Steve Vai has achieved legendary status in the guitar world over the course of his 40-year-plus career, but that’s not to say he hasn’t received his share of criticism along the way.
In a new interview with Australian Musician, Vai recalls his tenure in Frank Zappa’s band – which spanned 1980 to 1983 – and remembers how the late musician described the sound of his early guitar tone as “like an electric ham sandwich”.
In response to a question regarding the gear he used with Zappa, and whether Zappa cared about the equipment his band used, Vai replies, “It had to sound a particular way.”
“I used my Strat that I got when I was a kid for pretty much the whole thing. I only had one guitar. But then I got another guitar as a backup – I used Frank’s Hendrix Strat as a backup, in case if I broke a string or something he let me use that.
“I’d use it a bunch of times – I used it on Zomby Woof every night but I was very inexperienced when it came to tone because I never could afford a good amplifier, I gave precious little attention to tone.
He continues, “I remember after the first show that I ever did with Frank, I met him in the restaurant of the hotel in the morning and having breakfast, and I said, ‘So, how was I?’
“And he said to me, ‘You know, Steve, I think you’re a really good musician but your tone sounds like an electric ham sandwich.’ And I said, ‘Well why? I mean, I’ve got the Strat, I’ve got the Marshall…’
“So he said, ‘The sound isn’t in the amps, it’s in your head.’ Now, at first, I didn’t know what he meant by that, I thought it was just some esoteric cool thing to say. But it wasn’t until a little later on that I realized – yeah, that’s exactly where your tone is!
“It cannot be any other place, it’s gonna sound the way you’re expecting it to sound. It’s kind of hard to explain. And then you’ll manipulate it to get it to where you want it to sound.
“But I gave very little attention to that. But I gave little attention to a lot of things until I joined Frank’s band and then I focused intensely on various things through his tutelage.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Vai remembers Zappa’s approach to his live shows. “Frank Zappa never did the same show,” he says. “We had about 80 songs that we had to know which was death-defying, and he would write the setlist right before we went on stage every night.
“It was different every night and you just never knew what he was gonna do. I’d forget there was an audience because you have to [have] the bulletproof focus on Frank at all times. And he heard everything!”
Vai continues, “He was very critical because he was always trying to improve it. And he heard everything but I think at times you can tell… I think what he enjoyed the most was the actual compositional process…
“For most of the rehearsals, Frank was just building, changing, laughing… He’d do things to laugh at you, it was just fantastic. I guess probably his biggest obstacle was the limitations of the musicians because he would always try to get them to go further.
“But the brilliant thing about Frank was his ability to see your potential and to pull it out of you, in a setting that was unique because most of the musicians that I even knew that worked with Frank, you have to have something that he could use as a color in his musical creative palette.
“And I had something – the thing that I had was for some reason I was able to play these weird melodies and stuff on the guitar, so I was a good ingredient. I think he enjoyed the creative process more than just the listening.”