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Steve Always Wins: The Crossroads Intimidation Breakdown

Transcribing Vai's Crossroads picking gem

By January 22, 2014 February 3rd, 2017 codenews, Lessons

In 1986, Steve Vai was having one of those years. March saw the debut of the film Crossroads, for which Steve wrote and performed both the rock and neoclassical sequences of the now-famous guitar duel, and in which he also landed a starring role as the devil’s swaggering henchman, Jack Butler. Trailer clips of the film’s climactic musical showdown, with its mesmerizing cascade of diminished arpeggios, had just begun to explode adolescent minds across the country when David Lee Roth stepped into the studio with Steve to record his highly anticipated post-Van Halen grudge album.

When that record, Eat ‘Em And Smile, was sent to the lathe in July of that year, Vai was catapulted from talented upstart to the ranks of the rarefied. Guitar Magazines nearly herniated themselves in the rush to pen think pieces measuring him against the default yardstick of Eddie’s vast influence. Adjectives like “talented” and “iconic” were weighed. Typewriter keys clacked. Coffee mugs were drained and refilled. Music videos were filmed. Fans were alternately thrilled or scared — or both — depending upon their allegiances. Steve’s sudden ubiquity was so complete, it was almost as though he’d made a deal with the Dave-il.

As it happens, Vai’s performances, both on the album and in the film, justified the hype. Those glittering arpeggios may have been the centerpiece of the film’s marketing campaign, but the entire scene was a Vai romp. The tasty blues jam that precedes the throwdown is punctuated by sinister slides, daring harmonics, and slippery arpeggiated runs straight out of what would soon become the Eat ‘Em and Smile playbook.

The Intimidation Breakdown

In one memorable moment, Steve’s tosses his guitar to a body man as he flicks off his jacket in a display of barroom bravado. An instant later, the guitar is whirled through an aerial arc, the strap is slung now over a bare shoulder, and his Paganini-like fingers launch a slashing dive of sparkling picking clarity that slices the juke joint haze like a blade. The run ends in a devastating right-hand harmonic shake as Steve nods to the band. It’s on.

Steve launches this ferocious and precise attack with his glare locked not on his fretboard or his picking hand, but on his adversary. As a teenager, I was terrified. I was also surprised that such a domineering display seemed to sneak past the script, in a way almost stealing the thunder of the ensuing slugfest. The “intimidation breakdown”, as I’d taken to calling it, was almost too good.

The Crossroads producers clearly struck paydirt in nabbing Vai for the role, poised as he was on the precipice of global notoriety, and arriving on set with so much skill and so much charisma. Nearly thirty years later, viewing the prescience of this selection in hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine who else would have possessed the musical versatility and inner histrionic ham to have pulled it off. Steve’s simultaneously studied and dangerously freewheeling musical performance is topped only by his deliciously diabolical, scene-chewing characterization of Butler himself.

Steve Always Wins

As Steve gloats and grimaces and pouts his way through the duel’s thrilling final moments, it’s easy to see why he won Roth’s nod to reinvigorate the base. Wearing both of the film’s musical white and black hats, Steve had rigged the duel from the get-go. Whether you were an Eddie or a Randy fan, a Roth or a Hagar fan — or for that matter a Karate Kid or a Jack Butler fan — it didn’t matter. Because in the end, with the year he was having, it was always going to be Steve that wins.

Highlights & Tab


  • Chris says:

    What a great freakin’ lesson, Troy! Really, really nice.

  • Troy Grady says:

    Awesome thanks Chris!

  • KTH says:

    WOW! Great lesson and incredible playing.

  • SR says:

    I have been waiting for you Ali-like return to the ring for so long! You have no idea how excited I was to see “Cracking the Code” back in my inbox.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Ha, thanks! But you know, as awesome as “When We Were Kings” was, those last few fights really hurt him — Ali really should’ve never come back!

  • Dude, you should set up some kind of social networking presence (or if you have one, I can’t find it which is troubling) as this stuff needs to be shared quickly and easily! Immense! 🙂

  • Steve Davis says:

    Hey Troy! Great material, lessons, series, playing — lovin’ it all, man! Much admiration, sir. And thank you for taking on such an ambitious project like this — which turns out to be exactly the evolution (and frustration) that many guitar players go thru or have been thru. Great work and I can’t wait to see what is coming!! :::==={=o|}

  • Gregg Wolin says:

    Love the series! So which amp did you end up buying after your “shopping” video some years back. Besides morbid curiosity, I just sold my AxeFX II and want to get a nice tube amp (Friedman, Splawn, Bray, PWE) and remembered that you demoed a Roccaforte. I am looking at a Custom 40 head and would be grateful for any input you might have.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Gregg! Everything in this lesson — and most of the Cracking the Code stuff, actually — is a Cornford Hellcat, which I ordered after that demo. It had the most gain and harmonics, the tightest bass, and least fizz, of any of the amps I played. Keep in mind I’m really an ’80s rock/metal kind of guy, so that’s what I look for. The Hellcat is basically tailored to behave itself even with the gain knob pegged, with no fizz-cut EQ or Tubescreamer bass tightening required. If you’re looking at amps like the Custom 40, which I believe is more in the medium-gain crunch territory, that’s another thing entirely. Best of luck, sounds like fun.

  • Al says:

    Hey Troy, this lesson was awsome! All your lessons really are, as you really go deep in the analysis of the playing style of the musicians.
    and with this lesson, you explained really well some of my favourite Vai-licks, especially those fast repeating licks.
    thanx again !

  • Chris says:

    Your LP sounds great!!! Which Duncans do you have in it?

    • Troy Grady says:

      Thanks! That’s actually the stock bridge pickup you’re hearing. It’s a Gibson 500T — an overwound, high-output modern metal pickup. I didn’t know this when I bought it — I just played it in the store, liked it, and took it home. It was only a few years later that I noticed that the pickup was actually backed off the strings about 1/4″ on the bass side. Ordinarily this would be too far, but in this case it kept the pickup from getting too gainy/fuzzy, and makes the tone a little darker. I’ve tried other pickups, like Duncan Antiquities, but I found them piercingly bright. So I put the “metal” pickup back in, backed off at 1/4″, and now that’s how I keep it set up!

      I did put a Duncan ’59 in the neck which I ripped from a Washburn, but I almost never play the neck pickup.

      • Chris says:

        Is that a 1/4″ with the string depressed at the last fret on the low and high E ???

        • Troy Grady says:

          Nope, nothing fretted. This is how you’d play an open E pedal tone anyway, so I think it only makes sense to look at that distance when tailoring the bass response. That’s a 1/4″ on the bass side, and about 3/16″ on the treble side.

  • Ocean says:

    Hey Troy, I have been playing guitar for 30 years and after watching all of season one and this Vai Cross Roads lesson – These are THE BEST doc, story, love letter, and instructions to guitar I have seen. Awesome work!
    Question – Will season 2 and 3 be more lesson orientated as per the Vai lesson – Or are these a separate entity?

    In any case – i’m signing up. Great work – MORE please!

    • Troy Grady says:

      Indeed, Season 2 will be much more technically dense, like the Vai lesson and the Arcade lesson. A nearly complete framework for advanced picking will be laid out in a way that has not been done before. But it will have the look of the Season 1 episodes. Best of both worlds!

      Thanks for watching!

  • Lou Borella says:

    Troy great job on the lesson. But also great job on the video. You’ve got some Ae skills working for you!!! You put some effort into the production value and it shows. Obviously you did some pre-production as well. Knowing how long to pause a lick so you can leave room for the VO shows the effort. I applaud you.

    Now all you have to do is white balance your video next time!!! HA!!!

    Looking forward to more. I might even blog about your site.

    Lou …

    • Troy Grady says:

      Oh, sure, and next you’ll tell me “The Matrix” was too green for you!

      Thanks for the note and the kind words. I’ve actually never used After Effects — the Vai video along with most of the show is Motion.

      The secret to the lick timing is that the voiceover is actually playing through the studio monitors. You can actually see it on the Macbook behind me in some shots.

      Thanks for watching!

      • Lou Borella says:

        Troy are you writing and recording all the music in the videos that are on the site?
        I’m in the process of writing about your site for my site TheProMacBlog.com and I want to make sure I get my facts straight!!
        You can contact me directly at Lou@vg3tv.com


  • Hans Haskell says:


    This is hands down the best guitar tutorial / riff breakdown I have seen on the Internet – ever. Excellent work!

    When watching the first season, I could see that you have struggled with the same exact issues that I did growing up playing guitar in the 80’s. The difference is that you got past that plateau and I didn’t. I’m looking forward to breaking through that starting with season 2. Thanks for the hard work that you clearly put into this!

    – H

    • Troy Grady says:

      Thanks Hans! I think we’ve all followed a similar path in wrestling with this challenging instrument. We’re already working on Season 2, and we’re shooting to make it the best analysis of picking technique ever done. Stay tuned.

      Thanks for watching!

  • Bossk says:

    Hey Troy,

    I’ve been following the project since 2004 and struggling with alternate picking for 2 times that long. I’ve even taken lessons with two of the players featured in the film, but despite the thousands of hours of metronome practice over many, many years, alternate picking has just never come together for me, in fact I’d say it remains a struggle. I always feel like there is something eluding me, but I’m ever sure if there’s some sort of hitch in my playing, if it’s as simple as some minor change in how I pick, or if I need complete overhaul, or maybe even I am just unable physiologically to pick fast? I’ve pre-ordered Season 2, Side A, but I was wondering if you could clear up if it’s more of just a look at the mechanics of certain players and how they do it, or does it also provide an actual blueprint to really improve or even rebuild one’s picking technique to high level of proficiency given enough time and practice? I don’t expect a magic elixir (though if you have on I’ll pre-order that as well) but I was wondering if, in your opinion, the film truly has the ability to really help players like myself who have struggled for so long in spite of the hard work we’ve put in?


    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi! Sorry for the delay in responding — something’s up with WordPress comment notification, and I didn’t see this until just now.

      Short answer, Season 2 is probably what you’re looking for. Like season 1, it’s the story of how my own technique developed. But this time, instead of losing at guitar contests (!), this is the part of the story where we actually start winning. The first few steps we take in breaking down the puzzle of picking mechanics are not only really powerful, but also conceptually simple, and easy for just about anyone to implement. This will be clear when you watch the first few episodes.

      Thanks so much for preordering, and stay tuned!

  • Joshua says:

    Love the lesson and break down! At the age of 38 and just starting to learn guitar, I am encouraged to see things like this on the internet. It keeps me motivated and willing to put in the work to get my skills where they need to be. Just curious though. I know that you said Steve Via composed both parts of the duel, which break down is the last one that Ralph played? My ear is still young and I want to say it was the Circular Sixes, but I am unsure.

    Thanks again. I do hope to see more!

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Josh! There are several components to this. Ralph’s blues stuff — all that juicy slide playing — was written and performed by Ry Cooder, and mimed by Ralph. The neoclassical section that follows, with its famous cascading arpeggios, was also mimed by Ralph, but written and performed by Vai. Despite its renown, that section is not covered here, precisely because there are so many other lessons on the internet that address it. We wanted to do something that you couldn’t get anywhere else, and I always wanted to read more about Steve’s ripping blues rock intro (what I call the “Intimidation Breakdown”), as well as his “finishing move” of partial picking pentatonic prowess (what I call the “Evil Solo”). So that’s what we did.

      Best of luck with the playing!

  • Jon says:

    Thanks, Troy. I’ve been looking for a lesson on this particular run, and you delivered in a huge way. Great lesson. Great perspective. Thank you!

  • orlando says:


    for example what finger do i use for the 17 to 15 slide, the ring finger ?

    i always found that transfer from the legato on 17 and 19, to the 12 and 15 hard to do, i didn’t realize you could use slide, i was using pull off from 17p15p12

  • orlando says:


    The evil solo is not complete, I mean, it continues after that pinched harmonic, would you ever tab this, I already have the tabs from other places, and they seem accurate, but you never know

    Would you ever tab the eugenes trick bag, too much work probably, but there are so many version, and so many ways to play that arpeggio sequence, and none of them tell you what fingers and pick strokes to use. I always have problem with this arpeggio, but the rest is straightforward

  • Murray says:

    crazy lick, will probably be trying for years to be able to play it correctly!

    • Troy Grady says:

      I take no responsibility for any lack of sunshine / avoiding of friends that may occur here! Kidding aside, I’d really recommend starting with something like the Yngwie six-note pattern from Season 2 Episode 1. It’s the fastest way to learn downward pickslanting, and that is the technique that is used here in this Vai lick. There are a few cases where Steve switches strings after downstrokes, which are a little problematic for downward pickslanting, but only two of them. The rest of the entire lick is Yngwie-style dwps.

  • Jeremy says:

    Troy, you are a rare being. Thank you SO much! If you’re ever near Springfield, Ohio I’ll buy you dinner!

  • Tom says:

    Hey Troy quick question about the intimidation lick, when you played the fast version measure 4 from the tab does not match. I slowed the video down and you skipped 3 notes shown in the tabs but played them in slow version? A little confused and just want to make sure (:

  • Nick says:

    Hello Troy. Thank you very much for all the effort you put into this series. It has already opened my eye and fingers to quite a number of techniques and ways to play them that I never thought of before. I have the same question as Tom above. I’m trying to play the lick with your fast version slowed down, but something is missing. Which way does Vai play it? Cheers and thanks a lot.

    • Troy Grady says:

      Hi Nick! It’s true, I left out three notes in the “linked pattern of sevens” sequence. In the discussion, and the slow version which you can see in the clip on this page, it’s correct. The fast clips are incorrect.

  • Paul M. says:

    Merry Christmas, Troy. I stumbled across your “crack the code” series yesterday and have enjoyed it immensely. My 15 year-old-son thinks he’s ready to tackle the Vai version of the 5th Caprice. Have you transcribed the whole thing by any chance? My apologies if you’ve posted it and I overlooked it. Best, Paul

    • Troy Grady says:

      We have not. In fact, we did the “Intimidation” lesson precisely because there were already so many lessons on the classic guitar duel already on YouTube, and we wanted to do something a little different. We’re not opposed to taking a look at the big neoclassical showdown, but there are so many possible ways of playing it — all of which work — that the most interesting lesson on this is probably the one that analyzes Steve’s pickslanting choices precisely, and not just another “here’s a way to play it”. I’m not aware of any complete video of Steve himself doing it aside from very passing glimpses in the movie, so we may need to wait until we can corner him and get him to play it!

  • hadi says:

    where is the tab ??????
    i cant find it
    can you sent it to my email، please?

  • Jeff Taylor says:

    Hey great insights into this part of the movie that blew me away when I first saw it. The trouble I’m having is with the tab, I can’t feel where the chunking would occur especially at the end. So on last line, A string 10th fret (G) that begins again the final 7’s sequence, cannot feel that in the context of the previous sequence(s). I’ve tried in duple and triple meters but that note always feels like an upbeat to me and that jacks the remainder of the phrase when I play it.

    I realize it probably more of a rubato flash intro but for the sake of “feeling the flow” where the heck does that last sequence fall, beat-wise? I’d be curious to see it notated as well if you have it already to post.

  • Mark Walsh says:

    Hey, I’m definitely a fan of everything you’re doing here…you & I are kinda similar in some ways, but we’re from WAY different backgrounds… I started playing at age 2 because my dad’s played guitar all his life (for the most part) & he put himself through engineering school with his Stratocaster. So, I started with a Stratocaster, I grew up with a Stratocaster (oddly enough, I’ve found that Telecasters are what I’m most comfortable with & even more oddly, I don’t really care for a large majority of country music very much at all…my musical roots came from blues that being what my dad was into) I’d like to see you tackle Stevie Ray Vaughan. & If you’re like every other guitarist I know of, they’re PERPLEXED by how Stevie Ray Vaughan gets his tone, but my dad, struggling to get it since before SRV Died, FINALLY figured out SRV’s tone…

  • Engin says:

    Thanks for sharing. I am subscribed to you on youtube. You are the best!

  • Craig says:

    Absolutely amazing. In almost 40 years of learning, studying, and even teaching guitar myself….I’ve never seen anyone that is even close to having your ability to explain so much, so effortlessly. I feel like a 12 year old kid with my first guitar all over again. 🙂

    Just one question if you don’t mind… do you have the tablature for the licks in this video available for download in Guitar Pro format?

    Thanks Troy, for opening some old eyes to new possibilities.

  • Jose oliveira says:

    The explanation of the guitar technique is really fantastic. This is not a ease task. So congratulation. You are successful due to years of hard working and interrest of knowing what and how the guitar masters achieved to such incredible technique. I’m still have some doubt about the inside picking, the motion of the hand etc. thanks a lot.

  • Jamie says:


    Thanks for all the hard work and dedication that went into figuring out this bad ass passage! Ever crack anything from the GREAT UNDERATED Nuno Bettencourt?

  • Angel Otero says:

    Troy, Thanks for the break down of Steve Vai…..I have always played legato and never worked on strengthening my picking skills because it requires extensive practice. Well, after seeing your lesson I’m motivated to work on that weakness BUT it’s a little depressing because I feel SO inadequate. I’m attempting to focus on the basic principles and mechanics for 15 minutes daily. Again, thank you for your time and instruction.

  • Braddog says:

    This is great ~ is there a way to get the picking description of the other circular six pattern from the Vai stuff (or a way to buy just that whole few lessons?) that is more like the Paul Gilbert ascending b and e string (string switching lick)? I.e. is it played DUD (R) U (R) DUD starting with dwps or Uwps or something other??? Thx | hope this made sense, if already broke down and explained can I please get a link? Cheers

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