Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
It’s hard to think of a supergroup more worthy of dropped jaws than Generation Axe. On the heels of their debut release, Matt Doria sits down with ringleader Steve Vai to riff on the past, present and future of this odds-defying celebration of the guitar.
As proved by the hulking success of Avengers: Endgame in May (pun intended), crossovers and ‘shared universes’ are all the bloody rage right now. Everywhere you look, coked-up marketing execs are trying to cram four or five popular properties into one – there’s even a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie coming out next year, which you’ll be able to enjoy while you chow on Krispy Kreme M&M doughnuts and wash them down with a Chupa Chup Slurpee. The modern rock landscape certainly isn’t exempt, either – think of your five favourite bands, and we’d guarantee at least three of them have members involved in some variation of a ‘supergroup’.
The latest supergroup to send your local shredhead into a seizure of hype is Generation Axe: an all-star lineup of genre-defining virtuous spearheaded by Steve Vai – a player so exceptional he was recruited by Frank Zappa at age 18, and went on to establish himself as one of the all-time guitar greats in his own right – and rounded out with fellow fretboard warriors Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne) and Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders).
Bringing together the best from every corner of the metal spectrum, Generation Axe is a dream come true for Ibanez fanboys around the globe; to boot, it turns out the four extra shredders in tow were the first names on Vai’s wishlist.
“The original concept was genre-specific,” he explains. “The idea was to build a brand – maybe have a Generation Axe rock tour, and then a metal tour, and then maybe at some point, a blues or acoustic tour... And obviously, I wouldn’t be a part of those last ones. But the concept was there, y’know? And when I was putting this one together, I made a list of 25 or so names that I thought might be able to make it work; it just so happened to be that the first four guys I reached out to were the guys that made it onto this tour! And that was really fantastic, because we’re all very diverse, but we kind of play in the same sandbox, y’know? We play on the same set of swings, but everyone is diverse enough in their techniques and their styles that it becomes a very enjoyable experience to watch.”
Bookended by two jams with all five guitarists riffing out in harmony – a cover of Boston’s “Foreplay” as the intro and a wicked crescendo of Deep Purple’s “Highway Star – the typical Generation Axe show sees all five guitarists share a chunk of stage time in the spotlight, each joined for their final cut by the string-splitter set to follow them (so Abasi will play a song, then Abasi and Bettencourt will duel it out for one, and then Bettencourt would take over for his). The concept itself doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s in the way a Generation Axe show is executed – with the interplay between each coupling of guitarists twisting and turning like a rollercoaster in drop D – that makes it so extraordinary.
It begs the question: where did the idea for such an ambitious celebration of the guitar come from?
Vai fills us in: “It just came from the well of inspiration that resides in all of us, y’know? After being in the business for a while, you start to think, ‘What would I really like to do?’ And I was sitting on this idea for quite a while; it was basically inspired by the G3 tours. I’ve done quite a few of those tours, and they’ve always been fantastic – performing with Joe [Satriani] is always a treat – but the G3 format was a little different; one band would play for 45 minutes, and then there’d be a break and a new setup, and a different band would play for 45 minutes... And I always thought it would be interesting to create one distinct backing band and have a seamless show of five amazing guitar players coming on and off the stage, performing in different groups together.
“I’ve been involved in many types of guitar tours and jam events, and sometimes they’re just kind of messy, y’know? They need to be arranged really well to actually work. And I’ve always loved the sound of electric guitars playing in harmony; I’ve always been a huge Brian May fan – y’know, Brian was one of my biggest influences early on – and I thought, ‘Nobody ever does what he does live.’ So we set out to create a show that featured everybody on their own for a few songs, but then have everyone jump in at different points and join the party. And that can only really be done if the parts are organised to a T, so we went to work and arranged these songs so that they sound as tight as humanly possible.”
Initially conceived for one North American tour in 2016, Generation Axe has since grown into an on-and-off monolith, bursting out of hibernation once a year to embark on a new, consistently breathtaking run of wall-to-wall riffs. Their second jaunt took them to Asia, where they recorded their debut full-length, The Guitars That Destroyed The World. Laid to tape at a gig in Beijing, China, the 79-minute opus harkens back to an era where live albums reigned supreme – if it doesn’t go down as one of the best in recent decades, we’ll be genuinely stunned. The LP looks to widen Generation Axe’s reach in the rock world at large; if all goes well, it’ll sell enough copies on local shores to justify the group making their way Down Under.
“We’ve tried a couple of times,” Vai sighs when asked why Generation Axe hasn’t yet landed in Australia. “We even tried recently with this Asian tour that we may be doing in the Fall – I’m taking about something that’s not confirmed yet, so this is a little dangerous – and we tried to put Australia in there, but the problem is that Generation Axe is an expensive package. You’ve got a lot of people and it’s a really big production, and Australia is a very expensive place to go at the best of times. Unfortunately, the guarantees we were getting at this time are not fleshing out enough for us to make it there. But we’re very hopeful that the record will have an attraction to the guitar community in Australia. I would suspect it would, because there’s nothing like it, and it sounds really great – it’s one of the best sounding live albums I’ve ever heard!”
When he’s not living every guitar lover’s wildest dreams, Vai fills his days chipping away on the follow-up to his 2016 masterpiece, Modern Primitive. His tenth solo album since ‘84, Vai promises that the untitled set of shred will take his playing in a direction that even the most hardcore of his fans are yet to hear.
“I like to imagine myself doing things that I haven’t done before,” he says, “Or that I can’t do. And then I start fooling around with them, and they usually require a lot of focus and practise, so I end up putting them on the shelf for a while. For about two years now, I’ve been visualising myself playing in a certain way, which is different to my usual bag of tricks – I mean, it’s not wildly different, but there’s a little bit more depth to it.
“I’m working on this one song right now, and it’s got this technique that I call ‘joint shifting’ – it’s where you bend the note while you’re holding another note. And the way I’m doing it is, I’m bending, like, three notes, while holding some other notes, and then releasing some of them and just crawling around the neck. And it’s really, really hard! But the sound of it is just so bizarre and beautiful, y’know? It sounds weird and wonderful – and that’s what I love most about the guitar! But y’know, it took me, like, four weeks to be able to play eight bars of this song so... Don’t hold your breath just yet.”
Now in his fifth decade of shredding, Vai is determined to keep finding new ways to attack his strings. Because even for those who’ve seemingly mastered everything there is to master on the guitar, there will always be a new technique to discover; a new sound just waiting to be hammered out. And that’s part of the fun, being a guitarist – stepping out of your comfort zone to explore the endless array of tonal potential laying at your feet.
“I think that’s just built into our DNA,” Vai muses, “In whatever field we’re in. It always feels a little scary to step outside your comfort zone, because a lot of people create this sense of security in their comfort zones – especially if they’ve been successful at it. But for me, that’s the reason I play – to always try to find something interesting and new. And those changes might be very subtle to the listener that actually knows what I do. But to me, that makes every day Christmas!