Steve Vai and the 7-String Guitar’s Modern Life
In jazz, you can trace the modern 7-string to a couple of sources: George Van Eps and Bucky Pizzarelli. In rock, though, it’s slightly murkier. One thing is clear, though: Steve Vai’s work with Ibanez in the late 1980s propelled the first mass-produced 7-string front and center, and as Steve says, it’s now the second generation who are spreading the 7-string “gospel.” [See the accompanying piece with Rich Lasner, who worked on the 7-string project at Ibanez with Steve.]
Since using his early prototype 7-strings while working with Whitesnake, Steve has featured 7-string on several solo projects – including 2012’s The Story of Light – and numerous tours, And although he alternates between 6- and 7-strings, he feels both are vital tools in his approach to playing.
In March 2013, we caught up with Steve in his studio, deep into composing.
What are you working on?
Well, you know, ever since I was a kid, I have been very interested in composing, and I’ve always composed. I learned how to do it when I was very young. In high school I had this great theory teacher who taught me everything about the orchestra. But getting pieces performed can be a real challenge, you know.
As Frank Zappa could tell you.
Yeah. But I had a supporter in Holland, Co de Kloet, this guy who worked at NPS [Dutch radio]. Probably about six or seven years ago he organized this concert and raised funds from the government for me to compose two hours of orchestra music for the Metropole Orchestra.
That’s so cool.
It turned out really well and I released a CD on that, and then some symphonies started getting interested, and NNO, which is the North Netherlands Orchestra, became very interested, and they commissioned me twice to compose big pieces. Now the third time, they commissioned me to write a piece that’s for a Stravinsky festival that marks the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Rite of Spring. So I’m really excited about that.
Rite of Spring almost caused riots when it premiered.
Yeah, it was one of those seminal pieces. Mine’s gonna be a seminal piece. [Laughs.] That gets performed toward the end of May, and then I go right to Romania, where I’m playing with the Romanian Orchestra, a tour for about a month through Europe, Russia, and Ukraine. Then I kick off with my rock band again. I just finished four months with the rock band, but I go back out for like another 11 months. Well, actually, that’s including the orchestra stuff. So I’ve been pretty busy, and right now I’m just composing. I got this idea. I’m writing this second movement from this symphony that I wrote, and I play guitar, but I want to do something really different. So I decided that I’m going to play one note for 12 minutes, and just have the note sustain and have the orchestra weave in and out of it. That would be beautiful.
What initially got you interested in 7-string? You were doing okay on 6-string…
[Laughs.] Well, frankly, if you wanted a 7-string guitar back then, you had to have one custom made. I don’t believe there was anybody mass-producing 7-strings. They didn’t exist. Uli Jon Roth had one. It was this odd guitar he called the Sky Guitar. He still plays it. I was just sitting there with Rich Lasner from Ibanez – he was with Ibanez at the time – and we were talking. This was in like 1988. I said, “You know, it would be great to have a JEM guitar with a seventh string, and I would tune it down to B. I think there’s a lot of potential there for some really cool chords and for real heavy rhythms. So it was that simple, and they made it. It was the Universe, and I used it exclusively on the Whitesnake record that I did back then [Slip of the Tongue], but I also used it on Passion And Warfare on a bunch of tracks. And then Ibanez started manufacturing it. As far as I know, it was the very first production-model 7-string on any kind of a mass level in history.
The only one earlier, but I don’t think it was mass-produced, was when Gretsch did one for George Van Eps.
Yeah, there were one-offs, but I don’t think it was a production model. I know that George Van Eps had one, and I know Uli had one. It’s not like it’s a brilliant idea. It was just really simple. Let’s just make a JEM, which is a solidbody electric guitar, with a seventh string. I really didn’t know at the time who, if anybody, used it, because I just thought it was just like a novelty kind of thing. But I knew that it would add to what I was doing. I also knew instinctively that I didn’t think it was going to change anything, but I thought that if young guitar players started to pick up on it, it could have some legs.
So Ibanez made the Universe, and it sold really well, when all the stuff that I was working on came out. But they were the only company that made it. Then, what happened was, as I suspected, a lot of young players who were fans of mine or just fans of the idea of the 7-string guitar started to use it. When they matured into making records, that whole movement started with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit and Fear Factor. There was a period when the 7-string sales had really fallen off and they were going to discontinue it, and I just said, “You know what? Don’t. Even if you only sell a few a year, just keep it going.” Sure enough, once Korn started playing it and a lot of that whole sub-culture of that tuned-down, heavy 7-string thing started, then a lot of manufacturers started making it because it ticked way back up.
Yeah, there are dozen of companies making them now. At NAMM, Ibanez had a wall of 7s and 8s.
Yeah, they’re making 8-strings now, too. Once the young bands started to really make that sound with that thing, then it became very popular and a lot of companies starting making it. It’s even becoming more popular now.
Even though it sounds like a simple concept to just add another string, you probably had to feel the neck and other parts and do some work with Ibanez to get it the way you wanted it.
Yeah, there was quite a lot of back and forth. It was very risky because it was very expensive to make, because you had to build molds from scratch, you had to have somebody make pickups–nothing existed back then. There were no 7-strings. So everything had to be made from scratch, and then you had to convince these people to make a production model. All the 7-strings from Ibanez that I played, my model, all have DiMarzio pickups. So Larry [DiMarzio] had to hunker down and create a mold for 7-string pickups with the locking nut. The first ones that I had were just bastardized. They were like two that were cut apart and put together. You know what I mean?
The neck was relatively easy to make, but the saddle and all that stuff – the hardware for the tremolo and everything – it was a big R&D development because, as you can imagine, you had to create new machinery to actually make the parts. But once I started using it, it worked. If you listen to that Whitesnake record, whatever someone might feel about those kinds of ’80s bands, it was a great band and that record that I did is just very heavy 7-string throughout the whole thing. Not like what the people are doing today, because it was the ’80s. It was just very different. But once the guitar started to sell, it made up for the expense in actually making it.
When you switched over to playing 7-string, what modifications to your playing style did you have to bring into the mix?
Well, at first it was really tricky. It was almost like an optical illusion or an auditory illusion, where you feel a particular way when you put your fingers on an instrument for so long and all of a sudden you’ve got another leg. [Laughs.] It felt like your guitar grew some hair or something. It was definitely a learning curve for me in the beginning to get used to it. But then there was like an entire 13-month Whitesnake tour that I did, where I only used 7-string, and then I was using it exclusively for quite some time. So then going back to 6-string took a little bit of an adjustment. You know, it was weird. And then I started going back and forth to the point where now, in my shows, I use a 7-string for a couple of songs and I don’t have any problem. It’s kind of like the anomaly of it has worked itself out and I’m very comfortable on either.
So how did the tremolo respond, because now you’ve got more tension to fight, etc.?
Well, it’s just a little bit of an adjustment because in the way it feels – the bar. You can balance it so that it feels relatively the same as a 6-string. It’s just everything about the 7-string feels more robust. It’s like all of a sudden when your balls grew or something. You know? Everything just feels bigger. Chords are bigger, low notes are bigger. The feel when you’ve got the whammy bar and you’re dipping. There’s just more mass, you know what I mean? And when you go back to a 6-string, it almost feels a little anemic or something.
Many jazz players tune down to A.
Yeah, I love that.
They use a heavy string, like a .074, on the bottom.
Wow. That’s like a cable. It’s nice to see the jazz community picking up on that instrument.
There’s a whole community of 7-string players now.
Yeah, to me, it always felt that the 7-string was something I could still wrap my hand around, but it offered so much more. It offered so much more dimension and I could only imagine what jazz players would do with it because you’ve got these great walking bass lines now you can do, and these chord voicings that you’d just never be able to do on a 6-string.
What do you have to do to support that bottom, in terms of amps or settings?
Well, I think a lot of guys will be very concerned about experimenting because of that bottom end. But, really to me, I didn’t change anything. At the time I was using Bogners and Marshalls. The Bogner had a very kind of loose bottom end, so it was a little bit of an adjustment. But I was just gravitating, and when I moved on to the custom-made [Carvin] Legacy heads, I compensated for that by tightening up the bottom end a little bit. But really, you know, the bigger and fatter the better. For me, at least.
Sounds like something out of Spinal Tap.
Yeah. Bigger is better. [Laughs.]
Rivera was making some powered subwoofers.
Yeah. I just know that for me, with subwoofers the guitar loses its definition when you start competing with the bass guitar.
Do you ever find yourself competing for the low ground with bassists?
Most of the time when I’m using a 7-string, the bass player is using a 5-string and he’s got a low B or he’s got a low string that’s the equivalent of what I’m doing. You do have to be careful because you can make that 7-string speak nice and fat and tight, but if you dump too much bottom end on it, then it will definitely compete with the frequencies of the bass. It might be something that you want, like if you listen to guys like Meshuggah. I don’t think they’re even using a bass player on their last record – I think it’s all 8-string, really heavy, heavy stuff. But then again, with the seventh string on the guitar the way that I have it set up, I don’t EQ it down around 30 cycles, or even 100, because it has a tendency to compromise the whole sound of the guitar, especially in its sonic real estate with the bass.
Yeah. I’m sure when you’re doing a mix, you have to be really careful.
Yeah. You know, it’s kind of like you’ve got this sonic real estate, and it’s got height and it’s got width, and however you decorate it is going to be a reflection of what your overall audio is going to sound like. I usually don’t put the 7-string in the middle with the bass.
For the uninitiated, what would you say would be the fast path or the easy roadmap to getting used to a 7-string?
Well, you just sit and you play it. That’s all you’ve got to do. Just play it and play it. You can do things like some finger exercises, maybe, and some scales, and stuff like that. It gets you into the feel of having that extra string, because sometimes when you’re going across the neck you need to kind of figure out where the end of the tunnel is. You’re kind of like swimming in the ocean there, and you know when you’ve got six strings, you’re at the pier, but when you’ve got that seventh string you’ve got more of a distance to go. So, by doing some exercises that go up and down – not up and down the neck, but from top to bottom of the neck – you’re going to get that feel quicker of having that extra piece of real estate.
The seventh string lets you play higher on the neck when you’re in the range that’s normally found in the lower reaches of a 6-string’s low E string.
Oh yeah, you’ve got that very moody, milky kind of a high if you play way high on the neck on the 7-string. It’s definitely a tone unto itself. One of the things I love most about using a 7-string is the way you can play chords. On my newest record, called The Story of Light, for the opening song, “The Story of Light,” I wanted to create this wall of sonic bash, and I wanted to use 7-string. But I didn’t want to just kind of like use it going [makes chunka-chunka-chunka-chunka driving rhythm sound], so I created these chords – really fat, tension chords that have all this tension built in, and then they release, and they build, and they release. It’s a continuation of a song on the previous record called “Under It All,” and it’s really beautiful because you have these huge, fat chords just exploding. That’s what I like using it for the most.
It seems like this could lead you into an addiction to the low end and desire to add even more strings.
Yeah. I tried the 8-string. It’s too much for me.
If you have eight strings, then below that…
You’ve got hell. [Laughs.]
Some players have been exploring with 8-strings and 7-strings with a variety of tunings.
Well, you know, there are guys that are going to explore and they’re going to do all sorts of different things. I mean, what’s to stop somebody from having an 8-string with the three low strings tuned the same? You know, I think that would sound pretty cool, actually. There’ll be all sorts of stuff. I highly encourage people to try to look around the corner. Try to come up with something that expands the universe, that is kind of different. That’s one of the best ways to create a sound for yourself, whether it’s a 7- or 8-string or 4-string or whatever it is, and even just tweaking the tuning. Something completely unorthodox can give you something that doesn’t sound like anything else. And now with the 7-string and 8-string, you can do tons of that.
Maybe someone will eventually develop a high-A string that’s reliable and doesn’t break.
Yeah, I tried, and I couldn’t do it.
So, bottom line: do you think 7-string is sticking?
It seems like it is, because there’s this whole sub-culture that’s spawned from it. You know, it’s that very tuned-down progressive sound. And there’s even offshoots of that going on. When I first did it, I think it was more of a novelty, you know, because it was interesting to a lot of people, but it didn’t catch on until all the kids who were listening to me turned into the next groups. They just busted it out and, even from them, there are new bands that are tuning lower and getting deeper. You know what I mean? It’s just so cool to see. It feels to me like it’s got a pretty substantial foothold.