Guitarist Steve Vai has made quite the place for himself over the years in the music industry. The New York-born musician has worked with some of the biggest names in music like Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake, but he’s also extensively classically trained—a rarity among rock guitarists.
After coming out with a magnum opus album in 2022, the guitarist s proven once and once again that he’s not stopping anytime soon. He said of 2022’s Inviolate, “I’ve been seeing in my mind’s eye an evolution in my playing, imagining things that I can’t yet do and documenting them visually in my head. I’m looking to make a deeper connection with the freedom of my creativity. There are certain physical limitations that enter your radar as you get older, so there’s no time to waste.”
In addition to his excitement for his own work, though, he recently revealed some of his favourite songs that have influenced him. If you’re curious to hear about some of the songs he loves and why, stick around for more!
Steve Vai’s favourite songs of all time:
‘Ogre Battle’ – Queen
It makes plenty of sense for Steve Vai to be a Queen fan—and additionally, he has a story to go along with his connection to ‘Ogre Battle’ and the band itself. About his love of the song, he said, “‘Ogre Battle’ is heavy in the most sublime way. There was a kid called John who lived a few houses from me and he introduced me to Queen at a point where I believed that Led Zeppelin was the only music in the world. After I heard Queen II, Brian May became my god, and I studied everything about his playing.”
He continues, “A few years later, when I was playing with Frank Zappa, I walked into the Rainbow bar in Los Angeles and he was standing at the bar. He was so kind and engaging, and he invited me to a Queen rehearsal the next day. It was so surreal. I looked at his guitar, and I was like, Is that the actual Red Special? And he said, “Yeah, wanna try it?” So I picked up that guitar, and played through his rig, and to my chagrin, I did not sound like Brian May at all.”
Even if he didn’t sound like Brian May, he probably still sounded fantastic given what we know of him.
‘Inca Roads’ – Frank Zappa
Again, this choice makes a ton of sense given his association with Frank Zappa. About ‘Inca Roads’, specifically, he says, “Inca Roads was just the most fabulous piece of heaven I’d ever heard, it had everything that I was ever looking for in music. The guitar solo is one of the greatest guitar solos ever played by anyone, ever.”
About playing with Zappa, he says, “To get to play with Frank was beyond a fantasy for me. When I was 16 I accidentally came across his phone number, and starting calling him… and I was 18 before he actually picked up the phone. Luckily for me he was in a good mood! He has such a vast catalogue and it’s full of brilliant music: every time he released a new record it became part of my musical DNA.” Seriously, what a story!
‘The Rite of Spring’ – Igor Stravinsky
Here’s where the classical training comes in—although it might be a little unexpected for the favourites list. Of ‘The Rite of Spring’ and Stravinsky in general, he says, “Stravinsky wrote a lot of music over a number of years which sounded quite conventional, but when he wrote the three ballets, ‘The Firebird’, ‘Petroushka’, and ‘The Rite Of Spring’, it was almost like he dropped acid. Because what he wrote was revolutionary in the pantheon of contemporary composition. It was so radically different, it broke every conventional rule of romantic classical music and caused a sensation.”
He continues, “When I listen to ‘The Rite Of Spring’ what I hear is brutal freedom. To this day, nothing compares.” Well, it’s tough to argue with that!
‘The Rumble’ – Leonard Bernstein
This one might feel a bit more out of left field than any classical pick, because, yes, Vai means ‘The Rumble’ from West Side Story. Regarding the choice, Vai explains, “I was seven or eight years old when I first heard this and it completely captivated me. The story of the film is so powerful, dramatic and full of theatre, and when I heard the soundtrack I knew I wanted to be a composer. ‘The Rumble’ is a real high-energy piece of music, and it moves so freely, not tied to a particular rhythm base or melodic structure, which I found inspiring.”
It makes sense for Vai to admire the specific composition and skill it takes for a musical number like this one. He continues, “My parents listened to Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Italian accordion music, comedy records, whatever, and those were all fine and good, but West Side Story is just a monolith.”
‘Burn Down The Mission’ – Elton John
Back to some of the classics, Vai has a soft spot for ‘Burn Down The Mission’ as well as the entire Tumbleweed Connection album. About his emotional connection to it, he says, “This album had an incredible impact on me. When I was very young I had this very traumatic experience where myself and two other boys were playing on the railroad tracks, and one of the kids threw some metal pieces on the rail, trying to get them to ignite, and one did, burning him severely.”
The experience sounds incredibly scary, but it seems that music helped to soothe him after the fact. He elaborates, “I was in a real state of anxiety and shock at the time, but then I discovered Tumbleweed Connection and totally immersed myself in it. It got me through one of the most challenging psychological periods in my life.”
Everyone has an emotional, nostalgic pick, and Elton John is a great choice no matter who you are.