'Back to basics' seems to be Steve Vai's motto for his new album 'Alien Love Secrets'. But unlike certain others who have tried to adopt this plan of action in recent months, it appears to have worked in Steve's case.

Fear not though. Steve may have cut his hair - more of this momentous event later - but he hasn't ditched his chops and formed a three chord punk band. Faced with the unappealing possibility of not having album out until 1996, Steve busied himself in his home studio recording 'straight ahead guitar things' with a more basic approach to arrangements and production than on 'Passion and Warfare' and 'Sex & Religion'. Freed from the tyranny of his haircare routine - well, have you tried washing dreadlocks? - Steve obligingly guides us through the guitar delights on 'Alien Love Secrets'.

''Bad Horsie' was inspired by the riff from the guitar dual section in 'Crossroads' when I'm imitating the train. In the 'Crossroads' film I had my sixth string tuned to 'D' but in 'Bad Horsie' it's tuned to 'C' [that is, dropped 'D' tuning but all the strings tuned down an additional tone] - a little heavier. I used a natural finished Jem with Evolution pickups and strung 10 through to 52 to give it more support - if you use light strings and tune that low they get kinda flabby. There's no overdubs on the album but in 'Bad Horsie' I use a delay unit towards the end. I play a riff and then hit a hold button and that repeats and then I play another riff and hit the hold button and that repeats. So it's actually one guitar through that whole thing.'

The solo in 'Bad Horsie' features a passage of extended tapping and slurring that implies various modulations. 'What happens is I stay pretty diatonic and then with something like that if I get swept away by the moment I sort of get slap-happy and my fingers just start going kind of bizarro. There's this connection that takes place between my ears and my fingers for a minute and that's what comes out. The end of the song has a phasing effect similar to Jimi's 'Bold As Love' and I used the same technique - it's real tape flange. I did a mix of the song then flew that on to two channels of another multi-track machine and then I locked the two machines together and flew the transferred copy on to two channels of the master and I was doing that I was slewing the lock of the two machines and it created the flange.'

'Juice' is a fast boogie played in swing feel similar to 'The Audience is Listening' and 'Hot For Teacher' and features some wicked pinch harmonics. 'I used my main guitar, the white Jem with Evolution pickups that I call Evo (a 6 string guitar, although Steve plays two low 'B's in the interlude). You have to feel those harmonics out - they very rarely come out the same way twice. You just gotta do it and do it until it becomes really second nature and then you gotta be careful that you don't do it all the time. In 'Juice' I pulled them only when I thought they were needed.' Just to show Steve doesn't take himself too seriously 'Juice' ends with ex-Vai band singer Devin Townsend berating Steve with, 'Shut up - we know you can play!' One of Steve's 'finer moments', in 'Die To Live' Steve moves smoothly from rhythm playing on the low strings to melodic playing on the top strings, almost blurring the distinction between the two. 'That had to be worked out - it's a little difficult to improvise. It came naturally because the main riff of the song involves an 'A' chord at the bottom of the neck and open strings so you can very smoothly move your hands from very high on the neck to very low on the neck without any perceived change simply because of the use of open strings in between the riffs. I don't think of all of that when I'm doing it - I'm just hearing melody and trying to make it work. The song has such a beautiful flow to it that I was able to lose myself in the music when I was recording it.'

There's an almost fusion-like middle section that's vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Beck. 'Maybe so, yeah! Some ethereal chords going on there. I wanted to solo over something that wasn't just a vamp so I had those nice ethereal chords.'

'On 'The Boy From Seattle' I used a Strat tuned down two frets - it's the only non-Ibanez guitar on the record. The song is a tribute to Hendrix so I wanted to get an authentic Hendrix-type sound and the best way to do that is to use a Strat. I went through all different Strats, everywhere from '57, a '55 even, right up to new ones. And finally I just found this cheap Japanese Strat from '93 or '94 that sounded the best.'

'The Boy From Seattle' is played in the chord melody style that Jimi used for 'Little Wing' and which Adrian Belew commented was something of a neglected art. 'Yeah, it is. I mean, who else is doing it these days? It takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication to be able to play like that. You have to be very musical and have an ear for it and then you have to have the dedication and the love for the instrument to sit and do it. And who the hell do you know these days that is doing that? It's considered so unhip to be so passionate about the guitar in this day and age. So, it is a dying art. But someone will come along and really find a love and a passion for it and they'll do it and they'll really move people and then other people will start doing it and that will be a new hip thing. It's just a cycle.'

'That song was really hard to play. I had to take it piece by piece and work on it until it was pretty second nature so that I can go smoothly from one part to another and then once you get that to happen it's really liberating. It's a real unique freedom but you really have to work to get there.'

The beginning of the solo from 'The Boy From Seattle' uses a clean tone and the Mixolydian mode, later followed by a distorted guitar with a delay. 'I used the Evo tuned down for the distorted solo - Strats are way too noisy for that. The delay was from the Eventide H3000-S. I forget the delay times but it's quarter note and half note coming out on the left and then the right.'

Steve ends 'The Boy From Seattle' with an exotic-sounding lick. 'Put your guitar on. Take your middle finger on your left hand and put the 'B' string underneath your nail. Now pull the string towards the ground and off around the neck. That's how I did it.' Steve used a similar technique on 'The Attitude Song' from 'Flex-Able'.

The only vocals on 'Alien Love Secrets' are provided by Steve's elder son, Julian. 'He used to sing 'Ya Yo Gack' and I recorded him singing it over about a year-and-a-half. And then I sat for five days one week and edited all these 'Ya Yo Gacks' from about two-and-a-half hours of tape into the vocal track for 'Ya Yo Gack' then put the music to it. I'm using my 7 string and it's in the key of 'B' so it's really heavy.'

'Kill The Guy With The Ball/The God Eaters' begins with a peculiar effect that sounds like half guitar, half voice. 'That's all guitar. It's the guitar going through a vocal filter sound on the Eventide DSP4000 then with my right foot I'm playing the Whammy Pedal that's set to an octave. Then I've got the Wah-wah on my left foot. And then with my right hand I'm pulling notes and vibrating them with the whammy bar - and the whole guitar is tuned down to 'D'. So you add all that together you get that intro. And it looks pretty bizarre too!'

There's some pretty outside harmonic progressions and rhythms in 'Kill The Guy With The Ball' but carried out with brutal execution not unlike 'Pig' from 'Sex & Religion'. 'I can improvise stuff like in 'Kill The Guy' that but in order to make the drums work I really have to work on it. I kind of lost myself in the music in this song too! Then at the end of the song I heard that melody in my head and I wrote it down in manuscript form. After I had recorded the melody I constructed the chords - they're very thick, lush, clustery chords.'

The albums' closing instrumental is the epic 'Tender Surrender'. 'That song is a cross between Wes Montgomery, Jimi's 'Villanova Junction' from Woodstock, Santana's 'Europa' and 'Call It Sleep'. I don't claim to be original, by the way! In that song I hit that guitar as gently and as tenderly as I possibly can and also as brutally as I can - there's parts where I'm just banging on it. And there's lots of volume control manipulation in that song.

'A lot of the solo was improvised - I just went for it and then maybe would go back and fix little pieces. I'm not a one take guy - I sit and agonize a lot over parts. I usually work something out, get an idea of where I want to go with it and then just play it until it has all the right little nuances that make me happy. I like 'Tender Surrender' - it's kind of bluesy - but in the future I'd like to do things with a little more harmonic experimentation. 'Tender Surrender' is a very straight ahead song but I like something with a little more cayenne pepper.'

Steve played bass and keyboards on all of the tracks apart from the organ on 'Tender Surrender' which was played by ex-Zappa band member Tommy Mars. Ozzy Osbourne's current drummer Deen Castronovo played drums on four tracks and Steve programmed the drums for the other tracks. 'I'd put down a scrap drum track with a drum machine and I'd record a scrap guitar part and a scrap bass part all for the drummer. Then he would put his part down and then I'd put the bass on top of that to work with the drums and make it still sound spontaneous, if that's possible. And that would be a good bed for the guitar.

'I used a whole barrage of amps on the album. I have this device that allows me to plug into it and then split the signal accurately without any downloading so I can have 6 independent outputs that go to any amps I chose. So, on this record I used everything from a Bogner Ecstacy which was one of my main amps to a Marshall 900, an old Marshall from a friend, the Sansamp through a speaker simulator, a rack-mountable Zoom and some guitar preamps. I used my CryBaby which is heavily modified - I don't know how! - and the new Eventide DSP4000 and the Digitech Whammy Pedal.'

The album title is almost the same as Steve's widely misunderstood 'Martian Love Secrets' 'Guitar Player' column from a few years ago. 'Widely misunderstood, yeah! I always liked 'Martian Love Secrets' and I wanted to use it some place else with more significance. But the word 'Martian' sounds so confining. 'Alien' gives it a bigger picture. But the actual phrase 'Martian Love Secrets' was written on the wall of a toilet in the men's bathroom at the Record Plant in 1970 that Frank Zappa read. So there you have it!'

Steve's next project is filming a video of the album. 'It's basically a short film that's just pure performance of the EP. It's a trio and we're performing the music from head to bottom. There's no real flashy performance footage. It's all really straight ahead so you can see what I'm playing. Even though we're going to be synching up to the album! So, that's what I'm working on just now - learning the album for the video!

'I practise around whatever event I'm working on. At the moment it feels great to be playing a lot learning all the 'Alien Love Secrets' songs. Then when I go back into working on the next record I won't have as much time to play unless I'm writing a song or I want to do a certain thing on the instrument. I wear a lot of different hats now so I can't just sit down and practice being a guitar virtuoso. There will come a time for that again when I choose to do that because I really enjoy the freedom that comes with playing the guitar a lot.'

One might have thought that Steve's technique was at its peak when he was playing 'impossible guitar parts' with Zappa. 'I may have had more chops then but they were sloppy chops. My chops were maybe at their height back with David Lee Roth during 'Eat 'Em and Smile' but right now my taste factor is so much better. My maturity as a musician and a guitar player are at their peak.'

Steve was recently meditating and soul searching in India and has long professed to the benefits of meditation. 'I just sit there and try to think. I concentrate on "the truth" that is within and try to make that a part of my everyday life.' Steve appears to be totally in control of his music, career and his life in general so why does he feel the need to meditate? 'Oh, I think it's the most important thing on the face of the earth, actually. It helps you really get in touch with yourself if you're doing it through the proper means. Through it you get an understanding of what you are, what the world is, how you can contribute in some form of socially redeeming values to the world. It helps me in becoming a better father, a better husband, a better musician - everything!

'It's tough because I don't know what kind of an image I have out there but it varies from everything between really nice guy to real asshole. I probably fall someplace in between and at times I'm in the extremes. Sometimes I'm very considerate and very polite and sometimes I'm a real prick. That's just the way it is. I'm not trying to defend myself or make excuses for anything. When you're running a business or when you're doing certain things you have to have a certain standard of discipline. And sometimes that's misconceived by outsiders as being something unsavoury but I really love the people who work with me and I have a good relationship with them. So, they forgive my occasional assholiness!'

The album Steve is currently working on is provisionally entitled 'Fire Coma'. 'It's going to be a lot more in depth and intense than 'Alien Love Secrets'. There's going to be some instrumental stuff and some vocal stuff that I may sing according to how it turns out. I don't have a terrible voice but it's not rock 'n' roll at all. It sort of sounds like Perry Como from Venus or something!'

Steve has recently contributed to a version of 'Bold As Love' to a Jimi Hendrix tribute album called 'The Symphonic Music of Jimi Hendrix'. 'Eddie Kramer has put together an album where he had artists record the songs and then he put a symphony orchestra to them.' Steve also contribute to a Leonard Bernstein tribute album of the music from 'West Side Story'. 'There's this instrumental track called 'Rumble' that's got Chic Corea's Electric Band versus Steve Vai's Animals or something - I don't know what it's going to be called. So there was two bands playing against each other and it turned out really great.' In a slightly different musical field Steve recently wrote and recorded with Ozzy Osbourne with Ozzy possibly using two of the songs that he demoed with Steve.

Steve is also orchestrating two hours of his own music for a 60 piece orchestra called Orchestra Of Our Time. 'I've got about six scores done right now. I'm also playing with the orchestra in Seattle soon doing some Zappa stuff.'

As if Steve wasn't busy enough, he's started working on an instructional CD-ROM. 'I've never done any videos 'cause I've always found them to be cold and stagnant and you lose the mystique. But with the introduction of interactivity I really think that you can learn to identify and capture your own real uniqueness. So this CD-ROM really explores music from A to Z. Abba to Zappa! If you complete this adventure you'll be totally versed in performance, ear training, chord structure, theory, reading, writing... It covers the whole gamut of things. But it takes forever to get this stuff done! Usually I need to have a hard, cold deadline for me to really complete a project. 'Cause I have so many ideas and so many things I want to do I just go off into tangents.' But enough of all this. What we really want to know is why d'ya cut your hair, dude? Everyone knows you can't rock out with short hair!

'It's funny! I had no idea that so many people would be so concerned if I cut my hair! To all those people who enjoyed my long hair, I apologize! But boy, what a pain in the ass it is washing dreadlocks. I just like having short hair. I've had long hair my whole life and I used to hide behind my hair a lot and think that I needed to do something wild to my hair in order to make my music acceptable. But then you become 34 and you say 'the hell with all that shit'.

'I mean, I've accomplished a lot and I feel satisfied. For what I did in my youth I'm very satisfied and I don't regret anything. All I'm striving to reach is the accomplishment of a musical idea and the production of it. Now I have tons and tons of musical ideas that will never reach their fruition simply because there's too many. I'm happy dedicating a certain portion of my life to making music but I don't want to dedicate 20 hours a day to making music, 365 days a year. Maybe I'll dedicate 20 hours a day 3 or 4 months out of the year and then maybe 15 hours a day for a few months...

'But I like to take vacations, I like to spend time with my friends and my family and stuff. But when I'm working I work hard and I'm coming to grips with the fact that I will not be able to accomplish everything so I have to let go of a lot of things. Big deal! So what! I've still got a lot of ideas and a lot of stuff that I'm going to be doing so I'm not worried!'

An edited version of this interview appeared in 'The Guitar Magazine' Vol 5 No 5, May 1995.

Douglas J Noble 1995