But Steve Vai has managed to bridge the gap between technique and melody with aplomb, keeping audiences entertained and challenged for more than 30 years.
Via, 53, was the first virtuoso rock guitarist to cross into the mainstream as a personality in his own right. (thanks in no part to his demonstrative stage performances and futuristic-looking guitars).
He has sold more than 15 million records, including several solo albums, and has played with Frank Zappa, Dave Lee Roth, Ry Cooder and Whitesnake.
When Vai first heard Jimmy Page’s solo on Heartbreaker, he knew his destiny was carved on the walls of Stonehenge.
“I’d wanted to play the guitar since I was five years old but when I was 12 I heard that solo and that’s when my desire to play became stronger than my insecurities,” he says.
“Of course I would very much like to jam or do some kind of thing with Jimmy Page someday if the opportunity ever arose, but then again, so would millions of other people.
“When I was younger I often imagined what it would be like to just sit one on one with him and just play together anything that came out of our minds and fingers.
“I did meet him on several occasions and he was always the kind of person that I had hoped he would be; kind, loose, funny and understanding of my stunned amazement.”
After some lessons from Joe Satriani and attending Berklee College of Music, the prodigious Vai won his first big break when, at 20, he was hired by Zappa to play in his avant-garde band.
Zappa labelled Vai his “little Italian virtuoso” and would ask audience members to bring scores to gigs to see if he could sight-read them on the spot.
“Always do what your inspiration guides you to do without making any excuses or expecting someone to do it for you,” says Vai on his days playing with Zappa.
Mainstream audiences will probably know Vai best from his guitar duel with Ralph Macchio (The Karate Kid) in the film Crossroads: a searing tussle between bottle-neck blues played by Ry Cooder and ‘80s “shredding” by Vai.
“The acting part was OK too, but it involved a lot of waiting around in between very short takes. You just get going and the director yells ‘cut!’.” he says.
“I have always enjoyed great actors but when I’m doing it myself I feel odd because it’s fake.
“I feel weird acting. I much prefer the stage. It’s real and nobody is yelling cut.”
Vai says his 2013 Australian tour will be a series of “diverse, dynamic” shows.
“First and foremost, I want to be the best entertainer I can be because people are spending money and taking their time to come to a show so I want to give them the best thing I can,” he says.
“We do an acoustic set and a very engaging section of the show where I invite some people on the stage to help build a song with us.
“I like to reach out to people and put the melodies right into their souls. It’s not about just wailing on the guitar for 2.5 hours, although I do some of that for sure…”
Steve Vai will play the Perth Concert Hall July 10.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK