Steve Vai played with a wide variety of acts during the '80s -- Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, John Lydon's PiL, and Whitesnake, among others -- as he became one of rock's most sought-after hired guns. In addition, Vai launched his own solo career, which come the '90s would be his sole career focus. Sharing the same track listing as 2003's Infinite Steve Vai: An Anthology, the 2011 double-disc set The Essential Steve Vai is comprised almost entirely of Vai's solo work (save for a Whitesnake song, "Kittens Got Claws," and one by the obscure outfit Alcatrazz, "Lighter Shade of Green"). While most "guitar shredders" got a bad rap during the '90s, Vai was always an exception to the rule -- there's no secret that Vai was one of the most technically accomplished guitarists in all of rock, but he always knew to put songwriting before soloing (something that most of the other guitarists of the era failed to do), and inject his wacky sense of humor into his playing. If you're unfamiliar with Vai's work, go straight to the tracks from his first two solo releases, 1984's Flex-Able and 1990's Passion and Warfare, especially such ditties as "The Attitude Song," "For the Love of God," "The Animal," and the very Zappa-ish "Salamanders in the Sun." One complaint about The Essential Steve Vai is that the latter-day tracks far outweigh his superior earlier material -- tracks such as "Bad Horsie" and "Frank" are worthy, but there are several tracks that unquestionably should have been included ("Call It Sleep," "Erotic Nightmares," "Sisters," and Vai's sole solo MTV hit, "The Audience Is Listening"), while another criticism is that no Roth, Zappa, or PiL tracks are featured. Still, The Essential Steve Vai by and large serves as both a solid career overview and introduction to this one-of-a-kind guitarist.