The last month Steve Vai has toured Italy to perform a number of masterclass in different cities. I've been lucky: the last of these "Alien Guitar Secrets" masterclass has been held in Verona, near to my house, the 26th of September 2016.
I could not miss the opportunity to meet this master of the guitar, so I've booked a ticket as soon as I could. Well, It has been a great night, Steve Vai gave us a lot of advice and insights, he talked and played for about 3 hours, addressing crucial topics such as the right mindset for a musician, how to develop the inner ear, musicality.... In this post I want to share a couple of things I've learned from Steve, I hope you'll find them useful as well.
This topic lies in the field of goals setting and how to have the right mindset for achieving them. Steve has been very clear in this, he engineered a workflow that he called the 3 step process:
- Step 1: set a goal. It could be playing in a band, or reaching the ability to play a particular song, or mastering a technique, whatever
- Step 2: visualize yourself with your goal in your hands. See yourself playing effortlessly and flawlessly. Turn off all those negative thoughts ("it's too difficult!", "you suck!"). Hear the melody, the beautiful sound, the harmony. This visualization stage is your personal playground in which you prepare to make your goals real. In this way your subconscious will give you the energy and the motivation for the next step.
- Step 3: This is the most difficult step: you have to align your reality with your imagination. Practice your instrument, enjoy every little improvement. It's a process in which, little by little, you get better. No hurry. The last week you was not able to play that scale well, today you can, this is great! That gives you a sense of freedom, actually in every aspect of your life. With the right attitude, you can improve everythinh. Of course "you have to work your ass off" (Steve's words), but eventually the pay-off will be great.
I know all this stuff can sound a bit esoteric, actually Steve Vai in some aspects recalls me a Zen master, but also science tells that the the quality of your thoughts in your head is very important if you want to reach your goal.
Researches in neuroscience tell that about the 90% of our thoughts are repetitive, and, unfortunately, mostly negative. If we can tame just a little bit our mind, we can save energy for higher needs.
Not convinced yet? Every single thing in your room exists because someone wanted it (step 1), imagined it (step 2), and found a way to create it (step 3)
Ok, let's leave the esoteric, mind power world and immerse ourselves in a more practical topic: ear training. Steve stressed a lot this skill. To him, musical ear is the most important thing for a musician. You should dedicate enough time in developing your inner ear.
The goal is the ability to play what comes from your mind, without thinking about it, and without be driven by the muscle memory. With proper ear training, you'll connect your ears with your fingers, you'll be able to play instinctively a melody that you have in mind, without looking for the right frets.
Steve showed some ways useful to improve your ears. One obvious way is to listen to your favorite songs and transcribing them on paper, as he did a lot when he worked for Frank Zappa.
Here's another advice that really fascinated me: try to sing everything you play. Start with a single note. Play it, sing it. Then play it and sing it at the same time. Then do the exercise with 2 notes. Then 3, then 4, then a complete scale. It takes patience and time, but with practice will be easier. When you practice your scales, or arpeggios, or chords, always try to sing the notes you're playing. Eventually you'll be able to sing anything you play.
Another exercise he suggested is to make a recording of yourself playing various intervals (thirds, fifths, and so forth), a pause, and then you saying out loud "minor third", "perfect fifth". Then re-listen to the recording, hear the intervals, try to guess the qualities, and get the answer. I'm a bit proud because in the past I created a set of mp3 that addresses exactly this kind of exercise. If you subscribed to FaChords you can download the mp3 set for free from your reserved download page.
The last exercise, actually very hard, that Steve showed, is the following: play a melody, and with your voice sing an harmony to it. You can sing a third, or a fifth, even a second. This is a really difficult and requires a lot of efforts, but once you master it your ability as improviser, songwriter or composer will skyrocket. By the way, watching Steve Vai performing this exercise live, playing an intricate melody and singing its harmony in thirds, fifths and seconds intervals, has been an incredible experience. A true inspiring master.
During the masterclass Steve answered to a lot of different questions in a very complete and kind way, I can't list them all here. It's remarkable how he uses the delay effect: he has 2 delays, one with a slow tempo, and one with a fast tempo, of course in sync with the beat. The final effect is really nice and gives a great spatial effect to his sound.
Ok, I hope you found this insights useful. Personally I think that this masterclass has been a very rewarding experience. Steve Vai is of course one of the best guitar players of the world, but what amazed me above all is his spiritual approach to the music, his search for the inner creativity that goes far beyond all the technicalities. Thank you Steve!
“If you want to play something that you can't, you need to see and hear yourself doing it in your minds eye. It will start to happen.” - Steve Vai
Photo credits: Fisheye Studio