Emerald Guitars Founder Talks Steve Vai 'Ultra Guitar', Guitar Building And More

Alongside Prince's purple symbol guitar and George Lynch's "Mr. Scary" guitar stands one of rock's most unique axes in Steve Vai's "Ultra Guitar". 

Based off the futuristic illustration on the cover of his 1999 album "The Ultra Zone", Vai was given a realistic live replica of the Ultra Guitar created by a guitar builder and founder of Emerald Guitars, Alistair Hay. 

After 10 years of sitting in his home studio, Harmony Hut Studio, Vai announced that the Ultra Guitar would finally become part of his touring rig. Though the guitar checked out fine prior to the tour, Hay brought it back to Ireland to add various LED's and lasers to the guitar for a better live experience. 

After nearly 1,000 hours of work and over 10 years in Vai's private collection, the Ultra Guitar finally made its live debut last month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From there, Vai — and his newly refined Ultra Guitar — will embark on a four-month tour spanning North America and Europe in support of his latest release, The Story of Light

To celebrate the milestone, Emerald Guitars is offering a limited run of 100 Ultra Guitars made to the same specs and standards as Vai's. 

ProGuitarNews.com had a chance to speak with Emerald Guitars founder and Ultra Guitar builder Alistair Hay to discuss the guitar.



Pro Guitar News: The Ultra Guitar you built for Steve Vai is a spot-on accurate replica of the futuristic illustrated guitar on the cover of his album "Ultra Zone". What initially gave you the idea to build a life-size replica of the guitar and what previous guitar building experience have you had prior to that?
   
Alistair Hay: Well, I wouldn't go as far as to say a spot on replica, but its pretty close. Some things had to be changed a little to make it actually function. 

I went to see Steve play the Dublin leg of his Ultra Zone tour way back in 2000, and he came out on stage with this crazy headpiece, looking kind of like the Alien from the album cover but he was just using his white Ibanez Gem. Behind him was a backdrop of the album cover and instantly I decided I needed to bring the Ultra Guitar to life.
 
I went home from the concert inspired and started to build the Ultra guitar the very next day not fully understanding what a challenge lay ahead. I took out the album cover and used it to create scale drawings and then started to carve out the shape. At this stage I was a relative newcomer to guitar building and had only been building guitars for a couple of years, purely only for myself as a way to develop my skills and processes. The crazy thing is at that time I had only been building acoustic guitars, so the Ultra was the very first electric guitar I ever made. 

PGN: The Ultra guitars features not only an intricate body shape, but a chameleon paint job and built-in LED's and lasers. What was the most difficult step along the way in building the guitar?
   
Hay: I think every step of this guitar was difficult, especially due to the fact that I had never made an electric before. I had a few things to figure out there. I think the most challenging aspect was getting the design right. I knew that the guitar had to be functional, but I also wanted it to echo the album cover in a major way. The first step in getting the design right was to work out how to tune it as ordinary tuners just wouldnt match the design, so I went out and bought a Steinberger and stripped the parts. It was using the Steinberger bridge that gave me the freedom to stay true to the original design.

The body was carved from a block of foam and then covered with carbon fiber and it was the use of these materials that allowed me to create the intricate detail while maintaining strength and keeping the guitar light weight.

Choosing a color was another major step, but I had this Chameleon color changing paint that I had used on another project and it was just perfect to create that Alien bio-mechanical feel. 

The Led's and Lasers were actually only added to the guitar earlier this year to add a little spice for the tour.
One of the biggest hurdles in building this guitar was when I got to the end and realised I didn't even own an amp to plug it in and test it. Looking back it seems ridiculous that I would even try to build the Ultra with my lack of knowledge and experience, but the inspiration of building a guitar for the guitarist that inspired me to get into guitar in the first place was enough to force me to learn what I didn't know and keep trying until I got it right. I put an estimated 1000 hours into building that guitar, but it was worth every second. 


PGN: Having presented the guitar to Vai himself, what was his initial reaction to seeing the Ultra Guitar? Also, how gratifying is it to see Steve play the guitar on tour?
  
Hay: I had the privilege to present the Ultra to Steve at his Harmony Hut studio. It was a surreal feeling to be pulling up at Steve Vai's house. We went out into the studio and I set the case on the floor, I handed Steve the Ultra Zone album cover then opened the case. His first words were "Holy shit," I'll never forget it. He spent a few minutes going back and forth comparing the guitar to the album cover before plugging it in and playing it. That was just the most inspiring moment of my life. It was all worth while at that point.
 
I had always hoped Steve would use the Ultra on stage but the Ultra Zone tour had finished and I guess the opportunity just never arose. Finally out of the blue last November, Steve told me he was taking it out on tour and that dream finally became a reality on the 15th of August in Florida, and I was there to see it make its stage debut. That night, the Ultra went from being a piece of art to being a guitar. It was an amazing thing to complete a journey that started 11 years previous. 

PGN: You recently re-launched Emerald Guitar Company, your own line of guitars and basses. What was the deciding factor on going forth with turning your original idea into a full guitar building operation?
   
Hay: Actually, the Emerald Guitar company came into being around the same time as I made the Ultra back in 2000, and in fact, the Ultra was the very first guitar that left my possession so essentially its Emerald number 1.
  
From the first time I started to build a guitar I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It just encompassed all my passions; art, design, engineering and the guitar. It seemed like the most challenging and rewarding career imaginable, and thats pretty much how its turned out. Lots of challenges and lots of reward. The reward is in seeing a guitar that I made being played. That makes me smile every time.
 
Over the years we have built up a strong business with a full line of acoustic guitars and acoustic and electric basses, all made from carbon fiber. I think that initial connection with Steve has had a big effect on the direction of the company, and has certainly influenced many of our unusual custom creations, as well as the fact that we have a very strong line of seven string acoustic guitars. 


PGN: You announced last week that a limited edition run of 100 Ultra guitars will be built to the same specs and standards as Steve Vai's Ultra guitar. Talk a bit about how our readers can go about purchasing the Ultra guitar replica. 
   
Hay: When we had the Ultra back here in the factory earlier this year we got permission from Steve to create a mold from it. This now allows us to create an exact replica of the Ultra, and we have been working very hard to replicate every detail including the Lasers, Led's and it even comes in a pod case like the original. This is truly a unique opportunity for us and for guitar collectors. The Ultra is playing a focal role in Steves current tour and we are very proud to be able to make this available to the public.
   
The Ultra replica can now be pre ordered at www.emeraldguitars.com for $8,500. You will find all the information about the guitar there and I am personally answering all queries about the series so you can email me at info@emeraldguitars.com 

PGN: Finally, thank you much for your time, Alistair. Much appreciated!

Hay: You're welcome. It's always a privilege to share a little of this story.


You can visit Emerald Guitars online at www.EmeraldGuitars.com. Also, be sure to follow Emerald Guitars on Twitter: @EmeraldGuitar, as well as Pro Guitar News: @ProGuitarNews

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