• By: OLM Staff

“An Explosion of Freedom!” Legendary Guitarist Steve Vai Set to Bring Passion and Warfare to Algonquin College

“Every day feels like Christmas,” says Guitar God Steve Vai on what it’s like whenever he straps on an instrument that must now feel like just another arm to him.

When your career path starts out working with one of the wildest men to ever grace a stage, Frank Zappa, and moves into playing with David Lee Roth and Ozzy, one might struggle on the mountain they’ve made so early on. How do you now reach that summit and break out on top as a solo artist? It's a question Vai still faces from a media that focuses a lot on who he's worked with as opposed to who he is. The guitar he wields speaks the only sounds the one holding it needs to say. If there were any doubts he could bring the thunder on his own, Vai silenced them with 1990’s Passion and Warfare, one of the seminal releases in guitar rock.

Written based on a collection of dreams he had when he was younger, Vai has said Passion and Warfare is what might happen if Jimi Hendrix met Jesus Christ at a party Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc. It's a pretty accurate description given how all over the map the album is but, then again, Vai's never been one to follow the conventions when it comes to his music. Still, the roads are linked nicely by the speedy wailing guitar that is a signature of Vai's style and it gets you from point A to point B (with deviations into realms only Vai and his guitar can bring you) on one hell of a 53 minute and 15 second power ride! For a guy who was once called a "stunt guitarist", he pulls all of them out here and invents a few new ones.

26 years later, touring for the anniversary remaster, Vai’s pretty humble in regards to the mark the release made on music at the time. It still holds up as unique and innovative as the day it was turned into the record company. Along with making a lot of us fans air guitar kings in our rooms, the album has been exceptionally influential for other musicians, a fact Vai still seems taken aback by.

“In regards to pinning a legacy on [the album], I just don’t know really,” Vai tells Ottawa Life before taking the Algonquin Commons Theatre stage on November 2ND. “The great thing about music is its diversity and a person can find resonation in one artist and perhaps not another so a legacy is relative to the person that listens to it.”

This album is what unchained creativity sounds like. Looking back, the musician realizes now he was just chasing his bliss and thinks the album still remains fresh for many -including him- because it was recorded in a moment of unencumbered enthusiasm fueled by impulse.

“I believe that flowed into the music so there is a freshness in it that transcends trends,” Vai says upon some reflection.  “It felt like an explosion of freedom!”

Planning for the album began back in 1982 but Vai put it on the backburner after joining Roth. Then came White Snake. The songs never appeared that far away as he pursued different creative avenues with others. It was only a matter of time. As the decade neared a close, he bought out his Capitol Records contract, quickly signed with Relativity Records and would record the album in his home studio while still working on what would become a huge release for White Snake, Slip of the Tongue.

“[It was] just a shift in focus,” says Vai of transitioning so rapidly from his work with the band to his solo project. “Very easy.”

Vai says he didn’t feel he was doing anything particularly monumental at the time, just recording his music. The release reached number 18 in Billboard’s 200, racked up a bunch of guitar awards, and is certified Gold in Canada and the US. It’s been called the “best hard rock guitar virtuoso album of the ‘80s”. For a man who just wants to play you have to think that's a pretty glorious view from the peak of that mountain.

Played in it’s entirty on this tour, Vai says returning to the album is like going back to a warm place and he’s fortunate to have released an album so well received that he's still able to play it all these years later.

“I’m savoring every note of every song knowing what an honor it is to have it all flowing the way it is.”


We had a chance to reflect with Vai on his career, influences and how he developed his style while on the rise as well as his memories on putting Passion and Warfare together:

Ottawa Life: Where do you feel you'd be now had you never picked up a guitar?

Steve Vai: I would be looking for a guitar right now.  

Yeah, I thought you'd say that. Of course, you did pick up a guitar and early on came under the influence of one of the wildest men in music. What did your time with Zappa mean to you?

Frank was very present. He would get an idea to do something that was exciting to him and he would just do it without making any excuses or expecting someone else to do it for him. I worked for him from the ages of 18-23. Those are very impressionable years and when I went into the world to make my own music I just thought that the way Frank did it was the way you’re supposed to do it. Get an exciting idea and then manifest it in the world in your now.

Not a bad lesson to keep with you, I'd say. How did you view being referred to as a stunt guitarist? Certainly that early accolade portrayed your talent as something pretty unique.

I didn’t realize the gravity of that credit until later in life when I realized Frank never said or did anything to placate anyone. He saw the things I was doing with his music on the guitar as “stunt like”. And in hindsight… they were.

What was the transition like  moving from Zappa to David Lee Roth, two different personalities both with strong impacts on music?

Like going from Venus to Mars. With Frank my attention was on him the whole show, with Dave my attention was on the audience. But both gigs felt natural.

Yeah, I'd say transition seems pretty easy for you. Even sharing the stage with other guitarist kind of seems organic. You've gone on tour with multiple guitarists in the past. What do you enjoy most about those collaborations?

They are all so unique and talented that they inspire you to be the best you can be at what it is that is unique in you.

One of my personal favorites was your work on Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell III. It seemed like another good partnership for you, though this one well after establishing yourself as a solo artist. (Note: Seriously, check out Vai's playing on In The Land of the Pigs, The Butch is King. It's unreal!) 

It was wonderful to be able to work with Meat and his team. He’s tremendously passionate about his work and performance and I have that little bit of absurdity in my playing that works for him.


I think I first heard your music, like other's, when I saw the film Crossroads back in my teens. I've always wondered how you got the roll, the genesis of Jack Butler, so to speak, as somebody who wasn't necessarily an actor?

I got a call from Ry Cooder who was scoring the film. He called Guitar Player mag and asked who the new hot shot was. They played him the "Attitude Song" over the phone and he called me. He came to my house and gave me the script and explained what needed to be done and I thought I could contribute appropriately, and that was the birth of Jack Butler.

What do you feel that film did for your career?

It got my face out in front of a whole lot of people. It also contributed to a sort of mean mystique because of the dark character I played. So many people thought I was this menacing presence, but really I’m a push over.

You blazed into the business really early on. How did you develop your style while moving through that quick rise young in your career?

I loved blues, rock, jazz, classical, etc. but never felt I was good enough to sound authentic in any of these styles, nor did I have the desire to try and sound too much like something that was already done so I looked for things in my playing that felt authentic to me and then strung them together. I innocently, and unknowingly, was developing my eclectic style.

I read you almost became part of Ozzy's band? Randy Rhoads left a pretty big hole to fill. You didn't, though. What stopped you?

Ozzy and I just got together to write some songs for one of his records. I love Ozzy but by that time my style had developed to something different then being a good metal guitar player. It all worked out great.

Moving ahead to your time in Whitesnake, that band kind of took on a life of it's own, didn't it? However, when Slip of the Tongue dropped, Coverdale seemed to dissolve the band at a peak back in 1990. Where did you find yourself after the band folded?

Whitesnake was a wonderful time and opportunity but my musical palette was yearning for the sounds I had in my head. Whitesnake is David’s band and it has continued to change through the years and will probably continue to change. I was happy that I was part of one of it’s incarnations, but I always felt there was going to be a time that I had to start being independent.

During all that you were working on Passion and Warfare. Can you tell me what you recall about the recording of that album, one that would become so iconic for you and guitar rock?

I had no expectations on it’s success. I wasn’t thinking about the future, or how it would be received, or if it was going to sell or not. I kept my focus on being present and letting my instincts take over.

These years later, what do you feel are some of the biggest shifts for you as person from where you were when Passion and Warfare was released to where you are now?

The biggest shift was in the realizing that we create our own reality by the way we think.

The album is just one of those rare releases that seems to get better each time you hear it. There's something new to notice, something else that stands out.

Thanks, that’s lovely to hear.

Is it still the same for you revisiting it on this tour? 

Even I see new things in it overtime I listen to it.

Did you have any inclination when you were working on it that this one would become a release that would shape a lot of what defined you musically later on?

Not at all. That was a big surprise. What I did know is that I liked it and really enjoyed the process of making it and seeing it come to life. The rest was a consequence of that. I’m very appreciative for it’s success… like big time!

Steve Vai – Passion and Warfare 25th Anniversary Tour
November 2 @ 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Algonquin Commons Theatre
1385 Woodroffe Ave – Building E
Tickets available online.