Discover the secrets of Steve Vai’s rhythm guitar prowess


Steve Vaithe epic release of 1990, Passion & War (opens in a new tab)left the guitar community and anyone else within earshot speechless.

From the first notes following the drum roll in “Liberty” to the final crescendo of “Love Secrets”, Passion was a feat of artistic excellence. A collection of music of this magnitude has been tirelessly, but rightly, analyzed from all angles.

However, there is one element that is not enough in the conversation – Steve’s pacing.

Hailing from Carle Place, New York, less than an hour east of New York, Stevie Vai had that groove that Ace Frehley sang in 1978 baked into his musical DNA, and it’s all over this record.

It’s not out of the question to think that a study of Steve Vai’s rhythm playing would be ruled by outlandish syncopations and otherworldly chordal vocals.

While Mr. Vai is more than capable of wreaking such havoc, and this lesson will look at a few prime examples, you’ll find that many of Steve’s approaches to rhythm playing are drawn from staples, not secrets. alien love.

The gold to be found in this lesson is how Vai peppers a well-researched ironclad foundation in all things guitar with next-level rhythm techniques without ever leaving the song or the listener behind.


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Perhaps Vai’s greatest rhythmic attribute is his mastery of his rhythmic groove, or pocket, in his energetic and invigorating compositions. Example 1 is a good illustration of this approach, with an odd meter power chord riff similar to that heard in “Greasy Kid’s Stuff”.

Although in 5/4 meter, this E minor groove invites playing, with its inverted power chords voiced as perfect 4th intervals.


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Blending three-note power chords with slippery single-note riffs on the low E string, Example 2 reveals an overhaul of a riff from “Erotic Nightmares”.

Parked in 1st position, or “open” position, this riff, which is based on the Aeolian A mode (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), glides between commanding A5 and F5 chords and variations of palm- muted sequences composed of E, F, G on the 6th string before resolving the rhythmic tension with overdrive-friendly voicings of Csus4 and G5.


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Inspired by the verse riffs heard in “The Audience is Listening”, Example 3 keeps you in the key of A minor and the open position with a chord sequence of A5, G5 and C5 plus palm-muted open low E notes before dropping you to the 12th fret to play the rooted 4th string , D5 and C5 chords out loud.

Both examples are rock 101 guitar skeletons, but all Vai at heart and soul.


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Taking a few steps beyond two- and three-note power chords and cleverly placed palm mutes, Example 4 shifts a few gears, in terms of tone and technique.

Played clean, this four-bar arpeggiated idea in the key of E minor is modeled after the rhythm track Steve played at the top of “For God’s sake and uses careful bars and cambers while introducing the sound of major and minor 2nd intervals.

To perform these voicings, your fretting fingers must “stand straight” and cannot bend diagonally, in a way that unintentionally dampens adjacent strings.

As for the composition of these chords, bars 1 and 3 have minor add9 voicings that contain minor 2nd intervals, semitones, while the Fmaj7sus2 in bar 3 has a major 2nd or whole step.

This type of use of 2nd intervals in chord voicings injects tightness into the sound of Steve’s voicings, helping to contribute to the ultra coolness of his music.


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Ex.5 takes the arpeggiation platform a bit higher with a figure inspired by the rhythm part heard at the top of “Blue Powder”.

Set in the key of A minor, the additional movement horizontally up and down the neck will further challenge the notion of careful fretting.

A helpful tip in this situation is to not stick to fretting entire chords before playing the first note of an arpeggio pattern. This approach is even more useful when open strings are involved.

Forming the chord while you play will give you a bit more time, so you can better focus on fretting accuracy.


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Returning to the “nested” 2nd intervals, Example 6 is informed by a moment from Steve acoustic guitar Comping in “The Riddle”.

The opening Eadd9 is from Ex. The Playbook of 4, concerning the voice, and the next two chords combine open strings with fretted notes higher on the fretboard to generate clusters of 2nds.

For example, check the minor 2nd between the 8th A# fret and the open B string in the E6sus# 4/A# voicing at the start of bar 2.

To double your pleasure, the following chord, at beat 3, includes what is called a cluster, given its adjacent and compound 2nd intervals: B – C#, C# – D# , D# – E.


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If you find the sound of clusters appealing, switch to Ex. sevenwhere you will find an ascending chord scale made up of three-note diatonic clusters based on the F lydian mode (F, G, A, B, C, D, E).

As you play the seven chords on the fretboard, adjust the fingering of the middle note on the string whether to play with your 2nd or 3rd finger.

If the Bm(addb2) chord in bar 2 creates a sense of déjà vu, it’s because that’s what Steve plays sparingly in the opening riff of “The Animal.”


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And if our previous example wasn’t enough to convince you of the value of a cluster, Example 8 is inspired by the contagious collapse of “I would love to”.

To play this and Ex. 7, stay in line with the tactic of fretting the chord as you play it while holding the notes down for as long as you can.

The sonic charm of the clusters is the result of the chord tones sounding together.

When reading Ex. 8, keep the 4th and 3rd fingers of your fret hand planted on the 22nd and 21st frets of the B and G strings as you maneuver through bars 1 and 2.

In bars 3 and 4, hold down the 15th D fret with your 1st finger while fretting the next 17th C fret with your 3rd finger.


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Sticking with “I would love to,” we’re going to show you another great-sounding technique from Steve’s bag of rhythm guitar tricks.

Examples 9a and 9b exemplify chord work that quickly moves between two linked voicings to create a sub-melody while alternately “chugging” on a muted 5th-string root note.

Ex. 9a demonstrates the concept with root chords E and D, ping-pong between B/E and E then A/D and D. Ex. 9b does a similar alternation with two-note voicings of A/B and Bm7 .

In this case, use an index bar for the 2nd fret notes, as this will set you up nicely for the downward slide of perfect fourths at the end of bar 2.


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Adding to the long list of disciples of jimi hendrixVai has recorded a handful of performances that utilize the age-old bluesy, melodic clean-toned rhythm guitar approach pioneered by Curtis Mayfield that Jimi made standard fare.

Ex. ten recalls a moment heard in “Sisters”, with an I – V progression in the key of G (G – C) which is treated with the inescapable Hendrix-isms in bar 1.

Yet in bar 2 you’re in the world of Vai, with fretted root notes held on the low strings while you play natural harmonics (indicated by diamond-shaped noteheads) on the middle and upper strings. .

Again, arching your rubbing fingers is paramount here.


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Changing gears at the thought of moving, or “walking”, the bass lines, Ex.11 reminiscent of the walking line Steve sets after she gets too strong in “The Audience Is Listening.”

You can either finger select it – with your thumb manipulating the bass notes on the 5th and 6th strings and your index and middle fingers plucking the adjacent string dyads – or hybrid select it – with the pick on the bass notes and your middle and ring fingers handle the rest.


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Did you really think a lesson on anything to do with Steve Vai would come close to at least stopping you in your tracks to wonder if this guy is human or not?

In the spirit of the syncopated light-toned intro heard in “Answers”, Example 12 goes for the jugular of your itchy hand.

This accelerated “spreading voice” sus2 chord progression sounds like it’s in something other than the common time signature that it is.

Additionally, each chord played in these four bars is strummed with a downstroke while muting the 3rd and 4th strings. (Tip: fret each note with a different finger, without forbidding.)

This passage will create instant chaos if you don’t follow the prescribed fingering approach and learn it at a slow pace initially, before speeding it up.

Steve Vai, 2019

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If this inspires you to delve deeper into Steve’s rhythm playing, we suggest you listen carefully to some of the accompanying works. Passion & Warstarting with his first solo album and the pair of David Lee Roth albums on which Vai appears.

Going back in time, you’ll find stealth chords in Vai’s 1984 debut “Viv Woman,” Flex-Capable (opens in a new tab)deep riffs on tracks like “Bump ‘n Grind” and “Shy Boy” from Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile and great arpeggiated overlays on “Damn Good”, featured on Roth’s follow-up, Skyscraper (opens in a new tab)to name a few.

While you’re on the latter, don’t skip the grooves Steve throws throughout “Knucklebones” and “Stand Up.”

The instrumental successor to passion and war1995 Alien Love Secrets (opens in a new tab)has its own band of excellence in rhythm guitar.

From expansive Hendrix-style composition in “The Boy From Seattle” to overdriven chords in “Die to Live” and Wes Montgomery’s wink through thumb-stroking octaves in “Tender Surrender,” to the onslaught of syncopated downward chugs and off-kilter walking basslines heard in “Kill the Guy with the Ball,” this seven-song EP is Steve Vai extending his best rhythm guitar foot forward.

Steve Vai's 'Passion & Warfare' album cover

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Order Passion & War here (opens in a new tab).


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