From David Lee Roth's guitarist to Alabama Symphony collaborator

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October 30, 2018 at 8:16 pm Quote #59810


From David Lee Roth’s guitarist to Alabama Symphony collaborator
By Matt Wake |
Posted October 30, 2018 at 01:19 PM
Updated October 30, 2018 at 03:24 PM


On a recent afternoon, Vai, a Long Island, N.Y. native, current California resident and multiple Grammy winner, checks in for a phone interview from his Encino, Calif. studio Harmony Hut. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.


People were really eager to hear that first David Lee Roth solo LP “Eat ‘Em and Smile record,” which you played so brilliantly on, when it was released in 1986. Did everyone involved in making the album have a sense it was going to be well-received as it was? Dave was coming from Van Halen, such a beloved, powerful band.

Well, I can’t speak on their behalf. I know there was an expectation basically because Van Halen and David Lee Roth were like steamrollers, and anything that Dave did separate from Van Halen was going to have a lot of eyes and ears on it.

But when we were in the basement (at Roth’s house) doing it, you can’t think about those things because you just don’t know. If I was to sit there, and sure these thoughts came to my mind, but I didn’t dwell on them, like “How are people going to compare me to Edward? How am I going to create something that’s in line with the quality that people were expecting from Dave Roth from his Van Halen days?” All these things. “Are the tickets going to sell? Is the record going to sell?” They can be considerations but if you allow them to dominate you’re f—ed. [Laughs]

So, I really put all expectations aside and focused on enthusiasm in the creative moment. For instance, when I was recording something like, I don’t know, “Big Trouble” and the idea I had for the solo, of doing it and hearing and having in the track was more exciting and compelling to me than what are people going to think about this and is it on par with everything. I just know when something felt really good, so that’s what I looked for.

When we were doing something like “Shy Boy” I just felt like OK, “You be Vai because that’s your safest best. If you try to be something else, it will be recognized by the fans because they can smell that stuff a mile away and you won’t enjoy it because you won’t be you.”

So, some people have no choice but to be themselves. But some people feel the need to conform and it can work to a point, but eventually if you conform you’re doing things that don’t resonate with your true creativity and in the end, it never really works for you, no matter how much money it made. There’s something missing.

An example of that is, for me personally, when I look at my solo work which is very different than any of the bands I’ve been with, I’m very satisfied with everything about it. Of course, there’s things I would do better just from experience, but my audience is based on people that are attracted to that unique thing I do. Most people it just goes over their head. I’m a little tiny contributor in a vast field but it doesn’t matter because for somebody that hears it that it resonates with and somehow fulfilling. And it’s fulfilling for me.

You’ve been one of few guitarists able to pull off the Eddie Van Halen-style two-hand tapping guitar technique without seeming like caricature of Ed. Why does the tapping thing work for some guitarists but not for others?

All of the inspiration that I’ve received from other people is nice, but what are you going to do with it? So, like the first time I heard that tapping stuff was on a Frank Zappa record “Inca Roads” where he was doing it with a pick, and I must have been, I don’t know 15, so then that opened up a perspective to me about tapping and immediately … It’s like when I saw somebody with a whammy bar I didn’t think, “Wow, I can do what they’re doing,” I thought, “What can I do with that?” When I heard Edward tap for the first time, I think I was about 17 or 18 years old and that opened up another whole perspective of what I can do. Not that it’s better or worse. It’s just different.

I’ve never played “Eruption” because, first of all, I have no desire and it’s already been done really beautifully. [Laughs] I love the idea of the way tapping can create melodies and intervals and try to integrate it into my playing in an organic way so that it doesn’t always sound like, “Hey OK, now it’s time to tap.”


Was the “Slip of the Tongue” era version of (arena-metal band) Whitesnake you were in louder than the David Lee Roth band you were in?

No. Nothing was louder than the Roth band I was in.


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