Steve Vai attended Carle Place High School on Long Island, New York, where he took guitar lessons from an older fellow student, Joe Satriani. Soon after, he began wowing local audiences with his band, Rayge.
While attending the Berklee College of Music in 1979, Vai called Frank Zappa on a lark. Soon after, Vai began transcribing music for Zappa, the first of which was for the complex composition "The Black Page." A year later, Vai was invited to join Zappa's touring band.
His solo debut album, Flex-Able, has been issued several times over the years. It was originally released on vinyl via Urantia Records in 1984, reissued as a CD with bonus tracks via Akashic Records in 1988, and then remastered and reissued via Epic Records in 1997.
Vai replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in the melodic metal band, Alcatrazz, in 1984. When Vai left the group in 1985 to join David Lee Roth's band, Danny Johnson replaced him.
On the eve of embarking on the inaugural tour of the David Lee Roth Band, almost all of Vai's guitars were stolen. As he recounted to Guitar Player magazine in 1987, "They were left locked up in a theater in a big giant container... left overnight. They just went in there and snip-snip."
Since 1987, Vai has exclusively played Ibanez guitars, including several variations off his own model, JEM. One such model, the Ibanez Universe, was issued in 1990 as a seven-string instrument, which several years later, would become the go-to-guitar of Korn's James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch.
His 2005 studio album, Real Illusions: Reflections, is a concept album. Talking to Classic Rock magazine, Vai described the storyline: "We see the story through the eyes of this one character, Captain Drake Mason, who is basically insane as a result of some of the things that he had to go through in his life, and some of the things that he had done. To put it into a nutshell, it’s how he discovers himself, in a sense."
Vai has played guitar on recordings by a wide variety of other artists, including Public Image Ltd, Alice Cooper, Joe Jackson, The Yardbirds, Motörhead, and Meat Loaf, among many others, as well as penning a tune for Ozzy Osbourne ("My Little Man").
He has been coming up with a steady stream of "song snippets" since he was in high school - typically one to three a day. After a while he realized this could be a burden. "I would need ten lifetimes just for the snippets that I've recorded in this lifetime so far," he said in his 2015 Songfacts interview
. "One of the big challenges for me is letting go of a lot of the music that I thought that I would be able to make."