By: Brian D. Holland
Joe Satriani has come a long way since his days as guitar teacher and mentor to then student, and now close friend, Steve Vai, as well as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, jazz-fusion extraordinaire Charlie Hunter, and many other successful guitarists. In his long and illustrious career, Satriani has been nominate for fifteen Grammy awards, surpassed the ten million mark in album sales and is considered by many experts as one of the top-ten greatest guitarists of all time, regardless of genre.
With an extensive knowledge of the instrument, and a keen mind for instrumental creativity, Satriani released his first solo album in 1986 entitled Not of This Earth. Though it received nominal success, and was a key element in adding his name to the list of rising young stars, it was his sophomore release, Surfing with the Alien (1987) that shot him straight to the top of the heap of the elite guitarists of his generation. By the time the next three releases hit record store shelves, the E.P. Dreaming #11 (1998), Flying in a Blue Dream (1989), and The Extremist (1992), Joe was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest guitarists of all time. His incredible in-your-face, ultramodern guitar-style is often viewed as the pinnacle of playing skill within the rock-guitar community.
That being said, the amazing thing about Satriani’s style is that he never abandons his rock ‘n’ roll roots. His compositions are melodic, rhythmic, listenable, and extremely enjoyable. As skilled and as knowledgeable a player as he is, his songs don’t reach over the heads of either the serious or casual listener, as to alienate them from his music. His music can appear futuristic and even otherworldly at times, yet his feet are always planted firmly on solid musical ground. Whether it’s a hard-driving rocker or a mellow ballad, the beat, the groove, and especially the melody are always present. This is what makes Satriani such a popular instrumental player and is one of the main contributing factors as to why he sells out concert halls worldwide and has sold over ten million albums. He has the right recipe for success in the instrumental market. In the studio and onstage, Satriani plays instrumental guitar the way people want to hear it.
Brian Holland: How’s the tour going so far?
Joe Satriani: It’s been a fantastic tour. I’m playing new music from my record Super Colossal, Eric Johnson’s opening and we’re having a really good time.
BH: Congratulations on the success of Super Colossal by the way.
JS: Thank you very much.
BH: Fifteen Grammy nominations over the years, is that right?
JS: That’s right, yeah.
BH: Ten million record sales, voted eighth among the top fifty greatest guitar players of all-time. It’s been quite the trip. Are you flying in a blue dream?
JS: Yeah, I guess so. [Laughing]
BH: Super Colossal is your twelfth studio album. Is that correct?
JS: Something like that. My perspective is different. I think in terms of overall projects. We have about twenty projects out, when you count DVDs, VHS, live and studio albums. So, it’s somewhere between ten and twelve in total.
BH: What do you like most about this particular record?
JS: The things that drove me to do it were very interesting. We’d done about fifteen months of touring. I thought I was going to do a live, rather than in the studio, record after finishing G3 in Tokyo. We did a week of shows in India. I got back to San Francisco and then went up to Vancouver to do post production for the G3: Live in Tokyo DVD. Suddenly I thought, why would I want to do another live project? It’s what I was looking at on the screen, you know.
I put the guitar away for a couple of weeks and went on a little holiday. I came back realizing that I wanted to go into the studio by myself and come up with another way of eliciting performances for myself. Another way of tweaking the guitar to get more tones, just come up with some different arrangements and other ways of recording an instrumental guitar record. So, I spent about two and a half months at my home studio basically engineering myself. Doing all the basses, guitars, and keyboards, before reaching out for Simon Phillips, Jeff Campitelli, Mike Fraser, and Eric Caudieux to help me finish the record.
The idea was to write about more interesting perspectives, to make sure that the guitar tones really told the story of what each song was about. To not hold back in any way from representing the feelings and emotions with respect to the sonic landscape. Sometimes that means being subtle and other times being bombastic. The songs range from “Ten Words,” which is a subtle approach, all the way to “Crowd Chant,” which is bombastic. That song kind of hits you over the head, as far as what it’s all about.
BH: There are many interesting rhythm guitar tracks on the CD.
JS: Where there’s an open door for artistry with rhythmic layering, it’s not just to double or triple everything to create the illusion of bigness. I did go out of my way on these sessions to try to come up with unique guitar parts. There’s plenty of layering, some of the songs might have six, seven, eight, nine or ten rhythm guitar parts, but you don’t hear them all the time. They were different guitar sounds and I would play with different attitudes. When I presented everything to Mike Fraser, my co-producer and mixer, he was able to choose which ones to feature at which points in the song.
BH: Are you the “Colossus of Rhodes” in Super Colossal?
JS: [Laughing] Well, I had this funny idea of a giant guitarist, maybe fifty feet tall, walking through town. The guitar would sound really big and low, and it would have this huge, slow, and sweeping guitar line. But when thinking deeper about the character, like if it was a little movie. I figured, well, if you’re that big then you must have a big heart and big spirit, and that means your mood swings are going to be really intense. That sort of became my theme for the record. That this giant guitar player would have a lot going on inside. So each song exposes the different gigantic emotions and mental meanderings this giant would have. Once I got that song down, I figured I’d use it as a source of inspiration.
BH: Are there ten words to describe “Ten Words?”
JS: I guess there are too many, that’s why I wound up just using that title. It’s a song that was difficult for me to decide to write. I wrote it as a personal thing and never thought I’d play it in public. But, as I was putting together the music for this record and going through manuscripts, I came across the song. With several years passing between the week of the Sept. 11th attacks and now, I felt there was a way to interpret this somehow. So people could use it as a source of inspiration.
I tried to come up with a title. I knew it had to be ten words because that was the last phrase of the melody, this ten-note phrase. I wrote several pages of phrases, and when I tried to figure out what exactly my emotions were, and how they could be represented in the song, I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t settle on just one, it was too complicated. So, at the top of the page I had written “Ten Words.” In the end I just thought, well, maybe I should just hand this over to the audience and then they can put in their own ten words.
BH: “Crowd Chant” seems like it’s become a real audience participation thing.
JS: It has. That was my idea, because I used to do a call and response on tour all the time. I think we captured it on the Live in San Francisco DVD. But what I found was that it was always a bit too frenetic, and the audiences in different areas of the world would either get it or they wouldn’t.
So, I figured I’d write a song and put it on an album so that people can really see what it is we want to do. It’s a real unifying moment between the audience and the band. I just tried to get into that stream of consciousness state when playing in my studio one day. I tried to come up with the kind of thing that would be natural for me to do. I came up with this sort of random performance. Where I’d do a riff and a little call and response, and then I’d break into a rendition of an old classical piece, from Faure, back in the 1880s, and then back into the rock licks.
After three minutes I thought, wow, that’s really weird. It’s just like how you would do it onstage and not really thinking about arrangements, just sort of winging it. I built the track around that idea. Then, when we were finishing up the drums in Vancouver we brought thirty-five people into the studio. They were just friends of the workers and engineers at the studio. We had a little party, set up some microphones, and basically did ten performances with three-hundred and fifty voices. We had pizza and beer, and we got a really loose and relaxed call and response thing happening. It turned out really great. I was happy we were able to get it on the record.
BH: Do you set aside windows of time for relaxation when you’re out on tour?
JS: It’s funny, years ago, when I was doing my very first tour for Surfing With The Alien, I checked into a haunted hotel in Austin, Texas. I didn’t know it was haunted at the time. It was a pretty unusual night, and it was a night off. I got a message that Steve Perry called, the singer in Journey. I didn’t know who he was, you know. I though it was a joke, one of my friends playing a joke on me.
So, I returned the call, and sure enough it was Steve Perry. He said, “I just wanted to say that I’m a fan, and I’m really happy for your success. But I thought I’d call and give you some advice.” I thought, well, okay, thanks. [Laughing] I said, “What is it?” And he answered, “During this period, you’re going to have to learn to relax.” Actually, I think he used the phrase “to veg out.” “Just get used to it,” he added. “If you have a night off, don’t go out. Lie in your bed in your hotel room and watch a movie, don’t do anything. Get used to not moving when you don’t have to.” I thought it was kind of strange. We talked about other things, too.
Now, every time I’m on tour I remember that phone call. That’s one of the things I do and it saves me. Doing the shows takes a lot out of me, so I don’t book my schedule to go out, party, and go crazy. I realize it’ll just wear me out. So, I’ve tried to perfect the art of doing absolutely nothing. I eat well and I try to get as much sleep as possible so that when I walk out onstage I can try to give 100% of myself to the audience.
BH: Though you’re very much one in an elite group of technical soloists, shredders even, your style doesn’t often stray too far from the roots of rock and roll.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. My roots are there.
BH: In comparison to some, you’re able to think melody as opposed to scales and speed.
JS: Absolutely. I don’t think I can really be happy with a piece of music unless I feel it’s got a real strong melody to it, some interesting harmonies, a solid groove, and a good backbeat or swing to it. Those are the things that get me off on a song.
BH: The fundamentals of rock and roll are still what it’s all about.
BH: Talk about touring with Eric Johnson. Is it kind of like a G2?
JS: [Laughing] I guess so. You know, it’s very unusual to have guitar players like this playing together. I know, because I’m a fan of guitar players. If I was thinking about going to a show and I suddenly found out that Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were going to be playing together, I’d do anything to get there. [Laughing]
Even if it were guitar players not from that era, younger and newer players, it would be the same thing. It would be a special night. So I enjoy it if people look at guitar players such as Eric and myself as like a G2, and Eric’s set is remarkable. He’s an absolute original and remarkable player. People have to go to a concert and see him to see all he’s got to give.
BH: What material are you playing in a typical Satch set these days?
JS: We’re doing about half of the new record and some of the stuff gets rearranged for the stage. We usually do a couple of unusual songs, and then we do our favorites from the website. We’re always polling the fans and asking them what they’d like to see us play live. There are some songs they really do enjoy hearing over and over again, and they know we go through periods where we reinterpret songs we’ve done for years. As well, some songs are a lot of fun to play exactly as they were originally done. So, there’s a mixture of all that.
BH: What do you think are the most important things a budding young guitarist needs to learn while attempting to become a successful instrumental-rock guitarist?
JS: First of all, it has got to be the most difficult part of the music business to try to break into. It’s so difficult because there’s not really a lot of room for instrumental-guitar music. I know everybody knows that. So I tend to tell people that all the obvious stuff still counts. You have to know what you’re doing, so that means notes, chords, and scales. You have to have a great sense of rhythm and a good sense of pitch and intonation. You have to know how to play with people and know how to play for people.
Then there are the two conflicting pieces of advice, which are, learn to sound like other people so you can get work, but develop a totally original sound at the same time so that if luck shines your way and you get that one moment to show people what you’re all about, then you’ve got something to show them. That’s important.
BH: Your compositions are often highly technical, requiring constant guitar wizardry. Do you ever worry onstage, or question your own competency, as you approach one or more of those grueling sections of an arrangement?
JS: Usually the things we come up against onstage are sound problems. I think of, say a difficult passage like “The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” from Flying In A Blue Dream. It has this unusual left-hand legato set of arpeggios that have to be played very fast at a very specific time in the song. They act as kind of a chorus. When I recorded it, I was sitting in a perfect spot in the studio. I had the perfect sound just for that part and I could hear everything very clearly. But it’s a mess of sound onstage. It’s so unbalanced I can’t even describe it. I try to tell people how difficult it is because everybody’s live around you, and measure to measure, the mix of the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar, everything is so different.
Then of course, you’re performing and moving around and you can’t stand in the perfect spot because no one can see you. People have paid money to see you do this stuff. You generally have to play in places that don’t sound the best, yet look the best from the audience’s perspective. Then there’s the sound of the stage. Every stage is totally different. Some stages have so much low end that you can’t hear any of your high strings, and sometimes there’s no low end and you have to remind yourself to stop hitting the low strings really hard. The low end is out there in the audience, it’s just not up there.
There’s a lot of internal dialogue going on like, “I know how to play this. I know how it goes and I know where my fingers go. Just because I can’t hear it right now doesn’t mean it isn’t working.” When that part comes I know that I really can’t hear it like I did in the studio. I have to rely on what it feels like and I’ve got to look down at the fretboard and count on the visuals because the sonic part is sort of a mess. That song is also difficult because the rhythm guitar, the melody guitar, and that arpeggio part really require three different sounds, and there’s just no way to work that out live.
We’ve recorded it twice live and the interesting thing is that I though the rhythm and melody sounds were perfect on Live In San Francisco, but the arpeggios weren’t good at all. We recorded another live version with a different setup and the arpeggios came out brilliant, though the riffs sounded too light. [Laughing] It’s just one of those things. I’ll work it out one of these days.
BH: Stephen King, the fiction writer, once said that an old guy smoking a cigar sometimes appears in a chair next to him. He sits there and puts ideas in his head. Though quite a fantastic story, is songwriting sometimes like that? Do the ideas come from someplace else?
JS: It can be. A strange thing I see when looking out the window will inspire me. Yesterday, I was walking around Chicago. I was walking over one of the bridges. Something real funny happened. It was just one of those things that happens when you’re not thinking and you’re just looking around.
I was in the middle of the bridge, walking, and it was a cold, gray day. I saw this pole sticking over the bridge barrier to my left. It was sort of rising out of nowhere. I immediately had this musical interpretation of this thing, just appearing out of nowhere. In a second I knew what it was. A barge was passing underneath the bridge and it was carrying this crane and poles. But all I saw was the pole first, as if it were rising out of the sea, looking straight into the air. It just got me thinking right away about some sort of sound or guitar part that worked around the fantasy of some unusual object rising out of the water, maybe in a town like Chicago, just rising out and getting larger and larger as it looms over the city.
So, there are things like that, like the old man and the cigar, which will trigger some creative impulses. Other times it’s dwelling on something, maybe a deep-seated, confused, and conflicting set of emotions or something. Maybe it’s a play for a face of a loved one or something like that. I’ve written about almost everything yet I’m continually inspired.
BH: What gear are you using these days?
JS: Basically, I use Ibanez JS1000 guitars. I have about six of them on tour. They’re pretty much setup the same way. They have DiMarzio pickups, a PAF Joe in the neck position and a Low Joe in the bridge. Some of them have threads in the bridge. These are pickups I’ve designed with DiMarzio.
I go into a couple of pedals, a combination of Dunlop, Fulltone, Digitech, and Boss. Then I go into a Peavey JSX, my 120 watt all tube head. I use the head in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I’m using the clean channel with the pedals and sometimes I’m using the two gain channels, which are quite different in personality from each other. I pretty much use that setup on the record as well, generally with only one pedal at a time.
I use the JSX Speaker Cabinet when playing live. In the studio I’ll use a Palmer Speaker Simulator most of the time, into a Millennia Media Mike pre and a Universal Audio LA-2A Limiter. I’ll record into Pro-Tools at 96k. That’s about it. I use D’Addario strings. For the live situation I like using the 9 thru 42s, and in the studio I’ll sometimes use a set of 10s or even 11s.