A Baker's Dozen: Steve Vai's 13 Favourite Albums Revealed

Mark Eglinton
Originally published on July 31, 2012 on TheQuietus.com

Porridge powered super Scot Mark Eglinton talks to compositional guitar virtuoso about his favourite albums of all time

Steve Vai

Asking Steve Vai – a virtuoso artist with a deeply cerebral approach to the craft of making music – to narrow down his favorite thirteen albums is going to result in an interesting discussion. “This isn’t set in stone”, Vai is quick to tell me. “It’s difficult when you’re put on the spot to choose and it could probably be different tomorrow…but these are the records I would have on the list right now.”

In stylistic terms, Vai’s career could hardly be more eclectic – no surprise given his early involvement and occasional performances with Frank Zappa – himself one of music’s most experimental mavericks. While Vai’s initial forays into solo work would see him pigeon–holed (somewhat unjustly) as one of a rich crop of similarly gifted 80s guitar shredders, his trajectory since has flourished. He has had successful spells with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake and also branched out in solo terms, releasing several successful long players, which have pushed the envelope of guitar composition. (Passion and Warfare, released in 1990, is generally considered to be the zenith of these releases.)

Vai’s sixteenth solo record is a concept work entitled The Story Of Light (released in the UK on September 10 & in the US on August 14) and documents a man’s journey through a full spectrum of emotions while showcasing Vai's axe skills and compositional dexterity. Unique amongst his peers, Vai’s open–minded take on what music is and can be, is both enlightening and infectious in equal measure.

Steve's 13 favourite albums

West Side Story – Original Soundtrack Recording

West Side Story

I was a little boy and this was what my parents were listening to. There was so much that inspired me about it and you can still hear this if you listen to it unbiased, unprejudiced and not concerned by peer pressure. It’s a historical record. Besides the fact that it retained its number one position on the Billboard Chart longer than any other record in history. When I listened to it as a kid, I realised it had story to it; it was cool, it was tough, it had gangs and a deep love interest. It also has historical melody and unbelievable orchestration – nothing touches it in its field and that’s not just my opinion. I think that’s the consensus of public opinion when it comes to show music. That was when I really decided I wanted to be a composer…

Sly And The Family Stone – Greatest Hits

Sly and the Family Stone

My brother had that record and it was one of the first I heard outside of what my parents were listening to and I just couldn’t believe how great it was. If you’ve ever listened to that record, every single song is a smash. It has groove, it has colour, it has melody and there’s so much dimension and depth to it. I don’t recall the last time I listened to it but after talking to you I might just go and do it...

Frank Zappa – One Size Fits All

Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

It’s almost impossible for me to pick a particular favorite Frank Zappa record but when I was younger, this record was like an oasis. I had gone through this beautiful phase where I was introduced – by a friend of mine – to all the progressive rock music of the seventies – like Deep Purple, Queen, Jethro Tull and Emerson Lake and Palmer and it was all really great because it had distinct compositional elements to it. But when I heard Frank Zappa, it had something that nothing else had: it had comedy, it had these really long visceral solos, and the melodies were richer and more compositional than anything else that I was listening to. How could you compare ‘Inca Roads’ with anything else? So that record was one of those was one of those rare gifts in a person’s life that changes the quality of life forever.

Deep Purple – Made In Japan

Deep Purple – Made In Japan

I wasn’t a fan of live records until I heard this because they always lacked something. But the energy on this record was stunning and the clarity and depth of the recording, the looseness of it, the songs they chose and the whole live atmosphere made it wonderful. Not just that, Richie Blackmore was a giant. I resonated more with Page and Brian May at the time because they had a unique style whereas Richie was just this amazing guitar player. He could take a strat and just play it, and his vibrato, his bending and his chops meant that he was as good as any of those guys. But you can’t compare let’s say the guitar playing on ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ with ‘ Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ with ‘Tangerine’, but with Richie Blackmore it was one thing: great rock guitar playing.

Stravinsky – The Complete Works

Stravinsky – The Complete Works

I was always interested in classical music but not conventional classical. When I was in seventh grade I had a music theory teacher who was teaching me how to write music while playing me Mozart, Beethoven and Bach – the classic, romantic –styled composers and I got it. Actually, I didn’t get it. It was too simple, too predictable and I didn’t resonate with predictable music. What really pushed my buttons were things that were completely unpredictable, so when I went through college and finally heard Stravinsky, I thought he had dropped acid or something. This was a guy who for many years of life had composed relatively traditional music and then he wrote the ballets and they were monumental pieces of music for the Twentieth Century. They were pivotal pieces within a genre. Of course it’s impossible to mention Stravinsky without also mentioning some other composers like Varese, Ligeti and Berio who all really excited me. These guys all functioned on a different level, but Stravinsky…he had the biggest dick.

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

There’s a funny story here. When I was with Dave Roth he would always talk about Tom Waits in a very respectful way which was rare. I never heard Dave speak reverently about anybody and I didn’t even know who Tom Waits was. I had never come across his music. But all through the years, Dave would always say, ‘Yeah, like Tom Waits’ and I’d just say ‘Yeah, yeah!’ And then I was on tour with Whitesnake and there was this band opening up called Bad English whose singer was a guy called John Waite and I thought “Wow, this was what Dave was talking about? Hmm, it’s kind of strange because it’s not the kind of singer that Dave would be reverent about.” And then I realized I had the wrong guy… So I went to the store and bought about twenty Tom Waits albums and (one of them was Mule Variations), and I remember that I was listening to all these records, getting three tracks in and literally throwing them away. Then I put Mule Variations on and stopped dead in my tracks. It completely leveled me and I can say – out of everybody I’ve talked about – Tom Waits is my favorite artist now. I completely resonate deeply with his music, his voice and his lyrics; I buy everything he ever does. He’s one of those guys who are totally at one with the creative element with no excuses or concerns about what’s going on around him – totally uncompromising. A lot of people think they’re uncompromising, but they’re not…

Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica

Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica

The first times I tried to listen to this, I couldn’t do it. I thought “This is horrible. They’re out of tune, the guys can’t play, the way that he’s singing …” I just thought, “What is this?” Then I started seeing it around more and more and then I finally met Don and there was something very peculiar and interesting about him so I thought, “I have to give this record a chance.” We deprive ourselves the opportunity of appreciating something that is artistic, by making certain claims and being dogmatic or snobbish about it. So I listened to it a bunch and really started to get it. What I really appreciate is when somebody works completely outside the box with confidence and that record is all about that. These guys didn’t care what was going on and that made me think “Why does music always have to be in tune?” and “Why does music have to be rhythmic?” It doesn’t, we’re just conditioned to think that way and you will rarely hear somebody create something that’s brutally unique. The ways these guys do wildly different things with abandon resulting in a willy–nilly brand of controlled chaos, made me think it was all very interesting. It’s like liberation.

Matt Resnicoff – The History Of Now

Matt Resnicoff – The History Of Now

Another example of someone operating outside normal parameters. Matt’s actually a friend of mine. He was a journalist and he’s this crazy, wonderful, funny, neurotic guy and he made this record and when I listened to it, I had the same feeling I get when I listen to Trout Mask Replica. When you listen to anyone: Tom Waits, Devin Townsend or Led Zeppelin, you can hear the influences, but when you listen to The History Of Now you are hearing something that is truly unique, I think.

Queen – II

Queen II

Oh my gosh, that was another pivotal moment. Queen – for me – is the most unique rock band in history. I love Deep Purple, Zeppelin and all those rock bands from that time but nobody sounded like Queen and nobody could sound remotely like that. There was a magic to them – almost like the band was blessed with something. That band was such a perfect storm because with Freddie Mercury, how could you even quantify his confidence? You couldn’t –it was boundless and he just expressed that constantly in the music. The way Brian May approached the guitar was absolutely unique. You can compare me to other guitar players, you can compare Page to other players but you can’t compare Brian May to anybody because his touch on the instrument had a life of its own and the way that he heard the songs and was able to apply this unbelievable touch to serve the song – as opposed to just saying ‘here’s a guitar solo’ –meant he was the sound of Queen. In fact everyone in that band was the sound of Queen. When Queen II came out it was the most musical, aggressive rock record of that period, for me.

Strapping Young Lad – Alien

Strapping Young Lad – Alien

I found Devin when he was around seventeen years old and I needed a singer for my band. So when I heard tapes of him singing I thought there was really something there but the music he was playing was bizarre; it was really heavy and industrial and I thought, “It’s really good but I’m not supposed to like this because I like this…” But when he was working with me the poor guy was stuck under my thumb because my music is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship. I want things a certain way. Devin wasn’t writing at that time but when he went off and did his own thing and when he did… I’m going to use the ‘G’ word here… I think he’s a genius, I really do. He’s so passionate, so intense and – at times – so tormented, but there’s this redeeming quality of deep, deep beauty about everything he does. I think that in the future when people evolve, if they go back and actually listen to musicians of the past, when it comes to metal, he should be number one. There’s stuff in his catalogue that nobody else would have the balls to venture into.

Skrillex - Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites

Skrillex - Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites

I always like when I hear something that I think is trend–setting. I believe that he’s inspired. I’m listening with the same ears that I listen to Stravinsky, Ligeti and Zappa with. What I’m hearing is someone with the ability to layer timbres and sounds on an electronic field in the same way that Stravinsky did as an orchestrator. My kids come home with all this dubstep stuff and I go to raves occasionally –not too much but I’ve been to a few, and a lot of that music is emulating everything else that’s around and it’s really good but it becomes insipid because it lacks a certain depth of vision. But listening to Skrillex I hear the layered quality of it although it isn’t exactly my favorite style of music. Things have dynamics, things have places bearing in mind what’s going on around them so that it doesn’t all just sound like a mess and I’m very impressed with it.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

I was either going to pick this one or Are You Experienced? but when Electric Ladyland came out there was a clarity to it and it was easier for me to figure the songs out. Because it was a double record it sounded much more organic and earthy too with songs like ‘Voodoo Chile’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’. Other songs like ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ meant that you just buried yourself in the music and it became so important to you. The record also had a really cool name!

Led Zeppelin – II

Led Zeppelin – II

This was what my sister was listening to in her room and when I heard it there was a defining moment. We all have these pivotal moments where there’s a sense of clarity where we can recall what we were seeing at the time, we can remember what things smelled like and their color and I remember walking through the hallway of our house and hearing ‘Heartbreaker’ coming out of her room and the world stopped. I was stunned because it struck such a nerve and had so much energy. Then when the solo came on I discovered another dimension of music. I was probably ten or eleven. I hadn’t picked up a guitar by this point but that’s when I knew I had to play. I had seen guitars since I was in kindergarten and was obsessed by finding photos of guitars but after hearing Led Zeppelin II I crossed the line between just liking guitars and wishing I could play one, to saying, ‘Ok, I’m going to play…’