Ahead of his 'Inviolate' tour across Australia and New Zealand, Steve Vai sits down with Mixdown to chat about his jaw-dropping live rig.
Every Steve Vai tour brings with it some sort of unusual guitar upon which Steve makes some kind of jaw-dropping musical and aesthetic statement. On the Fire Garden tour it was a ridiculously tricked-out Stratocaster (belonging to his guitar tech, the legendary tinkerer Thomas Nordegg). Ultra Zone? A triple-neck, heart-shaped Ibanez and a freaky alien-looking thing that defies categorisation.
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Other tours have featured a mirror-topped double-neck fretted/fretless Ibanez and a triple-neck Jem with 12-string and fretless necks along with a sustainer-loaded 7-string. When Vai visits Australia as part of his world tour in November, he will be bringing a beast that makes all of these instruments look like toy ukuleles.
Enter the Hydra. You can see it on the cover of Vai’s latest album Inviolate. You can hear it on the track “Teeth of The Hydra”. It’s a triple-neck instrument with a 7-string guitar, a 12-string guitar and a 4-string ¾-scale length bass. There are 13 sympathetic harp strings; strings added that aren’t necessarily there to be played, but instead resonate with the principle of sympathetic resonance.
There are MIDI, sustainer and piezo pickups. Floating and hardtail bridges. The 12-string neck is fretted only up to the 8th fret. The bass neck? It’s partially fretless too, but only underneath the lowest two strings. There are lights. There are decorative tubes. It looks like a steampunk weapon. Making music on this thing must be a challenge, right?
“The biggest challenge with the Hydra is getting it from one place to another,” Vai jokes over Zoom from a hotel somewhere in Canada. “Originally, on the first European tour we did on this run, I couldn’t bring it because I couldn’t play it. I was recovering from shoulder surgery. It took me a couple of weeks to get into it. But now it’s pretty natural.”
So how do you even amplify something like the Hydra, in a way that doesn’t send the entire tour bankrupt? The technology didn’t really exist until recently. “The amplification of the Hydra is a bit of a technical marvel,” Vai says, “because the Hydra itself is a very technical instrument. It has the bass neck, the 7-string neck, the 12-string neck and the harp, and those are four analog outputs. And then there’s the MIDI for the guitar synthesizer. So the way that [Ibanez parent company] Hoshino designed it, all the outputs go into a CAT5 cable, so it’s one little connector, and everything goes out to the Hydra Brain. It’s a gold box on the floor, and the signal splits out the back. So the way that we amplify it is the seven string neck goes to my main rig, so that’s like as if I was plugging in my guitar.”
“Actually, let me back up a bit: once we come out of the Hydra brain in mono, all of those four outputs go into the Fractal AxeFx, which has four stereo outputs. So each one of the necks is stereo. The 7-string goes to my main rig in stereo, the 12-string comes out panned hard right with effects on the left, so when I hit it, it goes ‘KK-TIIIIN!’ then the bass comes out in stereo and goes to the front of house. The 12-string and harp neck, same thing. The stereo outputs go to front of house. And I’m listening through in-ear monitors to all of it. It’s really difficult to mix it because there’s so many strings. You have to be careful that the stereo sonic real estate isn’t too congested. So you gotta get it panned properly and effects properly … and then the parts have to actually be played.”
Vai says the Hydra has other songs in it too, once it’s done serving its current purpose as a vehicle to bring “Teeth Of The Hydra” to life.
“Once I finished “Teeth of the Hydra”, I had a visual for another piece of music. It was very, very different. See, [in] “Teeth of the Hydra” everything I play is linear. It’s like this, then that. Then this, then that. It took a long time for me because it requires you to rewire your guitar playing instincts. What I have in mind for the next one is much more challenging. ‘Cause it’s not linear, it’s multiple things going on at the same time. With “Teeth of the Hydra” I didn’t want to use looping or delays to compensate. I wanted it to be very honest. But now I think what I would like to do is something that involves more effects and stuff … but I don’t know when!”
The Inviolate tour isn’t just about the Hydra though. In addition to the expected classics and some deep cuts, the tour features plenty of tracks from its namesake album. That’s something Vai had in mind while making the record, after the pandemic shut down his initial plan to make a trio of albums (a clean one, a regular Vai one and a super heavy one).
“[Inviolate] was made for touring, really. So usually when you put a set list together, you are pulling favourites. You’re pulling songs that maybe you haven’t played before from the catalogue, and then a good smattering of new stuff. But in this set, a lot of the new stuff, there’s a lot of music from this album that we play and they’re really made to be great live songs for me.”
“You feel the honour of being a service provider to an audience. I feel like I have a job and I love that job of being an entertainer. That has deepened for me on this tour. And you can see it and feel it in the show.”