UniVibes: Can you explain how your approach to chords was influenced by Jimi?
Steve Vai: The 'Little Wing' factor! He had a real unique approach to voice leading and chord textures and chord soloing. When I was younger I just really inhaled that stuff. I listened to and tried to figure out all of that really beautiful stuff like, you know, 'Castles Made Of Sand' and 'One Rainy Wish' and all the really cool stuff that Hendrix I think unfortunately is not quite as known for as his wild feedback and playing with his teeth and all that stuff. Uh, so that was a big influence on me.
UV: Adrian Belew has sort of commented that the sort of chord melody style that Jimi did on 'Little Wing' is like a sort of lost art.
SV: Yeah, it is. I mean, who else is doing it these days? You know, 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 [down] and do it. And who the hell do you know these days that is doing that? You know what I mean? It's considered so unhip to be so passionate about the guitar in this day and age. So, it is a dying art. But, you know, 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.
UV: What inspired you to tune down for 'The Boy From Seattle' [a Hendrix tribute on 'Alien Love Secrets', inspired by 'Wait Until Tomorrow']? 'Cause Hendrix tuned down a half step...
SV: I picked up my guitar and it was tuned down and I just started it and I decided that it sounded good that way. Whenever I tuned up it didn't sound like the same song so I just left it down and recorded it. There's no real reason. I like the way it sounds in 'D'.
UV: Did it take a lot of working on?
SV: Of course! It's 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 form one part to another and then once you get that to happen it's really liberating. It's a lot of fun to play. It's a great feeling, you know what I mean? It's a real unique freedom but you really have to work to get there.
UV: Which guitar did you use for 'The Boy From Seattle'?
SV: On 'The Boy From Seattle' I used a Strat. It's the only non-Ibanez guitar on the record. 'Cause the song is sort of a tribute to Hendrix as it is. So, I wanted to get an authentic Hendrix-y type sound and the best way to do that is to use a Strat. And I went through all different Strats and finally I just found this cheap Japanese one that sounded the best [laughs].
UV: At the beginning of 'Tender Surrender' [from 'Alien Love Secrets'] you play an octave melody that's reminiscent of...
SV: Wes Montgomery?
UV: Yeah, or I was thinking of the instrumental Jimi played at the end his Woodstock performance, 'Villanova Junction Blues'.
SV: Right, right. It's very reminiscent of that!
UV: That wasn't intentional then, no?
SV: Well, it probably crept up form my subconscious somewhere. 'Tender Surrender' sounds like a cross between Jimi's song, Santana's 'Europa' and 'Call It Sleep' [from Vai's album 'Flex-Able' (1984)]. I don't claim to be original, by the way!
UV: You've contributed a version of 'Bold As Love' to a Hendrix tribute album?
SV: Yeah. Oh, it was great. Eddie Kramer has put an album together, 'The Symphonic Music of Jimi Hendrix' [actually entitled 'In From The Storm'], where he had artists record their Hendrix covers and then Kramer added a symphony orchestra to them. I've always loved 'Axis', it's one of my favourite Hendrix songs [sic] - I had it tattooed on my arm when I was 17. On the album I played with Bob Daisley on bass and Tony Williams on drums and kept it real true to the Hendrix arrangement but occasionally I just went off into a little bit of Vai-dom [laughs].
UV: What do you think Hendrix would have done had he lived?
SV: Uh, he probably would have started experimenting in all sorts of weird things if he was able... If he didn't get too much into drugs, you know, if he didn't become a bad drug case which would seem to be unlikely because he was so creative. He would probably, you know, be experimenting with CD-ROMs or something, you know. Something really wicked that jumps up off the screen and drags you within. But it's hard to say, you know, he might have become like a blues player. It's hard to conceive because he's dead. He died because he, you know, that was just the way that fate had laid it out, you know - he was never supposed to live any longer than that.
This interview was previously published in UniVibes issue 19, August 1995. © UniVibes 1995 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Coppeen, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland