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How Guitar Legend Steve Vai used Free Work to Get Hired by Frank Zappa

Steve Vai, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, got his big break by sending Frank Zappa a free transcription of one of his songs. Two years later, Vai was touring and playing with Zappa. This is a perfect example of how free work can lead to incredible opportunities.
How Guitar Legend Steve Vai used Free Work to Get Hired by Frank Zappa
Photo by Franki Chamaki / Unsplash

Photo: Concart.net

Steve Vai is considered to be one of the top 10 greatest guitarists of all-time by Guitar World Magazine. He’s sold over 15 million albums, won three Grammys, and been nominated 15 times. He has recorded with Ozzy Osbourne, Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, Mary J. Blige, and Spinal Tap. His work has appeared in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Guitar Hero.

In the summer of 1978, when Steve was 18 years old, he reached out to Frank Zappa (another guitar legend who produced more than 60 albums). Steve sent Frank a complimentary transcription of Frank Zappa’s song “The Black Page.”

Here’s what happened:

[Frank] responded by putting me on salary to transcribe tons of music, everything from lead sheets to orchestral scores. The bulk of the work was guitar solos, some with their accompanying drum parts. Frank played all the guitars and Vinnie Colaiuta was the drummer. These guys used to take it out to lunch, experimenting a lot with rhythms and odd phrases. My task was to transcribe the stuff the best way I thought possible…While transcribing the material, I was often confronted with situations that led me to reach into the intuitional areas of my imagination to come up with various notational devices and constructions that I had never seen before. I soon discovered that many contemporary composers were then (and are still) using these notations.” (source)

Vai’s transcription were published in the Frank Zappa Guitar Book. During his employment with Zappa, Vai came to believe that any music could be played, so long as one started slow and perfected it. He practiced 10-15 hours per day.

By the time he was 20 years old, Vai was touring and playing with Zappa.

Yet another example of how free work works!

Thanks to James Graves for the tip :)