“I love the guitar,” says Steve Vai. “Always have. I’m part of that guitar-loving community. I know what I like to see when I go to a concert. I like diversity, and I like to see people who are just connected with their craft and their instruments.”
So when Vai — whose four-decade-long music career got started with Frank Zappa in the late ’70s — initially thought up the idea of Generation Axe, a tour showcasing fellow guitar wizards, he wanted it to highlight his favorite guitarists playing rock, blues, fusion, acoustic and metal. While he hopes to see Generation Axe develop as a brand with talented guitarists from various genres, he decided to approach metal first.
“I can kind of function in the metal, the rock and sort of the blues and the fusion, but the metal kind of was the one that I went with first," Vai says.
Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt, Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne’s Zakk Wylde and Animals as Leaders’ Tosin Abasi were on the top of Vai’s list, and they were all interested in being part of the Generation Axe tour. The five guitarists hit the road two years ago, stopping in China to record a live album, which is being funded through the online platform PledgeMusic.
Vai’s idea for the tour was to create a seamless show with one backing band and the five guitarists, who all come together for the first and last song of each show and who trade turns playing in various combinations throughout the evening. Shows typically run under three hours, but they sometimes go on for nearly four.
“That’s a lot of notes,” Vai acknowledges, "but it’s very dimensional. The stage is constantly in rotation, meaning there’s musicians coming on and off and on and off. And the way that they perform together — like when you get someone like Zakk and Nuno playing ‘Sideways’ — it’s just so gorgeous. It’s so different than anything else in the set. They sing it, and it’s brilliant, and it’s just a different kind of melodic song, and then you’ve got the intro of the show, which is this blasting five crazy guitar players all in beautiful harmony."
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Abasi’s set is on a completely different planet that still resonates with the metal vibe, says Vai. And “Nuno, he’s such a great showman. He’s got such great charisma and playing and singing. He’s a whole different color. And then you get Zakk — that is just as intense as it gets. He’s just outstanding. He gets into this trance, almost, when he starts motoring. It’s just like metal guitar playing at its best. It’s so perfectly rounded and indulgent and over the top. It’s just so great.
“Then you’ve got myself, who’s very quirky – kind of a whole different kind of dimension than the other guys in that my music, it’s heavy, yet it’s not conventional, really. And just the way I play is just unpredictable — but so different than the other guys. We’re all different. And then Yngwie — he’s in a class by himself completely. The whole tone and demeanor of his music and his contribution is unique. He’s so Yngwie. It’s unbelievable.”
Vai said that on the last Generation Axe tour, there was so much comedy happening that he could have written a book.
“Here’s the thing,” he says, “when you find the common ground of respect and consideration and acceptance of the others, everything is fun. Everything is great. And it took a little while for that, not because of any reason except it was just an unknown. You get five of these intense personalities. The idea of getting five of these intense personalities on one bus, on one stage — people thought I was out of my mind. Even they did. But I was very confident that it was going to be great. There are logistical bumps along the way, but you figure them out.”
Vai notes that the guitarists don’t have to play the entire show, the tour pays well and it’s fun, which creates a lot of openness between the five players.
“When you say some funny moments…” Vai says. “If you hang out with Zakk, everything is funny. Or Yngwie, he’s so frickin’ funny. It’s unbelievable — I can’t even tell you. You've got to get him and know him. The interaction between him and Tosin — constantly entertaining. And Nuno, he’d be on the bus for three or four hours a night, just talking to all of us, telling stories, listening to music. He’s so much fun and interesting and engaging, and his storytelling is just off the hook. It was a lot of really great moments.”
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On stage, there are bound to be some great moments as well. And while there are sure to be a number of guitarists in the audience, Vai says there’s also a huge guitar-loving community out there of people who want to play guitar but don't.
“What’s funny,” Vai says, “what I recognize, is that so many people in different fields —business, sports, actors — many of them have that secret passion to be a guitar player because I meet them, I talk to them. Some of them are fans. There’s something about the instrument that really just grabs people. There’s a sense of freedom and creativity and all these things. And it hangs on your body, and it looks cool. And you can manipulate it. It’s never-ending all of the ways that you can touch it and put effects on it and manipulate the sounds.
“Everybody should play the guitar," he adds. "I wouldn’t be surprised if everybody wanted to play the guitar, because I know they would love to. There’s just a little brick wall that they run into, which is their own insecurity about playing. There’s no need to be insecure about it. You don’t have to be great. That’s one of the great things about the guitar; no one will ever finish with it. It’s a forever instrument.”