Playbill

In the mid-'80s, college guitar freaks who were above salivating over Eddie Van Halen sought out other heroes. These ranged from John McLaughlin to a young Kevin Eubanks to the Steves (Morse and Howe). One contender of that era was Steve Vai, who, before becoming David Lee Roth's hired gun, was the unsung icon of Guitar Player readers across the land. Vai earned his early reputation as Frank Zappa's "stunt guitarist," the axman so good he was handed the parts Zappa himself couldn't play.

From his home studio, Vai independently released two solo albums in '84 (Flex-able and Flex-able Leftovers). The discs were filled with uncompromising rock, leavened with a little silliness but no commercial nonsense. Vai's quirky Zappa-influenced vision and his dazzling technique were twin engines quickly thrusting him toward greatness. Despite extremely limited distribution (only 2,000 copies of Leftovers were pressed), the LPs found their way onto college campuses from New York to South Carolina. If you were a shredder in 1985, you had a copy, or at least a copy of a copy.

So when Vai joined Roth in 1986, many of his loyalists felt betrayed. Vai was the anti-Halen, at least in terms of stage antics. How could he sign up with that showboating cock-rock god? Nevertheless, this was the gig that launched Vai's career and told the world what the six-string cognoscenti already knew: Vai was a monster. A high- profile solo career would follow (as would a gig with Whitesnake), and long-term fans forgave the association with Roth. And actually if you could get past the Ice Cream Man's shenanigans, Vai's playing was pretty wild on Eat 'em and Smile, but his more inspired work is usually found on his solo efforts.

G3 is the exception. In 1996 Vai teamed up with his former teacher, Joe Satriani, and Texas guitar ace Eric Johnson for a power-guitar trio outing billed as the G3 Tour. So inspiring were these nights of shredding that an album followed, and so have other G3 tours. It's become something of a regular event -- three virtuosos inspiring one another to greater heights. This year John Petrucci of Dream Theater is sitting in Johnson's chair, while Vai and his mentor occupy the other two. Lots of technical virtuosity, unusual sounds and quirky riffs are expected.

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