Steve Vai has had one hell of a career. As well as touring with the likes of David Lee Roth, Public Image LTD, and Alice Cooper, Vai also served a long stint with the great Frank Zappa, playing guitar in his touring band and working as a transcriptionist for some of his most rhythmically complex pieces. The role made it clear to Vai that Zappa was a rock guitarist with the musicality and compositional literacy of the greatest 20th-century avant-garde composers. Although Vai would later recall, Zappa didn’t necessarily have the decorum of these orchestral maestros, far from it in fact.
Vai started working for Zappa at just 18. After creating a series of transcriptions that would end up in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, he was hired as a full-time member of Zappa’s recording and touring band. It was clearly a shock to the system. “I was so innocent and naïve,” Vai told Guitar World.
Adding: “I was a kid that grew up in a teenage bedroom on Long Island listening to the progressive rock music of the ’70s, but had an interest in composition from a very early age. And I discovered Frank. When I moved out to California, it was a bit of a shock. It was so exciting and so interesting. And then I got an apartment right down the street from Frank, so I was constantly in the Zappa world. A week later, I just started going up to the house, and then that was it, you know?”.
Vai quickly learned that life on the road wasn’t always as glamorous as it was made out to be. Describing his worst gig experience of all time, the guitarist named a 1980 show withFrank Zappa at the Armadillo World Headquarters: “Now, you gotta understand this was the first tour I’d ever done,” Vai noted. “The first week of the tour, I’m 20 years old, and I’m on tour with Frank Zappa. I had no idea how to get my sea legs together, so I was staying up very late, not eating right, not sleeping much, and that doesn’t work when you’re on tour.”
Adding: “After the first week, we were in Alberquerbe, New Mexico, and this was the gig. It was at the Armadillo World Headquarters. This was a club, and Frank had done a gig there and made a pretty popular record there, Bongo Fury. This was the last show of this historical venue because they were closing it down. They asked Frank to do the last show because he’d basically popularised it with Bongo Fury.“
Vai and the rest of the band were set to play two separate two-and-a-half-hour sets in the Armadillo. However, the combination of tour fatigue and the extreme heat made making it through five hours of music seem highly unlikely: “It was the summer, it was way down south, and it was 120 degrees on stage. I was sick as a dog. I mean, I was so sick. I was dehydrated, and I wasn’t sleeping. I was so out of it that – you know those gurneys that you wheel things on – I had to stand on that and get strapped in and get wheeled out onto the stage and then propped up next to the keyboard player, Tommy Mars. And all I had on was a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a bucket, because, not only was I projectile vomiting through the whole show, I was pissing out of my ass. It was not fun. I remember standing up there and being drenched in all sorts of bodily fluids. Oddly enough, I played great.”
See Vai describe the show, below.