Musician's Friend's Exclusive In-Depth Interview
with Joe Satriani, Part I
Joe Satriani is the quintessential electric guitar guru. His lyrical, soaring compositions are at once intuitively accessible, melodically sophisticated, and technically dazzling. One of the most widely respected and best-loved six-string artists of the past 20 years, he has also been a dynamic and influential teacher to such rock luminaries as Steve Vai, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Larry LaLonde of Primus, Counting Crow's David Bryson, and fusion wunderkind Charlie Hunter.
Since his debut self-titled EP in 1984, Satriani has relentlessly pursued his own unique musical vision. The result is a body of high-voltage music that defies classification and attracts millions of loyal listeners worldwide. Joe is currently finishing up his ninth solo studio album and has released several live efforts, including two with G3-the touring guitar supergroup comprising Satriani, Steve Vai, and various guest guitar monsters such as Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Fripp, Adrian Legg, Michael Schenker, John Petrucci, and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Since the early '90s, Satriani has teamed up with Ibanez to produce a very distinctive, functional, and popular line of solidbody guitars featuring a uniquely round, sculpted body, dual humbuckers, a 25-1/2" scale length, and locking trem (on all but the JS1200).
During the past year, Satriani worked with Peavey to develop the ultimate Joe Satriani guitar amp. The result was revealed to the world at the January NAMM show in Anaheim. It's a paint-peeling 120W all-tube mind-blower with a vintage vibe and totally modern flexibility.
Musician's Friend met with Satriani in his private studio, situated in his spacious Bay Area home. The studio is comfortable but far from ostentatious. Most of the recording gear is contained in one rack, but everything in there is obviously well-chosen. This humble workplace was the birthplace of Is There Love in Space—Satriani's latest studio project, of which we were treated to a small preview. The recording quality is magnificent, but it's hard to pay much attention to it when you're busy being overwhelmed by Joe's riveting compositions and transcendent solos.
Joe Satriani is a very personable guy. His manner is open, funny, and completely devoid of arrogance. And he talks music with the genuine enthusiasm of a kid who grew up to live out all his musical fantasies. Here we present the first installment of a four-part interview in which he discusses his musical heroes. Be sure to click back in over the next two weeks to read about Joe's musical coming of age, how he developed his own style, how he practices, and of course all his cool gear.
Musician's Friend: We recently heard you got to play with Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, and Buddy Guy, among others, in a tribute to Hendrix in San Francisco. How did that happen and what was it like?
Joe Satriani: It was a fantastic experience for me. I'm a hard-core Hendrix fan. So to finally be able to play with Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox was just the thrill of a lifetime for me. And then the bonus was being able to trade Blues licks with Buddy Guy. I was kind of mesmerized, star-struck a little bit because I'd spent so many years listening to these guys on record and playing along with them. They created some of the most important music stemming from the sixties and on through to this new millennium we're in.
It was maybe the third time that John McDermott had invited me to one of these things and each time I was either out of the country or was in the studio and I couldn't make the performance. But this one came along at a good time. I think it was a three-day tour they did. So I wound up playing on the third day. And there were a lot of people there. It was a bit of a zoo, as they usually are, like 13 guitarists or something. I did a song with Jerry Cantrell, which was fun to do. Jerry's a great guitarist. He's got a good sound and he's a great writer. And he's got a great voice. It was great to hear him sing "Hey Joe." It was one of the highlights of the night, I thought.
And Paul Rogers came out and sang "Spanish Castle Magic." He has a broken collarbone that he's been mending for about a year. And as luck would have it about a half hour before he showed up at the gig he broke a toe. Before he went on I went to his dressing room and saw him with his foot up and a big ice bag. I said, "What happened?" I had seen him doing sound check and he was jumping around. And I think he jumped off his bed at the hotel and broke his toe or a couple of them right before coming to the show.
So when he walked out on stage to do "Spanish Castle Magic," he walked very slowly and he stood in one place pretty much. I felt sorry for him. It's a small bone, but they can hurt.
MF: Did you guys get to rehearse for that at all?
JS: Everybody got to play a song once. You can imagine the mayhem that sound check was. It was insane. And then Carlos Santana showed up kind of unannounced and that threw a monkey wrench into everyone's arrangements. All of a sudden everything changed. I was told I was going to play three songs. Then when I got to the sound check John McDermott says, "Oh, by the way, you're not going to play these songs. Can you play these other songs?" And he had to do that to a lot of people. Everyone was like, "Oh, my God, I wasn't prepared for that." It was your usual show business craziness.
MF: But you know the Hendrix tunes, so it probably wasn't too hard to switch?
JS: Yeah, I knew every single one of them. So I said, "Whatever you want, it's OK with me." I was just so happy to be there. I was like a fan who got to jump onstage.
MF: Plus everybody was fresh on those tunes, at least.
JS: They were. And Andy Aledort was there. He's the factotum of Hendrix guitar. He's a great musician in his own right, but if you ask him to show you anything, like "How did this guy exactly play it?" he can show you Hendrix and Clapton and Beck and everything. Because he's done so many transcriptions.
MF: He knows the actual hand positions?
JS: Everything. Andy released a CD a number of years ago where not only did he play each part, but he recorded it exactly the way it was originally recorded. He got all the gear together that, like, Clapton used, and Hendrix used, and he meticulously went about recording the parts so you could hear all of them separated. It was incredible. You see him a lot writing for Guitar World. He's interviewed me a thousand times. And he happens to live around the block from my mother on Long Island.
MF: So if you want to study one of these guys you can go to Aledort and learn it.
JS: You can. As a matter of fact, Joe Perry, in preparation for the new Aerosmith album—the blues record—called Andy to come up and give him a crash course in every important blues phrase in the past 60 years. Andy said he spent 17 hours straight with Joe Perry and Joe Perry just ate it up.
MF: Tell us three of your musical heroes and what makes them so special to you.
JS: That's hard because I've got too many musical heroes, but I'll try to narrow it down. We'll start with Hendrix. For reasons unknown his music reached out and grabbed me. I don't think anyone can explain why they have a direct link with particular artists. But you know it when you hear it—the sound that they make just somehow touches you.
And as a guitar player and a professional musician I'm stunned at how revolutionary his playing was, how he took the rich history of music that he grew up with and used it in such an original way. If you listen to something like Electric Ladyland you hear so much of his growing up. You hear blues and jazz and early rock'n'roll and then the rock that was being created right there by his generation, the excitement with how to manipulate equipment, which was quite new at the time, and a dedication to a new way of thinking.
It's astounding. You could take out a pad and a piece of paper and say, "OK, why do all guitar players do this today?" And you'd write down, "Because of Jimi Hendrix." And then you'd think of another thing we all do—"Because of Jimi Hendrix." The list would be really long. We all just sort of absorbed him. He was part Chuck Berry and part Les Paul and part Buddy Guy. He had all those guys in him, but he had a way of turning it around that was quite unique. His love of Buddy Guy somehow turned into "Voodoo Chile." Most people wouldn't be able to connect the dots but Jimi could tell you that.
MF: Was there a particular Hendrix song that really grabbed you?
JS: Well, I kind of go between the two... Recently I did a celebrity list for iTunes. One of the songs I put on there was the first Capitol release of the song "Machine Gun," on The Band of Gypsys live at the Fillmore. For a live performance and being improvised, Hendrix somehow creates and goes through so many techniques that all of us use today. Guitar players who didn't do that stuff would be considered illiterate. It's just insane what he did in that one song.
But it turned out that that particular version is not available for download. Capital has not released it yet. So iTunes wound up with like four other versions which I didn't like. So I had to switch to my other most important Hendrix song. And I picked "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" because that one is so enduring and it inspires so many players. And the sound of it, oh God, it's just incredible. If anyone's ever just stood in front of an audience in a power trio and tried to create that off an E chord... It's just an incredible tour-de-force. And it's arranged like Mozart sat down and worked it out. It's incredible the amount of talent that he had and how he used it.
MF: Other favorite musicians?
JS: There's one player that is still the epitome of what a lot of modern players do. Hendrix noted that Billy Gibbons was like the future of music. This was back in '69, I think, when they did some touring together. I remember hearing that when I was a kid and I thought, OK, I've got to check this guy out. I'm fascinated with Billy Gibbons and I think that he also is an innovator, but in a more subtle way because his scope is not as broad as what Hendrix was dealing with. Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top were coming from a real blues direction. They didn't really get into psychedelia or jazz or R&B. They kept a straight focus.
But on the other hand if you think about the things he did on the guitar—the restraint, the harmonics, how he arranged the guitar in songs, how he constructed riffs so that they would go through the song—and then you hear what he's done on the last four albums, it's like the guy is from the future, from another planet. And with each album he's sort of reinventing the Mississippi delta blues with a writing style that is completely all his own. But here's the funny part. My favorite song of theirs is "Loaded." It's one that Dusty Hill sings, but Gibbons gets this sound that's exactly like a guitar with a broken cable. It keeps cutting out. Any normal guitar player would say, "Oh my God, replace that cable." And somehow Billy uses that through the entire song. The thing is noisily cutting out and yet he gets it to swing.
MF: Have you ever asked him about that?
JS: I did. And he wouldn't tell me. He's a very generous guy. He came and he jammed with us in Houston on a G3 that Steve and John Petrucci and I were doing. And afterward he gave me one of his own watercolors that he painted. And I asked him a whole bunch of questions. I'm sure the other guys were kind of embarrassed because they saw me totally freaking out over him. But I was kind of star struck. And I was like, "You've got to tell me how you get that sound of the guitar chord breaking." He kind of hemmed and hawed and didn't tell me [laughs]. And I respected it [laughs].
MF: Well it's a good thing he didn't tell you because otherwise all of our readers would know.
JS: Well I'll tell you, if it turns out it's a pedal, I'm buying it.
MF: Maybe it was just a faulty cable and Gibbon said, "Hey, that's cool, let's go with it."
JS: Yeah, I could see that. Because we've all been in that position where that's happened. Especially onstage you've got to go with what you've got. And that's an important thing to learn.
MF: OK, who's number three, musical heroes.
JS: Well this is a bit of a curve ball but I know that he kind of relates to a lot of things people play today. His name was Wes Montgomery...
JS:... he was a jazz guitar player. It's interesting how I got into him. I graduated high school a half year early. I think it was because they wanted to get rid of me. But my grades were good enough and they let me double up on my subjects. So come January of my senior year I was free. I thought before going to college I'd seek out some unusual players and teachers. And I wound up taking a few lessons from this blind piano player, his name was Lenny Tristano. He's a giant in the bebop world; he was quite famous. They mentioned him in Time magazine when he passed away in 1980.
As a matter of fact it's the mention of Lenny's name in Jailhouse Rock that drives Elvis Presley nuts at a cocktail party. A woman who is trying to manage Elvis brings him to a party to try to get him to meet some important people. It's a cocktail party and everyone's wearing suits. And some guy starts saying "Hey have you heard the latest Lenny Tristano record, it's out of this world." And for some reason Elvis loses his mind when he hears that. And he breaks something and walks out of the party or something [laughs].
But Lenny Tristano was a fantastic musical innovator. He really was the father of cool jazz. He had a very unique way of improvising. It was almost like a Zen attitude. You had to get rid of every cliche, every little turn and phrase, anything that was based on you listening to yourself and being judgmental or self-conscious. He taught everybody—drummers and singers and guitar players—how to be real musicians.
One part of the lessons I had with him (which were very difficult) was scat singing along with records. And he didn't care what records. I used to bring in Black Sabbath and Johnny Winter. And I used to bring in Charlie Parker and Wes Montgomery and stuff. And he didn't discriminate; he knew when guys were really playing.
But one of the things I had to do was scat singing. You had to learn the melody and then you had to memorize the solo and be able to sing it along with the record. It was kind of embarrassing but the idea was to get the music into your body and not to worry about your fingers. If your body and your mind and your soul can really inhabit some great performer's expression, that music will then come out of you in your own way. He felt it was a far better way to learn something than just looking at the printed page and simply memorizing it as dots and dashes. The guy was right. I truly believe in it.
And when I brought in the Wes Montgomery I started to see the beauty of what he played. Wes Montgomery was famous for using his thumb and playing harmonics impeccably. And the guy was never out of tune. Now, we all know guitars are always out of tune to some degree. But Wes was never out of tune because he had a way of playing where he took care of that.
The other thing about Wes Montgomery-and I know people today probably can't conceive of it-but this was a musician who made records that were based purely on live performance. There was no punching in. What you heard him play is what he played live one afternoon. They probably cut these records in three hours. And Wes never made a mistake. I remember thinking to myself: How does a guy play every note and it's totally tasty, not one extra note in there?
Lenny used to tell me lots of stories about hanging out with all these jazz cats-Charlie Parker and just about everybody. And I'll never forget the day he said to me, "You know, Wes never played a wrong note. He never played an extra note, he never left one out." He said, "In all my years of jamming with him and playing gigs with him and watching him play, I never saw him once play out of tune or miss a note." That's what I had thought, but I just thought I was a little kid who didn't know any better.
But he was right when I went back and listened to the records... When you sing one of his solos you feel like you're in the presence of greatness. It's like reading a poem that's perfect and you just can't believe someone came up with that combination of words that you use every day but just in a different order. And that's kind of like what music is. We all have the same notes in our pocket, but the great ones pull out the right ones at the right time. Wes was one of those guys. He had the timing, the rhythm, the note selection, he had an incredible sense of melody and harmony, and he performed impeccably.
Be sure to come back to read our exclusive interview with Joe Satriani - Part 2 where he talks about his musical coming of age.
Part 1 »Part 2 »Part 3 »Part 4 »