How to Enjoy a Steve Vai Show … if you’re not a rock music fan
(with special notes for classical musicians, science-engineer-types … and girls)
[Part of the “Rock Harp Diaries” blog series]

I’m on tour with legendary rock guitar virtuoso Steve Vai – I’m the electric harpist (yes harpist) in the band and I’ve discovered that some of my own fans have a hard time knowing how to enjoy the show. So here’s a primer for classical music lovers, anyone who isn’t a die-hard rock guitar fan, and especially for those people marriedto die-hard rock-guitar fans – here’s now to thoroughly enjoy one of Steve Vai’s “The Story of Light” tours this Fall in the US, Canada and Europe:

Steve Vai Show Primer

On stage jamming with the great Steve Vai (photo: Kenny Rowley)

1. Bring Earplugs (It’s LOUD!)
2. Bring binoculars (it’s really fun to be able to see close up on the stage)
3. Make sure you get there in time for the opening act, Beverly McClellan (she was a finalist on “The Voice,” she’s wonderful and I might come out and play a number with her!)
4. Wear comfortable shoes
unless you know for sure you’ll be seated (some of the shows are standing audiences only)
5. No Ladies’ Room Wait!!!!:
Female people take note and gloat!!! This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to breeze through the NON-EXISTENT LINE for the ladies room while snickering at the long line for the men’s. Girls, do not miss this BONUS experience!!!

How to watch Steve:

  • Steve Vai on stage. (Photo: by Kenny Rowley)

    Focus on his ability to be physically expressive and mobile while executing extremely complex music. This should be fascinating to anyone on any instrument who has or is considering a solo career (more on why later)

  • Be aware that he is a rare rock instrumentalist fronting a band as an instrumentalist. There’s no singer fronting the band and the entire show, aside from only a few vocals, is driven by the guitar.  This is unusual in the rock and popular music world – but very familiar in the classical world.  Think Paganini in the 21st Century with a guitar and a hard-hitting 4-piece band (um… that includes electric harp!)
  • The structure of the music is not like classical form, or like jazz form. It’s like songform (intros, verses, choruses) with virtuosic, soloistic playing during verses. I could have that wrong since really understanding the forms from my perspective in jazz and classical forms has been one of my biggest – and ongoing – challenges with the music, but what’s especially interesting to me – and will be to classical musicians – is that, unlike in jazz, the ‘solos’ are not improvised – they’re ‘performed’ – and this should be highly compelling for any classical instrumental soloist: to watch someone who is playing music verbatim in a way that makes it feel completely off-the-cuff, effortless and as if it were inspired in the moment.

Forget the fact that it’s rock music and that you have your ears stuffed with earplugs (you brought the earplugs, right?), and just think about what you can learn about the art of infusing soloistic playing with this kind of energy, virtuosity, expression and physicality.

Here are some things to notice:

My own miniscule-compared-to-Vai's pedalboard through the harp strings

PEDALBOARD: He has a complex pedalboard at his feet with about 20 different ‘effects.’  The effects change the sound of the guitar in ways that might be like adding a mute, or playing near the soundboard, adding vibrato, or even switching from violin to cello – in other words, the sound really changes.  (I also have a pedal-board, which I use to “Wa-Wa” the harp in the tunes “Tender Surrender” and “The Animal” but if you don’t have a setlist (which you won’t ) you won’t know when those songs happen – but you’ll hear my wa-wa harp).

KNOBS and BARS:  He also has knobs and bars on the guitar itself, and I’ll tell you what I think they and hope that someone who knows better will comment on the blog and set us all straight.  I think these knobs and bars affect the pitch in various ways, sometimes like portamento – (or more like portamentissimo) .. and sometimes like a wide vibrato.  I don’t mean that they ‘sound’ like vibrato or portamento (though sometimes they do) – but that the effect is of bending the pitch in various ways.

So it’s fascinating to watch him and think about how he’s affecting tone quality, how he’s bending pitches – and then realize that he’s doing it with a complex combination of physical movements on the strings and an even more complex group of knobs, pedals and bars.  From there you can begin to imagine (and marvel) that we add all that character daily with our voices without even thinking about it – but he also does it without limitations of volume and with a seemingly limitless range (high to low).

  • In addition, he’s also using many of the same techniques a classical musician would use: harmonics, strumming versus individual note melodic picking, cadenzas.
  • At times he’s evoking the sound of the human voice and at other times, the sound of violin or other instruments.  Sometimes he’s outright silly (which is a lot of fun).
  • He’s very serious about his compositions and writes electric guitar concertos for symphony orchestra (so if you’ve seen my own electric harp concertos you have an idea how that might work, featuring an electric instrument with a symphony).

*  One of my favorite moments of the show is at the end of the “cadenza” of “Whispering a Prayer.”  You’ll know when “Whispering a Prayer” starts because I actually play the main melody, using harmonics and arpeggios – I think it’s the first moment of the show when the decibel level comes below “overload.”  At the end of that song, he has a long unaccompanied section of playing and at the very end of that section, he holds a long, high note and Dave (who usually plays guitar) brings in a synth note that nearly has me in tears every night, it’s so beautiful, and feels so much like arriving home.

*  Of special note if you’re an engineer or scientist:
He’s evoking the sound of human voice at some times and at others, almost violinistic runs, vibrato and sustain.  I sometimes watch him and think that this guitar and his operation of it is a highly advanced form of a prosthetic.

I’ve thought that about my own instrument: that the harp gives my fingers a voice they could only indicate if they had no instrument. With him, the combination of hand-held mechanics, external devices hints at the kind of super-ability, or super-expression prosthetics could give us when used in an advanced way … and with a lot of practice.

I once argued with my med-school-attending boyfriend, who pointed out to me that medicine was the highest value profession, suggesting ‘artist’ was lower on the totem pole.  I drew a line on a piece of paper.  “That’s health,” I said. “You bring people from below that line up to it. I bring them from that line above it. One isn’t more important than the other.”  Later on I got a new boyfriend.

Even later I realized health and art aren’t only on the same continuum, but that they can take and learn one from the other.  Vai’s ability to speak with the guitar says something to me about the limitlessness of human expression and experience through prosthetics – something I’ve always felt about my own experience of speaking through my instrument –

Thanks Kenny Rowley (center - between DHC & Jeremy Colson) Thanks for letting us use your photos!

and that I marvel at when I watch his shows from the best seat in the house: on stage with him.

If you come to the show, please stay after – the band members usually come out the the “merch booth” a few minutes after the show to sign programs and shake hands.  And now … enjoy the show!


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