Alexa and the Giant DI Box

“I never struggled a day in this business,” said Steve Vai. “I’ve been so blessed. It was always, how can I do this thing on guitar, and you work until you can do that.” Vai was honored at the 27th annual TEC awards, receiving the 2011 Les Paul award for the creative application of music technology. 

I was the guest of Exadel, whose Tigzzi mobile app-building software I was endorsing at NAMM. The show took me back ten years to when I used to preside over the Jolt Awards for software development tools. There were similarly geeky and esoteric categories. A couple in front of us told us they’d been nominated four times for their software for real-time sound system measurement, analysis and optimization, Smaart.

We cheered loudly for them when their category came up; unfortunately they didn’t win. The show wasn’t nearly as glitzy as we’d imagined, but it was saved by the incredible quality of the band, led by Larry Batiste. Al Yankovic was a very funny presenter, and I was a bit star-struck by songwriter Lisa Loeb, who later told me she has a new record wrapped, some children’s music and a line of eyewear. She only told me this because I ran into her by the Blue microphone booth the next day and asked her partner to take a picture of us together, after which I thought to do my journalistic duty and find out what she was currently working on.

Me and Weird Al Yankovic

But the true surprise of the night was Steve Vai. I’ll have to be honest — I am not a rock-guitar-follower and I didn’t know who he was. But he gave a heartfelt speech that was genuinely inspiring. He started with some anecdotes about Frank Zappa, with whom he started at age 18, transcribing solos and later touring. “Most of us take equipment home, we find a few presets, and that’s it,” he said. Zappa, he said, took gear and squeezed and prodded it and then called the manufacturer and told them what it was missing.

“Zappa had a saying, and I look at it every day on my computer. He said, ‘There are two secrets to the music business: Don’t stop, and keep going.'”

He thanked many for the extremely long trajectories they shared, including his wife of 32 years and bass player Billy Sheehan. But in rock ‘n’ roll it’s accepted that a sentence or two later he referred to sex and drugs as perks of the biz.

He went on to cite Einstein’s “Thoughts are things” and the idea that what you imagine and the positive thoughts you project become reality, with his career as a perfect example. What inspired me was that I think we tend to view the music world along two axes: celebrity and virtuosity. It showed me another side to the business — and not a seamy underbelly but a passionate, irrepressible creative desire to invent new sounds, technology and instruments. And it also was about to be very clear that the man could play the shit out of the guitar.

The stage was soon populated by guitarists — I’ll have to go back and get the names of the all the musicians. One new face was Orianthi, the blond female guitarist who was in Michael Jackson’s last tour and movie This Is It. But Vai simply riffed in every possible way on the guitar, in ways that seemed not schticky or cheesy but, along the lines of the Zappa experience, merely the result of 30 years of squeezing and shaping the guitar beyond its humble beginnings. Whether it was switching hands on the neck or playing two handed on the frets as if it were piano keys, or bending a note impossibly long, Vai embodied the words of another of his heroes, Tom Waits: “Be good at something, and then exaggerate it.”