of your idea.
5. Learn to use the modes
If you’re a beginner or intermediate guitarist, you’ve probably heard of the modes before. You may have even read a few lessons online and quickly got confused as each person seems to explain modes in different ways. While there are a lot of great articles and lessons online that properly explain how to use modes, there are unfortunately a lot of poor articles that do more harm than good. So if you’re hesitant about learning modes because it sounds confusing, I get that.
The point I want to emphasize here is that modes are worth learning.
Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and a large number of highly influential guitarists make excellent use of modes to give their songs interesting ‘colors’. When you listen to a Vai song like ‘For the Love of God’ or ‘K’m pee Du Wee’ and wonder how he gets that dreamy sound out of his notes, a lot of that is due to the mode he is using – in this case the Lydian mode. Different modes will bring a different feeling/color/flavor to your playing and can be a great source of inspiration.
To get an idea how different modes can lead to different styles or feeling in your music, have a listen to Steve demonstrating a few different modes in the below video:
As he changes between the modes you can hear that the feeling or emotion behind the music changes. Some of the changes are subtle while others are very obvious. That’s the way to think about modes – they give you different ways to express yourself.
If you want to learn about modes from a book, this book gives a good overview of modes worth checking out:
Of course there are plenty of videos on YouTube along with countless guitar lesson websites explaining modes, so use whichever method you prefer.
Tips with modes:
- Really get to know the sound of each mode so you can learn to identify each one when you hear them in different songs
- Go through Vai’s songs and try to identify by ear when he’s using different modes
- Play along with a simple backing track and experiment with each mode
- Write a melody in one mode and try to play it in different modes to learn how it changes the feel of your melody
The most important point I suggest you keep in mind is to not get too tied up in the theory. Learn to apply the modes in your playing. Modes only become useful when you can use them. Don’t be one of those guitarists who has an excellent understanding of theory but doesn’t know how to use any of it.
6. Learn one of his songs from start to finish as perfectly as you can
I know – easier said than done! But stick with me because there’s a few important reasons behind this suggestion.
The first tip I shared with you in this guide was to pick a short Vai lick and play it over and over and over until it feels like second nature to you. The purpose of that exercise is to show you how pushing yourself further than you would normally take things can dramatically improve your playing.
This tip suggests that you pick a Vai song that you love and make it yours. Don’t merely learn to play it – master it and own it. Spend so much time and effort practicing it that people will assume that you wrote the song because you can play it so well and effortlessly.
This might all sound obvious, but as a guitar teacher I can say that one of the biggest obstacles holding intermediate and advanced guitarists back is the fact that most people move on to new things too soon. A typical guitarist will practice a song until they’re happy with it then move on to the next song to expand their repertoire.
Being able to play 100 songs might sound impressive on paper, but how well can you possibly know 100 songs? What if you cut that list down and really worked hard on 20 songs? How much better would each song sound? What if you spent a lot more effort trying to master and perfect five songs? What about one song?
Steps for this tip:
1. Pick a Vai song that you absolutely love
This is an important step because if you’re going to dedicate a lot of time and effort into learning the song, you want to make sure you pick one that you will continue to love into the future. Don’t just pick your latest favorite song, pick one that you know you will always enjoy.
2. Get the transcription and Naked Track for the song
Not only do you want to have an accurate transcription printed out, but make sure you have the proper backing track to play along with. This is important because you don’t want to learn from a poor transcription or play along with a amateur backing track.
Here are links to sheet music books for Vai’s studio albums:
- Passion and Warfare
- Sex and Religion
- Alien Love Secrets
- Fire Garden
- The Ultra Zone
- Real Illusions: Reflections
- The Story of Light
The alternative is to find a high quality transcription online and print it out. I really recommend having a print out rather than looking on a screen.
3. Dedicate a serious amount of time and effort into mastering the song
You’re going to make this your song. It’s going to be the song that people who know you will say ‘play that song’ and they will expect you to know what song they mean. You’re going to be so good at playing it that Steve himself would be impressed if he heard you play it.
To get to that point, you need to dedicate some serious time, patience and determination. Plan out how you will practice and work on the song for the next year. Yes, I really do mean you should aim to work on the song for at least a year. Of course you will see most of the improvements to your skills in the first couple of months, but continuing to work on the same song for the rest of the year is worth the effort.
4. Don’t give up
You will eventually reach the point where you feel that there’s no reason to continue working on the song because you’re happy with how it sounds. Don’t give up at that point – it’s a trap! The whole point of this exercise is for you to find out what happens when you push past your own set limitations.
When you hear yourself think ‘that’s enough’ or ‘I’ve mastered this song’, force yourself to keep going. Watch a live recording of Steve perform the song and try to find any little nuance or articulation that’s missing in your version. Keep pushing yourself and set the bar higher.
Steve regularly says that he continues to work on his songs, so if you ever feel like you know the song good enough to stop working on it, think again.
Why is this worth the effort
I know this sounds like a lot of hard work, but the point is that you will only do this once for one Vai song. You could continue to do it for other Vai songs, but I don’t recommend it. Make this a personal challenge for yourself to find out what happens when you push yourself to truly master a Vai song.
The reason why this is worth the effort is because it will show you what it takes to achieve an incredibly high level of skill and articulation with a song on guitar. The song you choose will forever be your reminder on the high bar to strive for whenever you learn a new song or write your own music.
If you don’t follow this tip, you will never find out how far you could have taken your skill level.
This exercise is worth the effort because it will show you that you can achieve amazing things if you put the proper time and effort in to it.
My experience with this exercise
In 2005 I went through this exercise. Over the years leading up to 2005 I had learned around 20 Steve Vai songs and felt I could play them reasonably well. While I felt I knew those songs well, I knew there was still a big gap between how I played the songs and how Vai plays them. I was playing the right notes, but it just didn’t feel or sound quite there.
So I decided to pick a new song to learn and really dedicate myself to mastering it. I chose ‘Lotus Feet’ from the 2005 Real Illusions: Reflections album because I love the expressive playing.
It didn’t take too long to figure out the guitar parts and get a feel for them. After a couple of months I was pretty happy with how the song sounded. But I knew if I stopped here, this song would sound just like the others from a skill point of view. So I persisted and continued to work on the song far longer than what I thought was necessary.
Even the ‘easier’ parts were a challenge to get right. Trying to get the vibrato, dynamics and tone as expressive and emotive as possible can be just as hard as fast legato section.
The end result of all of this effort is that now ‘Lotus Feet’ feels so natural to me that it almost feels like I wrote it because I know it so well. I know that I still have room for improvement 11 years later and that’s fine. The point is that after going through this experience, my playing as a whole improved. As a nice bonus, I now know one of my favorite Vai songs ridiculously well and you can do the same.
7. Jam with a purpose
While working on your technique is crucial to be able to play Vai style licks and solos, it’s just as important to work on your musical or creative side. You probably know of a few guitarists who have excellent technical skills, but when it comes to improvising or songwriting they don’t have a clue what to do. In interviews I always get the sense that Vai works on his musical/creative side more than working on his technical skills. So the last tip I have for you in this guide is to spend as much effort on creativity and improvising as you do on technique.
Fortunately, despite what some people may say, creativity and improvising are skills you can develop like any other. Even if you don’t think you’re a creative person or you weren’t born with creativity, you can definitely work on it.
As a guitar teacher I can confidently say that there’s no such thing as being ‘tone deaf’ or ‘missing the creative gene’. I’ve heard many students over the years give me these excuses and that’s really all they are – excuses. You can develop your creativity if you work on it.
The easiest way to get started with developing your creative side is to jam with a purpose. Jamming with a purpose involves starting a jam with a clear and specific mindset. You’re not just going to be mindlessly playing over a backing track or regurgitating previously learned licks over and over. That definitely won’t help you develop creativity.
It’s counter-intuitive, but when you jam with a clear goal or objective in mind, it can actually make it easier to come up with creative ideas.
To get started, here are some different ways you can jam with a purpose:
- Limit your entire jam to only three notes in specific positions on the fretboard (eg: 7th, 8th & 10th frets on the B string)
- Jam using only one string (eg: only play notes on the high E string)
- Try to imitate a vocalist
- Change the key or mode every chord change
- Only play using chord tones
- Create a melody using one note and a whammy bar
- Use a delay pedal with a slow slapback feedback (see this lesson to learn about slapback delay) and come up with ways to harmonize over your own playing
The goal with each of the above goals is to force yourself to think outside of the box and come up with licks and ideals in a way that you would never have tried before.
For example, if you limit yourself to only playing notes on one string, it forces you to think about how you move between notes and the interval jumps. The licks you come up with will sound completely different to the licks you would have come up with if you could play all six strings.
The more you limit yourself or the more specific your purpose is, the more you will learn. So while it might seem a bit dumb to only play three notes, you can learn a lot and really develop your creativity doing so.
Next time you want to have a jam, give yourself a really specific purpose or restriction before you start. It will be hard at first, but if you push through and keep working on it, you will find it opens up your creativity in ways you couldn’t have done before.
Whether you’re a big fan of Steve Vai or not, there’s a lot you can learn from studying his music and playing. He takes his music and guitar very seriously and you can hear it in his playing.
The above tips will help you grow as a guitarist as well as a musician. My recommendation is to start off by focusing on only one of the above tips. Find the tip that you feel will make the biggest difference to your playing and really focus on it.
The biggest lesson from Steve Vai I have learned is to push yourself further than you would normally go. Instead of practicing a lick 20 times before moving on, keep working on the same lick 200+ times. While you may be perfectly happy with the lick after playing it 20 times, you’re missing out on a lot. It’s only until you go the extra mile and practice that lick for another 200+ times when you realize how much you’re missing.
Check out my guide on Steve Vai’s guitar rig, pedals and tone to learn more about his approach to playing and how his rig affects his tone.