Yesterday around 19.30 (in Paris), Berklee Music streamed an online live lesson by Steve Vai. They aimed to break a record to enter the Guinness book as the world’s largest online guitar lesson. I guess that it was indeed the case tough I was surprised to see that views counter never got higher than 9000 viewers! I might be wrong though because I was mainly focusing on the lesson rather than the counter! [The video is now online at Livestream: Steve Vai’s Guitar Lesson at Berklee Music]
I like Steve Vai’s Zappa-esque Flexable or Passion & Warfare but I’m not really following his career. To tell you the truth I am even totally closed to some Steve Vai’s albums. However, I liked this lesson a lot, and particularly because it was not a real guitar lesson! Steve Vai didn’t dissect his playing. He didn’t give any secret technique. He didn’t show his amp settings. And he certainly didn’t show any riff that would be impossible to execute by the vast majority of guitar players.
No! He mostly focused on :
- Guitar philosophy in general (and music of course)
- Views on how to achieve a career for those who want to be pros
- Tips for the beginners or not-so beginners anymore
I found it interesting that he didn’t focus on his own playing nor on himself even though he used his experience as the reference for this lesson. To answer a question from a viewer at the end of the lesson, he said “To play like me you’d have to think like me… and I wouldn’t recommend that!”. This is what this lesson was all about for about an hour: the most important thing is to find yourself. Get inspiration from your heroes to create your own musical personality, and certainly not to reproduce something that your inspirer already perfectly played!
During the lesson, Steve Vai mostly gave tips, and views to reach the musical identity Grail… I wrote down some quotes as I was watching the streamed video. These quotes are mainly common sense but enhanced by the virtuoso’s experience! If Steve Vai works his guitar skills that way, believe you me I’ll stick to his advice!
- “If you’re in a groove keep doing it over and over” : Everything is in the groove. He recommends to play with a drum machine, or at least to always play over a backing groove. On that groove, he recommends to never hesitate to play the same bit of music that’s in your mind over, and over (the example he showed was mostly around one chord played in loop). What he wanted to prove is that with the repetition comes the alteration (i.e. variation). Music bits repetition, and alterations lead to novelty (this reminds me a lot of how biological evolution works). This will eventually lead you to develop your own musical personality.
- “If you play fast, and screw it up… Slow it down” : Now this is so obvious. It is a very widespread tip but still it never hurts to repeat it! Well I personally don’t mind cause I can’t play fast anyway!
- “I find my strengths, and I exagerate them. I don’t focus on my weaknesses” : This is probably the most counter intuitive advice that he gave. It goes well with this other quote “Most important thing about playing guitar is knowing what you want and feeling good about it…let go and play… It doesn’t matter how good you are”. Finding our strengths, and what we want, and then stick to this in order to develop our guitar skills, and musical personality. Never focus on weaknesses! After all this is what the greatest, and most memorable guitarists are all about. I know I kind of forget it sometimes.
- “99% percent of what you do is all mental. Meditation is the key…” : This is probably what differentiates excellent guitarists/musicians, and make them stand over the crowd. I mean this is not necessarily about meditation but it is certainly about the ability to think the music. By “think” I don’t mean in terms of intellectual ability but in terms of capacity to hear the music, and to make it grow in your mind. Good thing is that apparently, Steve Vai considers that every guitarist can develop this ability. We can teach ourselves to do it, and one of the methods is to “Sing what you play…” even if you have a terrible voice!! It doesn’t matter as long as you sing the music.
So yes, these quotes are not about practical tips but I found this very interesting, and inspirational! These are some thoughts that we can easily make ours in order to get some motivation when needed.
Even though Steve Vai is a virtuoso, I find it very encouraging to hear him say that “with 3 chords you can discover the universe”. I don’t know if that’s true but at least some players built a strong career with 3 chords. So why not developing a musical identity around 3 chords especially when you are not intending to build a career. The most important thing is not to find but to “Give the chord a soul” because this is what allows to tell stories. And in the end making music, and playing guitar is all about telling stories with another language that doesn’t use words!
Oh yes… He also gave a very very useful tip to make your bended notes sound better! After all “out of tune bends” is the main criticism made to most guitarists whether they are beginners or not! According to Steve Vai, the “Most important when you’re stretching notes, is the face you make it makes the note sound better. Stretch your face”… From now on I’ll stretch my face with every single bend I’ll make whether it’s a half-tone bend or a microtonal bend!! Maybe they will still sound awful… But you won’t be able to tell!
If they decide to upload the lesson on Youtube, I’ll keep you update because I think it was a very inspirational one… Way beyond just learning a solo or a tune!