Six-string legend Joe Satriani has been releasing music for 32 years, and his special brand of melodic, multi-form instrumental rock continues to be as effervescent as the day he started.
Always working with a crack team of musicians, his music strikes emotional chords with a broad palette of sonic color. This year, his Surfing To Shockwave tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of his first full-length album Not Of This Earth and will span his 15-album catalog. There will be no opening acts, just a couple of hours of classic Satch split into two sets.
Prior to the tour’s kickoff, Satriani spoke to the Observer about his history, his multiple Grammy nominations, his 2015 single with Robin DiMaggio that raised proceeds to benefit UNICEF, and the spread of shred across the globe.
Listening back to your first album, it utilized a lot of electronic elements.
Partly I was railing against the hair farmer, heavy metal shredder guitar player, and I was just thinking there was so much homogenization going on, and for what? I just didn’t really hear any great songs, and I thought I was just going to do something really weird. That’s what I did with my first EP which came out in ’84, but when Not Of This Earth came along I was still really into the early techno that was coming out of Europe, so from Kraftwerk to what they were calling New Romantic coming out of the U.K. There were elements that I thought were very interesting and mood setting.
An instrumentalist doesn’t have lyrics, so you’ve really got to set the mood and have to be really careful about that. If it’s just a band playing a song while their singer takes a break, it’s not really as effective as when you look at each instrumental in a way that a symphony orchestra would look at a piece of music. They don’t just employ everybody because they’re sitting there. Sometimes the brass section doesn’t play. Sometimes it’s just four people. Sometimes it’s the full 120-piece orchestra. I thought that’s what we should do, and that means I’ve got to get rid of the musicians because if they’re there and you’re paying them, you’ve got to make them play something and then back into that homogenized sound again. So I used drum machines.
I didn’t think we had any sequencing, so I had to play everything by hand. It’s charming, let’s put it that way. We were recording to tape. I could only afford two reels of tape. Everything was done on a budget.
I found your last couple of records to be really engaging because while your band often supports what you do, you’ve been letting them strike out a bit more on their own to really show off their chops.
I think over the catalog you can hear me making radical changes in how I use that. A good example is the title track of Flying In A Blue Dream, which has a drum machine on it that never plays a fill. There are no toms. There’s a crash and a backwards cymbal crash. That’s the only thing the drummer does. It was really quite funny doing that because Jeff Campitelli was there in the studio. We tried all sorts of versions of how busy the drummer could get—he played live, he programmed crazy stuff—and eventually we went to the most obvious thing.
It’s a drum machine, you forget about it, it’s stream of consciousness. We got rid of most of the rhythm guitars and just used acoustic guitars playing these arpeggios in stereo. That was quite unusual. Instead of using a five-string bass, I took a four-string vintage P Bass and detuned it to low C. We just did funny things because we’re goofy that way. Sometimes we like things differently from everybody else, and it puts us in a great mood.
I love it. It’s about time that the arena of guitar players who really want to play is fully democratic. It is opening up. When we went to India a number of years ago, unbeknownst to us we were being filmed by two Indian guys who decided to make a documentary of our trip to India. They presented it to us about six months later, and we wound up including it on a DVD that we put out called Satriani Live!
The thing that was fascinating about the movie is that they visited local guitar schools in Calcutta, Mumbai and Bangalore where we played, and visually it looked totally different, not what would you expect. Nothing that would look like a European or North American setting for shredders, but there were a bunch of young kids, 12 or 13 years old, with heavy metal guitars sitting in a very Indian-looking setting, but all shredding and sounding like every shredder guitar player you’ve ever heard.
‘As crazy as it seems, I just really love music. I love playing guitar. I can’t believe that a little kid from Long Island got to do what I got to do.’
It was fascinating how these filmmakers filmed the periphery of the event of us touring in India. It reminded me again that the Internet democratized this guitar playing. It took the music that Steve Vai pioneered and instantly made it worldwide, so kids from India, Chile, or Finland had access to this and started learning how to play with Steve as their foundation, let’s say. It’s incredible what they can do.
When I was growing up, it seemed like a handful of British and American guys were the kings of electric guitar, and then it started to spread. But it’s been pretty much American and European for a long time. Now, guitar heroes are from every corner of the globe—male, female, every race, religion, background—and it’s very exciting. You just have to walk around the Internet a little bit to remind yourself that it’s no longer just the Nigel Tufnel guitar shredder.
Are there any guitarists that you would like to jam with?
It’s just in my nature to want to play with just about everybody. I’ve had the pleasure to play with Orianthi, and hopefully we’ll get to play together soon. I would love to catch up to all my heroes that were my founding fathers of guitar.
A few months ago when I was finishing up in the U.K., I got to hang out with Eric Clapton in Mark Knopfler’s studio for an afternoon, and that was really remarkable because he was very generous in letting me watch him do some acoustic guitar playing and singing, and it was just spot on and really great. The record sounds amazing. I’d probably be too nervous to just start playing with them, but that’s the kind of thing I’d love to do.
I love to be able to sit down with Jimmy Page and Eric and all the guys that I started listening to in my formative years. I’ll keep going with the G3 concerts, and maybe one of these days one of those guys will say yes.
Could you talk about the song you released for the UN last November [“Music Without Words”] that benefitted UNICEF?
I met this guy Robin DiMaggio when I was doing The Arsenio Hall Show, which is unfortunately long gone now, but he was the musical director and the drummer. We became friends, and one day he called me up and said maybe we could do a song. I said, “Let’s do something to shake the world up. What can we do? Let’s not be embarrassed to say to each other let’s do a song that we want to use to raise the spirits of people and make them focus on something important. Why not, right? I’ve written songs about aliens, so what’s the difference?”
He sent me a loop, and I wrote a song instantly. Then we started back and forth for months—I found time to work on it between my own stuff and Chickenfoot, and he is the musical director for the UN and player and musical director for quite a few pop stars—so we eventually did the big session with him producing the hell out of me playing a million instruments just to see what would happen. For the next month or two, I just fiddled around with it at home, sent it back to him, and he proceeded to invite a cast of hundreds to lay down a keyboard part or a string part or a bass part or some chanting.
He got a friend to mix it for us. Before you knew it, we had this big, beautiful track that sounded very different from the way I usually produce my tracks, and I don’t think he had ever done a guitar instrumental for anybody before. We want to do something special with it. It was a labor of love. We weren’t releasing it for [personal] monetary gain. It doesn’t have an album. I don’t know how else to express this, but UNICEF is going to use it as their theme song this year. I’m waiting to hear about the official date. That’s what we wanted it to be, a musical ambassador to create goodwill.
The Grammy Awards discontinued their two instrumental categories about five years ago, which you had been nominated in collectively 14 or 15 times.
Fifteen times, yeah. I’m lucky because now I can’t lose.
I guess that makes you the Susan Lucci of the Grammys?
Actually, I like to point out that I am not the most nominated nor the most nominated losing guy. There are two other people in front of me. In several categories, people share the same amount of nominations as well. There’s an R&B artist, I forget his name, who is definitely way ahead of me in nominations and not winning. Then there are quite a few people who do orchestral arrangement for film and all those other categories that you see that fill up that huge book of talented possible nominees.
It’s one of those things where I look back at my career and say having never won really seems to have been a stroke of good luck because I’m still here, my records are still selling, and my relationship with Sony Music and with my fans around the world has been fantastic, so I’m not going to complain.
You have a pretty positive attitude and still exude a lot of energy. Where does it all come from?
As crazy as it seems, I just really love music. I love playing guitar. I can’t believe that a little kid from Long Island got to do what I got to do. I have an audience, and I never take that for granted. I wake up a little bit anxious about if I’m going to play as good as yesterday or write a better song, but I want to know when’s my next show. I want to get up on stage and have a good time.
Ever since I was a young teenager, I got bit by that performance bug. It still makes me nervous, but at the same time I’m drawn to it. There’s nothing to be angry about. When you’re self-employed like this, you basically set the tone every day. I just try to make it a positive tone.