QUICK HIT: Looking at Steve Vai's guitar rig and the amp settings he uses for both a clean and dirty tone for live performances and his studio albums.
Steve Vai, almost exclusively, uses Legacy amplifiers that are made by Carvin, a company he has worked with since the late 1980s. Aside from owning nearly 300 different guitars, Vai is a self-proclaimed minimalist, who prefers a straightforward approach to amps and pedal tones. In an interview with Premier Guitar's Rebecca Dirks, Vai covered his entire rig, affording us a couple close up looks at the legacy amps he runs for both live performances and recording sessions.
In that particular setup, he was using the following amps:
- Legacy I with a clean and dirty channel
- Legacy I (backup) with a clean and dirty channel
- Legacy III with three different channels
I'll go through the settings for Vai's Legacy I clean and dirty channels as well as the first two channels in his Legacy III, giving us a total of four Steve Vai amp settings. If you're looking for a more general guide, checkout our main guitar amp settings article.
Gear that Steve Vai Most Commonly Uses
Carvin Legacy Amp Heads
Steve Vai JEM77
Morley Bad Horsie Signature Wah Pedal
Legacy I Clean Setting
- Reverb: 0
- Treble: 7
- Mid: 7
- Bass: 7.5
- Volume: 3
This is an extremely simple EQ for Vai's base clean tone, which serves as a canvas for most of his effects use.
Legacy I Dirty Setting
- Reverb: 0
- Treble: 8
- Mid: 5
- Bass: 7
- Drive: 6
Vai cuts the midrange and gives treble a slight bump here, where otherwise this channel is similar to the clean channel on the same amp. In the interview I referenced earlier, Vai said he added the Legacy III to give himself a little more versatility, just because the two channels on the Legacy I felt limiting.
Thus, it stands to reason that Steve Vai's amp setting are not something he's entirely consistent with. His sound relies more heavily on his own playing style and technique than it does the gear he uses.
That's something to keep in mind for those trying to re-create his tone.
Legacy III First Two Channels
- Treble: 3
- Mid: 1.5
- Bass: 5
- Boost Knob: 7
- Reverb: 0
- Treble: 7.5
- Mid: 6
- Bass: 7
- Presence: 6
- Drive: 7
There are a couple trends here worth mentioning. First, it seems like Vai, for every two channels he uses, dedicates one to cutting midrange. We see this on both the Legacy I and Legacy III amp heads. Second, he doesn't seem to use a lot of gain, though it's unclear how much of his distortion he gets from his amp and how much he's off-loading to his Fractal Audio Axe-FX II unit.
As mentioned, the Legacy III is just to give him some more options and more variety with the additional channels.
His core tone and amp settings come from the first two channels in the Legacy I.
The Rest of Steve Vai's Rig
Vai's Ibanez signature guitars and Carvin signature amp heads are, without a doubt, the two most consistent and characterizing parts of his rig. However, he also uses a handful of effects pedals and the Fractal Audio processor I mentioned, which is responsible for a lot of the effects he's using, both on stage and in the studio.
As far as pedals used outside of that system, his Morley Bad Horsie wah pedal is the one that gets the most attention (more on that later).
Here's a diagram of Vai's rig from several years ago. While it is somewhat outdated, it's not tremendously far off from what he's using today.
In this diagram Vai is running a DS-1 distortion, which is missing from his current setup, as it has likely been replaced by the Axe-FX II system.
Here's a look at that setup from the Premier Guitar interview:
Steve Vai's Pedalboard
The Axe-FX II unit is controlled by a MIDI foot controller (also a Fractal Audio product) on Vai's pedalboard.
The complexity of the Axe-FX II system is pretty remarkable, which makes this part of Vai's tone extremely difficult to replicate. Though if you listen to him live and even on his albums, his use of effects is fairly simple and straightforward. He's not really known for his effects use the same way a guy like Tom Morello is.
Again, Vai's tone is more wrapped up in his technical ability and the way he handles the fretboard.
Steve Vai's Wah Pedal
One pedal that I do think deserves more mention is the Morley Bad Horsie wah I referenced earlier, which is Vai's signature wah pedal, and the one I've happened to use since I was 16 years old. Here's a shot of the Bad Horsie II on his pedalboard alongside a DigiTech Whammy and a Dunlop volume pedal:
Morley's Bad Horsie wah pedals are switchless, which means you can just step on to engage and then let the pedal kick back to return to the "off" position. For years now it has been my favorite pedal and I still have the original one that I got for my 16th birthday.
Vai also has a DigiTech whammy pedal, an MXR Phase 90 and a Dunlop volume pedal.
Takeaways and Conclusion
Vai's amp settings are not complex, nor are they the most defining characteristic of his sound. If you're playing his songs or mimicking his sound, I would recommend making sure you've covered the following basics:
- Moderate amounts of gain (Vai isn't a huge distortion guy)
- One channel for a matching three-band EQ (everything at 7)
- Second channel for cutting mids
Aside from these three things, it's playing style, nuanced mechanics and technical prowess that make Steve Vai's amp settings work. One guy I know who is really good at this type of playing (aside from Vai himself) is Cesar Huesca. His covers of Vai songs are spot-on:
Your Questions and Comments
If you have questions about the settings I've posted or about other aspects of Vai's guitar rig, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Additionally, if you have insight into Vai's sound or other thoughts you'd like to share from your own experience, those are fair game as well.