His fingers are faster than lightning, his legato like liquid mercury. His riffs pack more punch than a turbine engine, and his leads cut like glass. He can skip strings in a single bound, dive-bomb with the best of them, and tap dance over his Ibanez fret board.
But more importantly, Joe Satriani’s guitar music is melodic, memorable, and moving.
San Francisco-based “shredder” Satriani first turned the rock world on its ear back in the late ‘80s, with the release of the all-instrumental efforts Not of This Earth (1986) and Surfing With the Alien (1987) on Relativity Records. Both records (particularly the second) drew rave reviews, with Satriani being hailed as the next generation of guitar hero, a la Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Yngwie Malmsteen.
But humble Joe was never in it merely for show. Although a technical master of his instruments, Satriani always preferred using his guitar tricks as one means to a musical end. The string-bending, tremolo yanking, wire-tapping, and harmonic pinching are all but tools in a very bulky tackle box; they’re not just stunts for showing off his considerable knowledge and versatility.
Although they can be, particularly in a live context.
The Force is strong with Satriani, who continued pursuing his muse on well-regarded ‘90s projects like Flying in a Blue Dream, The Extremist, and Crystal Planet and on ‘00s albums like Engines of Creation, Super Colossal, and Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards. Between his CDs and several in-concert DVDs he’s notched over 10 million units sold—and earned a whopping 15 Grammy Award nominations for Best Rock Instrumental.
And that’s just the icing on an already substantial cake: Satriani gave guitar lessons to future superstars like Steve Vai and Alex Skolnick, performed in New Wave trio The Squares, and moonlighted in the Greg Kihn Band in the early ‘80s before charting a solo path with his self-titled “experimental guitar” EP. After Surfing thrust him into the spotlight, Joe snagged sideman gigs on the road with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple.
Satriani’s also the mastermind behind the hugely successful G3 Tour, the semiannual bill that assembles touring trifectas of guitar greats like “Satch,” Vai, Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Robert Fripp, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and John Petrucci on one magical ticket.
Oh, and Joe’s also the designated axe-man in the hard-rocking supergroup Chickenfoot, which—along with Satriani—boasts alumni from Van Halen (Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Chad Smith). Despite all the triumphs and musical glory, Satriani has kept his composure.
He also maintains his freakish chops and killer guitar tone. 2013’s Unstoppable Momentum contained some of Joe’s most pointed melodies (and outlandish rhythms) yet, while 2015’s Shockwave Supernova saw Satriani riffing in the semi-fictional guise of a more egotistical “rock god” alter-ego.
Now Satriani’s on tour again, once more backed by Aristocrats all-stars Marco Minneman (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass), and guitar / keyboard whiz Mike Kenneally (Frank Zappa, Beer for Dolphins). The Surfing to Shockwave Tour will survey some three decades of Joe’s guitar artistry, sample from most of his umpteen studio album…and—invariably—remind all us wannabees why we latched onto his hot licks in the first place.
We caught up with the guitar Jedi by phone last week to talk up his forthcoming concert at the Hard Rock at Northfield Park (April 10th), discuss the ideas behind Shockwave Supernova, and reexamine some of his many career milestones.
As ever, Satriani was intelligent, articulate, and inspirational.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Hello again, Joe, and thanks for speaking with us! Are you on a break from the road or…?
JOE SATRIANI: I’m three weeks into the tour. Last year we did nine weeks in Europe, and then we started up again in North America three weeks ago. So I’m in Florida [Ft. Lauderdale] making phone calls from the hotel right now!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Given that the tour is called Surfing to Shockwave, would that preclude hearing anything from the first full album, Not of This Earth?
JOE SATRIANI: That’s really funny. Actually, we play just about everything we can from every record. We do play the title track from the first album. It’s in the show!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Surfing to Shockwave does have a better ring to it, as far as names go. And speaking of Shockwave, can you talk a bit about the loose concept behind the album? While it’s not a “concept” album per se, I’m aware you did go in with a loose musical narrative about the journey of a rock and roll alter ego. Is that right?
JOE SATRIANI: Yeah, I like the way you put that. It was really just a funny little daydream as we finished the Unstoppable tour a few years ago. I was just noticing that my onstage personality was really kicking into high gear. I was playing with my teeth a lot! I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it were really a problem?” Sometimes you see it in the news—these performers who become more like their onstage personality, their public personality, and they lose track of their private selves. I thought it would be a cool basis for an in-house structure to guide me to write and produce the next record. So I was thinking, “I could create this narrative about the argument between these two egos—the real one, and the alter-ego.” But I didn’t want the audience to have to know about it. I wanted to be sure the record could be approached like any other record, needle-dropped so-to-speak on any song. The fans could re-sequence the record and enjoy it any way that want. But for me it was a great concept to help me recognize how far I could go stylistically, to combine compositions and production ideas, how varied and eclectic I could get with my song selection. That really helped me pull it all together and keep a very creative sort of halo over everything. Even in the studio, when I had to explain the songs to the musicians. With a smirk on my face, with a smile I could say, “Hey, imagine this: This song is about this alter-ego, and he’s remembering the crazy days of the early ‘80s, so let’s play it like it is an ‘80s song.” And that would help us sort of rise to the occasion in the studio.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: The record begins with the title track—which kind of introduces our protagonist, at least in musical terms. And it ends with “Goodbye Supernova,” which serves as a conclusion to his journey. But is it fair to say that the songs in between can be taken on their own terms, even if they do serve the story arc?
JOE SATRIANI: Yeah. Again, very well put. I would say I’d use the word “dissolve.” When I was writing “Goodbye Supernova,” I was imagining that this character was standing on the shore of a vast ocean, and he’s watching the sun come up. He realizes it’s time for him to just…you know, dissolve and become part of wherever he came from—but it’s with the hope that he will be reborn somehow as a better version of an artist. He’ll be a better writer, better guitar player, and a better performer. And no so crazy! He’s finally excised all the excesses of his thirty-year career, and he’s not going to get into trouble any more. He realizes there’s a greater purpose for him as an artist, so he must dissolve and rejoin the “real” Joe! But the power of the instrumental is that once you hand it over to the fans, they can use the song for whatever they want. They can take a song you wrote about a tragedy and make it a love song—or the opposite of that. And I give that to them; because there are no lyrics, people are free to associate their emotions to the songs and use the music any way they wish.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Ah, so it’s more like a rebirth or an evolution than a death or even a farewell. Now, with the first single, “On Peregrine Wings,” there some not-so-subtle undertones related to flight. And you’ve done “flight songs” before, like “Flying in a Blue Dream.” Is there something about music—or guitar playing in particular—that evokes the sensation of flying for you?
JOE SATRIANI: I think it’s just freedom from having your feet on the ground, being free from just being a regular human being, you know? We all have this consciousness, but we’re stuck in our bodies and we deal with it every day. We have to clean up, we gotta eat, we gotta drink, you know [laughs]? All those things we have to do to keep alive. So there’s this sense of being trapped by our own bodies, and I was using the idea of this science-fiction character putting on a suit and being able to fly for the first time—how exhilarating, yet exciting it would be. It’s him stepping off the edge of a cliff and saying, “Wow! I can fly now!” But I think he’d still be pretty petrified to hover a few hundred feet above the ground. How long would it take to get over your fear, and to trust that power? And at the same time, I’d been working on a dark sci-fi adventure T.V. series with two other guys—Brendon Small from Metalocalypse and my main writing partner, Ned Evett. We were dealing with a lot of these issues, where our main character gets transported to another reality. And with the help of this unusual suit, he learns to fly. So this was all part of how I was imagining the song. That’s why it has a fast clip to it; I thought that that’s what it would feel like! You’d be petrified, and yet you’d be having the time of your life. All at the same time!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Like in these comic book superhero movies nowadays, when Iron Man tests his suit or Green Lantern learns to fly. There’s trepidation, and then exhilaration.
JOE SATRIANI: Right! Exactly.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: You’re using the same musicians on tour as last time, and they’re all remarkable players. Can you discuss what Mike, Bryan, and Marco bring to your onstage dynamic?
JOE SATRIANI: Well, they are just very exciting musicians. They’re at the top of their game, just amazing players. They listen so well to every little cue that gets thrown around the stage or studio, which is so important when you’re trying to create some magic in the studio. They’ve got an incredible amount of versatility. They’re very much cued in to try and make each song reach its full potential. These are things you’d think would be normal for a musician, but they’re actually very rare talents. It’s rare to get all that in one person! To get someone who’s super-talented, but also very sensitive to the moment. Someone who knows how to take care of their limbs and their gear, and is careful day after day to keep it together, and to come in with enthusiasm and make room for everybody—but also to step out front when you ask them to. These are incredibly important qualities that are hard to find in any one person. But Marco, Bryan, and Mike are perfect examples of musicians who can do all of that. So they constantly surprise me with their great ideas and the excitement they bring to the parts I write out for them. But it’s a lot more fun to just give them a vague idea and let them run with it, and see what they come up with!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: When we first saw you in concert back in 1988 you only had the trio format, with Stu Hamm on bass and Jonathan Mover on drums. Over the years you’ve had four and five-piece bands. Does it help having a rhythm guitarist on board for live shows?
JOE SATRIANI: You know, in the beginning we toured as a trio purely out of economics. We played very small clubs. We’d do two shows a night. The band and crew were all in one crummy little bus. It was really rough! There was no way to afford a fourth person, and yet it was a stress because all my songs have some kind of rhythm guitar or a keyboard. So that put a lot of strain on Stu Hamm and Jonathan to make up for the “missing” guy, you know? So as soon as we were able to move to a fourth person, it really did help quite a bit. There were times when we did tours—like the first G3 tour—where we went back to three people. And that was because it fit the show; we were only playing twenty-five or thirty minutes, plus we were jamming with other guitarists. I actually did tour with five at one time, back when we had Jeff [Campitelli], Allen [Whitman], and Galen Henson in the band, and also Mike Kenneally—because that’s when Mike joined in. So we’ve sort of expanded and shrunk a few times, depending on the kind of show we wanted to bring out. But I’ll have to say that having a four-piece allows me to play all the material from all the records. There’s no way to play, say, “Always With Me, Always With You” unless there’s someone playing that important signature guitar part underneath the song. There are so many pieces like that, that depend on the interplay of rhythm and melody.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: I have some silly hodgepodge questions, if you don’t mind. I wanted to ask about the Chrome Dome edition of The Complete Studio Recordings box set, the one with the USB files kept inside a life-size bust of your head. How was that created? Did they have to like, map out your face?
JOE SATRIANI: Yeah! These guys came over to my house and set up this little tent in my living room, and I sat on this stool, and they photographed me from every possible incremental angle. They did it all in the space of about an hour. They had an unusual camera, and a computer program that allowed them to map my head exactly. It’s kind of creepy, actually [laughs]! When I look at it, it’s like, “Wow! That’s really something!”
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Like, fascinating—“Wow, that’s my head!”—and then creeped-out, like, “Oh…that’s my head!”
JOE SATRIANI: I know! We’re so oriented to…we’re used to thinking of ourselves as how we see ourselves when we look into the mirror straight on, but no one else sees us like that, really!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: I follow your Twitter and Instagram, and recently your son ZZ shared a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon with you. I know you’re a sci-fi fan, but wanted to know if reading sci-fi and fantasy helps inspire you, musically.
JOE SATRIANI: They definitely do. I’ve been a fan ever since I was a young kid of sci-fi, starting with Ray Bradbury. Then I got into William Gibson, and still right now, I’m reading the third book in a Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. And I love China Mieville and Dan Simmons. I think they’re just super-creative writers with great writing chops. I’m always into that, and I’d love to have any kind of input from other fans of science-fiction, if they come across a new writer!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: I know the guys in Chickenfoot are all busy, like you—but the band does have a two-night stand in Lake Tahoe in May. And then you’ve got some G3 dates set for summer with Steve Vai. Is Chickenfoot kind of on hold right now, apart from those two gigs?
JOE SATRIANI: Somehow, a one-off happened, and then it became a two-off! So we have two shows in Lake Tahoe—Saturday and Sunday. I’m very happy with that! And we just finished a song that’s just getting mastered. I know it seems like we have a bad work ethic [laughs], but it’s the schedules. And to think, we only have just the one song after two years, or whatever [laughs]! But I’m happy to have that, to have a new piece of music. I’m not sure how it’ll be borne into the world, whether it’ll be part of a TV show or just given away, or if it means there will be another album. I’m in the dark as much as the other three guys, because we’re all so busy doing our other things!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: You opened for David Bowie back in the early ‘90s. Any thoughts on Bowie and his music and creativity?
JOE SATRIANI: What an incredible artist, what a huge loss. I started playing Bowie songs back when I was in high school. I was in a band that was sort of like the second version of a crazy high school band. I think that’s where I sowed all my wild oats—and it was all to the music of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars! And he just kept taking off and changing and morphing and giving us so much. I’ve always been a hardcore Bowie fan, and getting a chance to play with him was great. He was such a nice guy, and very generous all the time. Very cool, but just an amazing performer. He just had that thing, you know? He had that stage presence. But he was a really good guy behind the scenes, too, which was great. Most guys who are my heroes in rock and roll have always been like that. David or Brian May or Mick Jagger—they’re just super human beings as well as being superstars, with an undeniable stage presence and creativity!
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Perhaps a musically schizophrenic person like Shockwave Supernova is like, a descent of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
JOE SATRIANI: Yeah, I think that’s exactly where I got the artistic license to do that! Being a fan of David Bowie meant that, “Yeah, an artist can do that!” An artist can project themselves into different characters, and it helps them create whole worlds and whole shows, and then the songs get into our souls, which makes life that much more fun and interesting for us! And I love how David would always just burn every bridge and just move on to the next thing! I thought that was so very Warhol of him [laughs] to just keep moving forward. He was very brave, you know? Very brave.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: You’ve played most venues in Cleveland over the years—The Agora, Peabodys, House of Blues, the State Theater, Tower City. But I do believe your April 10th gig at Hard Rock in Northfield is a rare first for you.
JOE SATRIANI: We’ve had such a great history, ever since ’88, since we pulled into town. We’ll play pretty much anyplace that’ll have us! I think that’s basically much still how I work. I’m always happy to be invited back!
Joe Satriani. Sunday, April 10, 2016 at Hard Rock Northfield Park (10777 Northfield Road, Northfield, Ohio 44067). 7:30pm. Advance tickets here: http://tinyurl.com/jh63van