Steve Vai Talks Malibu Guitar Festival, His Favorite Concerts and More

PHOTO: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In anticipation of the Malibu Guitar Festival, which kicked off yesterday, May 18, and runs through May 21, we sat down with Festival performer and all-around guitar virtuoso Steve Vai to chat about the week’s festivities, guitars and more.

Now in its third year, the Malibu Guitar Festival brings together some of the world’s greatest players for four days of all things guitar, along with unique jam sessions, guitar demos and a one-of-kind guitar-themed art show.

This year’s festival will feature performances by Vai, the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, Jamtown with Donavon Frankenreiter, Cisco Adler & G Love, Hunter Hayes, John Hiatt, Robby Kriger of the Doors, Zepparella and Tommy Emmanuel.

Like the idea of celebrating the guitar while taking in the picturesque Southern California coastline? You’re in luck; a few tickets are still available. Get yours now at

Now let’s check in with Mr. Vai.

Talk about a specific guitar that changed the way you play.
The [futureusgalleryIbanez] JEM has had the biggest effect on my playing style. I designed it to have 24 frets at a time when it was rare, a floating tremolo, particular pickup configuration, particular cutaway and body shape, last four frets scalloped, etc. This guitar opened up some possibilities that were not there on conventional guitars in the early Eighties.

Some incredible players are performing at the Malibu Guitar Festival. Tell us about the greatest live performance you’ve ever witnessed.
There are many great live performances I’ve seen, but a few stick out. Tom Waits in Seattle because, he’s Tom Waits and my favorite artist. Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden because it was my first concert and it blew me away. Nustrat Fateh Ali Khan because he’s connected and God flowed through him.

You are going to a remote desert island and you can take six chords with you. Which ones would you take and why?
My guitar cord, my amp cord, the cord to my juicer, the cord that holds up my hammock, my spinal cord. I would bring all of those cords so I could lie on the beach with my guitar and play a Bb major 7 6/9 #11 all day and drift away. Oh wait, you said “chord.” Sorry!

We all hit a wall with our playing at times. What do you do to shake things up?

I imagine that inspiration is infinite—and then poof!

You’re on a Malibu beach at sunset with an acoustic guitar and a mermaid. What song do you play?
“1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” … moon turns the tides gently gently away” [futureusgalleryJimi Hendrix].

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