Steve Vai’s Ultra Guitar

As long as I can remember I have been obsessed with the guitar. As a kid I can remember watching people play with fascination and just loving everything to do with guitar, but I never had the opportunity to get a guitar of my own. Then I went to college where I met a great guitar player called Donal McAteer and he played me a CD by Steve Vai.

It was the music I had been looking for all my life but never knew existed. Instantly I was hooked and it inspired me to go out and buy my first guitar within two weeks. That album changed my life, but I didn’t realise at the time how much it was going to steer my future. In 2001, Steve finally came to play in Dublin on the Ultra Zone Tour and I went along with Donal. He came out on stage dressed like the alien from the Ultra Zone album cover but with his signature white gem. Behind him was a big banner of the alien holding the Ultra Zone guitar and instantly I thought he needs the real guitar.

The next day I went home and set about trying to build it. At this stage I had never built an electric guitar and for my first it was going to be one of the world’s most unusual for one of the world’s greatest players.

Inspired by years of listening to Vai I threw myself into the project and was determined to make every detail perfect and make a fully functioning replica of a piece of art that was never intended to go beyond two dimensions. I spent hours sculpting it and meticulously capturing every detail that was shown on the album cover and the back view of the guitar was conveniently printed on the back of the album so I had a 360 degree reference.

I put a lot of time into it but it was a tricky guitar so eventually it was set aside to concentrate on other things. Then at the NAMM show of 2002 I saw Steve signing autographs at the NARAS booth and I approached him and told him about the guitar that I had started to build. I think he thought I was a bit crazy and didn’t really believe anyone would build such a guitar, but he gave me an e-mail address and told me to send a picture if I ever completed it. I returned home and invigorated by meeting my hero I set about finishing it. And finish it I did and even built a special Pod like case for it.

I sent off some pictures to Steve’s assistant Rich Pike and heard nothing back, I sent them again and still heard nothing. I really started to get frustrated, but when I finally got hold of Rich it turned out that they didn’t think it was real, but rather photo-shopped. Rich agreed to show the pictures to Steve and arrange for me to bring the guitar to Steve.

I heard nothing for a few weeks because Steve was deep in the middle of recording another album but then finally one Wednesday morning I got an email saying that Steve would like to meet me on Saturday morning. I really don’t think they realised I was in Ireland, but I quickly went about arranging flights to Los Angeles and set off early on Thursday. What a crazy rush that was.

Saturday morning I went to meet Rich and he brought me to Steve’s house where Steve greeted us and brought us into the Harmony Hut. What a buzz to be meeting Steve in the famous Harmony Hut where so much of his great music had been brought to life.

He looked at the case and looked at me and said “Well, let’s see what you’ve brought”. I opened the case and his first words said it all “Holy Shit”. He was blown away and couldn’t believe how similar it was to the album cover. He grabbed an Ultra Zone CD to compare and it was a joy to get the nod of approval from the man who had inspired my art and my career.

“So what are you going to do with it” he asked. “It’s yours” I said, “I want you to have it as a gift for all the inspiration your music has given me”. “Ok” he said “but I’m giving it back to you to keep for me”. It was a really nice gesture, but I persuaded him that it would mean more to me to know that he had it. He agreed, but insisted on paying for it so we struck up a deal for a jar of his Fire Garden honey. Steve is a bee keeper you see. That was payment enough for me and every morning I spread it on my toast it brought back memories of that great day.

Building that guitar was one of the best things I have ever done and actually that was the very first guitar that I built that I ever let leave my possession. You see, while I had been building guitars since 1998 I considered all those prototypes and out of the 50 or so guitars up to then I screwed most of them to the roof of my factory where they still remain as a monument to the learning process involved in building a guitar of high enough quality to share with the world. So my first guitar went to the man who first inspired me.

I have met Steve many times since then and built him a couple more acoustic guitars including a 7 string that he kindly used on his Real Illusions Reflections album. Thank you Steve for making the music that has inspired me to follow my heart and set me on a journey I could never have imagined!

  • CLIENT Steve Vai

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