Tender Surrender – Steve Vai, 1995
As I mentioned in last week’s Track of the Week – Quincy Jones if you’ve not seen it already – this week we have another example of taking a repeating melody and building the complexity and level of variation each iteration. Tender Surrender is Steve Vai’s beautiful example of how impactful that approach can be.
I was introduced to Steve Vai by a very talented school friend when I was fifteen or so. Everyone at school knew John was a good bass player, but it wasn’t until we reached our mid-teens that he happened to mention that he could play the guitar too. As it turns out, he couldn’t just ‘play the guitar’ at all, he was an exceptionally talented lead guitarist.
John exposed me to a whole world of wonderous guitar playing and enjoyed watching my ears bleed and my brain melt as I listened to the likes of Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Tony MacAlpine, Yngwie Malmsteem, Racer X, Joe Stump and G3. I discovered tapping, harmonics, shredding, sweeping and something called ‘neo-classical guitar’ played at some kind of unfathomable hyper lightspeed.
Sadly, I don’t quite fit the profile of a heavy metal fan. In fact, a bouncer at a famous rock club in Manchester once gave me a very concerned look and said, “you do know what this place is, don’t you?” before cautiously letting me in. Luckily the quality of my headbanging soon allayed his fears.
Despite this, I am partial to a blast from Vai’s Ibanez and ‘Tender Surrender’ is one of, if not my absolute favourite. It has the perfect balance of an accessible, listenable melody with ever-increasing lashings of Vai’s unique, eloquent and expressive guitar playing. It’s this layering that builds the drama and the anticipation through the track. It isn’t showy or fast for the sake of being fast – more considered and precise in the when and the how. Each flash of brilliance is selected for maximum impact and emotional involvement. It is tender after all.
Seriously, at the three-minute mark he’s tapping and playing the tune at the same time. How?
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As Vai builds to the crescendo he also subtly builds the level of distortion too. Not enough to noticeably change the feel of the track but just enough to allow him to perform something at 3:47 that can only be described as guitar-playing ecstasy. Having built the track up into a fury of tapping, Vai slams on the brakes and transitions the guitar back to the clean sound he opened with – whilst he’s still playing. It’s impossible to describe so just take 5 minutes and one second to enjoy it. To this day it still makes me want to stand up and applaud. See, told you I was rock ‘n’ roll. I even punctuated that correctly.
There isn’t too much more to say. Just because it sounds cool Vai throws in a cameo from his wah-wah pedal before making some weird but effective sounds by what I can only assume is rattling the guitar’s bridge with the whammy bar.
It’s a phenomenal track – a word that gets overused nowadays but is fully justified here. If you enjoy I highly recommend checking out a couple of other tracks from the album too. ‘Bad Horsie’ has a mean riff and Vai makes his guitar screech like a rearing horse, that’s a winner. ‘Juice’ is fast, fun and I can guarantee that ‘Ya-Yo Gakk’ is the only time you’ll have heard a metal guitarist echo their baby’s singing. With great genius often comes slight weirdness.