The Legendary Guitarist Talks About the Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule for the BOSS Waza Amp
While many music artists can be easily categorized, the musical vision of guitar legend Steve Vai remains unique and unclassifiable. He’s won two GRAMMY awards as a player and a third as a producer/engineer, and been nominated an additional nine times in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance category. One of those nominations was for the classic album Passion and Warfare, which was originally released in the early ‘90s. Currently, Steve is preparing a special 25th anniversary release of the album, followed soon after by a worldwide tour.
Steve is a longtime friend of Roland and BOSS, and he’s used products like the SDE-3000 Digital Delay, S-770 Digital Sampler, DS-1 Distortion, GR-series guitar synthesizers, and many others on stage or in the studio through the years. While developing the new Waza Amp, BOSS collaborated directly with the guitarist on the Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule, which gives players an easy and convenient way to load the Waza Amp with Steve’s legendary tone.
When the Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule was announced at the 2016 Winter NAMM Show, Steve made a special appearance at the BOSS booth for a live interview. In front of a packed room filled with fans, Steve talked about his artistic inspirations, longtime relationship with Roland and BOSS, and the background on the Tone Capsule project.
Steve Vai Interview Video
Steve Vai Interview Transcript
Do you mind telling us a little bit about this upcoming record?
I love recording. I love touring. I love making records. I feel I have a charmed life and all that. And what I’m working on right now, it’s actually the 25th anniversary of the release of my record Passion and Warfare. [Audience applause.] Actually, by the time I finish, it will be the 26th. [Laughs.] So I wanted to do something special with that.
We’re remastering the record with contemporary technology, which is big. Because back when that record came out, digital really didn’t exist the way it does today. It was all vinyl and cassettes. The [AD/DA] convertors that they used when CDs came out were really inferior. So now we’re going to go back and remaster that and make that nice. And I thought that would be a cool opportunity to do something special.
In that release, I’m going to put a DVD of stuff from that period, [and] also a whole CD of music that was recorded between my first solo record, Flexible, and my second one, Passion and Warfare. If you’re familiar with those two records, it’s like two different people made them, you know. And this is like the missing link, this record. It’s like “Cro-Magnon Vai” or something. I don’t know. [Laughs.] That’s called Modern Primitive, and that’s coming out in May. And then the Passion and Warfare CD is coming out several months later.
And then I’ll be touring for quite some time on Passion and Warfare—we’re going to do the whole record. I have some plans to have some screens with some of my wonderful friends through my career, playing on the screens and jamming with me. So that, I think, is going to be a lot of fun. And we’re going to do a world tour. For those who are interested in my past and career, there’s going to be some really fun stuff coming up as far as touring. I’ll be on tour starting in a few months for about a year and a half. I can’t wait, man, to get out there! [Audience applause.] The ham is cookin’!
What roles have Roland and BOSS effects played in your guitar work throughout the years?
Oh my gosh. You know when you’re growing up and something comes on your radar and you have a connection with it, it just means something different? It’s like an album cover. You know like when [you have a fetish] for some album cover artwork, like Led Zeppelin III? It develops almost like a mystical importance to you. So one of the things that has always had that kind of impact on me was, even the word, “Roland.”
When I was just starting out back when I was with Frank [Zappa] and I was finally getting a couple of dollars to get some real gear, I loved the idea of delay. But I couldn’t ever afford a really good delay. And then Roland had come out with this SDE-3000, and it was the most amazing piece of gear I had ever tried. It was an amazing delay unit that had presets and was just so easy to use. It was like, finally, somebody has made something that is user-friendly to the brain of a musician.
You ever notice how a lot of times you buy gear and it’s like the guy that designed it was just trying to fascinate himself with his own intellect? [Audience laughs.] You know, not knowing that musicians just want to go [mimics caveman pushing a single button], “Oooh! Good! [Plays air guitar and smiles.] Fire bad!”[Laughs.]
So I loved this piece of gear—it was my sound. I bought two of them because [of] the quality of the sound. When you find somebody that’s really inspired to create something, they go to great lengths to put all of their passion into it. Never mind the cost, never mind using this because it’s cheaper or whatever. They just want excellence. They want the best thing that they can create. And for me that was that gear, the SDE-3000. And I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t record anything without it. So this developed that mystique for me for just the word. You know, it’s like seeing the word “Roland” was sort of like Led Zeppelin III.
And then through the years, there were so many other amazing products. You remember the S-770, which was a sampler? It was one of the first really good samplers, and boy, I just milked that, man. Just every sample I could. So there was always this connection to excellence with this company, and that’s why I’ve been so happy to support it in any way I can. You’ve supported me more than I could support you.
But a very interesting thing happened recently. I’ve got to tell you about this—this was fantastic. It might sound kind of silly, but for me it was big. I used these SDE-3000s throughout my career, back when I started making Flexible and touring, and I still had these two units with me, because nothing sounded like them. For me, no other digital delay did what they did as simply and as effectively and with the quality that they did. So you develop this emotional connection.
And then recently, I was contacted by Roland, and they were telling me that they have this new product they want to show me and talk to me about. And it was this Legacy Tone Capsule concept, which I’m going to jump to in a minute. They said, “We want to have our president, Yoshi [Ikegami], come and meet with you.” And I said great. And they said to me, “Oh by the way, he’s the guy that designed and built the SDE-3000.” So I’m like, “Aah. My hero. My hero.” So I was so thrilled. Here he is right here. Ladies and gentlemen, Yoshi. [Mr. Ikegami stands, and the crowd cheers.] Absolutely brilliant engineer. When I was talking about those special people who put all convention aside and just throw themself into their passion to create something with excellence, that’s your guy. [Steve acknowledges Mr. Ikegami.] It’s contributed so much to my career, my enjoyment of the instrument.
[Note: Last year, Steve presented his original SDE-3000 units to Mr. Ikegami. You can read more about it in a post on Steve Vai’s blog.]
So then they explain this concept to me about this Tone Capsule. I’ve designed an amplifier with Carvin called The Legacy that I’ve been using for many years. I’ve had a long, long relationship with them with amplifiers. I’m so fortunate that I’m in a position where I can have these extraordinary companies fine-tune things to my demand, you know. It’s nice being Steve Vai that way, you know. [Laughs.] It really is.
I’m very fortunate to have all these incredible engineers saying, “Well, how do you hear this, and how do you hear that?” And I’m like, “Well, I’d like it to be a little more ‘blue’ or whatever.” So, they figure out what “blue” means. [Audience laughs.] Fortunately, if they don’t understand I’ll say, “I want a bump at 440 cycles, you know, two dB,” because I also know that language a bit.
These Tone Capsules have all the digital information that holds the basic parameters of the tone “fragrance,” so to speak, of the amplifier that they’re replicating. So I thought that was a great idea, and they approached me to do a Legacy-type Tone Capsule. And the quality and attention to the engineering at Roland is still there. Because, boy, it sure is a pain in the ass trying to make me happy sometimes, and to get the sound just right. [Laughs.] But [they’re] really a great group of people, engineers who are focused on trying to get the neurotic forensic desires that are in my ear as far as tone goes into that little capsule. You can put this into the amplifier and get the fragrance of that Legacy sound, and I was just so thrilled at working with them on this. And that’s why I’m here to let you know [about] this very cool device.
You once mentioned that your experience playing for Frank Zappa inspired you to inspire others. Can you please talk a little bit about that?
Working with Frank…it’s another thing I look back [on] and I just count my lucky stars, you know. I mean, I was 18 years old when I started working for him. I was transcribing music because I was too young to tour. But when I was 20, [I] moved out to California and started touring with Frank. When you’re around an inspired person like that for any period of time it’s amazing to see, because the power of their creativity is such that you’re always ready to be creative. And Frank was just brilliant at that.
The two things that I noticed most working with Frank was, first of all, his ability to identify in you a particular talent or potential that you don’t even realize you have. He was able to see, “You might be a guitar player, you know, Steve Vai, that’s going to Berklee and you can play this. But I have a sneaking suspicion that you could probably do this, this, this, this, and this.” So he’d never expect you to do something that was out of your comfort zone. And because you had so much respect and love for him because that’s the kind of guy he was, you want to make him happy. And that the best thing was seeing him laugh at something that you did. Frank had this incredible intuition, almost like a clairvoyance of sorts, for what your potential was. And then he would give you a forum to where you can do that. So that was one of the great things. That was very inspirational.
But then also one of the things that I saw in Frank that I’d love to share with you, because you might find it very inspirational for yourself, is Frank never let anything get in the way of a good idea. When he was inspired to do something he just did it. He made no excuses why he couldn’t, and he never expected anybody to do it for him. He just said, “Okay, I’ve got this idea, there it is.” So when you’re 18 years old and very impressionable, you think okay, that’s the way you do it. You have an idea and you just do it. And really that’s been my MO since I was with Frank, because that was how I was mentored.
So when you say Frank has inspired me to inspire others, in this situation, it’s basically through the teachings of Frank, the way he inspired me, [that I’m trying to] to inspire you. What inspires a person is based on their interests and their connection with what your creations are. So I can’t inspire anybody that doesn’t have the ears to hear what I’m either saying or playing. And that’s fine, you know. There’s other inspiration. But when you’re doing something that’s inspiring somebody else, you’re really teaching yourself, because you’re a part of it. So I enjoy that too.
Anything else you want to add before we take off?
Obey your parents and use a condom? [Audience laughs.] Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m wishing you guys the absolute best of luck in this new product. This is very clever, very convenient, and very practical, and that’s what us musicians like—simple, convenient, practical, and a really cool idea. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.
About the BOSS Waza Amp and Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule
Designed for professional stage and studio players, the 150-watt Waza Amp and companion speaker cabinets represent the first guitar amplifier from BOSS. Powered by the acclaimed Tube Logic design approach, the Waza head features four independent channels: Clean, Crunch, Lead 1, and Lead 2. Clean and Crunch share one four-band EQ, while Lead 1 and Lead 2 share a second four-band EQ. All amplifier channels can be instantly re-voiced with the three-way Amplifier selector knob. The Internal position delivers the legendary rock tone of stack-style amps, while Amplifier A position activates a pre-installed “Waza Brown Sound” Tone Capsule that provides hot-rodded tone with higher gain. The Amplifier B position activates an optional user-installable Tone Capsule.
The Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule is a modification circuit that re-voices the tube characteristics of the original Waza Amp. BOSS engineers worked closely with Steve to produce ideal compression on each string and precise audio response at any volume. Injecting key elements of the Legacy amp, the Tube Logic circuit modifies the tone to produce Steve’s signature sound. From smooth sustaining lead tones to warm, wide, and dynamic clean response, the Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule embodies that iconic sound.
The Waza Amp and Steve Vai Legacy Tone Capsule will be available at select BOSS dealers starting in June 2016.