That Sounds Like Theory, Mr. Vai!
Legendary guitarist Steve Vai steps into the music instructor role with the release of his new book, Vaideology.
Treble clefs, grace notes, transpositions, circle of fifths—the world of music theory is one in which Steve Vai feels at home, and not just because he’s one of the best guitarists to emerge during the 1980s.
In his time as a solo artist and while collaborating with Whitesnake, David Lee Roth, Ozzy Osbourne, Frank Zappa and several others, Vai gained a reputation for his technical approach to guitar playing. (He did, after all, start his career by transcribing music for Zappa.) Earlier this year, Vai took his decades-long appreciation for music study to a new level: He became an author.
Released by Hal Leonard in late January, Vaideology: Basic Music Theory for Guitar Players starts with the building blocks of music theory before diving deep into the possibilities for those that know it. “You could say that it covers basic music theory and then some,” Vai says. “It does venture into some pretty complex territories, but it’s still very conventional, basic and theory-oriented, especially for guitar players.”
Vaideology does lay the groundwork for a root understanding of music mechanics, but it also provides examples of how these preliminary lessons can be used—examples that can take readers down a variety of rabbit holes. “One sentence might say, ‘Take all the notes, write all the chord scales for them and write progressions for them that work.’ That’s a tall order,” Vai says. “‘Memorize the notes until you can name them just by hearing them.’ That’s one sentence, but a person could write a book on that.” From the cover art to the explanations and graphics inside, this book is all Vai—and the lessons within come from the decades he’s spent learning music from the ground up and applying those tools to one creative project after the next.
Writing a book like this has been on Vai’s bucket list for years. He began studying music theory while in seventh grade under the tutelage of Bill Westcott and continued his studies shortly thereafter with Joe Satriani, both of whom Vai credits as instrumental and influential teachers. The ABCs of music theory weren’t clear to Vai at first, but once he started working with Westcott and Satriani, something clicked. “When I started playing guitar, I never really connected the compositional aspect of music theory that I was learning with the guitar. I was just listening to my favorite Led Zeppelin songs and trying to play them,” Vai says. “Once I started making the connection, it all seemed to come together.”
Vai’s early grasp of music theory made him voracious about absorbing as much of it as he could—and to impart that information to others. “It was one of the few things that I seemed to understand instinctually and intuitively. I tried with so many other things to learn—languages and other disciplines—and I just found myself not retaining the information or confusing it. But music was always clear,” he says. It was when he began teaching others that he realized his understanding of the material could be useful to aspiring musicians, and not just those he taught in person.
Vai began with grand aspirations for how his lessons would come to fruition. As the Internet was becoming a worldwide phenomenon during the 1990s and early 2000s, Vai envisioned launching interactive websites with how-to guitar lessons and explainer videos. Vai still hopes to bring some kind of interactive experience to life, but when he had an opportunity to teach the basics to a handful of aspiring guitarists at one of his Vai Academy events in early 2018, he jumped on the chance to create the first draft of what later became Vaideology.
Music performance is an active and often exciting exercise; if it wasn’t enjoyable, fans wouldn’t purchase concert tickets or records. But studying music theory doesn’t sound quite as thrilling, and many who’ve taken music lessons or attempted to decipher written music on their own would agree that it can be a tedious and frustrating process. Vai’s aware of this, and it’s that awareness that made it possible for his book to be different. To start, he eliminated the academic language often used in instructional books and took a conversational tone instead. “That scholarly writing can be fatiguing,” Vai says. “You’re expected to write a certain way that’s not personal. I like to write like I’m talking to somebody.”
Another issue Vai wanted to address involved throwing out the assumption that his readers must require a background in written music. “I’d never come across a concise, chronological way to learn music theory,” Vai says. “You know how frustrating it is when you get a book and you start reading what you want to learn, and they already expect you to know certain things that they didn’t explain? It makes you feel confused and defeated.”
VIDEO: Steve Vai workshop
This step-by-step approach paired with the personal tone Vai takes in his writing makes the book friendly toward musicians of all levels, regardless of their backgrounds. Knowing music theory isn’t essential to master an instrument, after all—and Vai is quick to address this at the beginning of Vaideology’s introduction. “So, to know music theory or not? If that is the question, my answer might be: it doesn’t matter, but what matters more are your interests and desires,” he writes, adding later, “I believe these academics are relatively simple to understand but can greatly aid your understanding of the basic language of music. This will inevitably make your songwriting, communication with other musicians, and navigation on the instrument easier and more effective.”
The idea of music as communication is one Vai engages with frequently throughout the book. “Every note has somewhat of a different color, dimension, personality, emotional equilibrium, and story to it,” he writes in a section titled, “Listen Intensely,” explaining that every person reacts to a given sound in their own way. When discussing this section of the book, Vai takes the idea a bit further. “Understanding the academics and intellectualization of music is fine, and it has its place, but it’s really the surface,” he says. “No matter what technique I offer, it’s all going to boil down to your ability to focus and listen intensely. When you listen intensely without the intellectual mind in the way, what’s under the hood of the note, melody or chord starts to reveal itself differently.”
Vai suggests several memorization tactics throughout the book for the same reason. “People learn differently; they have different learning skills. For me, it’s for some reason difficult to remember dates or names, things like that,” he says. “I could never remember my hotel room number—and I had a different one every day, so that could be problematic. I decided one day, ‘All right, Vai, come on. You can memorize your hotel room number.’ So I started experimenting with different ways of memorizing and found a way that works for me.”
Throughout the book’s nearly 100 pages, Vai makes his reader his top priority—and he’s very clear on who that reader is. This isn’t a book for a guitarist interested in transposing music from the classical era, or for someone who wants simple instructions on how to play Vai’s solo compositions. It’s possible those will come later, if Vai chooses to don his professorial role more permanently, but Vaideology is really intended for music theory beginners who are eager to master a new skill.
“If you can take two or three months of your time and learn that book, go through it and absorb it, the rest of your life as a musician will be easier because the way you’ll be able to communicate and find ideas and your confidence on your instrument is going to evolve tremendously,” Vai says.
Whether or not readers take Vai’s advice is out of his control, but he’s not too worried about it. In fact, however people decide to engage with his book is “just fine,” he writes. “Hey, you’re playing the guitar!”
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