He has acknowledged the influence of many guitarists including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Vai followed those lessons by attending and graduating the Berklee College of Music, afterwards recording a promotional piece for them, speaking about auditioning for Frank Zappa, at age twenty.
Vai mailed Frank Zappa a transcription of Zappa's "The Black Page", an instrumental song written for drums, along with a tape with some of Vai's guitar playing. Zappa was so impressed with the abilities of the young musician that he hired him in 1979 to do work transcribing several of his guitar solos, including many of those appearing on the Joe's Garage album and the Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar series. These transcriptions were published in 1982 in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book.
Subsequent to being hired as a transcriber, Vai did overdubs on many of the guitar parts for Zappa's album You Are What You Is. Thereafter he became a full-fledged band member, going on his first tour with Zappa in the Autumn of 1980. One of those early shows with Vai on guitar, recorded in Buffalo was released in 2007. While touring with Zappa's band, Vai would sometimes ask audience members to bring musical scores and see if he could sight-read them on the spot. Zappa referred to Vai as his "little Italian virtuoso" and listed him in the liner notes as performing "stunt guitar" or "impossible guitar parts". He would later be a featured artist on the 1993 recording, Zappa's Universe. In 2006 he returned to playing music composed by Frank Zappa as a special guest on his son, Dweezil Zappa's 'Zappa Plays Zappa' tour, alongside old friends from his early years whom he had performed with when Zappa was alive.
After leaving Zappa in 1982 he moved to California where he recorded his first album Flex-Able and performed in a couple of bands. In 1985 he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen as lead guitarist in Graham Bonnet's Alcatrazz with whom he recorded the album Disturbing the Peace. Later in 1985 he joined former Van Halen front man David Lee Roth's group to record the albums Eat 'Em and Smile and Skyscraper. This significantly increased Vai's visibility to general rock audiences, since Roth was in a highly public battle with the Van Halen members and Vai was favorably compared by many commentators to Eddie Van Halen.
In 1986 Vai also surprised everyone by playing with ex-Sex Pistols John Lydon's Public Image Ltd on their album Album (also known as Compact Disc or Cassette). Then, in 1989, Vai joined Whitesnake, replacing Vivian Campbell. But, when Adrian Vandenberg injured his wrist shortly before recording was due to begin for the album Slip of the Tongue, Vai played all the guitar parts on the album. Vai also played on the Alice Cooper album Hey Stoopid along with Joe Satriani on the song Feed my Frankenstein.
Vai continues to tour regularly, with his own group and with his one-time teacher and fellow guitar instrumentalist friend Joe Satriani on the G3 series of tours. Former David Lee Roth and Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan also joined him for a world tour. In 1990, Vai released his critically acclaimed solo album Passion and Warfare.
The song "For the Love of God" was voted #29 in a readers' poll of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time in Guitar World Magazine.
In 1994 Vai began writing and recording with Ozzy Osbourne. Only one track from these sessions and "My Little Man" was released on the Ozzmosis album. Despite Vai penning the track he does not appear on the album. His guitar parts were replaced by Zakk Wylde. Another track "Dyin' Day" appeared as an instrumental on Vai's Fire Garden album. The band members Vai had throughout the 90's included drummer Mike Mangini, guitarist Mike Keneally and bassist Philip Bynoe. In 1994 Vai received a Grammy Award for his performance on the Frank Zappa song Sofa from the album Zappa's Universe.
Steve Vai released a DVD of his performance at The Astoria in London in December 2001, featuring the lineup of bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist/pianist Tony MacAlpine, guitarist Dave Weiner and Australian drummer Virgil Donati.
In July 2002, Steve Vai performed with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan, in the world premiere of composer Ichiro Nodaira's Fire Strings, a concerto for electric guitar and 100-piece orchestra.
In 2004, a number of his compositions and orchestral arrangements including some previously recorded pieces, were performed in The Netherlands by the Metropole Orchestra in a concert series entitled The Aching Hunger. In 2003, drummer Jeremy Colson joined Vai's group replacing previous drummer Virgil Donati. Vai's latest album, Sound Theories, was released in 2007.
In February 2005, Vai premiered a dual-guitar (electric and classical) piece that he wrote called The Blossom Suite with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. In 2006, Vai played as a "special guest" guitarist alongside additional guest Zappa band members, drummer Terry Bozzio, guitarist-singer Ray White and saxophonist-singer Napoleon Murphy Brock in the "Zappa Plays Zappa" tour led by Frank's son Dweezil Zappa in Europe and the U.S. in the Spring as well as a short U.S. tour in October.
On September 21, 2006, Vai made a special appearance at the Video Games Live concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California. He played two songs with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; Halo Theme, and a second song for the world premier trailer for Halo 3.
Steve Vai made an appearance at the London Guitar Show in 2007 on the April 28 2007 at the ExCeL Center. In late April 2007, Vai confirmed the release of his most recent record, called Sound Theories, on June 26. The release is a 2-CD set consisting mostly of previously released material that Vai rearranged and played with a full orchestra. Vai says that the project was a great joy because he considers himself to be a composer more than a guitarist, and he is happy to see music he has composed played by an orchestra that can play it well. A DVD followed the record but it was not released until later that year. He guested on the Dream Theater album, Systematic Chaos, on the song "Repentance". The appearance was vocal rather than instrumental, as Vai was only one of many musical guests recorded. The song features contributions from many artists, with the aim of apologizing to important people in their lives for wrongdoings committed in their pasts. On August 29 2009 he appeared on stage with Dream Theater during the final show of their Progressive Nation tour at the Greek Theater, where he performed during the improvised jam with the other musicians on tour. As stated in Volume 1 Issue 3 of Broken Records magazine..Steve Vai states that he makes a conscious effort to create projects that have a uniqueness to them. I enjoy challenging myself to come up with new ideas that I believe are unique..
"Juice" was featured on the 1996 video game "Formula One" for the PlayStation.
In 1998, "Erotic Nightmares" was featured as the menu music in the video game WCW/nWo Revenge for the Nintendo 64.
Two different songs featuring Steve Vai's guitar-work appeared in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose" and "God Blessed Video" by Alcatrazz are featured on the game's soundtrack as part of the Lazlow-led, 1980s rock/metal radio station V-Rock.
In 2004, Steve Vai was featured on Xbox's Halo 2 (a game by Bungie Studios) Volume 1 soundtrack, performing a heavy rock-guitar rendition of the Halo theme, known as Halo Theme (MJOLNIR Mix). He also performed on the track Never Surrender. He later featured in the second volume of the soundtrack, where he performed on the track Reclaimer.
In 2008, Steve Vai's For the Love of God and Halo Theme (MJOLNIR Mix) were featured as downloadable tracks for the game Guitar Hero 3. A live version of the song "For the Love of God" was also available at release on the Rock Band Network as well as the song "Get the Hell Out of Here" from his 2002 album "The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1" on March 4, 2010.
Steve Vai's music has been featured in a number of feature films, including Dudes and Ghosts of Mars. He appeared onscreen in the 1986 Ralph Macchio movie Crossroads, playing the demonically-inspired Jack Butler. At the film's climax, Vai engages in a guitar duel with Macchio, whose guitar parts were dubbed by Vai and also Ry Cooder, who played the initial slide work in the duel and Macchio's earlier performances in the film. The fast-paced neo-classical track entitled Eugene's Trick Bag with which Macchio wins the competition was also composed by Vai. The body of the piece was heavily based on Paganini's Caprice #5. He later borrowed the opening riff from the track Head Cuttin' Duel for a song called Bad Horsie from his 1995 EP Alien Love Secrets. Later the Crossroads duel reappeared on the 2002 album The Elusive Light and Sound, volume 1.
In 1991's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey the introductory riff to KISS' "God Gave Rock 'n' Roll to You II", as performed by the Wyld Stallyns in the Battle of the Bands was performed by Vai. He also composed and performed the soundtrack to PCU (1994), and made contributions in 2001 to the score for John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, performing on the tracks "Ghosts of Mars" and "Ghost Poppin'". His track "I'm the Hell Outta Here" can be heard during 1992's Encino Man in the scene where Brendan Fraser is taking a driving lesson.
His guitar is starring in the animated short film "Live Music".
Vai is widely recognized as a highly technically advanced rock guitarist and has been described as a virtuoso in the world of guitar music. His 1990 album Passion and Warfare and the ballad For the Love of God in particular received a significant amount of press and are often cited by critics and fans alike as amongst his best work to date.
Vai's playing style has been characterized as quirky and angular, owing to his technical ability with the instrument and deep knowledge of music theory. His playing can also be described as lyrical, as if sung by a human voice. That is why his melodies are hard to duplicate as they are not strict tempo. He often uses exotic guitars; he plays both double and triple neck guitars (including a custom-made heart-shaped triple-neck model built by luthier Joe Despagni), and is regarded as the first to use the 7-string guitar in a rock context. Along with Ibanez, he designed a signature 7-string guitar, the Ibanez Universe in 1989, which provided the low-end rumble many guitarists were craving.
Vai is an accomplished studio producer (he owns two: "The Mothership" and "The Harmony Hut") and his own recordings combine his signature guitar prowess with novel compositions and considerable use of studio and recording effects.
Vai also helped design his signature Ibanez JEM series of guitars. They feature a hand grip (fondly referred to as a "monkey grip") cut into the top of the body of the guitar, a humbucker-single coil-humbucker (H/S/H) DiMarzio pickup configuration with several different types of pickup including Evolution, Breed and EVO 2. He also uses the Ibanez Edge and Lo-Pro Edge double-locking tremolo systems (the current production JEMs have the newer Edge Pro), as well as an elaborate and extensive "Tree of Life" inlay down the neck. However, the 555 model is widely criticized for being too expensive and finished poorly. Vai also equips many of his guitars with an Ibanez Backstop, a tremolo stabilizer that has been discontinued. Lately Vai has also equipped some of his guitars with True Temperament fretboards in order for his chords to sound completely in tune. Vai also has a 7-string model designed by him named Ibanez Universe, featuring DiMarzio Blaze II pickups in an HSH arrangement. The Universe later influenced the 7-string guitars used by Korn and other bands to create nu metal sounds in the late 1990s. He also has a signature Ibanez acoustic, the Euphoria. Before Ibanez, he briefly endorsed Jackson guitars, but this relationship only lasted two years. His two main guitars are white JEMs dubbed "evo" and "flo" each with their own unique modifications.
Steve Vai has also worked with Carvin Guitars and Pro Audio to develop the Carvin Legacy line of guitar amplifiers. Vai wanted to create an affordable amp that was unique, and equal in sound and versatility to any guitar amp he had previously used. Over his long musical career, Steve Vai has used and designed an array of guitars. He even had his DNA put into the swirl paint job on one of his signature JEM guitars, the JEM2KDNA, in the form of his blood. Only 300 of these were made. Nowadays he mainly uses his white "Evo", a JEM7V, and his "Flo", which is a customized Floral JEM 77FP painted white. They are both inscribed with their names in two places, mainly in order to allow him to distinguish between the guitars he uses onstage. "Flo" is equipped with a Fernandes sustainer system.
He also has a guitar named "Mojo" in which the dot inlays are blue LED lights. Additionally, he has a custom-made triple-neck guitar that has the same basic features as his JEM7V guitars. The top neck is a 12-string guitar, the middle is a 6-string, and the bottom is a 6-string fretless guitar with a Fernandes Sustainer pickup. This guitar was featured on the G3 2003 tour on the piece I Know You're Here. Vai's effects pedals include a modified Boss DS-1, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Morley Bad Horsie, Ibanez Jemini Twin Distortion Pedal, TC Electronics G-System, Morley Little Alligator Volume pedal, Digitech Whammy, and an MXR Phase 90/Phase 100 on the Passion and Warfare album. His flight cases are labeled "Mr. Vai", or latterly, "Dr. Vai". He used a number of rack effects units controlled via MIDI, but used a floor-based TC electronics G system instead for the Zappa Plays Zappa tour.
In 2005, Vai signed on as an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in public schools throughout the U.S.A. He sits on LKR's Honorary Board of Directors.
Vai was a judge for the 3rd and 8th annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists.
Vai is also the founder of the Make A Noise Foundation, which he started with his manager Ruta Sepetys. The foundation's goal is to provide funding for music education and programs for those unable to pursue music-related activities due to limited resources.
Vai is also a patron of music education around the world giving master classes in such prestigious music schools as the Fermatta Music Academy.
Vai owns Favored Nations, a recording and publishing company that specializes in internationally procuring and maintaining recording artists. Favored Nations is separated into three sections, 'Favored Nations', 'Favored Nations Acoustic' and 'Favored Nations Cool (Jazz style)'
Artists with whom the Favored Nations label works or has worked include Eric Johnson, Steve Lukather, Neal Schon, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess, Mattias IA Eklundh, Tak Matsumoto, Andy Timmons, Johnny Hiland, Tommy Emmanuel, Vernon Reid, The Yardbirds, Larry Coryell, Mimi Fox, Eric Sardinas, Dweezil Zappa, Dave Weiner, James Robinson and Johnny A.