Joe Satriani is more than just a guitar hero. He's also a musician who's helped forge the way for 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 feed-backing 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 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, how perception matters more than intent, 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?
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.
As you said earlier, 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 twenty 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.
Jeff Beck is a great example because everything Beck does is a musical statement rather than a statement of the ego, but the ego is inherent in what he does because of the attitude he applies to everything.
It's a tough thing. When I'm making records, myself and my friends, we're always wondering if we're going too far or if we haven't gone far enough. When you have a crazy song like a "Three Sheets to the Wind," it's whimsical and I remember playing the song and going "Are you crazy? Horns? On a guitar instrumental album?" But to me, that makes the whole thing worth doing. Obviously, when I wrote it, it was just straight guitar, but it wasn't enough for me, it was too conservative, it didn't push any buttons, it didn't open up any emotions. But having that crazy juxtaposition between having horns and honky-tonk piano and that crazy wah-wah solo in the middle -- all that stuff to me made it exciting and makes it something that will be interesting to listen to for decades.
Since we have already touched on Beck, I have to bring up your shared drum foil in Vinnie Colaiuta. Considering his contributions to Unstoppable Momentum, what is it about his playing that seems to bring out the best in instrumental guitarists?
You know, he's a natural musician of the highest order. He's known for being like, the greatest, the most technical, he can play in any time signature, but when you're sitting there next to him, and you're playing, you realize that that is not the thing that is his greatest asset: His greatest asset, I think, is that he's the most natural type of musician where technique is something that he transcends every second, so you can't even tell if he's being technical or not. He's not counting. It's just the way that he is! The rest of us -- mere mortals -- are counting. When he gives you a performance, he's actually giving you something unique, one of a kind.
When we went in to do the record, we would listen to the song maybe two or three times, pick some interesting gear, and then do about six or seven takes. In each one, he would give us a completely different version of how the song could be played on the drums. And he was always playing to my guitar. It was amazing how he just echoed the melody and what I was trying to accomplish. It's very hard to put into words what's great about him besides the obvious, which is that he can play his ass off!