The guitars Steve Vai owns are the most fundamental tools of his trade and a key defining factor of what makes him such a unique musician.
His axe collection is almost always associated with his signature Ibanez JEM series, which he designed and developed in collaboration with the Japanese guitar powerhouse.
However, it goes far beyond that, featuring diverse instruments that reflect Vai’s incredible versatility and talent as a guitar player and overall musician.
Let’s delve into the world of Steve Vai’s guitars, exploring what makes each of his axes unique and their role in the flamboyant maestro’s rise to guitar-god status.
Early Career Guitars
During the early stages of his career, Vai owned several guitars that showed features that foreshadowed the characteristics of the ground-breaking models he later developed with Ibanez.
Fender “Sticker Strat”
Steve’s first “real” electric guitar was a 1977 natural wood Fender Stratocaster that he decorated with many stickers. He purchased it for around $175 when he was 16 years old.
This was his only instrument while studying at Berklee College of Music, and he used it extensively during his years playing with Frank Zappa.
Frank Zappa loved to modify his guitars radically, and Vai quickly learned this art and science from him. He applied it thoroughly to the Sticker Strat, changing the guitar’s pickups and adding an Alembic pre-amp.
In this short video, Vai tells the story of his first beloved Fender Stratocaster and how he used it for the new recording of “Mighty Messenger,” a classic of his repertoire from back in the day:
Charvel Green Meanie
Steve switched to this guitar when he joined Alcatrazz because the Sticker Strat was too bright-sounding for what the band was looking for.
But the guitar’s public debut was a bit later when Vai used it for recording the “Yankee Rose” video with David Lee Roth.
This axe is considered an early precursor to the Ibanez JEM, mainly due to its H-S-H pickup configuration.
1987 Ibanez Maxxas
With Steve’s rise to rock stardom as Roth’s axeman, many top guitar manufacturers started courting him.
Ibanez was particularly eager to sign him up as an ambassador for their instruments. After all, Kramer, one of their key competitors, had no other than Eddie Van Halen as their main endorser.
The 1987 Ibanez Maxxas was the company’s first guitar explicitly built for Steve. They actually sent it as a Christmas present to Steve’s parents’ home in Long Island toward the end of 1986, which caught his attention.
After a few months of intense collaboration, Ibanez proudly unveiled the first JEM 777. Since then, the guitar has been the most iconic incarnation of what Steve Vai is all about as a musician.
Ibanez Custom Built Heart-Shaped Triple Neck
Another unique instrument from the David Lee Roth years was a heart-shaped triple neck guitar custom built by Ibanez for Steve, who wanted to feature the ultimate eye-catching guitar in the “Just Like Paradise” video.
He later wrote the song “Fever Dream” with that guitar and used it on the Ultra Zone tour.
Ibanez JEM Series
In 1987, Ibanez released the first JEM guitar, the JEM777. Presented in various stunning finishes like Shocking Pink, Loch Ness Green, Desert Yellow, and the multicolor “swirl,” the JEM777 boasted several innovative features that reflected Vai’s unique talent and that made it stand out from other guitars then.
Among these features were the “monkey grip” handle cut into the body, and the innovative “Lion’s Claw” tremolo cavity, which allowed it to pull up over seven semi-tones on the third string. It also featured the now iconic H-S-H Dimarzio pickup configuration.
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JEM Floral Pattern
In 1988, the JEM Floral Pattern series was launched. These models feature beautiful fabric finishes with intricate floral patterns matching Steve’s home’s curtains.
Launched in 1990, the Universe guitars are seven-string models that expanded the horizons of guitar playing during their time. They were the very first mass-produced seven-string electric guitar.
The innovative design allowed for broader tonal possibilities and added complexity to the playing experience. Steve Vai’s use of the Universe has inspired countless musicians to explore the realm of seven-string guitars.
Ibanez PIA Series
This series debuted in 2020, with the PIA3761 model being the first in the lineup. The PIA Series share a similar design to the Ibanez JEM line.
However, one significant difference is the yin/yang floral cutout pattern instead of the iconic monkey grip on the JEM models. The guitars also have more rounded edges, a new magnetic tremolo cavity cover, and new UtoPIA pickups.
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The EVO is a white Ibanez JEM that became Steve’s main guitar over the years. The name comes from the Dimarzio EVO pickups that Vai fit in this very particular axe.
The pickups were wound a little differently than the standard JEM model. The neck pickup is what other JEMs have mounted in the bridge position. So it is mounted upside down to fit the polarity.
In 2012, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the JEM model, Ibanez produced 100 EVO replicas with all its distinctive features and even every single crack and scratch that the original guitar has endured as Vai’s main axe during his wild live shows.
Another key feature is the EVO’s neck, which is a little thinner than the regular JEMs, and was designed to replicate the smoothness of the original EVO’s well-worn neck.
FLO is Steve Vai’s second favorite guitar, right after EVO. It is also an Ibanez JEM series guitar with a Fernandes Sustainer system, among other distinctive features. This addition provides sustained notes and harmonics that Steve has thoroughly exploited for his creative and experimental compositions.
Probably because of its name, FLO was for years believed to be a repainted JEM Floral Pattern. But this belief was recently debunked as it was confirmed that the guitar’s body has always had a white finish, just like its EVO sister.
Check out this guitar lesson of “For The Love Of God” taught by Steve Vai himself and FLO:
The result of the latest collaboration between Ibanez and Steve Vai is The Hydra, a truly one-of-a-kind, triple-neck guitar. This extraordinary creation features a 7-string and a 12-string guitar and a 4-string ¾ scale bass and 13 sympathetic harp strings, making it a wildly versatile and unique musical instrument.
The eye-catching steampunk-inspired design and the functionality of the Hydra allow Vai to showcase his exceptional guitar-playing skills across multiple genres and techniques. The idea behind the Hydra was to merge various elements of traditional and modern stringed instruments into one groundbreaking masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of what a guitar can be. It epitomizes Vai’s constant innovation in the world of music.
Constructed by Ibanez specifically for Steve Vai, the Hydra guitar was unveiled in January 2022 as a centerpiece of his new album, “Inviolate.” It has since generated buzz and excitement among guitar enthusiasts and musicians alike, showcasing the limitless possibilities for creativity and ingenuity in design and sonic expression.
Other Unique and Custom Guitars
So far, we have only reviewed the most famous guitars in Vai’s arsenal. But Steve has built an impressive collection of hundreds of guitars over the years, many of which have a fascinating story behind them.
Some of his most iconic axes are:
- An Ernie Ball 7-string sitar/guitar with a few harps strings to boot.
- A rare 30-fret guitar in my collection that Guild made for Steve in the 1980s.
- An Ibanez model featuring 16 frets in each octave. Steve is on the record assuring that the axe will “drive your harmony teacher crazy.”
The alien-like Ultrazone guitar built by Irish luthier Alister Hay.
Check out the following video for more on Vai’s collection:
How many guitars does Steve Vai own?
According to Music Radar, Steve owns a collection of “300-plus instruments.” However, according to Vai’s website, the number is 400-plus, as attested by the following message that appears when the image gallery of his guitar collection loads:
How many guitars go on tour with Steve Vai?
Apart from EVO, his absolute number one guitar, and FLO, Steve takes about a dozen guitars on tour, at least according to the following interview about his live guitar rig:
Are Steve Vai’s guitars for sale?
In late 2022, Vai announced he would auction off about 40 of his guitars and other items from his arsenal.
It is unclear whether that auction is still going on at the time of writing.
What guitars did Steve Vai use on “Passion And Warfare”?
On his 1993 “Passion And Warfare,” Vai primarily used his 7-string Universe guitars, which had been released a couple of years before the album’s release. One could almost say that most of the song’s albums were inspired by his newfound love for his Universe line of guitars.
Why does Steve Vai name his guitars?
I am trying to remember where I saw it, but there’s an interview somewhere on the Internet where Vai says he names his guitars to infuse the instruments with a personality. This allows him to develop a creative relationship with each axe and get to know what makes each one tick.
However, he’s also given more mundane reasons. For instance, he named his main Ibanez JEM guitar EVO simply because it was built with Di Marzio’s Evolution pickups. His recently released PIA guitars are named after his wife, Pia.
Why do Steve Vai’s guitars have a handle?
The handle on Vai’s guitars, known as the “monkey grip,” serves aesthetic and practical purposes. As a visual element, it adds an element of flair and personality to the instrument, reflecting Vai’s penchant for innovation and creativity.
More importantly, the handle gives Vai a convenient way to carry and maneuver his guitar while on stage during live performances. This allows him the freedom to engage with the audience and showcase his energetic and dynamic performing style.
Why does Steve Vai put tissue over the tremolo springs on his guitars?
Tremolo systems can sometimes introduce unwanted noise when the springs vibrate against the guitar’s body, interfering with the desired tonal characteristics. By placing tissue or similar soft material over the tremolo springs, Steve Vai can dampen the vibrations and reduce extraneous noise, keeping his guitar tone clean and focused.
Who painted the 1991 Steve Vai custom swirl guitars?
The mastermind behind the paint designs on Steve Vai’s custom swirl guitars was Darren Johansen of About Time Designs. Johansen’s artistic vision transformed the instruments into visual masterpieces, contributing significantly to their popularity and collectability.
Featured image: Vértes György (fotóriporter), CC BY-SA 4.0