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!
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. They would come in and they would really practice and they would really be interested in everything I could tell them. I had learned from my early high school music theory teacher that you just give all you got! So, that's what I did!
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. They did it, so the credit goes to them, they had the drive along with the talent to succeed.
What is grabbing you these days musically?
As usual, I have an eclectic listening pattern. I will flip between Queens of the Stone Age and Animals as Leaders in the space of two hours easily. I've been listening to the recent Black Sabbath record because I'm a big fan of Tony Iommi, I just love him and his tone, so I can always listen to him play. I'm always kind of bouncing around listening to different styles. I like when people put guitar in a really weird space and use it like a tool being misused. Sometimes I really like that, but that covers a lot of ground.
Josh Homme mentioned in an interview that when he plays a guitar solo, he wants it to sound like a very articulate parody of a rock guitar solo. As someone such as yourself that is a technically proficient player in the extreme sense of the term, I would love to hear your thoughts on people that use anti-techniques to make their statements.
Well, I've been there myself, and I certainly am guilty of doing the same thing on some of my records -- purposefully making noise or sometimes a song requires playing it extremely cool as opposed to stepping up to the plate and hitting it out of the park. The thing about all comments that we make as musicians is that you have to take it with a grain of sand because it's not really our job to decide how people like what we do. As a matter of fact, it's entirely out of our control. So, when someone says "I did this and it was serious" or "this was something I did as a parody," the only thing that matters is how I receive it.
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 on stage, 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.
The funny thing about that is that at the end of that audition, we had just played "Red House" and I kind of maybe was feeling a little light-headed because I had just realized I just got this gig and I'm jamming Hendrix with Mick Jagger, and I said, "Hey, we're playing the Bottom Line tomorrow night, why don't you come down and jam with us?" And I said it as a joke, and he just said, "OK, yeah, I'll be there."
Sure enough he shows up and jumped on stage at the end of the show and totally blew the audience away. I'll never forget that. He's just an awesome guy and just really genuine.
Joe Satriani. With the Steve Morse Band. 8 p.m., Thursday, September 12, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE 8 St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost from $52.50 to $97.50. VIP tickets also available. Call 954-462-0222, or visit parkerplayhouse.com.