Steve Vai is the epitome of the guitar virtuoso turned into a rock star. There’s nothing he hasn’t ticked off the list of a mind-blowing musical career, a genius who worked with other geniuses and ultimately created his unique approach to music and the guitar.
I got obsessed with Vai’s playing and gear when I first saw him perform “Tender Surrender.” The gracious bluesy intro left way for insane whammy action and melodic shredding that turned my head around and made me wonder how’s he playing that and what rig allows such freedom.
Vai not only contributed to the guitar world with his playing; his designs and ideas also became cornerstones of modern guitar building. As such, I will take you through his most iconic guitars and gear, detailing how they shape his tone and how you can do the same.
5 Things You Need to Know about Steve Vai
- He started playing at age 12, taking lessons from Joe Satriani, and started his career in 1978 at 18 as a transcriber for Frank Zappa and later played lead guitar in ‘The Mothers of Invention.’
- In the movie ‘Crossroads,’ he played the epic role of Jack Butler, the Devil’s Shredder.’
- He was part of the David Lee Roth band and the Glam rock giants ‘Whitesnake.’
- He has won three Grammy awards and was nominated 15 times.
- He has released over 20 solo studio and live albums of Instrumental music that blend world elements, orchestras, and heavy and progressive metal.
Steve Vai Guitars: a Lesson in Elegance
Regarding Steve Vai’s guitar choice, in retrospect, nothing really suited him until he designed his guitar.
The early days of working with Frank Zappa saw him play a modded Stratocaster that turned into a jack-of-all-trades shredding machinery – resembling mostly the Frankenstein part of Van Halen’s Frankenstrat rather than the brand behind it.
From that point on, all his guitars had two things in common: extreme tonal and playing versatility mixed with elegance – what he played had to match his striking looks and act on stage in the most stylish way possible.
Ibanez and Steve Vai have a long story together, and it’s hard to say who’s the biggest name of the two in the guitar world. The symbiosis between the Japanese giant and the virtuoso started in 1987 when they co-designed ‘the Jem’ – the best-selling signature guitar in history.
How Did Ibanez Get to Steve Vai?
In the middle of the Glam wave, right after Van Halen showed guitar builders the way with his Frankenstrat, all the attention of guitar companies was directed toward the next big star of the scene. Every brand was all over a young Steve Vai, the new headliner shredder, yet only Ibanez, a struggling Japanese builder in the US, succeeded in earning his trust.
Supestrats dominated the market and even Vai’s rig, but he wanted something more extreme than the pointy 24fret beasts Kramer was offering. Fender put forward their mean-looking humbucker, and Floyd rose-packed Charvels and Jackson, but nothing worked; Vai wanted his design put to life unspoiled.
Prominent US builders were willing to adhere to all the specs but would not ‘spoil’ their original design to the point of following every instruction – some even plainly refused to add the monkey grip.
Ibanez won, as it was the only company willing to compromise on everything, stick to Vai’s vision, and go back and forth endlessly until the Jem came to life.
Ibanez Steve Vai Signature Premium JEM7VP
There have been many iterations of the Gem over the years, yet there an ‘archetypal’ Steve Vai Ibanez Jem that can describe it best and that you can buy at almost every guitar shop- the JEM7VP. It is not the first design of the guitar, yet the modern iteration that has the closest aspects to his first prototypes with Ibanez.
A white gracious-looking superstrat with a ‘tree of life’ inlaid fretboard, 24 frets, two humbuckers, one single coil, and a floating ‘Edge-Zero’ modded tremolo bridge able to handle the most wicked whammy action.
And the details that immediately put it under the “Vai” branch – the monkey grip contour that is both practical in its use and unique in the fashion.
The DiMarzio® Evolution® pickups are what you hear on most Steve Vai records – all three passive yet pulling off an insane among of sustain and different tones.
- The neck humbucker, especially when working together with the single coil in the 4th position, perfectly channels Vai’s inner Jimi Hendrix with the woody, strat-like clean.
- The neck-only and aggressive bridge make up his ‘liquid’ lead tone and the various nuances of mid-rangy heavy sounds and crispy out-of-phase clean.
This instrument earned him the Les Paul award for the highest standard of excellence in the creative application of technology for a good reason – every major rock guitar meant for technical players followed the JEM’s design in one way or the other.
Some leaned on to the more dynamic, in between the bluesy and technical aspects of the instrument, while others on its ability to play anything on stage and never let him down.
The Sticker Strat
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Steve Vai playing a Strat on stage. In my mind, the guitar would snap in two when he gets into the crazy dive bombs. However, there was a time when the Strat was his ‘only’ option, and he made the best out of it.
The guitar was gifted to Vai by his mother, replacing the first electric he owned – a one-pickup SG. The ‘Sticker Strat’ lives up to its name as it’s filled with memories of his time with Frank Zappa and his teenage years. Inspired by Hendrix and Blackmore, the Strat was a dream come true.
Like most Strats of that era, it was modded extensively, with the bridge single-coil leaving space for a humbucker, a heavy-duty whammy bar, and an Alembic preamp. In time though, it was just not enough, in Vai’s own words.
‘I didn’t like Strats because they didn’t sound rock ‘n’ roll to me – they just didn’t have… They had something; they were great, of course, for certain things.’
I can relate personally to that, as even in my humble session career, a Strat cannot pull off everything in the rock realm, no matter how hard you modify it. I would never consider playing Vai’s solo work on a Stratocaster; the whammy action and sustain are out of the guitar’s league.
A good enough Strat, though, can be modded into anything today, as the choice of electronics is much broader than in the 80s.
Charvel “Green Meanie”
The Strat finally had to go when he joined the band Alcatraz and needed a more solid tone. The bright nature of the Strat was great for the mix-cutting lead guitar trickery, but not if you need to hold all the mid-range together as the only guitar player; plus, it was the glam era, where everything required an extra spice of gain!
The “Green Meanie” might be the bridge that connected the Strat to the Jem – the experiment that brought it all together but never quite made it. The biggest contribution to what became the Jem is the carved body under the whammy bar that allowed for full floating action for the first time and the makeshift split coil function due to the custom wiring.
Vai wasn’t the stylish all-white rock god of the era, and the guitar eventually became a beat-up ‘sticker’ instrument just like the Strat.
Charvel Pro-Mod San Dimas Style
If you want to try your hand at modifying a similar guitar and make your own ‘Meanie,’ you can go for this modern, at-the-edge-of-affordable Charvel.
It features almost the same superstrat design and pickup configuration without the makeshift element. What’s best, it fits the criteria as one of the best guitars to modify. Considering how well-made and versatile it is, you should wait to modify it first.
Jackons were the Superstrat of the moment in the late 80s, lining up an impressive list of guitar players in their signature model. This guitar, though, became iconic not cause of a particular show or album but caused it was Jack Butler’s mean axe of choice throughout the movie “Crossroads.”
Even though the guitar is not what Vai used to record his albums and was mostly featured in the movie from twisted looks, it’s still a great rock machine you can buy today!
Jackson Pro Series Limited Edition San Dimas
The guitar comes with a DiMarzio Super Distortion DP100 in the bridge, a DiMarzio PAF Pro DP151, and a Floyd Rose 1000 Series. It’s very versatile in a high-gain situation and fitting for the heavy shredding Jack Butler shows off in the movie.
However, it’s not a jack-of-all-trades like the Jem, as the aggressive pickups won’t serve you well for dynamic bluesy clean tones. It’s more similar to the typical Superstrat of the 80s with the 22 frets and overall appeal that fitted the era.
Steve Vai Amps
Much of Vai’s tone is based on his Amp and getting the maximum out of it. Like every great guitar, letting the amp do the work while focusing on the music is a significant aspect of Vai’s live shows and recordings.
Same as for guitars, at the beginning of his career, Vai used was amp popular at the time, with the usual stacks of Marshalls behind the stage in his early days of playing with Zappa. Aggressive, versatile, and with a lot of bottom end, Marshall was the first to rule the world with high-gain amps. Fender tried to do the same, but ultimately, they lost the head-to-head comparison.
This amp is the tone of rock, but with the right guitar and hands, it can serve well to Blues and even Jazz players with the legendary edge-of-breakup crunchy tone. Jeff Beck, Clapton, Page, everyone used a JCM Marshall at a certain point.
In an interview for Guitar World, he shares a story of how Zappa called his tone “An electric ham sandwich’ after their first show together, with a teenage Vai wondering what he was doing wrong if the guitar and amp everyone wanted, the Strat and Marshall were already his!
‘Expectancy of the sound you want to hear out of your amp’ is what he lacked at the time, as Vai talks about in his interview.
Steve Vai Talks Zappa Documentary
Carvin Legacy 3 Amp
Vai has had a long history of using a Carvin Legacy tube amp. Recently he switched from the Legacy 2 and built the custom Legacy 3, adding an extra channel and a master volume. Versatility without sacrificing simplicity is his main motive behind the change.
“I really like simplicity when it comes to amps and gear because who wants to sit there and try to figure stuff out.”
Typically, to drive a tube amp to its preferred edge-of-breakup tone, you need a certain amount of volume; once you go below that, the tone starts to Change – that’s the basis on all vintage rock tone, following the same logic as the volume knows on the Guitar.
However, considering how heavy Vai’s music gets, he needs to control an insane amount of gain, sometimes at a lower volume, while keeping the warm nature of tubes – that’s why a master volume that didn’t lower the level of distortion was necessary.
Carvin Amps have a crisp, clean channel, dirty one, and dirty channel with a high gain boost and a lot of bottom ends to it to get the tone he needs, as demonstrated in this video. It is violently heavy when it wants, but less and in a different manner than the 5150.
Vai is really big on using effects loops, and this amp has 2 of them: 1 pre-master & 1 post-master, along with a channel assignable reverb.
Vai Goes Digital
As a guitar tone pioneer, Vai was and is always open to the next new thing and is not afraid to go beyond the vintage, analog gear realm. As you understand by now, a gear purist is the least thing Vai is.
Fractal Axe-FX II
He was one of the first major artists to use the Fractal Axe-FX II.
“Out of any device I’ve ever used – any effects processor – for my ear, this seems to have the most transparency, which means its sounds the most like just plugging directly to the front of an amp which is really nice.”
The goal of digital gear for a rock star with all the gear in the world is to avoid carrying on huge tour racks of effects and pedals or even amps. In Vai’s case, he never replaced the amps but used the Axe FX to add various modulations and delays.
Steve Vai Pedals
Pedals are not the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Steve Vai, even though his pedalboard is as large as your average rock star’s entire rig. The reason is that his music is all spread out in genres, styles, and sounds, and it doesn’t fit one specific sonic spectrum where asking about pedals makes sense.
There are, though, a few pedals that he used and still uses some variations of. Among the most popular, some are the following.
Cry Baby Wah
The Cry Baby never left Vai’s pedalboard when it landed in the 80s. Its aggressive wah-wah sound is a staple of many great guitar records he released. Check out “Bad Horsie” for a trip to Wah Wah land, and our list of the best Wah pedals you can buy.
Boss DD-7 Digital Delay
Arguably the best vintage Boss delay pedal ever made, it rarely leaves Vai’s pedalboard unless he uses the AXE-FX. Like every other quality Boss pedal, it’s practically indestructible.
A custom-made box containing two separate distortion tones, one of which is a tube screamer, typical of the ‘fluid’ Vai lead tone, and the other following the tonal colors of a Boss ds-1. The tube screamer vs. blues driver comparison is worth checking out before committing to one booster.
DigiTech Whammy Pitch-Shifting Pedal
The one and only Whammy Pitch-Shifter that everyone uses still to this day. There’s not much else to do in the pitch realm besides what this pedal does.
From the Studio
As a studio player, Vai’s recording ‘trickeries’ are what, at times, makes his dense arrangements work. The finished records are much more than a guitar album, sometimes having orchestras take up most of the headroom rather than soaring leads.
To achieve these dense but ‘clean’ records, there’s, in fact, no ‘trickery’ but masterful use of simple recording and mixing tools we all can learn from.
The Legacy amp Vai uses is heavy on the bass, yet you can’t hear that on recordings as that is rolled off almost entirely, with only the texture of the fat sound remaining. This is how he manages to layer multiple guitar tracks while leaving low-end to the bass and kick drum.
Similarly, a mid-range boost using an EQ makes his solo heard smoothly on top of the rhythm section and the orchestra. Part of Vai’s ‘fluid’ sound is how he uses mid-range to avoid harsh highs.
Among the pioneer Solo guitarists, Vai best showcases the use of stereo image for guitars so that every element has its space in the final mix.
In his latest gear rundown, Vai demonstrates how he uses the Inward Connections Mix690 Summing Mixer in the studio to help him get that separation.
Beyond mixing and studio trickery, the first to have to get a great record is to have a solid arrangement. As a master of this craft, it’s safe to say that he got a lot from Zappa – no matter how dense the record is, everything seems to sit in their range.
Steve Vai in Songs
As a rock god who fits in every category, from glam star to music genius, it’s hard to choose only a few songs that characterize him.
The Zappa Phase
Hired a ‘stunt’ guitar player to play what Zappa imagined but couldn’t execute; much of this Era is Vai following the lead of the band leader.
Frank Zappa – Stevie’s spanking (Featuring Steve Vai) Live duet version
The Glam Phase
Glam never left Vai, and Vai never left Glam. He is still the same showman even before and after joining Whitesnake in the 80s.
Whitesnake & Steve Vai – Hellfest 2022 – Still of the Night
The Solo Carrer
There’s not one tune that can cover eight studio albums of solo work as a composer and guitarist. Among all, the two that influenced me the most as I stumbled upon them as a teenager after they became some of the first guitar hero videos of the early YouTube days to get over 10 million views.
Steve Vai – “Tender Surrender”
Taming an orchestra is not something any rockstar, not even any guitar god, can do. This orchestral arrangement of the Vai epic “For The Love of God” is a true ode to his mastery.
Steve Vai – “For The Love Of God”
The Rock Royalty Phase
Vai never allowed himself to become a nostalgia act, but fame and legacy now put him into the position of overseer of the modern guitar world. His latest release with the contemporary guitar prodigies of Polyphia, especially the music video, explains it better.
Polyphia – Ego Death feat. Steve Vai (Official Music Video)
What about the Hydra?
No recent Steve Vai video or article is complete without mentioning the Hydra – the multi-headed modern guitar he unleashed in the song “Teeth of the Hydra.”
Steve Vai – Teeth of the Hydra (Official Music Video)
The 3-necked everything multi-string guitar, bass, and synth has its songs and website you can check out. No guitar has ever been this over-specced and arguably took longer to design and manufacture so that it’s playable and, most importantly, not weighs twice the heaviest Les Paul.
7 and 12 strings guitar, ¾ scale 4 string bass, fretted and fretless, 13 sympathetic harp strings, humbuckers, single coils, piezo, phase shifter, Midi, and other specs we have still not seen in action. It will be a while, though, until a beast of that magnitude is up for sale for the everyday dragon-slaying shredder.
Sound Like Steve Vai on Budget
Fortunately, you can opt for budget alternatives to sound like Steve Vai among the bank-busting guitar and amps.
The Ibanez JEMJR
If you truly want to get in the Ibanez realm, the best bet is to go for the Ibanez Jem Junior, which is affordable yet packed with all the “Vai” ingredients. It’s worth reading its full review if you are considering buying one.
Do the following if you want a Steve Vai tone on a budget without any specific gear brand=.
- Use a guitar with 24 frets, floyd rose, or a versatile tremolo, three pickup configuration with a humbucker on the bridge.
- Use a solid-state high-gain amp.
- Use a digital fx unit with at least a decent warm distortion, tube screamer, delay, and wah.
Steve Vai Gear List: FAQs
Question: What Strings Gauge Does Steve Vai Use?
Answer: Steve Vai mainly uses Earnie Balls 9-42 gauge strings. Like many players starting in the 80s, using 8s or even 7s was common.
Question: What Picks Does Steve Vai Use?
Answer: Steve Vai has his own branded Dunlop JAZZ III picks, yet like all versatile players, he uses different picks depending on what sound he wants from his guitar.
Question: Does Steve Vai Have a Signature Acoustic Guitar?
Answer: Steve Vai’s signature acoustic guitar is the Ibanez EP5-BP Steve Vai – stylishly molded in the elegant and edgy Vai looks with the ‘half moon’ cutaway. The guitar is comfortable to play beyond words and ideal for acoustic leads, yet I would not go as far as call it ‘an acoustic ready to shred.’
Vai is a masterful acoustic guitar player who uses the instrument only for what it’s meant for – the guitar might be comfy to play and have great electronics. Yet, its best characteristic is the full sound with the thin body at an affordable price.