By Ashley Zimmerman
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Joe Satriani is more than just a guitar hero. He's also a musician who's helped forge the way for plenty of other guitar heroes by curating the G3 Tour, a traveling celebration of the world's most impressive and unique guitarists. Satriani's dedication to basking in the feedbacking glory of the six-stringed church has given him a remarkably unpredictable career as an instrumentalist and sideman. He's always fought to avoid the trappings of other fret athletes, choosing instead the path of melody and harmonic content over lightning-speed chops and showy techniques.
Satch is currently enjoying the success of his most recent critically lauded instrumental guitar album, Unstoppable Momentum. We spoke with the legend about finding new things to say on the guitar this deep into his career and his time working with some guy named Mick Jagger.
New Times: Having had a career as long as yours, how do you keep things exciting in instrumental guitar music?
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Joe Satriani: That's a great question! I guess I ask myself that all the time, and I think that, at least what I put myself into, is a spot where I'm doing something different — where I'm challenging what constitutes a guitar instrumental.
It'd be easy to set up a groove and then to just throw a barrage of technique out, but that always left me kind of cold, so I don't listen to music where players are doing that. I'm always looking for a great melody, really good interplay with the rhythm structure; I'm looking for unusual harmony; I'm looking for a piece of music that I'm going to listen to for 20 years, over and over again, and find something different about it. That pushes aside all of those instrumentals where it's all about the instrumentalist saying, "Listen to me! Look at what I can do!"
So sometimes that means you've got to take the risk of being very subtle. I guess that's what it is. My heroes — Hendrix, Jeff Beck — guys that did a lot of instrumental work, were like that. They weren't always selling themselves; they were trying to do different things all of the time.
A staggering number of your former pupils have gone on to become successful musicians. Could you offer any insight as to why your methods have helped push so many players so far, and if you had a favorite student over the years.
Well, I gotta say, I was one of the luckiest guitar teachers around because I had a handful of people come in who were just very dedicated and unique, and they were talented, and they were very different from each other.
Steve Vai, you know, I taught when we were both kids. And I moved to California, and in one given week, I would give lessons to Kirk Hammett and Larry LaLonde and Charlie Hunter and Alex Skolnick. These guys I mentioned, very little about them is the same; they're so unique in their personalities. But they were driven... I tried not to influence them stylistically. I just tried to show them every choice they could possibly have in any given musical situation as a guitar player.
A lot of people might not know that you spent a bit of time in Mick Jagger's solo group, and I was curious if you had any good stories from that time in your career or could possibly tell me how that partnership arose.
That was a great turn of events for me, the most unlikely! January of '88, I'm on my very first tour as an instrumental solo artist, never done it before in my life, scratching my head every night trying to figure out how to pull off the gig and losing several thousand dollars a week on this three-week tour. Two weeks into the tour, I get a call when I'm in Boston from my friends at Bill Graham Presents, who were running the Jagger tour in New York City, and they asked if I'd come down for an audition. And I thought, "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard in my life. I'm definitely going to do it, but I know I'm not going to get the gig." Because I never thought of myself as ready for prime time.
But I did get the gig, and Jagger turned out to be one of the coolest guys I've ever met in my life. Great performer, very funny, and interesting to hang around with in the band room, backstage, after the gigs. And of course onstage, he was the most aggressive and most tireless performer I've ever encountered. He just loved his audience, he loved performing, and he'd do anything to help everybody have a great show. I was just blown away by that. It gave me kind of a renewed sense of how you can be a good band leader and an inspiration to the whole crew with how you behave and how you run a show — he was really that good.