Joe Satriani

By A. Lee Graham

Joe Satriani is waiting.

The world’s most successful instrumental guitarist waits for some silence as roofers bang away high above.

“I apologize if you hear some banging, but there are some guys working on my house,” says Satriani, calling from his Bay Area home.

The six-stringer known as Satch has more on his mind than roof tiles these days. Commanding his attention is putting the finishing touches on What Happens Next, his 16th solo album, and preparing the newest G3 tour. Not even the loudest roofers can break his concentration.

It’s been that way since the New York native discovered the electric guitar after learning of Jimi Hendrix’ death. The 14-year-old aimed to master the instrument, and within a few years, he taught others, including Steve Vai.

Other students sought his guidance after Satriani moved to Berkeley, Calif. in the late ‘70s. Among those were future Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, Testament shredder Alex Skolnick and Possessed-Primus player Larry LaLonde.

When not teaching, Satriani played with The Squares and Greg Kihn, earning a reputation as the Bay Area’s go-to guitar guy. The local hero soon would storm the world, first with Not of this Earth, an eclectic debut followed by with Surfing with the Alien, a 1987 burner making an unlikely climb up the radio charts.

Since then, Satriani’s career has been in overdrive with album after album, collaboration after collaboration and G3, conceived by the virtuoso as a way to highlight three guitarists onstage for an entire tour. With a revolving lineup that always included Satriani, each outing expose audiences to otherwise obscure or up-and-coming fretboard phenomena such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci and Robert Fripp.

As 2018 approaches, Satriani prepares the latest G3 iteration while promoting What Happens Next.

What happens before What Happens Next’s January release is the following interview with Classic Rock Revisited.

Lee: Thirty one years ago, I sat in my college dorm room mesmerized by Not of this Earth. “Brother John” gave me chills. How has Joe Satriani’s guitar playing evolved since then?

Joe: Wow. Well, first of all, that’s a great memory. That’s really crazy. That was the beginning of really trying to take a big leap into bringing my music to the world. It’s funny, Lee, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the way I go about trying to push myself into new areas, not being afraid to experiment with some different production approach.

A song like “Brother John,” it’s completely unadorned and there’s no safety net or other instruments around it. It’s just an electric guitar finger-picked, you know.

What we wound up doing was plugging the guitar directly into a DI [direct input] box into an old Neve [studio console]. We were figuring out how to get the essence of the guitar sound as close to listeners’ ears as possible.

Lee: Fewer connections and a, purer, more direct sound?

Joe: Yeah, when you look back to those days in the ‘80s, the consoles were noisy. But when you play with a band, you don’t hear it. The cymbals, the drums pretty much cover the noise coming from the guitars, basses, etc. But when it’s solo guitar, there’s inherently noise. Guitars pick up sounds from everything: the pickups, the cables and the tape itself. That record was recorded on analog tape. The tape inherently has that hiss. We did everything we could to quiet it down yet increase the impact.

Today’s recordings are different technically, but we go about the same thing. We try to get as close to the fan’s ears as possible and see what we can eliminate along the way. A song like “Energy” is so completely different than “Brother John,” but you still have to bring the musical experience to the fan. That’s the idea. We do all sorts of things. My fingers have changed and everything else has changed. It would take me years to figure out the ways I have changed.

Lee: You mentioned “Energy,” which really captures a raw vibe. It kicks off What Happens Next in strong form. What makes the album stand out compared to the rest of your catalog? To these ears, it’s a return to the meat-and-potatoes rock groove of The Extremist.

Joe: You’re right in pointing out some of those elements. My main concern over the course of the last tour, which got documented in Beyond the Supernova, my son’s documentary about the creative process coming to the end of the Shockwave [Supernova] tour, it was really about me closing a chapter in exploring progressive rock elements and working a lot of fiction and science fiction into musical themes.

The last record was built around a narrative of an alter ego and it was a trippy concept in a way. Building up to that were quite a few records with themes around them. This time, I wanted to, as you say, go back to a groove-oriented rock and soul, the sound of musicians in a room reacting to each other, forcing us to deliver groundbreaking performances that really lay bare the true meaning and emotion of the songs.

I used to sit in the tour bus and say, yeah, that’s what I want to do but to get back and find the right approach in the right studio to make it all happen. It’s a lot of blind faith. You’ve just got to say I’m gonna do it and not back down.

You don’t let go until you achieve it. That’s what I did. I want What Happens Now to be a real rock record, a real groove-and-soul-oriented record. All the best music I grew up listening to was based on those elements, and I wanted to make those musical elements the cornerstones of the new record.

Lee: Why Mike Fraser as producer this time? You’ve worked with both he and John Cuniberti in the past, but what qualities made you think Fraser would be the better choice for this album?

Joe: Both of them are my best friends and I trust them completely, which is extremely important since when you go in there, you are surrendering yourself to working with those producers, you need to know they have your best interests at heart. When you’re actually playing the instrument, you can mislead yourself and that second opinion is so important. Besides, they’re incredible talents as engineers and producers.

John had finished remastered for the Chrome Dome project, which was remastering the entire catalog and we did Shockwave [Supernova], which was a very long record that had some tracks Mike Fraser has. It was a big, sprawling project. It seems I’ve bounded between those two guys.

Lee: Maybe John needed a well-deserved break after all that.

Joe: (laughs) I’m sure they needed a break from me (laughs). It seems like John and I are always working together. We’re both in the Bay area. Mike’s working out of Vancouver, Canada, so I needed to book him in advance. I think ultimately when you think about a record and who would be best, in my case, compliment my project, I need, sometimes I think about who I’ll invite to play.

That kind of informs me about who I work with well within the band. Mike Fraser mixed Crystal Planet and recorded it and the second Chickenfoot record and the live DVD, as well. He and Chad [Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer] were very close and worked together, so I thought that was a really good thing that we had, that we had a brotherhood already going, a history of trust, so that’s what I was thinking. The first idea I had was Chad Smith.

Lee: You halfway answered my next question about why you chose Chad and [former Deep Purple bassist-vocalist] Glenn Hughes for this album. Obviously, you knew Chad due to your mutual involvement in Chickenfoot, but when did Glenn come onto your radar, and what made you think he would be a good fit for What Happens Next?

Joe: If I go back to the last Chickenfoot we did, I remember thinking I really miss playing with Chad. He’s such an intense drummer, such a powerful drummer. It stuck in my mind. I kept thinking ,as a brainstorm, the next step in my career, I really wanted to do something with Chad. I wondered if he’d ever do an instrumental record with me and I imagined what kind of music we could create together.

I realized I needed to find the right bass player, too, so I went through bass players I hadn’t played with that I wanted to and if these people had any connection with Chad. Glenn’s name was on my list anyway, and I knew they had recorded quite a bit on his solo records.

Until then, my only other experience with him was at a Jim Marshall memorial in London a few yeas ago. We bumped into each other and I always thought he was a supremely talented bass player, besides the fact that he’s a fantastic vocalist, too. He never really got championed for his bass playing. I sent out a feeler, I asked Chad, would you agree to get me like 10 days somewhere and how about we get Glenn and he was immediately on board. So I reached out to Glenn, and he said yes.

He had never done an instrumental album before. It was the first time he recoded when he didn’t sing at all. I kept giving him more space to put his imprint all over these songs.

Lee: He’s such a solid bass player, I’m sure fans have waited for Glenn to showcase his chops.

Joe: His last solo album was just outstanding: the songs, the singing and the bass playing. It was bass as a lead instrument, and few bass players can do that. There are very few people that play like a Jack Bruce or John Entwistle where you can’t really draw the line between the bass being supportive and being a lead instrument in some way. It comes natural to Glenn.

Lee: Did you, Glenn and Chad record in the same room? So many musicians trade files these days that the live vibe often gets lost in the name of convenience.

Joe: The biggest problem I faced was scheduling. We had a very busy Red Hot Chili Peppers tour and a solo album from Glenn and the latest Black Country Communion album and my solo album about to be released. I had to somehow find 10 days where both these guys were taking breaks from their main careers and could meet me somewhere.

Chad was willing to do it if he could commute from home, so we radically changed the schedule. Both of them were in LA, so it was easier to be down there. We recorded in the famous Sunset Sound Studio building, a beautiful room. Some fantastic albums have been recorded in that room. We really breezed through it. We finished a day or two early. We were all in the same room, staring at each other doing one or two songs a day, just pounding it out. I had one or two tracks done already.

Lee: Was all the music written before you entered the studio, or did you compose after meeting up?

Joe: All of it was written. It costs so much money to be in a real studio, so I don’t want to there without material ready. It doesn’t make sense. World-class recording is available in any corner of your apartment these days, so what I do is prepare, go through a series of demos and prepare on Pro Tools, a compete session that will have some keyboard or a melody or solo or rhythm part that will make us sound like we have more people in a room like in “Righteous.”

A whole band needs to hear a bunch of stuff to see what’s going on. A song like “Headrush,” it’s just three guys doing a crazy boogie. No one’s reading from charts, so we’re just playing from memory and then sonically, it helps create a mood and makes the recordings go quicker.

It’s an interesting process where that demo, I’ll eventually bring in my digital editor, Eric Caudieux. He has been with me since 1996. He takes my Pro Tools stuff and cleans it all up and makes them in a way Mike Fraser likes to see and use those templates to record the band on top of that.

No technical detail slows down the creative moment. This also allows us to do 10 takes and each band member is allowed to explore a differ idea. Glenn might play on the upbeats and the next time, just on the downbeats or use his fingers the next time. Since everything is savable, I’d just encourage them to do anything that came to mind.

Lee: I’ll bet that approach keeps everything fresh.

Joe: It does. It’s the one cool thing about digital recording: it’s non-destructive and you can record many different ideas. But eventually, you have to sit down and listen to them. In the old days, what you changed was changed forever. Editing was very destructive. The good side was you had to make a decision right then and there. People made a decision and that was it.

These days, we’re burdened with endless decision-making time. The good news is the drummer doesn’t have to play it so safe without making one error. These days, a drummer can be like a guitar and do overdubs. The true nature of the drummer, I think, can be exploited and they can play things a million different ways. You want to hear all of their ideas.

Lee: Do you have a vision for each release, not only musically, but thematically?

Joe: Yes.

Lee: For example, what were you attempting with Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock compared to Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards? And Engines of Creation dabbled in electronic music and drum and bass, etc. The new one seems more straight ahead. Was that intentional?

Joe: Absolutely. It’s funny that sometimes when you go so deep in theme-oriented albums that when you step out of it, there’s this refreshing starting-over feel.

You nailed it on saying it’s an almost a return to a straight-ahead rock approach like with The Extremist. The Extremist was that. I had done Surfing with the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream. Flying in a Blue Dream was like Shockwave Supernova in that both were these were sprawling with different themes and different recording techniques and a lot of different ideas. Then each one was followed up with straight-ahead records.

The Extremist was like my salute to classic rock and I was feeling like, even though I had made these bigger records with a then-modern approach — Surfing and Flying — I wanted to make a record that sort of leans on the approaches to the records I grew up on. I got together with not only John Cuniberti, but also Andy Johns. It took almost two years of recording, but eventually we did record those things with countless start and stops.

We created a sound that was quite unique for an instrumental guitar album that had its own sound to it. Songs like “Friends” or even “Summer Song” couldn’t be done the way previous albums had been done. It had to be done with me and the Bissonette [brothers, Matt and Gregg] recording in a big studio. When we recorded the Bissonette brothers playing drum and bass on the track, I was recording the rhythm track, but we tracked to the melody and solo that had been recorded a year earlier. I was looking to start fresh and instead of my brain out there imagining what it’s like in the universe, I wanted to make a record that had my feet firmly planned on the ground and it was all about matters of the heart and soul.

Lee: Let’s move from the studio to G3. The first G3 tour I saw was in 2001 when Petrucci and Vai were along for the ride. How has the tour changed since then? Has demand for such tours risen or decreased since then?

Joe: It’s a dangerous question you ask. It interferes with the artistic impulse, any question like that. I would imagine the first hip hop artist wasn’t thinking has demand increase for someone to rap? If they thought like that, we wouldn’t have had all these great hip hop albums. If I questioned if there was demand for instrument guitar, there never would have been a Surfing with the Alien album.

The original impulse I had for creating G3 was I would say to myself, I know I’m just like my fans. I know I’d like to see three guys on stage really letting their guard down and playing music that really celebrates electric guitar in general and we get to see them play their songs.

To this day, if someone told me that three guitars players would get up and play, I’d be going to it. It’s a rarity that people cross-pollinate like that in the entertainment world because it’s ingrained in the industry to keep people away form each other for fear of creating competition. Never be afraid of standing next to someone who’s better than you. In fact, go for it.

Lee: You can only learn.

Joe: When you stand to someone like John Petrucci, you can only learn. He’s a great guy and really makes magic on stage. Going back to that memory of G3 in 2001 you mentioned, can you imagine standing next to those guys and breathing the same oxygen every night? Every time we put on G3, we keep switching it up. I look to invite two people who share similarities but also differences.

In the G4 we held here in Northern California two months ago, we had Tommy Emmanuel and Phil Collen. When you look at us on stage, you say these guys can’t possibly work together. But it was great. Phil is such a great player and person, with such a positive attitude. Just for a behind-the-scenes story, when he shows up, Phil’s one of those guys and you say you want to do this song? He’ll say sure, and you whisper the chords in his ear and he’s right there with you. He brings that experience and great musicianship, too. He’a great singer, too. That really blew me away.

Lee: I was going to ask about Phil. Everyone knows he’s a solid player and good guy but not someone you’d think of as a virtuoso. He seems like a breed apart from you and John. I guess he brings another X factor to the table.

Joe: Absolutely. The gigs we get are quite interesting. They shape our public persona quite a bit. Look at a guitarist like Tom Morello. Being in Rage Against the Machine really shapes his public persona. He can play a lot of different music, though, much more than you’d hear from a Rage album. Public perception, though, is based on what you hear day in and day out. These players often have hidden talents that they’ve never had a platform to stretch out on.

We did two G3s with Robert Fripp and of course Robert Fripp is not known for playing blues. On the second tour we did together, he became part of my band on the second set. He’d be with us, playing “Ice 9” and was just amazing. The magic of G3 is we get people out of their element. With John Petrucci, we get him too step out of Dream Theater and he plays a lot more because he’s not leaving room for vocals and keyboards so you get to hear more of John’s wizardry in a G3 setting.

Lee: Does G3 make you step out of your comfort zone in other ways? Like both you and John are known for your signature gear: John with his Ernie Ball guitars, Mesa Boogie line, TC Electronic pedals, even guitar picks, and you’re known as an Ibanez-Marshall man. Do you and John ever try to play each other’s guitars? What does that feel like?

Joe: At the sound checks, we’re always saying can I try your rig? They’re not that different if you think about it. We both play six-string guitars, we both play through high-gain amps, our guitars both have pickups and vibrato bars. We use delay and reverb and flanging, so the tools we are using are quite similar. Ninety percent of the tools we are using are quite close. And Phil plays Jackson [guitars], too. He goes from beautiful clean to thick distorted. The subtleties, it’s interesting, to tell you the truth, very often the way we adjust our gear has to do with what inspires us from moment to moment.

There’s a scene in the upcoming documentary where Steve comes out to a birthday party in France — a total surprise, I had no idea he was coming — and he plays one my purple guitars. He had no gear so there he is wearing my guitar and plugged into one of my amps and he did not sound like me at all, even though he had the same gear.

Lee: That just proves the adage that the sound really is in your fingers.

Joe: (laughs) I don’t want the people at Ibanez to read that.

Lee: You’ve worked with so many great musicians and guitarists, I was wondering if you could describe each of the following artists with just one word...Mick Jagger

Joe: One word? Oh my god: Superlative

Lee: Ian Gillan, when you were with Deep Purple

Joe: Magical

Lee: This is going away back to your Squares days: Greg Kihn

Joe: Greg was amazing.

Lee: Alice Cooper

Joe: You know, that was a dream come true. He’s too complicated to get with just one word. You had to understand I impersonated him in high school where I tried to get a friend elected as school president. I kind of looked like a smaller version of him. I appeared at an event with me at a school theater. I was shirtless and had this fake blood on me, and chased people around with a friend’s boa constrictor. I just grew up with him, had his posters on my wall, listen to him with Steve Hunter on guitar.

Lee: John Petrucci

Joe:  John is majestical. Is that a word?

Lee: It is now.

Joe: He is great.

Lee: He of the beard.

Joe: Yeah, I’m going to have to get a fake beard for the tour.

Lee: You and Phil both.

Joe: Yeah (laughs)

Lee: Sammy Hagar

Joe: Force of nature

Lee: That leads me to another question. Word has it that Chickenfoot will regroup in 2018. Is that true?

Joe: I think so. Sammy called me a few weeks ago and said that’s what he wants to do. I’m always the one pushing those guys to make time for us all. It will be a busy year next year. We always work together under the craziest schedules. Once we put our minds to it, I’d think we’ll get together and record some great music. I hope more than three days.

Lee: On a different subject, I want to get your thoughts on the Las Vegas shooting (this interview occurred two days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel). You play countless stages. As a musician, what goes through your mind when you hear about incidents such as these?

Joe: It’s beyond tragic. Any time a human being sets out to indiscriminately murder another human being is beyond belief. I just don’t understand how anyone can do that. It’s a monumental sadness that’s impossible to understand. How do you pick up a guitar and practice when something like that happens?

The last month has been a series of tragedies of people getting murdered around the world for differences of opinion and then Mother Nature rears its ugly head with earthquakes and…

Lee: Hurricanes?

Joe: Yes, hurricanes. And the government’s bumbling efforts to come to the aid of people. But without a doubt, people should not have access to weapons of mass destruction because it turns ordinary people with a grudge into terrorists. That’s not right. The government needs to get on with it immediately and do something right away.

Lee: What would you suggest as a possible solution?

Joe: I suppose sometimes my solutions would seem ridiculous to people. It’s almost like the drug problem. The war on drugs does not work, but if people stopped doing drugs, it would solve the problem. If you mention that as a solution, people look at you like you’re crazy. The obvious solution is people should stop shooting each other, but how do you implement it? I don’t know.  All I know is I don’t shooting people, I’m sure you don’t, and I’m sure most don’t. If we live our lives not killing people, why can’t others?

Lee: Perhaps the ultimate solution is ultimately in the soul, in changing one’s heart.

Joe: Yes, I agree.

Lee: Onto more pleasant matters, what can Joe Satriani fans expect in the coming year?

Joe: We’re starting off the tour year with G3, as we’ve discussed in this interview. We’ll do that and another tour in Europe and we’ll come back for a short break. Then we go to the southern hemisphere through Australia and New Zealand and if we’re lucky, a chance to do a full evening-with type tour through the U.S. and Canada.

Lee: That’s great news. I saw you in Dallas with Marco Minnemann and Bryan Beller for one of those evening-with shows. Fantastic show.

Joe: That was fantastic. Glad you enjoyed it.

Lee: I’ll be seeing you at G3 in Austin. That’s where I first saw you on the Surfing with the Alien tour.

Joe: What i remember about that was that was my first time in Austin. I checked into the hotel pretty late in the evening, after midnight or 1 or 2. We walked down the main strip. Was it Fourth Street?

Lee: Sixth Street.

Joe: Yeah, well, we walked into a 7-Eleven and the guys in the 7-Eleven were playing Not of This Earth, “The Enigmatic,” which is one of the weirdest songs I’ve ever written. They were blasting that, and I thought this is a great town!

Lee: Wow. I’m trying to picture that, but somehow am not having too much trouble considering it was Austin in the ‘80s.

Joe: (laughing)

Lee: Is there anything else you’d like to add, to tell your fans?

Joe: Nom, you were very comprehensive in your questions, so I’m good.

Lee: I don’t think you breached any confidences or rubbed Ibanez the wrong way, so I think we’re OK.

Joe: (laughs) Yes. Thanks again.