Sound Like Steve Vai: Gear, Amp Settings and Effects


There’s no doubt about it, Steve Vai is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, so it’s no surprise that many aspiring players are looking to emulate his tone. However, it’s pretty hard to sound exactly like your favourite player. So, in this article, I’ll guide you through the best guitars, amps and pedals to sound like Steve Vai and how to tweak your amp and guitar settings to get the tone as close as possible.

Just looking for example amp settings? Scroll down the article to get presets for some of John Mayer’s most popular songs.

The Quick Guide

To sound like Steve Vai you ideally need an electric guitar with a HSH pickup configuration, 5-way pickup selector, 24 frets and a Floyd Rose tremolo bridge. You will also need an amp with 2 channels (clean and distorted) and wah, phaser, delay, distortion/ overdrive and compressor pedals.

I’ve split this guide into multiple sections so you can sound more like Steve Vai no matter which guitar and amp you’re rocking.

Contents:

  • Steve Vai Rig Rundown
  • Guitar and Amp Settings
  • Troubleshooting Common Issues

Steve Vai Rig Rundown

Even if you don’t plan on investing in any more equipment on your quest to sound like Steve Vai, it’s a good idea to know what guitars, amps and pedals he utilises so you can get a good grasp on the gear which underpins his tone. This way, you’ll be able to dial in the settings more confidently on your current rig to get your tone as close as possible.

Guitars

Steve Vai’s signature guitar is an Ibanez Jem and he has used this model for most of his career. It features a HSH pickup configuration, 24 frets, Floyd Rose bridge and the iconic cut-outs in the superstrat body shape.

Steve Vai uses his signature ceramic Dark Matter DiMarzio pickups which have a high output. The bridge pickup EQ is reasonable flat, but has slightly boosted bass and mid-range frequencies compared to the treble. The middle pickup has a slightly scooped mid-range and the neck pickup has a very flat EQ.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an Ibanez Jem with Dark Matter pickups, the chances are you probably won’t! However, it’s best if your guitar has the following features:

  • 24 frets
  • A humbucker pickup in the bridge position
  • Floyd Rose tremolo

For most songs, a 6-string guitar is perfectly fine. However, some songs such as “The Riddle” and “The Audience is Listening” use a 7-string guitar.

Ibanez Jem Jr Steve Vai Signature Electric Guitar (image links to Amazon)

Amps

For most of his career, Steve Vai used a Carvin Legacy amp which is a tube amp that has three channels. However, these are no longer in production.

You’ll ideally need an amp with a crisp clean channel with plenty of headroom and a separate distorted channel. In terms of voicing, if the amp has a slightly scooped mid-range and plenty of bottom end then you’re onto a winner. But don’t worry if you’re using a more British-style amplifier with more mid-range such as a Marshall, Vox or Orange because you can tweak the settings to compensate for this.

Effects/ Pedals

To sound like Steve Vai you’ll ideally need the following effects either built-in to your amplifier, or effects pedals:

  • Distortion/ Overdrive: the best pedal to use is the “Jemini”, however you will also get good results with an Ibanez Tube Screamer or a Boss DS-1 Distortion.
  • Wah: the best pedal to use is the Morley Bad Horsie wah pedal but any wah pedal is likely to be suitable.
  • Delay: this is used to add depth to the tone primarily.
  • Phaser: Steve uses an MXR Phase 90.
  • Compressor: this will help to increase sustain.

Guitar and Amp Settings

It’s important to remember that achieving Steve Vai’s exact tone is incredibly difficult unless you are using the same gear for a specific song. However, even if you don’t own the same guitar, amp and effects, you can utilise the controls to get your tone to sound as close as possible to Steve’s.

In this next section I’ll guide you through the controls you’ll need to tweak to sound like Steve and all the caveats to get the best results based on which type of guitar and amp you’re using.

Guitar Controls

Steve Vai’s Jem has a HSH pickup configuration and a 5-way pickup selector which activate the following pickups:

  • Position 1: bridge humbucker only
  • Position 2: bridge single coil and middle single coil
  • Position 3: middle single coil only
  • Position 4: middle single coil and neck single coil
  • Position 5: neck single coil only

If you have the possible pickup configurations described above, then position 1 is your best bet for solos, and position 4 is ideal for most clean sections. For rhythm distortion, it really does depend on the song, however in most cases you’ll probably want either position 2 or 4.

If your guitar only has two humbucker pickups, use the bridge humbucker for lead playing and the middle position (both humbuckers) for clean and rhythm tones.

If your guitar only has single coil pickups then you’ll probably want to go with the middle position (both single coils) or the bridge-only position for lead playing and then the neck position or middle position for clean and rhythm playing. The risk with single coils is that the tone sounds too bright and thin, so using the neck or middle position is ideal if you want to add more warmth.

If you’re a bit lost on the differences in tone between neck and bridge pickups, check out my article comparing the two pickup positions.

It’s usually a good idea to keep your volume and tone controls on full so you don’t lose treble frequencies and use pedals to adjust the volume.

Amp Settings

It’s very difficult to give one-size-fits-all amp settings for an artist because not only does their tone change between songs, but also different amps have different tones. However, I can give you a starting point and then explain how to tweak it.

To sound like Steve Vai, start with the following amp settings:

Clean Tone:

  • Gain: 1
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 7

Distorted Tone:

  • Gain: 6
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 8

Let’s first discuss the gain control. One of the big mistakes players make when trying to sound like Steve Vai is whacking the drive control up to 10. In most cases, Steve uses moderate gain so it’s a good idea to start with this on 6 to begin with. Some amps may need it to be slightly higher but avoid going overboard or the tone can start to sound muddy.

Now let’s talk about the EQ controls by which I mean the bass, mids and treble. Using a fairly flat EQ with a slightly scooped mid-range is a good place to start. If you are using single coil pickups though, you may need to increase the mids to compensate.

The bass should be enough to provide some depth, however it shouldn’t be too high or the tone can sound muddy. The treble setting should be plenty high enough to provide clarity and definition. Avoid having the treble too high during rhythm and clean sections though as it can sound too harsh and bright. If you are using single coil pickups, the treble may need to be a bit lower.

Some amps have additional controls so make sure you also check out the brand-specific amp controls guide which is relevant to you, in order to fully understand all the settings and so you can get the most from your rig:

To help you get a good starting point for some specific songs, I’ve listed some example amp settings below. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound quite right at the moment. The next section will address some common issues and how to rectify them to get the tone closer to Steve Vai’s.

For the Love of God Amp Settings

  • Gain: 6
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 5
  • Treble: 7

Use the neck pickup at the start then switch to the bridge pickup.

Tender Surrender Amp Settings

Clean:

  • Gain: 2
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 5
  • Treble: 7

Use position 4/ neck pickup only

Lead Distorted:

  • Gain: 6
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 7

Use the bridge pickup.

The Attitude Song Amp Settings

Rhythm:

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 5
  • Treble: 5

Use the neck pickup.

Lead:

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 8
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 7

Use the bridge pickup.

Slip of the Tongue Amp Settings

Rhythm:

  • Gain: 6
  • Bass: 5
  • Mids: 5
  • Treble: 6

Use the neck pickup.

Lead:

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 6
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 8

Use the bridge pickup.

Building the Church Amp Settings

Rhythm:

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 5

Use the neck pickup.

Lead:

  • Gain: 7
  • Bass: 7
  • Mids: 6
  • Treble: 8

Use the bridge pickup.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Don’t worry if your tone doesn’t sound spot on yet. It’s almost impossible to get the sound right on the first try and you’ll likely need to make some adjustments after dialling in the settings described above to suit your rig.

In this next section I’ll list common issues and give multiple fixes for each of them. You may not need to make all the suggested adjustments to your amp settings, so what I recommend doing is going through each suggestion in order and adjusting the control by 1-2 points then listening to the change. Then you can move down the list if you feel like the tone needs more tweaking.

This will help you dial in your tone as efficiently as possible and help you to become more knowledgeable about your amp and how changing the settings affects the tone.

Lack of Sustain

  • Increase the gain
  • Increase the bass
  • Increase the mids
  • Use a compressor pedal

Muddy Tone

  • Decrease the bass
  • Decrease the gain
  • Increase the treble

Too Much Feedback

  • Decrease the gain
  • Move the guitar and amp as far away from each other as possible
  • Position the amp in front of the guitar rather than behind it
  • Use a noise-gate pedal to reduce feedback

Thin Tone

  • Increase the mids
  • Increase the bass
  • Increase the gain

Tone Sounds Too Harsh and Bright

  • Switch to the neck pickup if you are using the bridge or middle
  • Decrease the treble
  • Increase the bass

Check out this article with amp settings for over 40 popular rock songs if you are looking for more inspiration.

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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