Steve Vai


“To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. People have a style. I don’t understand it, having someone else orchestrate. It would be like someone putting color to your paintings.”


For contemporary composers, I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who wouldn’t entirely agree with what Bernard Herrmann says because orchestrating is a very personal thing. What I’ve also noticed, and even in some of my contemporary compositions, based on what’s needed for the composition, it’s not uncommon to allocate work to an orchestrator. For instance, when I did the Metropole record, Sound Theories  (it’s a double live record with the Metropole Orchestra), the whole first CD is music from my catalog with me playing guitar. Those songs are pretty much blueprinted already, and the amount of time that it would’ve taken me to completely orchestrate all of them would’ve been too much at that time.

Some of the compositions I did the orchestrations myself but, for many of them, I basically worked with various orchestrators that I trust.  In some cases, I would just give them a lead sheet and say, because it was simple kind of music, something like Lotus Feet was something that I gave a friend of mine who’s an excellent film composer in Hollywood, and he has a particular ear that I don’t have, so I knew that if I let him orchestrate this piece, it would come out a particular way, and he did, and it was beautiful. I made some tweaks once I got it. If I would’ve orchestrated Lotus Feet, it would’ve sounded different.  It might’ve sounded good, but David Cole did such an excellent job, when I listen to it, I think I don’t know if I would have been able to be that glorious with it. I gave him various instructions but, then again, he came back and definitely delivered something more than I expected. Something like Kill the Guy with the Ball, which is on that record, was a very in depth transcription of my direction to the orchestrator. Like I said, in this intro part, have the strings do this, have “da-ta-da-ta-da-ta-da”, and I want this to go like that. I didn’t actually orchestrate that one myself, but I did give it to somebody with pretty explicit instructions. In other situations, I might write a piece of music in a piano reduction form and then give directions to an orchestrator, or I might even fill out various staffs with direction. For me, and what I do: the personality in those pieces of music comes from my fingers in the way that I phrase the melody and stuff.

The second CD on that record is all compositions, and I don’t play guitar on them. Those are specifically orchestrated by me for all of the reasons that I gave you before. I wanted to be very intimate with the orchestrations. I wanted to be in every note, so to speak.  Any time I ever receive anything back from an orchestrator, I always go through every note, and I check everything, and I may change things. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll change it, and that’s fine, but the bulk of the work was done.



Absolutely, a composer’s imagination is limited to the physical abilities of a particular player and instrument.  I’ve learned the only way to really understand composition is to do it, and hear it, and talk to the musicians in the orchestra. I’ve done that many many times. I would go around, I would record them. I’d go to the French horn player and I’d say, “What really works here?  What doesn’t work?”

You find out things that you just don’t find out in books.  I talk to every harp player because I love the harp and I love composing for the harp – but you have to understand the mechanics of a harp and your imagination has to be able to work within the mechanics and the playability of the musician. Of course you can push that musician, but a bad composer is going to write things that are just impossible to actually play. Not impossible because the player doesn’t spend enough time on them.  Impossible because they’re just not  performable. They’re unplayable.  Within the realm of what’s capable of being done, your imagination can be infinite because there are infinite combinations of things to do within the capabilities of an instrument.  A good composer is going to work within the limitations of the instrument and the performer and create music that’s or reach into their imagination within that realm. That’s infinite, you know!

Now, one of the things I learned about composing and having the music performed is in the beginning when I was young and I was listening to a lot of Frank Zappa and all this very contemporary music.  I was fascinated with complex music. I would write all of this very complex music for orchestras and stuff, and I realized – in this day and age – it doesn’t really work very well because in the real world of having your music performed, there are limitations. There can be budgetary limitations. Usually there are time limitations in the amount of rehearsals you get, and then there’s the limitations of the musicians who could probably perform what’s written but don’t have the incentive to learn it because it’s just too hard for them.

What I’ve learned is that a really great composer will write things that can be performed well and easily read by the musicians. One of the things I’ve learned most is how to write things so they’re most easily understood by the musician, not how my intellect wants to write it to prove how complicated I can be, to show some kind of musical command. In reality you can do that to fascinate yourself but it’s going to sound like shit, usually. Now, having said that, it’s important for a composer (or some composers) to push the boundaries of the physical possibilities of a performer and of a piece of music and of an orchestra at whole. A good example of this is when The Rite of Spring was introduced. It was considered an extraordinarily complex, unperformable rhythmic piece of music.  At the time it was virtually alien to the conventional musician in an orchestra. That piece of music was seminal because if you listen to all of Stravinsky’s work before he did the three ballets, there’s almost the conventionality in it. You can sort of hear his influences. But then when he wrote The Firebird and Petrushka, and especially The Rite of Spring, it’s almost like he dropped acid or something and then just started to compose because they’re unique.  Because it was so complex, it pushed the awareness of the orchestra. It was right on the edge of being possible, but because it pushed the awareness of orchestras, they rose to the occasion and now The Rite of Spring is basically a repertoire piece that you need to know. He did a great service to the performability of future music.

Now, the thing is, that this realm of pushing the boundaries of complexity for the sake of complexity has reached a pretty severe degree in many contemporary composers. To the point where, in my opinion, a lot of contemporary music is just unlistenable. There’s an energy that flows into a piece of music based on the intention of the composer, and if the intention of the composer is just to be complex for the sake of being complex, you hear that when you listen. When you listen to somebody like Varèse you come to realize that Varèse’s intentions were not to make noise. There was something else going on. There was an inner vision there that we’re only discovering really now because Varèse is one of the few that you can really consider to be ahead of their time. Most other composers were just ahead of everybody else. Stravinsky was ahead of everybody else in a sense.

Composers have different kind of brain muscles and, some of them, like myself, have no idea how to play any other instrument but their main instrument. For me that’s guitar. I can’t even play a piano, but I compose on the piano. I don’t need to play it, I use my imagination and I can compose for any instrument, for an accomplished pianist, a drummer, or harpist, anything because I just understand. I can see it in my mind’s eye. I can see a harpist doing something and I’ll know if it’s possible or whatever, but I can’t play any other instrument. I’m not natural at playing an instrument… I’m not even natural at playing the guitar!  I have to work really, really hard, but music was always kind of natural.

My composition The Middle of Everywhere, the first movement of that was conceptual in that (and this is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to play) at no point in that entire piece is there any rhythmic counterpoint. There’s no note that is longer or shorter than any other note that appears at that time. I set up these parameters to create a particular feeling in the listener. There’s a very rigidity in it, but it’s very difficult to perform because everything has to be lined up, and I learned a lot about certain things to write that will sound good when they’re played and certain things that are just not going to be able to be performed correctly, no matter what you do, unless you have a lot of rehearsal time.



It’s according to what comes in front of me. In the past, I thought I would love to be a film composer, and I did some films, and I realized that it’s very restrictive for me. You have to focus on the plot, the characters. For some composers that are really good at that; it’s like food, you know. They use all the visuals and the dynamic. They create dynamics in the film, and it’s very creative. I mean, I’m really into Ennio Morricone. I studied he’s just incredibly brilliant at that, you know.  And it’s very authentic.

But personally, I would prefer not to have any parameters. I’d prefer to just compose for the art of it, so to speak. Not to say that film composing is not an art.  I’m very excited to see the momentum in composing for video games that’s going on. A very good friend of mine, Tommy Tallarico, was at the forefront of that whole movement, and what he’s doing is just phenomenal, because these games have incredible budgets.  He has fought very hard for the awareness of these gaming folks in regards to orchestra, unique orchestra music for their game. So I see that happening, and that’s fantastic. Would I ever want to do something like that? I don’t think so.  It’s just not for me. Now having said that, you never know. If somebody came to me and they said, “Steve Vai, I know what you do and I have this film or game and it’s a very eclectic project, a little esoteric, and it deals with these subjects, and I think that what you do would be really great, and whatever you want to do is fine.” That would be interesting to me. If the project was really interesting and if the parameters were just, “We know what you do, Vai. Just do it.”

But the last film that I started to work on and I bailed on it was Miami Vice. I started to get into it and I realized that there were so many parameters and I wasn’t really crazy about the movie. The director, Michael Mann, is brilliant and he makes great films. But it didn’t resonate with me. Plus the work is 24/7. And the deadlines are preposterous. For the way that I like to compose and be creative, it’s restrictive. But, for a great film composer, it’s not. There’s a freedom in it and they’re okay with all the parameters that are set up by the director or the film or the length. They’re fine with it. It’s part of their creative process and it’s great, it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. I would never say one is better than the other. It’s based on what your goals are and what your intentions are.



The challenge has been the conventional orchestra attitude is a little rigid and especially when it comes to new compositions by unknown composers. It’s very, very difficult to get your music performed by a symphony in America if you’re a totally unknown composer. Not impossible, but challenging, because most of these symphonies have a repertoire of music from the past and they know it and the patrons come and that’s what they expect. There’s a portion of them that want to hear new music, but unfortunately, the contemporary orchestra is dying because the patrons are less and less coming because younger people are getting tired of hearing a lot of old stuff.

For me, it was a hard nut to crack. The first time I cracked it was many years ago… I’ve played with several orchestras. One was a Seattle Orchestra, but we didn’t play any of my music, and then I played with the Rochester Orchestra back in the ’90s and then the Rochester at Eastman School. I did a concert and they did some of my music and that was very nice. But then several years ago I played with the Symphony in Denver, Colorado, and it was fantastic. We had a great concert and they were very interested in the music. They coupled it with Stravinsky that night and I did some of my compositions and it was great. Recently, I did a performance at Disney Hall with the American Youth Symphony, and that came together based on relationships that I had with people who were connected with that orchestra and they wanted to do a show with my music, and it turned out just amazing.  And, as a result, now there’s more people interested in America. The conductor, Carlos Izcaray, runs the orchestra in Alabama. He just reached out to me and he wants to do a concert with his orchestra there, and they’re a fantastic orchestra. It’s really about relationships and having the goods. Now in Europe it’s different because Europe has a different culture and they’re much more adventurous and they’re easier in a sense. They’re not so rigid. I played with many, just on my last huge tour, I played with five or six different orchestras in Europe. With the North Netherlands Orchestra, I played with the Moscow Symphony, we created an orchestra from Romania called the Evolution Orchestra with about 50 or 60 musicians, and we toured with it and did nine shows. I opened up the new opera house in Poland with their orchestra. It was fantastic. Then I played with the Florianópolis orchestra. This was an amazing event. Florianópolis is a city in Brazil and I was invited to perform at Rock in Rio for 80,000 people with the Florianópolis Orchestra.  It was a peak performance for me. It was an absolute peak performance, because there I was with this incredible orchestra playing to 80,000 people who were really digging and that in itself turned into more invitations from that orchestra to go to South America and play with them.

You see, it’s a process. And now I’m at the point where many orchestras are interested in performing with me because they know if I show up and they’re doing my music, most of the time their concerts are all going to be sold out and also it’s new. It’s kind of new. So I’m very, very fortunate. I could write anything I want and there’s orchestras who will play it. That’s a real privilege.



Well that’s a very good question, and the most important thing for a composer to do is to do what feels right to them, to do what feels good, and sometimes there’s a period that a composer can go through when they’re learning where they are borrowing and they’re being inspired by their heroes and they’re incorporating things that they see in other scores into what they do and that’s all fine. If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. It’s an intellectual exercise with a little bit of a mixture of own your vision because you’re pulling elements together. It may not sound unique, but it still can be a very enjoyable creative process.

So the first thing I think a composer should need to know when addressing what is the quality of my work is: they’re doing fine. You’re doing fine! Whatever you do is fine. However you go about doing it is fine. But if the question you’re asking yourself is how can I find my own unique voice, the answer is (or at least my answer is) first of all, you have to want to find your own unique voice. You have to align yourself with finding your unique melodic interests, the music that is within you that is part of all the music you’ve heard, but comes from something that you’ve never heard before in the world that resonates with you. You need to want to do that. That’s number one. So you have to align with actually the feeling of: I REALLY WANT TO. I intend. You have to use mental words like I intend to find my own unique voice in my compositions, and then you move that to I am finding my own unique voice. So there’s the desire that needs to be there.

Second, you need to know emphatically and unequivocally that you do have a unique voice. It’s there. It’s absolutely there. No questions! That’s the way it is. You do have it. Whether you have access to it or not is another question. Once you know that and you want it, this is how you start to discover it. It’s all mental. You have to be still. You have to still your mind and you can still your body and you need to just listen inside of yourself, and it’s flowing all the time and just allow what’s there. It’s so difficult to explain, but you are doing it. People do it, but are you doing it intentionally. Now the big question is:  What’s obscuring your ability to have access to your own unique music? And the thing that is obscuring the path is your own thoughts in your own head about the situation, and these thoughts sound something like this. “Well I can’t do this because I’m not good enough”, or “I’m afraid that this won’t be accepted”, or “how am I going to make a living doing this”, or “am I going to fit in”, or “well nobody’s doing that so I probably shouldn’t do that”, or “where am I going to find the time to do this”, or just this subtle feeling of not being worthy.

That’s the obstacle. That’s always the obstacle in anything, by the way. The obstacle is always the voice in your head. The little voice of insecurity, of fear, and the first thing you have to do to eradicate this voice is recognize it. You can’t try to stop it because there’s an incredible momentum of you’ve practiced thinking obscuring thoughts, but you don’t know it. You’re unconscious of it because your attention is so in these thoughts that you think that the thoughts are actually who you are. So the thing is to pull back and to recognize when you’re thinking these thoughts. That’s the first step and it can be difficult because as I said, you believe these thoughts. You actually believe them, but in reality they’re just thoughts that come and go, and you’re in control of the thoughts in your own head. You might not think so. If you have one freedom, one freedom that nobody can ever take away from you, it’s the choice of the kinds of thoughts that you choose to think in your own head!

One of the things I love to do and I would like to share is that you can try… It’s like a meditation. When you go to bed at night and you’re laying in your bed, and you relax your body, focus on relaxing your body, and relax your mind and allow yourself to not entertain any thoughts of restriction and just imagine what it would feel like to be composing something unique and just start singing in your head and imagining. You could be a guitar player. You can be a composer. You can do it with anything, really, even if you’re an artist, or a businessman, or whatever. Allow your inner imagination which is vast to just start dictating melodies and harmonic structure, whatever it is, tempos, etc.

There’s an incredible freedom in it because you don’t have to write it down. You don’t have to repeat it. You don’t have to bring it into the world and hire people to do it, and this creates a really good connection. The more you do it, the deeper you get with it, and then the more it starts to reflect itself in your physical world and your composing, or your guitar playing, or whatever it is. That’s a really great exercise because when you’re sitting in bed at night, and you’re calm, and you’re entering your imagination, there are no limits.