Vai album arrives as tour gets delayed to fall

Back in December, Steve Vai couldn’t wait to get back on the road.

Not only did he deal with the COVID-19-related shutdowns that every performer faced, but Vai also was sidelined by shoulder surgery and a case of trigger finger in his thumb.

“I’ve been touring for 41 years and throughout the years I’ve enjoyed it more and more,” Vai said during a telephone interview a couple weeks before Christmas. “I was champing at the bit to get out there. I was working on some other projects and decided to abandon everything and finish this new record so I could get out there.

“I love the touring experience, the diversity of the cultures, just being out there with your buddies and being on stage and feeling the audience and being the best entertainer I can be. I always look forward to that.”

The songs that make up “Inviolate” originally were conceived for three separate albums — one with a clean guitar tone, a second with the distorted tone Vai is known for and a third that he described as “balls out, eight-string, Hydra-type metal.”

He consolidated the three into one record that could be completed by early 2022 and released with a corresponding winter tour that included a March 8 concert at Packard Music Hall in Warren.

“Inviolate” still will be released on Friday, but the tour that was supposed to start today has been delayed until fall due to “a new injury that requires another surgery,” according to a statement released Jan. 18.

Area guitar fans will have to settle for listening to Vai’s new music on CD or via streaming until his rescheduled Packard date on Nov. 8 (tickets already purchased for the March date will be honored for the new one).

One long-in-the-works creation makes its debut on “Inviolate” — the Hydra, a three-necked monstrosity that combines a 12-string guitar that is part fretless, a seven-string guitar with a whammy bar, a four-string bass with a headless neck that also is unfretted partially and a 13-string harp all on the same steampunk-style body.

The inspiration for the Hydra came from the movie “Mad Max,” where a guy can be seen strapped to the front of a vehicle playing a crazy looking guitar.

“I thought it was pretty cool, but it was a movie, it was fake,” Vai said. “I had to make it real, so I did.”

He talked to the designers at Ibanez, who sent him a design inspired by their conversations.

“They sent a rendering back, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. ‘You’re going to build that?’ ‘Yep.’ For three years we went back and forth. Finally, Hydra arrived. I opened the case and I was both stunned and terrified.”

Once he had it, Vai had to create a piece of music that used all of its abilities and allowed him to switch from one neck to the other. He spent six weeks composing “Teeth of the Hydra.”

“I had to record a piece of music on it that didn’t sound like a gimmick, that didn’t sound interrupted by the challenges of using all the necks. … I had to figure out a way of navigating my arms so the melody sounded seamless and uninterrupted while all of that other stuff was going on.”

The instrument itself is so heavy, Vai had a special stand built to hold the Hydra while playing it. For live performances, Vai’s guitar tech designed a special strap that shifts the weight of the instrument from his shoulders to his hips, but it throws off his equilibrium.

“Right now I’m in the process of relearning it all the way through on the stand,” Vai said in December. “Once I do that, I’ll strap it on and see where it takes me.”

The down time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic took the musician best known for shredding on electric guitars into some uncharted territory — playing acoustic guitar and singing along.

“I decided to record a solo acoustic vocal version of one of my songs, called ‘The Moon and I,'” Vai said. “In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to release a record like this … Even though I’m not really known for singing, I like my voice and I enjoy singing. It’s not a rock ‘n’ roll kind of voice, but on the right song it works OK. Releasing that song (on YouTube), it was the first time you could ever see me singing and playing an acoustic guitar, but the response was so good, I thought maybe this is a good time in lockdown to make that record.”

Vai recorded about a dozen songs, but his shoulder issue developed before he could finish it. Once he was healed, he wanted to go out on the road with a rock record, so the acoustic album is one of the several projects Vai already has in the pipeline for future release.

He also was planning a trip to Holland later this year to record four hours of orchestral music he’s written (no word on whether his current injury will delay those sessions).

That’s another album he wants to put out at a time when musicians generate far more income from touring than by releasing new music. That reality isn’t changing Vai’s creative approach.

“My goal is to create a catalog of relatively undiluted work that, at the end of the day, offers a different kind of entertainment experience,” he said. “I use the evolution of technology to my advantage. I see how technology can serve me. Yeah, we’re not going to make the kind of money we were in the ’80s when you actually had to buy a CD, but there are other things that come along with this technology that’s evolving. You have to keep your radar up to keep your creative impulses and your economic reality in balance, and somehow I’ve always been really good at that.”

It’s a lesson he learned from Frank Zappa. In his 40-plus years as a professional musician, Vai has worked with everyone from David Lee Roth to Public Image Ltd. to Mary J. Blige. But Zappa was his first employer, hiring Vai as a transcriptionist after the 18-year-old sent him a transcription of Zappa’s “The Black Page.” When Vai turned 20, Zappa put him in his band.

Asked what the most important nonmusical lesson he learned from Zappa was, Vai answered, “If you have a desire to do something, just do it. That’s what Frank did, and I watched him do that. He didn’t make excuses, he didn’t let certain challenges get in the way of doing what he wanted to do. I was so young and impressionable, I was like, ‘OK, that’s what you have to do. You have an idea and you bring it into the world with no excuses.’ That’s what Frank did.”

If you go …

WHO: Steve Vai

WHEN: 8 p.m. Nov. 8

WHERE: Packard Music Hall, 1703 Mahoning Ave. NW, Warren

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $52 to $88 and are available at the Packard box office and through Ticketmaster.


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