Steve Vai spends a lot of his time writing little black dots.

"Composing is work-intensive," the guitar virtuoso said during a recent phone interview.

Vai began work on a new album in January, but then he got a request for an orchestra piece for the Holland Symphony Orchestra. He's been putting in 18-hour days to work on the piece, which will debut in November.

Sunday, he'll take a break to talk about his music with area students and fans at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in Harrisburg. The event culminates the opening weekend of a new music school - The Perfect 5th Musical Arts Center - in Mechanicsburg.

Vai said he's learned a lot through his career. He's hit new levels and plateaus along the way. He wants to share advice that the audience won't get anywhere else.

"The thing I focus on the most is the mental aspect of identifying with, choosing and cultivating a goal," he said. "Playing an instrument . . . is 99 percent mental - maybe 99.9 percent."

His goal is to help people see a new way to approach their instrument and their careers.

"And I'll show them some pretty hot licks," he added with a laugh.

He picked up his younger sister's acoustic guitar when he was 12. He wanted to play like Jimmy Page, but learned it wasn't as easy as it sounded.

"I wasn't a natural at the guitar," Vai said. "I was afraid. (It was) such an ultimately cool instrument."

When Vai played a high school dance at the age of 13, he saw how much attention it earned him. But his musical interests went beyond impressing his peers. A year later, he started composing "guitar-heavy rock" pieces.

His thrill came with thinking of something he couldn't play, working on it and eventually mastering it.

"It was like magic," he said. "You get this sense of deep satisfaction."

The feeling, Vai said, helped him through family issues and increased his confidence.

He enrolled at Berklee College of Music and, at the age of 20, landed an audition to play with Frank Zappa. He cultivated a solo career while playing with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake and Alice Cooper.

During the years, he's accumulated several guitars. Vai estimated he has about 200, some of which are sent to him and some of which are Ibanez guitar prototypes.

About 25 years ago, he designed a seven-string Ibanez called The Universe, which helped shape metal music.

He's been using his Evo for the past two decades.

"At the end of the day, it's wire and wood," he said. "You create a personality for it. It knows all of your secrets."

Vai can only play guitar, but he can also compose music for piano, violin and several other instruments. The orchestra piece he's working on is titled "The Middle of Everywhere," a nod to a scientific hypothesis that the universe is like a hologram.

The challenge is to convey that through little black dots. The goal is to keep writing.

"The more you create . . . the more you discover about yourself," he said. "I wake up every day looking forward to that."

- Erin McCracken, FlipSide staff

Master class with guitarist Steve Vai

Grammy award-winning guitarist Steve Vai will hold a master class 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, 222 Market St., Harrisburg. Vai will demonstrate and discuss guitar techniques, music theory and the music business during the three-hour educational event. The session, which is open to all ages and skill levels, will also include a question-and-answer portion. Tickets are $45 and $65 and are available at the Whitaker Center box office and online at

Open house at new music school

The Perfect 5th Musical Arts Center, 6240 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg, will host an open house 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. The event, for the music center's grand opening, will include facility tours, meet-and-greet with teachers and networking opportunities. Light refreshments will be provided. For details, call 888-752-3683 or visit


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