Is Steve Vai really a great guitarist?

In May, SPIN Magazine, the long-suffering “alternative” to Rolling Stone’s rock-crit hegemony, ushered a shock to the masses of People Who Blather About Music with its deceptively titled “SPIN’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

At its top, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo reign; at the base, Skrillex offers a troll-worthy revision of what the word “guitar” means. In between, scores of (mostly deserving) post-punk and indie-rock icons, avant-garde experimentalists, pop mold-breakers and under-heralded sidemen offered a bold counter-argument to obvious placeholders like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton.

And notably absent from SPIN’s “listicle” stunt: an entire school of virtuosic ax-wielders that came of age in the early ‘80s, at the height of hard rock’s hedonistic excesses of sound and aesthetic. Reliable guitar mag centerfolds like Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai disappeared from the discussion — at least until their vocal fan bases commandeered the comments and social media gripe threads.

But as Vai prepares to take The Orange Peel’s stage Aug. 22, it’s worth considering what, exactly, makes a great guitarist. For starters, Vai’s resume is stacked. He attended Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music) and studied under Joe Satriani before joining Frank Zappa’s band for the first half of the 1980s. From there, he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen as lead guitarist in the Van Halen-inspired Alcatrazz, quit them to shred next to Van Halen’s departed frontman David Lee Roth, and finally forged his own successful solo career. He’s worked as a sideman for John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. and written songs for Ozzy Osbourne, added three Grammys to his shelf and played the ringer for TV bands on The Tonight Show and American Idol. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Musically, Vai’s solo work is characterized by its technical proficiency, running up and down the fretboard in a near-constant state of shred-solo climax. His precision and clarity of tone are to be applauded, and to his fans, Vai’s technically dazzling virtuosity is a self-evident raison d’etre.

To his detractors, however, Vai is an example of what essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan once called “the whole problem of virtuosity as it applies to popular music — namely, that for some reason people who can play anything will, nine times out of 10, when asked to make something up, play something terrible.” In other words, his playing is dexterous, but unexpressive; accomplished, but not authentic.

Even Vai has admitted both sides have their place. Quoted on his own website, Vai recounts the changing musical tides of the 1990s: “Guitar players in the ’80s were trying to outplay our influences — people like Jimmy Page, Brian May and Ritchie Blackmore. Some of us were good at it and some of us were just wankers; I’ve been accused of being both. Eventually, that style of guitar playing hit a wall and that’s when grunge took over.”

But in considering greatness from a 2012 perspective, it’s high time for a more inclusive canon: one that welcomes masters of tone and attitude, from Link Wray to Johnny Ramone; grind-it-till-you-find-it explorers like Neil Young and J Mascis; textural vanguards from Rhys Chatham to Sunn O))); iconoclasts like John Fahey; and subtly sublime sidemen like William Tyler. And, of course, the pyrotechnics of a technician like Vai too.

— Bryan C. Reed is the online editor at Shuffle Magazine, and a regular contributor to MAGNET and Paste.

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