One of the only things you can control in life is whether or not you quit. You get to choose inspiration over intimidation so that you don’t convince yourself to quit before you’ve given learning an instrument a chance.
Many young musicians get tripped up with social media musicians, especially guitar players. They look at what they see on the screen. They listen to what they hear come through the speakers on their computer. Then, dramatically, they want to hurl their guitar into the dumpster outside their house.
When I was growing up, we had guitar magazines. That was it. There weren’t any videos of kid prodigies or doctored reels of people playing at twice the speed they can play. We read articles. We didn’t have hundreds, thousands, or millions of ways to compare ourselves to other players. The only person we could regularly compare ourselves to was our past selves, and there is something powerful about realizing that.
It can be overwhelming to see some kid playing guitar and think, “I’ll never, ever be able to do that.” At that moment, you have a vital choice to make.
Intimidation vs. Inspiration
When you see something that makes you feel like you have a long way to go in your playing proficiency, you can either be intimidated or inspired. But I’ll tell you right now––intimidation is pointless. You will never be that person, and that’s a good thing. Listen, I know that I can never be Eddie Van Halen, because I’m Rob. And that’s okay. You are you, and they are them. That’s good. Otherwise, life would be super boring.
For example, when you choose inspiration over intimidation, you look at musicians’ videos differently. Instead of thinking, “I’ll never be that good,” your thought becomes, “They’ve found their thing, and that’s awesome, and I can also find mine.”
You need to understand, and what will give you hope, is that instruments can be specialized. What do I mean? The guitar, more so than other instruments, is specialized. Not everyone can play multiple styles, and that’s fine. If everyone played the same things or played in the same ways, music would be super boring.
The same principles apply to how we learn. Everyone has a different learning style, including you. Each person also possesses their own specific areas of talent. That is why at my school, Rob’s School of Music, we specialize in creating custom lesson programs for each student. As an educator, it’s my job to get information to each person in a way they can understand.
Don’t let your present ability––which was hard-earned, I’m sure––intimidate you out of progressing on your journey. Think about what it would be like to watch John Mayer learn to play the guitar. Do you think he was amazing right away? No, he had to practice and unfold his talents and develop his style just like any other musician. The great thing about music is that with practice, anyone can learn to create it, even if they don’t have a ton of natural talent.
Sometimes I sit and think about what it would be like if we did have a social-media vault full of videos where John was learning to play the guitar. Wouldn’t that be awesome? When I was young, (I started playing guitar in the mid 90s) we didn’t have access to the same technology available now. So I don’t have much evidence of how I’ve progressed as a musician over the years. But you can keep track of it all!
Your journey is your story, and stories cause powerful points of connection to happen. Stories are dynamic. With a story, you can do just about anything. And right now, you are building your musical story, one note at a time. Don’t let anyone diminish that journey for you, including that intimidating voice in your head that says you can’t.
Allow yourself the space and time to build your own story. We all have a starting point—a genesis. This is your time to allow yourself to learn, to make mistakes, and to become the version of yourself—and nobody else’s—that you want to be.
Managing Expectations and Determining Your Progress
A lot of the time, we aren’t good at measuring the progress we’ve made. It’s also challenging to manage expectations when you’re first starting out. This is why having a teacher/mentor is super helpful. You have someone who knows what you’re trying to learn and can help you set realistic goals. Plus, you have someone in your corner who will help you exit your comfort zone when you’ve gotten better and can level up your playing.
One time I was teaching a guitar student, and she started humming as she was strumming on her guitar. When she sang, it was clear she had a fantastic voice that I had never heard before that moment. She explained that, as a child, her father told her she wasn’t a good singer. It was heartbreaking. I worked with her to write a song about what she had been through.
That song changed her life. At that moment, she overcame the past with such power and force because she found the courage to move forward through her voice: the one thing that people she loved had tried to silence.
Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean it’s true. If you get feedback and aren’t satisfied with where you are, you can always do the work to level up. Find your power. Find your voice. Once you do that, you can do anything. Choose inspiration. –Rob Spampinato
On 4/21/21 I had the honor of interviewing one of my musical heroes, Steve Vai. Below is a full transcription of the interview.
Hey Now! My name is Rob from Rob’s School of Music in Suffern NY. I’m here with the legendary Mr. Steve Vai!
Steve Vai 00:34
Why are we here? Rob, thank you for having me
Awesome, thank you, Steve, today is my birthday. So, you’re my gift.
Steve Vai 00:39
Oh, happy birthday.
Thank you. You’re the gift. So thank you. So, we’re a music school offering guitar lessons, piano lessons, voice lessons and more. We have a brick-and-mortar location in Suffern NY where we’ve been doing lessons for four years now and then the last year, obviously, due to COVID we moved everything virtual and we’ve done over 5500 virtual lessons over the course of the last year or so and we’ve been doing these interviews (over 7000 to date*).
Steve Vai 01:02
Amazing, congratulations. 5500.
Yeah, 5500 or something
Steve Vai 01:10
Thank you, the world feels a little bit smaller. So thank you so much for your time today.
Steve Vai 01:16
So the first question I like to ask is what was the first concert or album that you came in contact with and said, wow, I want to make my life. I want to dedicate my life to music.
Steve Vai 01:31
Well, these things come to us, usually through like family. So, when I was young, I was subjected to the music that my parents were bringing into the house and a good majority of it was like comedy records and polka records, Italian kind of music and stuff like that. So I, I enjoyed it all. But then they brought home West Side Story, the music from West Side Story and that really captured me. I was maybe three, four years old or something. But it really had a profound impact because if you’ve ever watched the movie, it’s quite dramatic and it’s got an incredible story. It’s sort of a kickback to the Romeo and Juliet thing and it also has a lot of theatre, drama and dance. It’s got like, fight sequences. It’s got these love sequences. It was done incredibly well. But the music was Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. I mean, you just don’t get any more inspired than that.
So these guys, this music had a big impact and the thing that I love so much about it was very open and free, and it was orchestrated. It sounded limitless. So that was one of the first things that woke me up and I knew that I wanted to. Well, I didn’t know what I wanted. I mean, you don’t know when you’re four, in between pooping my pants. I was interested. Definitely, I instinctually understood what it would mean to be able to create that. So that was the first thing and then for, like all good Italian boys from Long Island when I was nine years old. I was forced to play the accordion. But that was fine. I learned more about music. But then my sister came home with Led Zeppelin and that was pretty much it. My brothers were listening to like, I remember I got Sly and the Family stones greatest hits, and I love that and then Creedence Clearwater Revival, stuff like that. But I was like 10 and then there was a department store up the street called Corvettes, and I used to go there and they had a record department. I’d do everything I can to get records, 40 fives. I’d use my lunch money, my paper route money, any anything I could do, and I buy all these top 40 fives. But then when my sister came home with Led Zeppelin when I was about 12 that was a real turning point.
That’s awesome. It’s funny you say the accordion. My last name is Spampinato. So I am well versed in the Italian accordion right of passage.
Steve Vai 04:18
Yeah. You know what I mean!
100%. So, I’m going to jump around with the questions just because my brain is so scattered with this. You have played on some of the biggest stages and which is incredible journey, then maybe intermediate or advanced. So something pre COVID that we would always try and do is put them together in groups and have them perform, like a summer fair or things like that, just so they’re out playing and one of the things that they deal with primarily is nerves, stage fright and I just wanted to know if you had any tips for dealing with that? Has that dissipated over time for you?
Steve Vai 04:54
Yeah, when I was young, it was definitely an issue. There was a lot of fear. A lot of nervousness even when I was touring with Frank Zappa, there was pressure, because the music was so intense and so difficult and I was 20 years old and I was with Frank Zappa. So dealing with nerves is not an uncommon question I get asked, and there are a couple of things, it might get a little esoteric, that’s me. When you’re nervous about something, it means that’s an egoist thing, because there’s a fear of failing or a fear of being made fun of or not fitting in, all these things and I understand that. This is very common. But here’s something that can help a couple of things. The reason why we become nervous is because we’re projecting into a fearful fantasy future that hasn’t happened and we’re creating scenarios that haven’t happened, and probably won’t happen. But we believe them. So if you look very closely at your nerves, it’s because you’re thinking about something in the future, even if that future is one second, or 10 seconds 20 seconds. What’s going to happen when I get up there? Am I going to screw up? Am I going to be made fun of?
All these, this is where the fear comes in and this is where nerves come in. You don’t want to be considered less than. You don’t want to fail. That’s not an easy not to conquer. But there are a couple of things you can do that will be very helpful and the first and for what, there’s one technique that can help and it’s just two words that you have to remember, if ever you’re feeling nervous about something. Or actually, these two words are very helpful. In myriad situations, whether you have to make a decision about something, if you’re concerned about a relationship or finances or saying the right thing, or if you need to, if you need an excellent solution and these two words are relax and breathe. Okay, so now, how could those two words pull you out of being scared shitless before you go on stage?
I’ll tell you how because as I mentioned, the only reason why you’re feeling nerves is because your mind is somehow projecting into a future moment and you’re creating a mental reality that hasn’t happened. But you’re afraid might happen. Okay, so this is actually a, it’s a bit of a form of insanity to be projecting and creating. We all do it. This is the human condition. If you notice, this is what most people do. They project into the future, a fearful fantasy, because they believe they have to figure things out, or the wheels are going to fall off and this is very fearful, because that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, to have to figure things out. Yeah, first of all, you can’t because everything’s changing. You can only make decisions in the moment, right? Because all the cooperative components that are necessary to make a decision about anything can only ever be presented to you in your now.
This is non-debatable, because it’s always only ever now. You can only ever make a decision and you can’t make a decision about tomorrow now. I mean, of course, there’s some things you can say, you can set up parameters, but you don’t know. In reality, you have no idea what’s going to happen. So there can be a release in that. There can be a release from fear in that in the recognition that you don’t know anything that in reality, you have no idea how things are going to go. You can plan and you can try to stick to that plan. But you just don’t know. So when you remember these two words, relax, and breathe what I’m recommending, you do once you can remember those words is actually do them. You relax. Now, how do you relax? It’s very difficult when you’re in the state of fear or nervousness for anything to work. Sometimes you just have to abandon any technique and just go through with it, because you just too far gone.
But there’s a lot of suffering in that. As a matter of fact, when I first started my first gig when I was 13, before I got on that stage for about a week, I couldn’t eat really, I couldn’t sleep two nights before I didn’t sleep at all, like I was a nervous wreck. I was throwing up from anxiety, it was crazy and the moment I got up there, and the lights went out, and I started to play, it all went away, and I felt totally at home. But this getting back to this relaxing and breathing, so what does it mean to do this, it means to take your attention, which was usually in the future, a fearful fantasy future and bring it into your body. Put your actual attention into your inner body and relax it with your breathing. So you take a breath, and you have to stay focused, just even if you can do this for five seconds, a minute is better, but you relax. You got to keep your attention in your body, though. That’s going to be the determining factor at how much control you have, over your mind. Are you going to allow your mind to project into this fantasy future?
Are you going to take control of it, and say, okay, I’m going to relax and I’m going to breathe, and with every ounce that you’re holding your attention here so you have to feel your body from the inside and the moment you do that, you can feel all that it’s all tension? Most people are in a state of stress, and tension, especially if you’re nervous about going on stage. You’ll feel it. It’s like wow, there’s a lot of tension but you got to hold it there and every breath you take, you relax, now the mind is going to want to pull you back into the fear, into the nervousness. It’s going to say things to you like you don’t have time for this Steve Vai shit of relaxing and breathing. You have to worry about this. Imagine that, you have to worry about this. This is serious. You’re going on stage; you could screw up. This is a lie that your mind is telling you, you have to ignore that voice. Because that’s your ego, that’s the voice of your ego and you have to go back into relaxing and breathing, even if for just five seconds and then when you come out of it, you’re more centered, the stress, a lot of it has dissipated.
It’s dissolved. Now, it’s a practice. So here’s what you’re doing. When you do that, you’re taking your attention out of the future, or out of the past and you’re bringing it into the present moment. In the present moment, there is no fear. You have to give yourself a break from projecting and just put your attention in this moment right now. It starts with just observing what’s going on around you, observing the world around you without labeling anything or criticizing anything. There is no room in your mind for nervousness and fear when your attention is in the present moment and if your mind says no, that doesn’t work, because in the present moment, I’m going on stage and I’m nervous. No, you’re not in the present moment. You’re in going on the stage. So this is why you’re nervous because you’re not being present. Now being present as a practice but it’s the most vital practice that you can do in your life, for the rest of your life because from it comes peace. It’s the only way to find peace. From it comes clarity of your own instinctual impulses, which are creative, clarity for those creative things that are right specifically for you. Not for what the world thinks you should be doing but for you. You will know these things when you’re trapped.
So that’s why this practice of presence and relaxing and breathing can be extraordinarily beneficial in many situations, in any situation. So next time you’re walking to a stage, and you’re feeling nervous, give your attention to your now. Meaning if you’re walking, everything that you do is actually a small little step. There’s nothing big. Nobody does big things, they’re actually very little things, walking from the door, from the backstage area, you just become present, you’re present with walking, you are present with reaching the door, handle and open it. These are all simple little things. You know what I mean? They’re enjoyable when there’s no fear in them. So then you’re walking towards the stage, one step at a time, there’s no need to project into fear, you’re there, walking towards the stage, you’re taking us all little things, you’re stepping up on the stage, waving the people, it’s a little thing. You’re seeing people in that moment, you’re waving, you don’t have to, you know what you’re going to play, you’ve already practiced, hopefully, that’s another way. So that’s another thing, you’re on stage, and you’re playing and you’re going for this note or that note, all prep, being present with it, they’re all little things.
They’re all little steps. Oh, I had a point I was going to make. Well, in any event, so experiment with that, being present. This will dissolve nervousness. You have to understand being nervous, is an egoic function because nervousness is a form of its fear and the only thing that is ever fearful is your ego. The ego is the only thing and it’s not even real. In reality, there is no such thing as fear. Except in the mind of man, except it’s a concept in the mind, if you are present, and you’re looking into the world, show me fear. You can’t, it doesn’t exist. You can’t point and go, there’s fear. You can’t, it doesn’t exist. I mean, you can point out people in fear; you can point out people acting out fearful thoughts. But in reality, fear is a mental concept created by man and it’s unnecessary. It’s not who you are. Your natural state of being is fear free. It’s of wellbeing; it’s of life in the present moment. That’s your natural state of being, it’s joyful and that’s when you play the best. That’s when you write the best. That’s when you are communicating the best. That’s when your creativity is at its finest when there’s no stress and stress is only ever created by the thoughts in your mind, based on a fearful fantasy future, or a past that you’re lamenting based on your perspective of your past, which is completely screwed up by the way. It’s not true. Trust me what you believe happened in your past is your perspective; it’s your concepts of what happened. It’s not really what happened. That doesn’t exist anymore in reality. So, that’s why being present is the answer
I love that. That was a life skill and something that hits so close to home for me, especially over the course of this last year, the world is upside down and everything and us having these music lessons every week, like we were in New York and the second COVID death in the state of New York happened in our town before New York City got crazy or everything crazy. So we pivoted to everything online as a precaution just to see what happened and in doing that, we became this normalcy in the lives of everyone while everything was changing all of our students. So there’s mindfulness, and just consistency and things like that. I am in love with that, and that is intertwined and so much of what we do here.
Steve Vai 19:10
It is a spiritual practice what you’ll recognize if you start studying presence and the present moment, that it is the one true spiritual teaching in all of history, by the way, there’s many great teachers that have taught it because it’s even Socrates and even Einstein, but contemporarily there’s teachers like Eckhart Tolay, and there’s many. So I would highly recommend the study of that type of spirituality because it’s real core and is nothing mysterious or mystical or anything like that. It’s just reality. It’s the study of reality and it relieves stress that causes suffering in your life, mental psychological suffering.
I think the power of now should be mandatory for me.
Steve Vai 20:09
Yeah, exactly, that should be like taught to kids, because they’ll understand it before it gets conditioned out of them.
Yes, awesome. Wow, I didn’t even expect you that direction so early. That was incredible. Oh, that’s fantastic. Please, that’s amazing. I want to talk about practice routine just for a second. So when I first started playing guitar, my guitar teacher, you were his greatest influence. He had a picture of you and himself when he was younger, on his wall, and I was like, who’s this guy? He’s like, you’ll see when you’re ready and then it was right around the time when ultra-zone came out. My dad took me to go see you live at a Birch Hill, and old bridge New Jersey. Like my whole just guitar changed for me. I waited outside a tour bus; you signed my T shirt. It was like, so happy to share it. It was so special to me and from that moment on, I’m like, wow.
Steve Vai 21:02
Are you that guy?
Yeah. I found you. Hahaha! You’re so incredible on all different ways you approach music, and it’s just I am curious how you approach practicing, and then maybe combine that with? I know. I’ll try it. So how do you approach this practicing and how would you suggest to someone who wants to get a basic understanding of theory, because I know a lot of my guitar students, they’re afraid of theory and I say, read this book, it’ll change your opinion. I read this cover to cover on the way to Namm in 2020 and I said, wow, he makes sense. What would you recommend to someone starting fresh?
Steve Vai 21:46
Well, the most important thing is that you follow your enthusiasm. You follow those things that are interesting to you; this is the most important thing. Because in these days, it’s very easy for like a guy like me to come along and say, you have to do this, and you have to do that, or you really need to do this, or you should do that. But that doesn’t really work for a lot of people, because what you should do is what you feel compelled to do. Because otherwise, you’re not going to really enjoy the experience and if you’re not enjoying something, why do it? Also, you won’t have retention. Like if I said, you need to study all of your modes and all the synthetic modes and be able to play them in every key at face value. That sounds like it could be very helpful and all but some people, they can’t. They just don’t have the mind to retain or the interest and if you don’t have the interest, that’s fine.
So first and foremost is there’s a feeling in you, that you get when you think of something that’s or you’re inspired over something that’s interesting and exciting to you. Whatever style of music that is, whatever kind of guitar that is, whatever bands that might be, these things are uniquely important to you and they bring about a feeling of enthusiasm. I remember when I was a kid, I got my first little guitar and it had a whammy bar. I mean, that whammy bar was like everything and it’s like, hey, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a whammy bar guy my whole life. I just knew it. I saw the Whammy bars. I know what that does. I got it. I remember when I went to Berkeley, and I was taking one class and the teacher says, well, you can’t be using a whammy bar. You can’t be doing this. You can’t be doing that and I just instinctively thought, no. Yes, I can. So this is what I mean.
So, okay, you’re starting out and you’re a little confused, and you don’t know which way to go and you just heard the best advice you’ll ever get. But what does that mean? Having said all that, if you have a poll to be a musician, you’ll know and there’s basically various kinds of musicians. There’s people that love music that love the guitar that want to learn, they want to play. They’re not quite sure if they want to make a career out of it, because there’s a lot of concern there. Then they have obligations and they need to make ends meet and could be a little challenge as a musician to make ends meet, so then they get a job, and they start feeling guilty because they can’t spend all their time playing music.
This is all unnecessary to feel this way. If you have to get a job, you got to get a job and whatever and you can play the guitar and you can play music for the rest of your life under various situations. You may even get in a situation where you’re in a band and you get some traction for a little while, you get a hit, and then it goes away, and you’re left. Life is a long time; a career is a long time. So if you’re that kind of a guitar player, that’s fantastic. You may or may not get into situations where you could make a living from it, and you may have to get work, do work and that’s totally fine. This is one of the biggest issues, one of the problems that people face is they start feeling guilty. I’m supposed to be a guitar player for the rest of my life. So I have to undo everything else, but how am I going to, and then what, so this causes a lot of stress, right, and it’s a lot of weight to carry, to make a decision now for the rest of your life.
My advice is, be friendly with yourself. There’s no need to make those kinds of decisions. Be present and everything’s going to unravel perfectly. If you need to get a job, or you find another interest that has a similar kind of a pole, as being a musician. Without stress, you’ll naturally gravitate to it, and it’ll be fine. Then there are musicians, there are people that come into the world, and they just don’t have a choice. They just know instinctually I’m a musician, and it doesn’t matter if it’s easy or hard, this is what I do and that’s it. They don’t even give it a thought. They don’t make a decision and that, for some reason that was the case with me. I never made a decision to be a musician, because if I would have had to make a decision that would have meant there was an option and there was never an option. It was just like, well, this is what I want to do. It was too exciting to me and I didn’t care about being famous. I honestly, as matter of fact, that was a source of stress, the idea of it. Because when I was young, my aunt said to me, people who are famous, go insane. So I was like, okay, I don’t want that and I just loved playing the instrument so here’s my thoughts on music theory, I know I have a tendency to digress. Having said all that, whether you decide to be a professional musician, whether you are a professional musician for the rest of your life, or you’re a hobbyist and you love it, and maybe you get a big hit, whatever, trust me hits, our hits are very short lived.
Life is long. Hits are short and bands are short. Led Zeppelin was short. You know what I mean? Powerful, but short, I think it’s still a good idea to at least educate yourself on some of the language in music, some of the terminology, some of the music theory that exists under your fingers that will be beneficial to you in just normal situations of being a musician. Now this information is simple stuff, the notes on the neck, what chords is, the simple infrastructure of how chords are created. This is simple. Look, you don’t have to be smart to grasp this stuff. It’s basic. You don’t even have to know it but it will help you and the basics will be beneficial. That’s my advice. Take a little time, even if you have to, even if it’s not something that you’re really, you have a pole to, just understanding simple things like the notes on the neck, what a sharp and a flat is, what a scale is, what the names of these chords are. This can be helpful and you showed the bideology book. If you just picked up that book and read through it, I built that book specifically for the kind of thing that I thought was missing from people that should have some kind of a basic understanding but don’t really care so much about it. Because the book can go really deep if you want but if not, it’s got simple terminology that even the person that is completely against understanding music theory can read it and go, oh, okay, I get that. So what? It’s simple; I get it, because music theory is intimidating to a lot of people. So if you feel that, and here’s why, because they don’t believe they’re smart enough to grasp it. They don’t think enough of themselves. Sorry, that’s the way it is and they just know that there’s no interest. There’s either just no interest at all, or there’s just a fear, because it’s just too much. It’s too complicated. It’s not, if you just take it slow, and you just get the basics. So I highly recommend that.
I totally agree, it’s funny, because before your book came out, in my teaching, and the way I trained the teachers to work here is, we would always try and put, over the course of a month in each lesson, sprinkle a little theory in and then maybe on the fourth- or fifth-week loopback, and put it all together. So it’s almost like we’re sneaking it in trying to make it more digestible. So it wasn’t intimidating. Now, when I first got your book, I’m like, well, obviously, Steve is now mastered doing what I’m trying to explain to people to make it digestible and not frightening. So I completely agree with what you’re saying.
Steve Vai 31:11
Yeah, it’s kind of like technique, it’s like a lot of people feel that they need to practice and practice and practice and they don’t want to. Well, here’s the thing about technique. You will naturally, without any mind, stuff, you will naturally gravitate to what’s appropriate for you, if you allow yourself to naturally gravitate to it, and what I mean by that is this. You in order to get your creative point across everybody is creative and everybody has a unique sense of creativity within them. This is just obvious by looking at people. Everybody looks unique, they think uniquely, and their ability to be creative is unique. Now, some people unfortunately, don’t get to really explore deeply, their own unique creativity, for various reasons, and one of those reasons is fear, they’re afraid that it’s not good enough, or they’re going to fail at it, or it’s not going to fit in, that’s a big one, not fitting in. So only you’ll know what your creative impulses are. But in order to bring those creative impulses into the world, in an effective way, you have to have some kind of technique; you have to have some kind of technique.
Even Bob Dylan needs had some kind of technique to get, actually very good technique for what he was doing to get his point across. He did not need to practice the way Steve Vai practiced, because his intentions were not to be a virtuoso, mine were. I didn’t know it at the time. I just loved practicing. It’s just like, you couldn’t tear me away. Because for me, the greatest thrill was not being able to do something, and then working on it and working on it and then all of a sudden, we are being able to do it, it was like it made every day Christmas and I loved it, it became very addictive and that was my enthusiasm and that’s what I followed and that’s all I ever followed. So in the beginning to answer your question about, so anyway, about technique, if you want to be a world class virtuoso, you’re going to have to put many hours in on the instrument, but it’s not going to be a problem and it’s not even going to feel like a discipline.
Your passion will guide you and that’s a much more powerful tool than discipline because if you believe that, in order to be successful, in order to be respected, you need to be a virtue also. You’re not so interested in it, but you really feel like you need to and everybody’s telling you got to practice your skills and you’re exercising and all this stuff till you’re blue in the face. You might be doing it and you might not really be enjoying it and it’s not going to really do you much good, because you’re not exploring your real creative potential. So you have to be in touch with what it is that you really want and not rely on what the world is telling you should want and that’s really important and nobody’s teaching it. So once you know what you want, you will naturally gravitate to the kind of practice, the kind of routines, the kind of company you keep, the kind of music you listen to.
You’ll naturally gravitate because your interests will be on your radar, not your fear. Your fear of being on your radar is like, okay, what can I do not to fail? What can I do to fit in? What do I do to make sure that this is all going to work out? This is all nonsense. It never does. Never does you know why? You know why that never works? Because you’re compromising your freedom and when your freedom is compromised, it never works, that leads to depression. That’s what depression is, the compromising of your freedoms and here’s the funny thing. You’re the only one that can do that. You’re the only one that can compromise your freedom. It’s not in the outside world. Most people blame it on the outside world. I can’t do this because of that. That’s a lie. It’s a cop out and it’s an excuse. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true truth. Only you can compromise your freedom.
That’s incredible. Wow. Yeah, it’s interesting that if it’s London together a couple of things you said just unpacking it. I’ve been in situations where like I used to, my main gig was an acoustic duo. We’d play three to five nights a week just playing, various situations and unlike gig four of four, three-hour gigs in a row, as we’re breaking down, I’m still noodling on the guitar and people in the band, like, what are you doing? I’m like, I like to play guitar, I don’t know and then connected to that is I’m seeing a lot of the students now in this virtual medium. A big concern is how do you teach guitar when you can’t move someone’s fingers, all these different things, but I’m finding that, say someone would have to come to the school, they drive 20 minutes here, they’d have the half hour lesson, they drive 20 minutes home, they get home. Now it’s dinner time, its homework time, its video games, distractions. But now, when they start the lesson in the room, and they finished the lesson in the room, when they log off, I’m finding that they’re practicing, 30 to 90 minutes, as soon as we’re done, because it’s right there and they’re finding that that passion and that love without anything distracting them from it so very cool stuff.
Steve Vai 37:16
Yeah, and as a teacher, the best thing you can do is empower people with their passion, get to the bottom. The best thing you can do as a teacher is to let people know that they’re worthy, they’re worthy of following their passion, they’re worthy of doing what they want, and that they have a unique creativity and that’s what they’re here for. They’re here to express their unique creativity, in an expression with the co-creativity with others, can’t do anything alone, nothing, it’s impossible. So well, I can sit at my computer and do stuff, no, you’re not alone, somebody built that computer, there was, you’d have to go back to the beginning of time to find all the cooperative components that had made it possible for you to sit in front of that computer by yourself. Everybody’s involved, so and that’s another great thing to do is, especially at a music school, that was one of the great things about for me going to Berkeley was being with other musicians, being with other artists, sharing and feeling them out and communicating on musical levels, that it all boils down to your ability to put your attention in listening and without criticizing in your head.
Like if you’re in a situation and you’re in a band and you’re performing and it’s more of like an improvisational kind of a situation. What’s going through your head, you need to be able to back up and kind of become an observer of the thoughts that are arising in your own mind. You’d be surprised that what those thoughts actually are. If it’s based on the individual, obviously, but if you’re in a state of nervousness, if you’re able to back up and look at those thoughts, you have to be very present, you’ll notice that there’s their fearful type thoughts and you might notice that when you’re in that kind of a situation, there’s a lot of thoughts going through your head. Are people enjoying what I’m doing? Am I delivering what scale do I use here? What cord, that guy knows the cords? That guy knows. Oh my God, look at him. How can I compete with that and okay, I’m better than that guy, okay, I can do that better and you back up and look at all the thoughts that are going through your mind, you might realize, and this might not be everybody, but I know it was for me?
They’re very critical thoughts and they’re critical on yourself more than anything. So that is the antithesis of being present, it’s the exact opposite, right? Being present to look at the thoughts can be helpful. But another thing you can do well, in that if you can catch yourself being completely non present towards, relax and breathe, can help bring you back there. But also another great word to remember, relaxing is always a prerequisite. Because it’s the cure for a tremendous number of ills, it’s a cure for your inability to navigate the neck. It’s a cure for your inability to move mellifluously or gracefully. It’s a cure for your stiffness and the constant that the constant kind of stress that you can have on stage, especially this is even after you can relax, a very profound thing to practice which many people due to a small degree and some people to a full degree, is listen intensely. Listening intensely, is revelatory and what I mean by that is, it’s going to, it’s a different dimension, okay? When you put your attention into listening intensely, to what’s going on around you are entering a different dimension. Actually, it’s the spiritual dimension, because it’s a form of reality without but when you listen, you can’t, the little voice in the head has to stop. So that’s because the little voice in the head is the ego and it doesn’t want you to be present.
So when you’re in a musical environment, where you’re improvising and communicating with other musicians, your ability to communicate, and it really creates something co creative with them that’s powerful, is going to be cut at the root, if your mind is wandering around things, like, whatever, so, but when you enter that dimension of listening, without criticizing, without judging, without labeling anything, you’re connecting on a much deeper level, to not only the environment, but the musicians. This is how you connect with a musician. You listen, if you’re listening carefully enough, there’s a very organic kind of a flow that starts to flow through you and into your playing, it’s hard to explain unless you go there, you have to go there and I would recommend trying this next time you’re in a situation where you’re performing with other people. Listen intensely. Without any mental interruptions in the minds going to be coming in and interrupting your constants, kind of want to pull you away, it’s going to no, can’t listen, you have to worry about this. That’s when you got to let those things come and go and just go back to listening. They know right now the most important thing is just to listen and you can’t even wonder how hard you’re listening because then you’re not listening.
It’s very elusive state of mind. It’s a powerful dimension. But it’s hard to get to and it’s hard to hold. It’s a practice and it should be practiced as much as anything else that you are looking to master. The thing is, is much more important. It’s much more important than anything we can discuss, that has to do with the guitar, theory, your career, how you’re going to sell your music, all that stuff is secondary to this primary importance and I’ll tell you why. You have to listen for your own inspiration. You have to add that dimension of listening is not just to the outside world. It’s listening within to your own instinctual nature, your own instinctual creativity that’s unique to you. It’s there. There’s no doubt about that. So, being still enough to listen to where the melodies come from for your music, this is how you find the melodies. This is where all the good stuff comes from, you have to listen inside it and you’re doing it, people do it. But you can refine it and it’s the most important, you don’t have to know anything else but this. Of course, you have to have some technique; you got to hone your vessel somehow to get it out into the world.
But the amount of technique, as I mentioned, is based on what’s necessary for you to make that connection and bring it out into the world and you need some technique for that. So listening is a practice, it’s the most vital practice, both to the outside world and the inside world and here’s a great thing you can try. It’s meditation. It’s really good in nature, if you like a nature song, but you can do it. I do it. My backyard, I just sit, is you sit and you just clear your mind. You relax and breathe and then you listen. You don’t label things; you just listen really intensely. You’d be shocked at what you discover what’s going on. There’s layers upon layers of things, sounds that come and go and come and go and there’s loud things and there’s maybe it’s the wind coming or maybe it’s birds, or maybe it’s the traffic, you don’t label it and go, that’s the traffic. Oh, that’s a helicopter, that’s annoying. Know that this, all the sounds are part of the meditation, they’re just there. They’re just there, you’re not complaining about any of it, you’re just listening intensely and a miracle happens. You start recognizing that there’s this is going on all the time that there’s this symphony, I call it the symphony of life and what it is, it’s completely abstract. It’s completely perfect. It never repeats itself. The entire Universe since the beginning of time conspired to bring you this moment in sound right now.
It’s never going to repeat. It’s perfect and there’s so much dimension in it and this ability to listen is a practice, but it’s vital. As a matter of fact, it’s not just useful in trying to connect with the music that’s in you, or with the musicians around you. It’s vitally important when you’re in a situation just with another person. Just having a discussion with another person, just listening to what they’re saying in presence, without criticizing, without judging, without believing that the answer without waiting for them to stop so you can speak so that they know how all that your perspective, your point of view. The greatest gift that you can give another person is your attention, your attention without any critical thinking in it and this is the only way to meet the other person, otherwise, you’re meeting a mental personality that you made for that person, when you’re thinking of, well, they look like this. So that means they’re this, you know that wearing those clothes, they have that Mega hat or whatever it is, however we criticize people and create identities for them that are completely false. They’re insane. It’s insane to do that. It’s really damaging and you don’t meet the person. So that’s why giving somebody your attention without any criticism or critical thinking and it is the best gift you can give them because what you’re saying to them is, you’re okay, I’m not judging you. How are you doing? this is a meeting you in this moment, and that the listening meditation is helpful for that, it relieves, it dissolves stress also.
Incredible, this is like I had all these questions about gear and all this kind of stuff, and you’re just given life.
Steve Vai 49:31
Gear questions from anybody, brother and I’m not really even that good at it. I can’t remember that. I don’t care about it.
But that’s the bigger point and that’s what I love about every second of this is this is none of that matters if this stuff isn’t on point.
Steve Vai 49:51
I’m happy to talk about that stuff the best I can. There are other people that like I think are much better at it.
I’m going to give you this or that quiz at the end, which is super light hearted. But I love this topic. I’m going to stick on it for a few more minutes if you don’t mind. So one of my questions would have been, the day in the life of Steve Vai, but you’ve mentioned this mindfulness meditation, is there any other health and wellness practices or dietary things, anything else?
Steve Vai 50:18
Well, that’s another thing, I believe that everybody has to find what’s right for them and I believe that their inner being, their instincts know what’s right for them to eat, or exercise or these kinds of things. But the worst that there’s another, these things are not nearly as important. Because your physical wellbeing is joined at the hip, with your emotional, mental wellbeing. In reality, I don’t want to get into it, because it’s too controversial. But I will say this.
You can go controversial if you like, I’m okay.
Steve Vai 51:02
The worst thing that you can put in your body is a negative thought that causes more damage physically to you, then drinking something that you think is bad for you, soda, something like that. So, I don’t really, I mean, in the big picture, I don’t think any of that matters, I think when you’re centered, you just will instinctually reach for the things that are right for you to eat and to for exercise. For me, I go in different phases. I like to exercise. I always have exercise, I’m not very muscular or anything like that. But I like working out and running. I love to run. I had to stop everything for a while because I had to go through some older stuff like that. But that’s alright. Go through that stuff and then, as far as diet for me, I discovered that vegetarianism worked best for me. I don’t mind what anybody eats. Everybody has to decide for themselves what’s right. But I haven’t eaten meat in 40 years now and it suits me.
So yeah, everybody needs to find what’s right for them. I think it’s important though and I go through phases, like, I’ll go through a phase where I’ll run a lot and then I’ll maybe instead of that, I’ll work out and then I’ll go through a bike riding phase and then recently, I went through a stretching, where I was doing intense like stretches. It’s really great because when I was healing, like when my shoulder healed, I had a major surgery. But the fact that I have all of the range of motion back, the doctor said there was because you stretched so much before.
It’s funny with the dietary stuff, because people can become very preachy about that sort of stuff. So, my girlfriend and I, we’ve been vegan for I think it’d be five or six years this June, but I’m the kind of guy where like, I’m not going to tell you that, a BLT doesn’t taste delicious. I just choose not to eat it because that doesn’t work for me. So yeah, all good, all right, so this is my last segment. Here it is a rapid-fire series of questions, this or that, nothing too heavy, all musical related. Preferably pick one or the other. They’re pretty impossible to pick one or the other. That’s what makes it fun. You don’t have to justify your answers, but you’re more than welcome to. Here we go.
Steve Vai 53:49
I’ll do my best.
Humbucker or Single coil?
Steve Vai 53:52
22 frets or 24 frets.
Steve Vai 53:58
Okay, thin, medium or thick pick.
Steve Vai 54:03
9’s or 10’s or 11’s?
Steve Vai 54:06
Rosewood or Maple Fretboard?
Steve Vai 54:11
Okay, that’s fair.
Steve Vai 54:13
If you were to grab an acoustic would you be more interested in a Martin or a Taylor?
Steve Vai 54:20
Cool, Amp Gain or a Pedal pushing them?
Steve Vai 54:58
Good answer, 6L6 or EL34?
Steve Vai 55:06
Fuzz or overdrive?
Steve Vai 55:13
What’s the difference?
So like a Fuzz Face or a Tube Screamer?
Steve Vai 55:21
Okay, phaser or chorus?
Steve Vai 55:26
Good question, chorus.
That’s a rough one because it’s so situational. Wah or Whammy pedal?
Steve Vai 55:39
Making it hard, do I use? Well, probably both.
Beatles or stones?
Steve Vai 56:05
John or Paul?
Steve Vai 56:09
Bowie or Dylan?
Steve Vai 56:13
Steve Vai 56:19
Okay. You kind of alluded to this earlier, but Zeppelin or Floyd?
Steve Vai 56:24
Now if you had to pick a Pink Floyd record, would it be dark side or the wall?
Steve Vai 56:31
Dark side of the Moon
Steve Vai 56:35
I wouldn’t pick Pink Floyd.
I know. Zeppelin it’s just like, there’s something for everything in that catalogue.
Steve Vai 56:43
I mean, I listened to Pink Floyd growing up, but I wasn’t really a fan, was to kind of like, of course I like it now. But back then I needed to rock.
You wanted to rock. I thought that’s whenever asked that question. That’s where always people they’re like, I just wanted to like yeah, I get it. Well, what’s coming up new in the world of
Steve Vai 57:06
Oh, my goodness. Well, I’ve been putting a lot of energy into my Patrion.
Yeah, dude, you put up like five things popped up today or four things. You’re on fire.
Steve Vai 57:15
I really enjoyed it. I’ve been for years, I’ve been looking well, I’ve been thinking. I’ve watched, I’ve owned record companies and this kind of thing. At one point, I considered starting a huge website that was all encompassing and comprehensive for musicians, still doesn’t exist, but I needed like $10 million and I just didn’t want to go there. So I’ve been waiting for a platform to come along that I think would be a sort of an evolution for musicians to be able to create their own creative world where their fans can come to and get things and I just thought that my people researched a whole bunch of different things and then Patrion seemed to be the one that had the parameters that would work the best and I really liked it because it’s like, right now I’m just charging like $5 a month. I’m not doing it for the money, obviously, it’s like, it’s not going to make me and I mean, it doesn’t even keep the lights on but I love the idea of having all this stuff in one place.
So that’s I’ve been putting a lot of time into that and while I’m balancing a bunch of projects, right now, I started to do an acoustic vocal record, just one acoustic guitar, one vocal, and I got pretty far into it and then with the shoulder, everything kind of went away and then when I started to come out of it’s been taking me months to get back, like when I was done healing. Well, when I was ready to be able to start playing, I could not believe how difficult it was. It was like there was nothing there for picking or strumming. I was actually across my mind. Am I done? Is it over? But now it’s starting to come back. So that record I might have to get started on my next solo record, because I want to get back on tour. So I have a couple of songs already. You might know candlepower and knapsack are part of that. I’ve got 10 more songs probably or so that I’ll put out and then I’m going to get on tour man.
Those two songs are so incredible because it’s so one of the questions I was asked earlier was just like you come from so many different angles with just stylistically and it seems like you’re always challenging yourself and inspiring yourself and in turn inspiring other people so it’s so exciting to see what comes next and even the acoustic seeing thing, I loved and I’ll be around on the ultra-zone record.
Steve Vai 1:00:02
I kind of, I like voice, but it’s very limited. But within these songs that I started to record for the acoustic thing, it’s fine. It’s kind of like for like, fans that just would pretty hardcore and just like that kind of thing. But when as a creatively, you just don’t want to do something that you want to do. I’ve got people like, what are you doing this Patrion thing for you spending all this time and all this energy? I’m like, I don’t know, that’s what I want to do right now. That’s my creative nature is just pulling me towards that.
It’s awesome. I want to keep a bunch longer; our time is actually run. Thank you so much for your knowledge. I mean, this has just been so much. Whenever I go back and try and pick like the sound bite, what’s the thing that I’m going to put on the Instagram to show people, I’m like, it’s just all of it and everything was beneficial, again just providing tremendous value to all of us, so thank you so much for your time and your insight.
Steve Vai 1:01:05
Well, it’s my pleasure. I love the educational format. I love teaching. I love learning and I will say this to your students. Being in a music school, surrounded by other musicians who have the same kinds of aspirations, dreams, and hopes and being in that environment is a privilege. It’s a special time. It really is this right now being here, trust me, I’ve been through it, and you will look back and you will realize that right now you’re making friends for life that you’ll be working with, and coming in and out of contact within the music, business and otherwise, for the rest of your life. It’s an opportunity to, especially if they’re coming to your school.
In June, we’re coming back in person, and we have five lesson rooms, and yet, and you’re dead on, the community was my favorite part about.
Steve Vai 1:02:09
Yeah, enjoy the community and here, I’ll just leave you with this little antidote that will be really helpful for you. Support the musicians that are around you. Support them, just by being kind and friendly. This is really powerful, because you know what it feels like, when somebody is being kind and friendly to you, especially when you’re nervous about how good or not good you are. It’s very important to feel support and the way you get it, not because I’m not saying that there’s a quid pro quo, but by giving it you instantly get it because you feel better. So when you see somebody that’s doing something, and they’re expanding, they’re evolving, they’re trying, they’re pushing themselves, your mind is going to be, you’ve got two choices. One of them is of a very competitive nature, which criticizes them and will. You’ll know and the other is a very friendly one while you’re supporting them. You don’t want to play Kate; you don’t want to be phony. You have to be sincere, you got to really be sincere. You got to put yourself in their position. If you can do that, your whole experience of music school, the way you learn, what you end up playing, how you communicate with others, the bond that you create for life with some of these other people. It’s going to be enhanced.
Amen, brother. That is right. Our entire mission statement here so you just hit the nail on the head. Thank you so much. Stay safe. I look forward to next Nam show.
Steve Vai 1:04:10
All right, Rob. You’re doing a great job, brother.
Thank you so much, man. That means the world to me. Thank you so much.
Steve Vai 1:04:16
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It’s hard to tell when someone or something will change your life. It’s usually only when we look back we can see it with clarity. Paul Reed Smith created an instrument that changed my life. My dad bought me my first PRS guitar in 1999, an emerald green custom 24. That guitar was my first piece of pro gear; it changed my tone and passion for guitar forever. Fast forward 22 years, and I’m still in love with these instruments. They have fueled my musical career (I’ve been a PRS artist since 2006), supported my music school, allowed me to meet and work with incredible musicians, and given me a lifetime’s worth of inspiration from Paul’s passion for innovation. This week I have the absolute honor of interviewing the man himself, Paul Reed Smith.