On June 21st, music enthusiasts around the world will celebrate Make Music Day and experience the joy of making music. In accordance with the recommended public health and safety guidelines, HARMAN isn’t bringing out our popular Street Studios this year, but that’s not stopping us from encouraging everyone to pick up an instrument and find the music inside them. We recently spoke with Steve Vai, a three –time Grammy Award winning guitarist, composer, singer, songwriter, producer, and close friend of HARMAN, about his professional journey and the advice he has for aspiring musicians…
Q: How did you get your start in music, both personally and professionally?
A: I discovered music on my sixth birthday. My mom gave me a little organ and I remember while I was playing with it, I had a sort of epiphany. Even though I wasn’t playing an actual song, I immediately understood the structure of music and the way it was composed. The keys in one direction went lower, and in the other – the notes went higher. I realized that the scope of creating music was infinite and that there is almost no limit to what you can create.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that making music could be a career, but I was so attracted to music and loved it so much that I never wanted to do anything else! My professional career started in 1978 when I began transcribing for Frank Zappa. The day after my 20th birthday I moved from New York to California to audition for his band. It was a huge surprise when I got the gig! The first few months I was there, when I was doing a lot of recording, it was incredibly surreal – I was a huge fan of Frank and now suddenly I was working for him.
I remember during the first week of the tour, I didn’t quite have my sea legs and it was a grueling schedule. We flew every day, usually arriving in the next city on the tour by 1:00 or 2:00 pm, head straight to a 2.5 hour sound check, and then do two shows per night. Then we’d get back to the hotel at 2:00 am and get up early to do it all over again! I’ll never forget our show at the Armadillo World Headquarters venue in Austin, Texas. It was about 115 degrees and I was as sick as a dog. They wheeled me out on a gurney, and both shows were incredibly difficult to get through. But, that’s when I learned that the show must go on, no matter what. I had plenty more interesting challenges ahead of me.
Q: We have to ask – what are some of the HARMAN products you use? We hear you are a SoundCraft fan!
A: During the lockdown, I’ve definitely been spending more time in the studio! I was supposed to be recording in Europe with the Holland Metropole Orchestra, so I recently finished working on some orchestra scores. I’m also cleaning up some acoustic demos that I’m considering releasing, but my biggest project right now is the third installment of the trilogy albums I’ve been working on through the years.
HARMAN has been so supportive over the years. In terms gear, I used a SoundCraft console to record my first solo record, Flex-Able, and I still use SoundCraft consoles to this day. These consoles have a really crisp top end, are easy to use, and they’re incredible for live venues and performances of all types, as well as all types of songs. I also don’t ever remember being without at least two pairs of JBL headphones in my possession throughout my entire career. The monitors in my studio are JBL – they’re high end speakers that I just love. Last but certainly not least, AKG is the motherlode for any studio; I can’t even list all of the AKG products I have!
Q: How does the gear you use inspire or help you push new boundaries as a musician?
A: I’m also an engineer and I mix all my records myself. My assistant Greg Wurth does a lot of the heavy lifting, but one of most important things he does is stay up to date on all of the new gear that could help us take things to the next level. He flags anything and everything new, from microphones to plug-ins, and we always trying to stay on top of the newest innovations. We test everything very seriously to identify the best of the best, so that we can push ourselves even further. Honestly, the hardest part of Greg’s job is teaching me how to use it all!
I don’t have many guilty pleasures (although I do collect hot sauce!), but audio and studio gear is a true passion. I’ve always been fascinated with the technology. It’s similar to the feeling you get when you play a guitar to try out new amps or pedals – constant exploration. I have a great collection of the really old stuff – old compressors and EQs, but I’ve gone through various consoles my entire life because I’ve always had my own studio. I really love having my own studio, and it’s been a real fascination for me over the years. To think that it all started with a little four track recorder in my apartment in Hollywood, and now here we are!
Q: What motivates you to keep making music and furthering your craft?
A: It’s my passion! I’ve gone through decades of evolution, from starting in my bedroom where I recorded Flex-able, to recording with David Lee Roth, and in some of the biggest studios around the world. Now I’m based in Encino, and I record in my Harmony Hut studio, though it’s more of a man cave than a true professional studio!
Q: Make Music Day is a big day of celebration for HARMAN, and one where we encourage people to pick up an instrument – many of them for the first time – and begin to play. What advice do you have for a novice musician who is ready to take their first step?
A: It can be intimidating to try new things, but don’t let that stop you. Instruments are made for you to play – they bring endless enjoyment to everyone who plays or truly listens. Learning to play an instrument is very admirable; remember that nobody is judging you for trying. It’s an amazing feeling to evolve from a novice to an amateur to a highly-skilled player, and developing the technique to eventually be able to play songs takes time. I think one of the most common roadblocks for novices is the idea that if they pick up a guitar, they have to be great right away. But nobody is great right away, it takes practice. Then they question themselves – what does this mean for my future? Can I even have a career in the music business? These questions are completely unnecessary. Simply listen to your instincts – they will guide you to the right music for you.
By eliminating the self-criticism and self-consciousness, you’re left with just your instrument and the enjoyment you get out of playing and learning that instrument. That was the protocol I set for myself my entire career. I didn’t give myself any excuses not to play, and amateur musicians shouldn’t either – you will play, you will improve, and you will embark on an incredible journey. Don’t be afraid to take that first step.
Q: As we head up to what will surely be a unique Make Music Day, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share about the importance of music?
A: Let yourself be attracted to the types of music you like the most, not just what’s popular or most accepted. One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “How can I make a career in music?” If I was to break it down step by step, the most important thing is to ask yourself what type of music you would play if money was no object. When you ask yourself that question, you allow yourself to access your most creative visions and if you’re able to stay true to yourself and your visions, you will experience true fulfillment.
To me, that is the true meaning of life – to be your truest self in the creative sense. And, it all begins with a single step. Like I said before, if you don’t give yourself any excuses not to play – if you accept that it’s a long process and journey to become who you want to be as a musician or even as a person – you can achieve anything you put your mind to. The amount of technique you need is intertwined with the goals you develop. For instance, my personal goals required more technique than say, Bob Dylan’s did.
After 42 years in this business, I can honestly say that a good attitude and the relationships you build with the people you meet along the way are the most important things on any journey. It all begins by taking that first step forward!
HARMAN’s Make Music Day celebrations may look a little different this year, but we’re still committed to spreading awareness of the importance of music education and celebrating the joy of making music. To follow along, stay tuned to our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more updates and follow #MakeMusicDay