Rick Beato’s Steve Vai Interview Summary

This post contains my summary notes from Rick Beato’s interview with guitarist Steve Vai.

This conversation touched on a wide-range of topics. They discussed the music business, Vai’s early music days, polyrhythms and transcribing the music of Frank Zappa.

Summary Notes

Keep your publishing (1:18)

As a musician you should be knowledgeable about the music business in order to protect yourself. While working with Frank Zappa, Vai asked Frank for some wisdom about the music business. Frank replied, “keep your publishing”. He gave Vai the number to an attorney who explained publishing to him. Saved him millions of dollars over the years.

Protect your music ownership (3:15)

You have to have a publishing company to protect your music ownership. Register your songs. Your intellectual rights will follow the evolution of technology if you keep your publishing.

Technology and the music business (6:00)

If you view technology as doom and gloom for the music business, that will become your reality. But you can easily shift your perspective. Ask how technology can work for you and your goals. Use it to your advantage. In today’s environment there are many opportunities to be an independent musician. You can own, control and collect fully on all your intellectual property. 

Marketing your music (8:00)

Marketing is one of the most creative aspects of the music business. It’s fun. If you take the creative mindset, you’ll come up with ideas to get your music out there. You need to market in order to sell your music.

Prioritize (9:20)

For the musician that is just starting out, prioritizing is very important. First priority is the quality of your inspiration. That’s where your unique self is.

The music business is great (10:20)

“I love the music business, not enough people talking about how great it is. So many creative people, so many opportunities to be independent, and you’re making music. Shift your perspective to look at the opportunities, channel the positive thoughts about the music business, you’ll then see the opportunities, they’ll be on your radar…”

“The percentage of managers and attorneys in the music business that are only interested in your money, is about the same as the amount of musicians in the business that are only interested in being famous…”

Living just below your means (13:10)

Figure out a way to live just below your means. 

If you’re making $250 in a week, live on $200, put $25 aside. You feel like you’re okay, you’re living within your means. But If you’re making $250 per week but living at $260, you’re screwed.

“I put away 10% of everything that came in, no exceptions…”

Absolute best time to be an independent musician (17:30)

Today is the best time to be independent. There are so many tools at your disposal. Easy to connect with other people. With modern gear you can record in your kitchen and it will sound great.

Recording and producing (18:20)

Vai was fascinated by recording and manipulating sound. Really enjoys engineering and producing. 

“I know what I want and I know how to get it…” 

But if this isn’t of interest to you, that’s ok. It’s not a requirement. Find a partner who is really interested in it and work with them.

Music notation looked like art (19:40)

“I was fascinated by composition, the language of music, music notation looked like art to me. I wanted to deeply understand it…”

From age 12-17 in grade school Vai had an excellent music teacher. He learned all aspects of music theory, composition, classical analysis and transcribing.

Hearing “Black Page #2” by Frank Zappa (21:30)

Black Page #2” from Zappa in New York (1978).

“This wasn’t a normal piece of music, it was a planet to itself, one of the most unique I’ve ever heard or seen. And I transcribed it. I was just getting introduced to polyrhythms, tuplets. Something going on here, unlike anything I’ve heard…”

Tips from Eddie Jobson (22:40)

The band U.K. was in Boston. Vai was discussing “Black Page” with keyboardist Eddie Jobson, who had played with Zappa. Jobson showed Vai polyrhythms and nested tuplets. This had a profound effect on Vai and it changed his approach to transcribing and listening.

“I was 18 and sent Frank my transcription of “Black Page”, he was impressed and hired me to do his transcriptions. He wanted to try me out for the band but I was too young, so he gave me a ton of transcription work…”

Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar (27:00)

Early days with Frank was transcribing a lot of his guitar solos from songs that would become the record “Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar”.

Approach for transcribing complex polyrhythms (31:30)

Initially had to train ear to develop a comfort zone for polyrhythms – that happened during Berklee years. 

The book “Music Notation” by Gardner Read was recommended by Frank Zappa. The book has a great section on how polyrhythms are subdivided and how you could hear them.

“I would walk around Boston, my feet were the beat, and I polyrhythms over it. After a while you start to feel it, like a language…”

Transcriptions for Frank Zappa (34:00)

“When doing the Frank transcriptions, I first felt where the beat was. That’s the foundation of your transcription. Once you know where that is, then you start hearing the phrasings. I viewed it as an artistic approach, I was sculpting what I thought it would look like on paper by the way I was hearing it. I would listen, create a mental snapshot, get a sense of how you can replicate that in rhythmic form. It was meditative for me, artistic…”

Creation of music is infinite (44:20)

“At a young age I realized that the creation of music is infinite, and you can do whatever you want. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t know what the ideas were, but it was an infinite source that is available for me to tap into…”

Heartbreaker (47:30)

“Hearing “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin sealed the deal, I knew that I wanted to be a guitar player…”

Lessons with Joe Satriani (48:10)

“At age 12 I started taking lessons from Joe Satriani. Joe started showing me how to connect all the music theory I was learning in school to the guitar…”

“I was one of those people that really wanted to understand music theory, how to compose, how to orchestrate. I was learning that in high school and that’s why I continued on to Berklee…”

Playing polyrhythms (49:45)

“With polyrhythms it’s a feel thing. When you incorporate it into your own playing it’s very expressive, breaks down a lot of conventional rigid rhythmic things we know…”

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