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Last week the quintessential guitar guru talked to us about his musical heroes. This week Joe talks about his woodshedding days, the creation of his unique style, and some high times with Mick Jagger. Be sure to join us next week when he tells us what it takes to keep up some of the world's sharpest chops.
Musician's Friend: When you were learning, did you learn theory first or did you just pick up a bunch of stuff playing out and then learn the theory later?
Joe Satriani: Like a lot of people, I had a quasi-haphazard learning curve. I started out nine years old as a drummer and took lessons immediately. It was pretty Spartan. I kid you not, I had a coffee can and a rubber pad. This is something my father put me through to teach me a couple of lessons about life, which stay with me today. Each time that I would get through my lessons and I would practice and show that I was a responsible budding musician I'd get another little something. Maybe I'd get a hi-hat. It drove my drum teacher crazy. But I think my dad was on a mission.
I took lessons from this guy on Long Island. I only know him as Mr. Patricas. I didn't know his first name. He was a jazz drummer, a fantastic musician. He used to come to the house once a week and teach me. So after about two years I had a small Ludwig kit and I could read and improvise and play.
The growth of your awareness between nine and eleven is pretty intense. You start to notice what you can do against what other people can do. Between eleven and twelve I started to think I'm not nearly as good as these other people I'm hearing. I really felt there was something missing in my physical makeup or something-just lack of talent in keeping all four limbs firing at the same time. So I stopped lessons and decided to take a break from music.
One of my older sisters, Marian, was an acoustic guitarist. She played a nylon-string folk guitar. She wrote her own songs and I got to see her perform at her school and things like that. I started to realize that coming from a family with five kids, being a drummer can cause a lot of grief. Your older siblings are always giving you crap for making so much noise. But my sister could take her guitar and go in the corner of the room or into the back yard and it was a very solitary yet very moving experience being able to create all that music on your own.
This was the same time I was really getting into listening to Hendrix and Cream. And the Beatles were transforming their music from what they started with. I guess it was around '66 with Revolver the style of rock really got born right around that time. And Led Zeppelin coming out in '68. So I started to think, 'One of these days if I decide to be a musician again I'm going to pick guitar.' And then Hendrix died and I swear I made the decision that day that I was going to be a guitarist.
And I finally got around to getting a guitar. It was paid for by my sister, Carol, with her first paycheck from teaching art at a local high school. She said, "You're going to practice this time. It's not going to be like the drums." And I stuck with that Hagstrom III guitar for quite a few years.
By then I knew how to read and I knew how to practice from my experience with drums. At my local public high school you had to be in music class and you had to be in the chorus or band. So I was being taught how to sight sing. And I was being taught just basic music theory. That was required in school. And then I had Mel Bay chord charts and books and some of my friends would write down other chord progressions. I basically started learning that way.
My first amplifier was a Wollensak tape recorder. So I had to record myself in order to hear myself back. And I started getting into multitracking. I could only do two tracks. But I started to get into that quite early. I really sucked. I was just like any other beginner. But I made these tapes and I got used to the idea of playing along with somebody. In this case it was me. It really changed my attitude toward learning because I realized that the coolest thing was making real music with somebody else.
I got into a band really early and of course we all sucked. But we had a good time. We played really loud and thought we were cool. We played Zeppelin and Sabbath and Stones and the Doors—just all the stuff that was happening at the time.
I continued along that path and in eleventh and twelfth grade I was taking music theory. By that time it was advanced music theory and we were learning how to write symphonies and cantatas and string quartets. At the time, growing up in New York, you were tested by the State Regents Board. I'm not even sure that exists anymore. So we were trained very well and tested by the state. My teacher, Bill Wescott, was a truly inspired musician.
MF: The state was testing you on music theory in high school?
MF: What high school was this?
JS: Carle Place high school in the town of Carle Place.
MF: Was it just a regular public high school?
JS: It was just what they had going back then. The State Regents Board tested you on a number of subjects and one of them was music. It was a way that they kept all of the public schools at a particular standard. Obviously, here in California, the poor kids have got almost nothing. Just last week a town not too far from here announced that a whole school district is cutting sports programs starting next year because there's no money.
Although I was a snotty little kid who got in trouble all the time, I look back at my high school and I realize I was lucky. There was really some quality teaching going on. And the state and local towns were making every effort to turn us from feral children into functioning Americans.
But anyway, Bill Wescott was so thorough that by the time I left there, there was no reason to go to college. I actually tried a semester at a place called Five Towns College. I was so disgusted with it I thought 'This is a waste of my parents money to go to music school. Because I know exactly what they're going to try to teach me over four years.' Because my high school teacher was so thorough, there was just nothing left to learn from school.
My father's older brother was a musician all his life. So that eased the family situation when I said, "I'm going to drop out of school and just turn pro right now." So I didn't get any resistance from that.
MF: Did your parents play?
JS: My mother's a pretty good blues piano player. My father wasn't musical.
MF: When you were with the early bands playing real loud what kind of acceptance did you get from your peers? Did they recognize real talent?
JS: It's really hard to say. We were in our own little world back then. We thought we were really cool. I do remember winning quite a lot of battles of the bands. And that really fueled our resolve to be rock stars. But you go through so many phases in high school. I remember leaving that band because I felt like, 'These are my best friends, but this is going nowhere.'
That's what eventually led me to seek out a guy like Lenny Tristano. I kept saying, 'I know there's wisdom on the mountain top. But somebody's got to show me how to get there.'
MF: Did you deliberately set out to create your own style or did it just sort of emerge on its own?
JS: I think I was aware that the only way to succeed on a professional and a personal level-a life level-was to do your own stuff. I had a lot of experience during my high school years of playing as a professional. I started doing high school dances and playing in the park, getting paid when I was 14 years old. And by the time I was 16 I was playing in clubs. 18 was the drinking age. So if you were an old-looking 16-year-old you could slide in. I spent a lot of time on the stage and then immediately out the back door, where I had to wait for the next set.
So by the time I left high school I was kind of a road-weary young musician. When I was in 11th grade my parents used to let me take off for the weekend and do these gigs out at the Hamptons at the end of Long Island where the resorts were. It was quite a different world when you came back Sunday night having lived the life of a professional musician and then you had to do your homework and go back to school. It was two worlds colliding.
But what it taught me was that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be stuck in a bar playing Rolling Stones-music that I love-over and over again until I hate it. I didn't want to end up looking like some of the customers [laughs]. My friends thought I was crazy. That's when I started practicing a lot. Instead of hanging out at the tracks doing who knows what I'd be practicing and I'd show up late at the tracks. Because I knew there was stuff out there to play.
At the time Hendrix was gone and I was still going through his catalog as a student, but John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola and Allan Holdsworth—these players were coming along who were just mesmerizing. I kept thinking, 'There's just not enough time in the day or the night to play and decipher this music.' That's what led me to Lenny Tristano and eventually solidified my feeling that you've got to strike out on your own. And it's going to be really hard because it's obvious to get a gig you have to be able to sound like whoever's popular. To get your own gig, you can't sound like them. So that's the Catch 22 of a musician trying to become successful.
Even years later when I was dabbling in studio work I hated it because no matter what you had to offer they just wanted you to sound like whoever was hot on the Billboard top 20. So for a few sessions I did I'd come up with stuff that I would later put on albums and they'd say, "No don't do that. That sounds weird. Make it sound more like so and so." And after Surfing with the Alien came out the phone started ringing and they'd say, "Hey can you do that crazy wah-wah whammy bar thing on... " And I go "No. I only do that on my records." [Laughs.]
So striking out on your own was something that came to my mind early. And the other thing I realized, even at that young age, was that I didn't want to do something I wasn't going to enjoy doing year after year. Because it might kill you in the end. That's what I learned from Hendrix. Because I was really crushed that he died. I struggled as a young kid trying to figure out how did a guy on top of the world choke on his own vomit? How does that happen? When you're just a little kid, you can't really conceive of how it could happen. But as you get older you ask 'Wow, he had all that. What led him to such a desperate spot?'
It was that what made him famous was not really who he was. It's a simple story. Here's a guy with no money living on absolutely nothing, just trying to scrape by. Happens to be really talented. And suddenly within a year he's got everything that he ever wanted thrust in front of him. And he's a young man at a time when things are pretty crazy in the world.
But as early as '69 he was really confused about why the audience wouldn't let him grow. He had so much to give us. But he felt that the media and the audience wanted him to play "Foxy Lady," stick his tongue out, throw his guitar around, and roll on the ground. But that's not really who he was. Bill Graham told me about when Hendrix did that live version of "Machine Gun" that made it to the Capital release of Live at the Fillmore [Band of Gypsies]. They were doing two shows a night and Hendrix came to Bill after the first show and said, "What do you think? I value your opinion, how's my guitar playing?"
And Bill knew that Jimi was striving for legitimacy at a time when people thought that he was just a whacky performer. Bill told him, "I don't know why you're rolling on the ground and sticking your tongue out and humping your amp. If you want people to take you seriously maybe you should try just sticking to the playing." Hendrix was very upset about it and said, "OK, I'll show you. You stand on the side of the stage, though."
So for the next set Bill stood right on the side of the stage where Hendrix could look at him and he went ahead and did that performance. It's actually caught on film of Hendrix playing "Machine Gun." It's the most mind-blowing electric guitar performance ever captured on film. And there he is standing perfectly still, practically mumbling to the audience in his state of being humbled by Bill Graham's comments.
And that performance was really who he was. He was this sensitive guy who obviously had an enormous talent, he obviously had a really amazing personality, but he really wasn't the guy rolling around on the ground. But that's what killed him in the end.
The competition was fierce back then. You had The Who destroying their equipment, and other bands being so successful if a little less flamboyant. In the early days of rock'n'roll the manager would push you out on stage and say, "Do something outrageous." His managers came up with the burning guitar thing. Hendrix didn't want to do it. But he thought, 'OK maybe it'll get us some press.' Economically they were in shambles. Although he was the highest paid rock'n'roll performer at the height of his career, it was all mismanaged. He didn't have any view of the future.
A lot of the rock stars in that period thought it would all be over in a couple of years and they'd go back to working a regular job. Led Zeppelin sold their publishing at the start of Led Zeppelin IV. Just think of it. It was before "Stairway to Heaven" became this thing on FM radio. They thought it was all going to end pretty soon, just like every other musical fad had. And they didn't want to be caught like some doo wop band or rock'n'roll band without any money playing little places after being on the top of the world.
We saw rock music go from being counter culture to being dominant culture not only in the U.S. but worldwide. They never envisioned that. So there was a sense of desperation that went along with his disenchantment with his own public image.
MF: Were you ever in a show-business situation where you were asked to do something really inappropriate?
JS: No. I'm almost reactionary. I really try to hold still [laughs]. I don't have any bad stories about that, but there's a funny one. For a year in 1988 I was playing with Mick Jagger. It was that much-publicized feud between him and Keith Richards and Mick was off on his solo tour. But I think they had it all planned out. They were very clever about that. We had done a tour of Japan. It was a huge stage, about a quarter of a mile long when you measured it from one wing to the next. There were lots of different levels and ramps. And Mick had us running around all over it.
Later that year we did the Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia tour. And on that one he had this guy build a sort of Mad Max set. There were two elevators on the set. One was an actual cage in the front of the stage that Mick was supposed to get in and it would just go straight up on the pole and it would put him 50 or 100 feet in the air. The other one was at the back of the stage. It was just a pole with a small plate on it, about two-feet wide. Just enough room for your feet. And there was a little pole that went up to about the small of my back. And it had a seatbelt. And that was it.
The stage itself was about 30 feet off the ground. And the pole was in the back of the stage. And the pole went up an additional 30 feet. Mick says to me, "When we do 'Start Me Up,' can you work your way to the back to that thing and step on it? And magically when the guitar solo appears people are going to see you floating in the air. Because you'll be in darkness until the solo starts." So I thought, 'Oh yeah, that'll be fun.'
But when I tried it I was freaking out. I look down and I'm like 65 feet in the air, I've got this one-buckle seatbelt, looks like they got it off a '64 Mustang or something. And this thing's shaking. So I come down and he goes, "Yeah, that's really cool. But you know you look a little stiff up there." And I say, "Stiff? I'm petrified!" [Laughs.] And he goes, "Yeah, but you got to make it work." So I say, "OK, but I need another seat belt. I need two buckles because I'm freaking out up there."
So for three and a half or four weeks we rehearsed. Every day I went up on that thing. So finally by the day before we start the tour I'm feeling pretty good about it. Everyone's patting me on the back, "Way to go, Joe, you got over your fear. Your solo doesn't sound half frightened now." But Mick hadn't yet gone up his elevator. So at that one last rehearsal he decides he's got to go up the elevator. He gets in, goes half way up, he orders it down and says, "Take that thing away. That thing scares me to death." [Laughs.] Then he says, "If I'm not going up I don't want Joe to go up, cause then he'll be higher than me. Just forget about that thing."
So I went through this cathartic experience trying to get the guts up to stand on this little plate all for nothing. I never got to show anybody [laughs].
Be sure to join us next week for Part III when Joe Satriani gives us some inside angles on rock star etiquette and what you practice when you're at the top. Check out Musician's Friend Exclusive Interview with Joe Satriani, Part 1