The Joe Satriani Success, an Enigmatic Recipe
The Joe Satriani success is an enigmatic thing, he approaches his guitar like an olympic athlete preparing for the floor exercises. He is a gymnast on the fingerboard, cartwheeling and somersaulting across the frets, illustrating his dedication to practice and creative exploration. He has developed his craft through lyricism, sensitivity, technique and above all, composition. Ear catching phrases, set in selfpropelled grooves, make each tune he plays a multi-faceted gem. Satch is much more than a master guitarist, he is a master musician.
TCG : You grew up in Long Island, NY. Do you have some stories about your early music life, the guitar jams, the bands?
“I started playing the guitar at fourteen. I was in a band called Mephistophelese, which actually never played anywhere. Luckily I was absorbed into another band led by guitarist John Riccio and drummer Tom Garr with bassist Steve Muller. We did covers of The Stones, The Doors, Hendrix, Black Sabbath and just about anything that you can think of. We played High School dances in Westbury and Carle Place and fairs in places like Eisenhower Park. That band morphed into a band called Tarsis. There was also a group of guys called the Jones Beach Bums and that was another source of different musical styles. Tarsis played a lot of parties and Battle of the Bands. We specialized in Led Zeppelin. Although everyone involved were really close friends of mine, I just had this feeling that in order to move forward musically, I needed somehow to separate myself from all that fun and kind of woodshed and try to figure out more of the secrets of music. I had to cross this bridge to my musical future. I had to take the plunge and start approaching my guitar with a mixture of wonder lust, and scholarly aspirations. Eventually that led me to leaving Long Island and relocating to the San Francisco Bay area.”
TCG : Was there a scene when you got there?
“Well, I was an outsider and I didn’t really know anyone there, so I was pretty much a loner for quite a while. But this did allow me to focus on what it was that I wanted to sound like. I actually wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to pursue but I knew it was something different. Slowly but surely, I started to connect with some local musicians and I also started to teach guitar in a little shop in Berkeley, California. I also started a trio band called The Squares. We struggled for about four or five years and never got a label deal. This was from 1979 to 1984. In early 1984, on a whim, I started a record company and publishing company and recorded a real strange avantgarde EP, that I just called Joe Satriani. It was just all guitar with a lot of scratching and bumping and tapping sounds, trying to simulate other instruments. It got reviewed by a few newspapers as well as Guitar Player magazine. I think the fact that they didn’t know who I was, they just assumed I was this very esoteric, artistic, nutcase, that people should check out, I was inspired by that. So from this, I decided to leave the band and take all the weird stuff I played at home and try to produce the record and manufacture it and sell it myself. The second record I did I sent to Steve Vai, who I’ve known since High School. He had just signed a record deal with an important distributor out of Jamaica (NY). That record of his was called Flexible and he suggested that since my record wasn’t nearly as weird, we contact the label about my music. He made the connection for me and we ended up with a deal to release Not Of This Earth, which eventually came out about a year and a half later in 1986. By then I was playing with Jonas Hellborg (bass) and Danny Gottlieb (drums) for a few months in Europe. It eventually led to a deal for a few records. I had this idea to combine some of my more forward thinking ideas with my roots of rock and roll and blues and that turned out to be Surfing With The Alien.”
TCG : Backing up a bit, it’s well documented that you taught Steve Vai, Kirk Hammet and Charlie Hunter. Tell me about this.
“Steve had played accordion, which isn’t that unusual as an ItalianAmerican growing up in Long Island. My uncle was a professional accordion player. Steve showed up at my door with a guitar in one hand with no strings on it, and a pack of strings in the other. He just wanted to play the guitar. His musical gift is undeniable and he progressed faster than any student that I was teaching at the time.”
TCG : You were the teacher because of your reputation?
“I guess so, because I had played a couple of High School dances and I taught a few people around the school.”
TCG : You also taught in California.
“Some of the guys had seen me play in the clubs. Guys like Alex Skolnick and Kirk Hammett were about a half generation behind me, but there was this underground scene and we all connected. It was a young group of players who had a new take on music. It was actually very exciting for me. I loved the fact that you could teach a bunch of players that had their own ideas that were different from mine. And it was great to see it unfold. Charlie Hunter was a different story. The guitar store that I worked at had a thriving repair business and one of the luthiers was actually Charlie’s mother, who was great guitar builder and repair person. This little kid used to always come in with her and eventually she asked me to teach him guitar. Charlie was like Steve Vai, totally natural and gifted. Charlie was more enthralled with music from the ë50s than with the heavy metal scene that was exploding at the time. He really needed very little instruction because he was so self motivated and had such a good ear. It was great to see him pop up later as a great innovator on his 8 string guitar playing modern jazz.”
TCG : You studied with Billy Bauer (gtr,) and Lenny Tristano (piano). What was that like?
“I didn’t really study with Billy. I took two or three lessons with him, but I did end up purchasing these two booklets from him, one on scales, and one on arpeggios. At the time, it was really what I needed. I had a lot of idiosyncratic patterns that I had developed on the guitar because I was self taught. At the time there were no instructional videos, or CDs, no music channels. It was difficult to find people playing rock music except for clubs and if you were under age it was hard. I had told a friend that I was just hungry for knowledge and wanted a real master teacher to get me to that final level. He recommended me to Lenny Tristano. I took two months of lessons with him and it had a profound affect on how I organized my life as a musician. I now understood what dedication was to practicing. Lenny was a very unique person and master musician. He had a way of getting inside of you in about a minute and figuring out all the things you lacked. I was 17 at the time and he said to me, “You’re not too bad Joey. Maybe in about 15 years you’ll be able to play something.” People actually told me that was a compliment, that he never said anything that good. All I know is, 15 years later “Surfing With The Alien” was in the Billboard charts and I was getting some good recognition. Lenny didn’t have a crystal ball, but that was sort of eerie when I think about it.”
TCG : What was his approach in teaching you?
“Well his approach was when you made a mistake during the lesson, the lesson was over unless it was an improvisational part. There were chordal studies and scales, learning a melody, improvising, going back to the melody. There was singing along with recordings and memorizing every note and the inflections of a solo from anyone. It could have been Charlie Parker or Tony Iommi, he didn’t really care. But he would say things like, ìI need a harmonic minor scale harmonized in fourths, in every key, everywhere on the neck.î The fingering was up to me. It was overwhelming. It would take six to eight hours a day to figure out how to play it. The first couple of lessons were over in less than fifteen seconds because I’d get freaked out. He would tell me that to be a great musician you can’t get freaked out. He would say, ìDon’t play it if you don’t know it.î At the end of two months, I began to understand his outlook on the music and what it really meant to be a musician. It was very inspiring and I realized that you never stopped working on Lenny’s lessons. It’s a life quest. Every night on stage, something he said comes to mind.”
TCG : You’re songs and solos are extremely lyrical and melodic. Is this related to the Lenny experience?
“I’m not really sure what makes me edit my melodic ideas, but it probably has a lot to do with what I listened to when I was young. I was born in 1956 and I was listening to the music of my parents and older siblings. Even though I later picked up on other music I still had these other roots echoing inside of me. A lot of that music was very melodic sounding. When I play some music and it’s not quite melodic enough, I actually get offended and I’ll edit it down and make sure that it’s a unique melody and it’s not just me playing. And then I try to make sure the solo content is some extrapolation of the melody. I hate being selfpromotional, guitarwise, in a song. My point is not to show people how well I play. I’m just concerned about the music and creating a feeling and a mood.”
TCG : How do you balance the musician and the technician aspect of the music?
“I realized early on that music that had an affect on me was accomplished by technique. My hero was Jimi Hendrix and he had that ability to turn the technique on and use what was necessary to make his music. The classic example I use would be “Flight Of The Bumblebee.” There’s just no way for a composer and musician together to successfully write a song by this title without a musician who had the technique to play this part. Otherwise if you ask Neil Young to play it, you might as well write a song called the “Flight Of The Clumsy Bird.” So if a composer wants to paint a picture of a bumblebee flying around, you need that technician to perform it and make it transcend into an art form. People will hear it and their emotions and state of mind will be elevated to the point of the music. Then the technique is looked upon as a positive thing. So really, I only try to use the technician part of my playing when I think it’s necessary to complete the vibe of the song and get the message to the audience.”
TCG : Do your compositions come as inspirations or do you sometimes attempt to play a tune in a certain time or harmonic format?
“Usually I hear it as an inspiration but it’s difficult to put into words. It sort of comes together before I know what’s happening and I scramble to write it down or record it before it evaporates. I have about 150 songs recorded and maybe there’s three or four that had more of an intellectual beginning. There’s a song called “The Enigmatic” on Not Of This Earth where I was really enthralled with that particular scale called the Enigmatic mode. I thought the chords produced from this scale were amazing and I ended up writing this riff based on the scale and sounded so spooky. I tuned the guitar to a D diminished scale and the result is one of my favorite recordings.”
TCG : Do you explore many tunings?
“I use open G tunings, open E, open C, drop D tunings. On the new CD there’s one tune where all the strings on the guitar are tuned to E. That’s on a double neck. I’ve used open Em7 and Em11 tunings.”
TCG : Do you feel obligated from the record companies to create a certain “Satriani” sound for the audience?
“No. I’ve been fortunate in that there’s very little involvement from the record companies in that respect. I think that my music’s success was so unusual, that the record people just let me do what I wanted because that didn’t even know how my music became popular anyway. They’ve been very supportive. In the studio we use tons of equipment and recording techniques and input from creative engineers and producers, in a group effort. Of course, when I play live I don’t use all these tools. I have to be present at the moment and create in that space, within the vibe of the audience as well as the musicians on stage. I try to keep my live set up as simple as possible so I can react to what’s happening at the moment.”
TCG : Your guitars?
“Ibanez, of course, are my guitars of choice. They’ve designed them around every little thing that I need. They really feel like the ultimate instrument to me. They’ve been making the Joe Satriani model for about twelve years now. I basically play the JS1000s live. The guitar’s shape, the DiMarzio pickups, the subtleties of the neck, the size of the frets, the whole thing to me, allows the guitar to be very expressive and less generic sounding.”
TCG : You also have a 7 string?
“Yes. It’s basically a slightly enlarged JS guitar. DiMarzio made a custom pickup and the guitar is made of all mahogany, which was like an earlier JS model, I think called the JS6 and a JS600.”
TCG : I read that you’re fantasy would be to jam with Django, Wes and Charlie Christian. Any plans to go in that musical direction someday?
“It shouldn’t be the quest for the musician to suddenly be an exhibitionist, where they have to show their audience every little thing about them. So I’m keen on the idea of separating what I think is worthy of showing the public and something that you do for your own enjoyment. There is a lot of jazz running through my blood, but maybe that’s just something between me and Wes Montgomery. I memorized a ton of his solos when I was with Lenny Tristano and I’ll never forget them. There so inside of me. So I’ve experienced his music from the inside out which was part of Lenny’s magic. He’d say don’t learn it on the guitar, but sing it note for note and that way the music and the meaning of it will come from inside of you and you’ll gain a new understanding of it. He was so right about that.”
TCG : On your new CD, were there any major influences for the music?
“All of them!”
Interview by Steve Adelson.