Steve Vai

Rock-Star DNA
Steve Vai

Recorded in 1991, Steve Vai’s Gash is an homage to his rock-and-roll past. It’s also a passion project celebrating the life of friend, Johnny “Gash” Sombrotto. Reminiscent of his guitar work with David Lee Roth, Gash is Vai at his most raw. Long on riffs and short on wankery, Vai gets down and dirty, but more importantly, pays tribute to a departed friend.

Gash sounds like it was taken from a time capsule marked “Steve Vai 1991.”
When I was a teenager, I led a dual musical life. One side of me was composing music for my high school orchestra. The other side was listening to Led Zeppelin, Queen, and rock bands of the ’70s. I was also into motorcycle culture. My brother had a Harley, and I used to hang out with him and his friends. Later when I was working with David Lee Roth, I jumped into Harley Davidson culture and got a bunch of bikes. One of my friends was a biker named John Sombrotto. When he was 21, he was riding a dirt bike along the power lines in Long Island. He got lost and climbed a high-tension wire to see where he was. Electricity went through his body, and he fell 60 feet onto a barbed-wire fence and caught fire. Sixty percent of his body was burned. Miraculously, he survived. That was when he donned the nickname “Gash” because he was all gashed up.

He was one of the most interesting people I knew; he had a great sense of humor, amazing charisma, and was completely unpredictable – total lead singer DNA. Riding with him gave me a wonderful sense of freedom and expansion. We listened to music while riding, and I thought, “I’m going to write a record I’d like to listen to when we’re riding our Harleys.” High-energy, uplifting, empowering, a sense of freedom, and a good melody. No wanky guitar solos.

I went into the studio and blasted this record out. I laid down a click track, improvised bass parts, and put guitars on it. I found a drummer in Texas named Tiffany Smith, who was an outstanding rock drummer. She laid this stuff down, and the whole record took a week, but I didn’t have a singer. It was too much of a pet project to find some great lead singer, so I thought I’d sing it myself, which was an abysmal disaster (laughs). So I thought, “I gotta get Sombrotto in the studio and see what happens.” He nailed the stuff like a boss! He had all this charisma, authenticity, and joy.

At the same time, I was working on Sex & Religion. My plan was to return to Gash after that because I only had eight songs. One I’d written was with Nikki Sixx called “New Generation.” When I went to finish it up, Sombrotto was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was so disheartened, I shelved the project for 30 years. I started listening again around the anniversary of his death, and I liked it. I thought, “I have to put this out.” The music on this record is part of my musical DNA.

It has a Roth-era feel.
The Roth stuff was very West Coast – California rock, very colorful. Gash is New York to the bone – East Coast! Also, with the West Coast bands I was in, everything you do has a committee involved. Everybody has a say, and I had to compromise. With this record, there was no committee. There was me and, “What do you want to do this morning, Steve?” I was my own committee for every aspect.

How was Sombrotto to work with while recording vocals?
A total dream! I didn’t realize he had so much control. I’m impossible when it comes to producing vocalists. It’s like a gauntlet getting stuff past me. But Sombrotto came in and owned it. All this great stuff came out of him. He loved me and respected my production skills and musicality. He was perfect to work with.

Do you remember what gear you used back then?
It happened so fast. All roads point to my Ibanez Jem EVO and my Bogner or Jose Arredondo-modded Marshalls. I wanted it to sound loose, free, and rock-and-roll.

Will there be a tour with Gash?
There is an expectation for a tour, but I don’t have any plans for that. There are great lead singers who could sing this stuff, but there’s a difference between an excellent lead singer and a rock star. You can feel rock-star DNA. Sombrotto had it above and beyond. To replace him, I’d have to find someone extraordinary. I’ll be going on tour in Europe, South America, and the rest of the world. After that, a solo acoustic vocal record with me singing.

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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