Joe Satriani: From Behind the Six String

Guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani is planning to kick off 2018 in style with a new album and tour. I recently caught up with Joe to talk about his upcoming release What Happens Next, his winter G3 tour, and his philosophies about Jimi Hendrix.

Jason Landry: So, if my addition is correct, you’re about to release your 16th studio album? Did you ever have any doubts that instrumental Rock guitar albums would catch on?

Joe Satriani: I think about it every time I make a record. It was the accidental career. I was in a band in the Bay Area for a good five years and while I was trying really hard to do the right thing, at home I’d be doing the wrong thing, which was making instrumental music for personal development. On one Christmas break from the band, I decided to see what would happen if I started my own record company and my own publishing company. I made a really weird EP with no drums, bass or keyboards––just all guitars. I remember returning to band rehearsals with this EP saying, look what I did on my Christmas vacation. It wasn’t met with lots of smiles or enthusiasm. After a while I thought, this is so much more rewarding than trying to be a professional musician grooming myself for a record contract. I saw a review of the EP in Guitar Player magazine, and I realized they didn’t know who I was––they just thought I was this strange, avant-garde musician that created this very weird album. It was one of those moments where I thought––that’s who I really am.

JL: Did you listen to a lot of rock instrumental records when you were growing up?

JS: There was a great history of guitar players, every once in a while, that created instrumental albums––from jazz, classical, and blues artists. I think in the 1950’s, I always heard “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny playing on the car radio, and I heard The Ventures and Dick Dale, but I didn’t really come of age until the beginning of the 70’s, by then I had already listened to all my oldest siblings’ records and Jimi Hendrix was my number one artist––I just thought he was the greatest. I gravitated towards his instrumental stuff which was also why his live stuff was so great, because he had these extended solo sections that to me, he was writing the bible to the electric guitar. Even on his first record, when I listened to “Third Stone From The Sun”, I though, Wow…this is real music. I was bolstered with the idea that Jeff Beck had a couple of successes as I was just starting to play the guitar. He had a really good run with his solo instrumental records that were completely rock. Then you have the fusion era in the early 70’s with John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Al di Meola. But for me, maybe I picked up the baton at some point when people thought it was something you couldn’t pick up.

JL: Your upcoming release What Happens Next begins with the song “Energy”, which has a really up-tempo riff and a thunderous drum beat and bass grove. To me, it really showcases the chemistry that you had with Glen Hughes and Chad Smith. I know that you’ve had a working relationship with Chad in the band Chickenfoot, but what about Hughes?

JS: I’ve known Glen like ships passing in the night kinda thing. We’d meet each other in New Zealand at some festival, and next I’d see him in London a few years later. I was really just a fan but I didn’t really know him. The only experience we had playing music together was when we played “Smoke On The Water” at Marshall’s 50th Anniversary event in London a few years ago. The legacy of his singing and bass playing on rock records is amazing. I was so excited that these guys agreed to be in the studio with me for a week to make this record, it was easy for me to write that song for them. That’s what it’s all about––feeling that energy.

JL: Did you write all of the songs first, or did you call them in and work on them together? What was the overall process like?

JS: I like to do all of my writing by myself, prior to putting the band together and prior to entering the studio. It’s expensive to make a record. I find that it’s better to spend your money on that talent––your producer, your engineer, your assistants, the room, and of course the musicians––and don’t waste time in the studio trying to come up with a good song. For me, I’m trying to tell specific stories. Each song is about something very specific and I want to make sounds and arrangements that are also very specific. Each song needs to have a unique sound signature where the musicians could say, I could play differently here.

JL: Since you write, compose, produce, arrange, and play your own music, what is the most important step in that process that you feel cannot be overlooked when working on a song?

JS: It would be truthfulness––you have to be honest with your feelings––you can’t hold back. I often get asked by younger players, what should I do––what’s the most important thing that I should be doing? I think everybody knows that the obvious thing is to practice. But, it’s the composers and musicians job to tell their story. It’s the hardest thing for the musician to work on because they have to be totally honest with themselves––they have to really dig deep all the time in order to bring this stuff out. They have to be not shy. There is a bit of bravery that goes along with it.

JL: Do you ever second guess yourself or sabotage yourself when writing a new song when you think you may have already done this before?

JS: I think there are a lot of moments when you are writing a song, and your enthusiasm is running high and then the little voice in your head says, hey guess what, you wrote this six albums ago––and you can only just stop and laugh at yourself. As a writer or musician, you have to continually check yourself. It’s bound to happen when you freely associate with the moment.

JL: Listening to some of the new songs off of your upcoming release, it dawned on me that the notes that you play sound as if a vocalist is singing lyrics. Is that always your intention?

JS: I certainly vocalize the lines as my way of making sure that the quantity of notes is not too high. One of the difficulties when recording an instrumental is that the audience really needs to know if you’re riffing, you’re soloing, or is this a melody. I think a lot of instrumentalists walk that fine line because it’s a lot of fun to play. But I do sit back and will sing what I think is going to be the correct melody for the song and then I will teach myself how to play it. I can tell right away when I start to do that, that it’s coming from a different place. It always leads me to moments where I’m learning to be more expressive––It’s a good routine.

JL: The last track on What Happens Next is a song titled, “Forever and Ever”. It has a beautiful Jimi Hendrix-esque bluesy vibe to the beginning and ending of the song. Have you ever thought about doing a blues instrumental album?

JS: I’d love to, but it would have to be with a band and a vocalist. I love blues, but I’m not a dedicated blues player––that’s kinda like hallowed ground. I’d love to do a Hendrix record too. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world to try and cover a Hendrix song because right from the beginning, you have to admit, you cannot ever do it as good as Jimi did it. So right away you have to take that step back and admit defeat and accept that failure, but know that I was doing it out of love.

JL: What about a Hendrix instrumental record?

JS: I can’t imagine what that would be, but that is a fantastic idea. You’ll probably get me thinking about this now for a couple of years.

JL: I have read in prior interviews that it was learning of Jimi’s passing that you decided to become a guitar player. What is it about his music do you think still attracts young guitar players today?

JS: It’s just so good. It’s completely natural. It’s almost like there is no barrier between what he’s feeling and the sound that’s coming out of his guitar. The thing that I point out to people about Hendrix is that you cannot detect that he ever practiced anything that you’ve heard anyone else practice. There is nothing in there that sounds methodical––not one scale. Even when he is playing homage to his heroes like Buddy Guy, it still comes out sounding completely original. It just goes to show what a remarkable human being he was.

JL: You’re going to be to hitting the road with G3 in early 2018. Describe the difference for you between touring with your band to support an album vs. touring with G3?

JS: Just the prospect of getting on stage every night with three other players and tossing the ball back and forth, that for me defines so much of the tour. I really look forward to learning from these guys that I invite out on the tour. Selfishly, by standing next to them for thirty or forty nights on tour, I’m hoping to pick up something from them that I can use.

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