What rappers are now, rock guitarists were in the ‘80s.
They ruled the planet.
Here’s a personal example of just how amazing that decade was if you loved rock guitar: In 1989 a hot teenage girl picked me up from my parents’ house on a Friday night to go out. When I entered her gray Pontiac Grand Am the stereo was playing a cassette of “Surfing With The Alien” by Joe Satriani, a two-year-old instrumental guitar album with zero singing on it. All shredding.
Granted, “Surfing With The Alien” is one of the most eloquent instrumental guitar albums ever. It went platinum, selling more than a million copies, and pierced the top 30 of the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Satriani wasn’t the first instrumental rock guitar star. (That would be Jeff Beck.) Or the first great shredder (hello, Eddie Van Halen) or the first instrumental shredder star (Yngwie Malmsteen).
But it was Satriani — New York born, Northern California famed, current Los Angeles resident – who made virtuoso guitar albums a viable career path. He’s notched at least six platinum and gold records during his solo career. Along the way he’s also been a member of classic-rock band Deep Purple and Van Halen/Red Hot Chili Peppers supergroup Chickenfoot.
He showed future shredders how it’s done, literally. Early in his career Satriani was a guitar teacher of soon to be famous fret freakers including Steve Vai, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Primus’ Ler LaLonde.
I’ve been wanting to tell Joe Satriani my Grand Am story for at least a couple decades. On a recent afternoon I finally got to do it.
Satriani, who’s touring behind his latest album of brilliant, creative and emotive and guitar playing, “The Elephants of Mars,” called in for a 30-minute phone interview.
His current band features bassist Bryan Beller, keyboardist Rai Thistlethwayte and A-list drummer Kenny Aronoff, known for his playing on classic John Mellencamp tracks. Tour dates and tickets at satriani.com.
At the end of our chat, I thanked Satriani for the conversation and his music. Satriani’s response: “Thank you very much, and thank that girlfriend who picked you up in the Grand Am. I love that story.” Below are edited excerpts from the rest of our conversation.
Joe, what’s something you know now as a guitarist you wish you would’ve known back when you first started?
Oh, wow, it’s probably an extremely long list of insights. [Laughs] How to go about recording, what to keep, what not to get bent out of shape about. I think the most important thing you have to get over when you’re young is being self-conscious and being nervous about being judged about how you want to play or what you want to write about.
And then as you get older, and you play shows you’re in front of people, I mean hundreds of thousands of people on any given tour, you realize that they’ve come to actually see you express yourself, your originality, the very thing that you are kind of guarded about. Like when you’re in high school, you know, you’re very nervous about the shoes you wear, your T-shirt, how you cut your hair, everything. You’re trying to conform to the group that you want to relate to.
This comes up a lot in the Q&As I do before the shows out on tour, because generally music students want to learn how to join up with everybody else and be part of the movement. But the ultimate reward is actually when you flaunt your originality, which you have by default. Everyone’s unique. It’s just that there’s no exercise for it, no book about it, no scales or chords you can play every day that make you original.
It’s a really tough lesson to decide to work on. But it is in fact the one that’s going to give you a lifelong career.
That’s interesting because I was listening to “Sahara,” the opening track on your new album, and so often when rock guitar players do something with a Middle Eastern feel, it’s a knockoff of “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. Or they’re aping George Harrison. But “Sahara” doesn’t evoke either. It sounds like the Middle East gone to outer space. For you, what was the key to putting your own voice on that Middle Eastern-tinged rock vibe?
Well, I just don’t approach music like that, where I’m trying to appropriate somebody else’s style for an effect. That never has any lasting quality. It can work in a jam or maybe in one gig you’re doing for one song.
But when you’re making an album, at least when I make records, it’s serious business because I know I’m the luckiest instrumental guitar player in the world. I get to make albums, first of all, and that it’s going to last forever. Whatever you record and release becomes the definitive version for your fans, so I’m careful about that. So for every song, I apply as much of my original self as I can do, as I can muster up at the time, and I hope that I get it right so that every time I go to play it live on stage, it feels like an original moment, like I’m telling a unique story that’s different from all the other songs we’ve got to play that night.
On another song, “Faceless,” from your new “Elephants of Mars” LP, your guitar melodies are very emotional and lyrical. There are prominent keyboards on that track. Do you find soloing over keyboards brings out different things out of you as a guitarist?
On a practical level, there’s less competition for frequencies. If you’re laying a melody on top of a guitar bed that’s got four rhythm guitars that have some distortion on it and then you add your distorted melody guitar, there’s competition in the stereo field. And it’s a bit of an engineering task to figure out how to keep everybody from stepping on each other’s toes.
So in that way, when you’ve got a keyboard, you’ve got a little bit more freedom to make a fatter guitar sound, because the keyboards in this particular case, they’re very delicate. It’s a combination of maybe four or five synths and regular grand piano. The juxtaposition really is the drums which tend to be on their own.
We all learn from bands that we like. Like “When the Levee Breaks,” you mentioned Led Zeppelin earlier, the drums were recorded in a stairwell in an old castle and then slowed down. And then vocals and other instruments added on top of these slowed-down drums. And so the drums, it kind of seems like he’s (Zep’s John Bonham) playing on his own, not really listening to where the song eventually goes.
It creates an effect, and it became a style, that sometimes the drummer doesn’t get loud and soft with everybody. Different forms of music are like that. Like if you listen to disco or dance music that kickdrum never has dynamics. It’s just always punching and then lots of stuff kind of fly around it.
And so it’s an arrangement detail that as a songwriter and a recording artist we work with as a way to get a song off the ground to really tell the story.
So (for the song “Faceless), the idea of someone who is upset because they’re not being seen for who they are, they feel like they’re faceless, like no one can see them.
There’s both a relenting anxiety that’s represented in the drums and then this outpouring of their emotion, which is really the melody, as they’re trying to explain who they are, and trying to figure out how to get people to see them for who they really are.
It’s kind of funny. I mean, it’s all story based. I get kind of bored if someone wants to talk about what strings I use or amplifiers and stuff like that.
All of it only happens because I have this inspirational story I want to get off my chest, whether it’s real or imagined. And then that drives me to figure out how to play it or what amp to use, so on and so forth.
We’ve been talking about recent recordings. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about “Surfing With The Alien,” the album that brought you to the masses. What’s a vivid memory from writing or recording that album or the title track?
I started writing that song and album while I was on tour with a Greg Kihn Band, which is a local San Francisco area band (known for their 1983 top-five hit “Jeopardy”), that I joined for one year, mainly because I had to figure out a way to pay for the first record, (Satriani’s 1986 solo debut) “Not Of This Earth,” on my own record label.
I got an offer to join these guys again. It was the second time they asked me to join the band.
And I thought, oh this would be a great way for me to just have solid work for a year and I could pay off that record and work on making another. And so I started writing that album while I was traveling around the country playing with the Greg Kihn Band.
When I got back, a year past just about, I did a showcase for the label Relativity (Records), who had signed me to a P and D (press and distribution) deal. They didn’t know if they wanted to sign me to a real label deal. I think it was the China Club in Manhattan. We played a couple of songs, I think it was “Satch Boogie” or “Ice Nine” or something. I didn’t have a lot of material written at the time, and “Surfing” wasn’t really ready to play for them. But they liked what they heard with “Satch Boogie.”
My idea was to make an upbeat record to celebrate all my influences. That’s what I told him. I didn’t want to do some sort of dark brooding thrash metal thing, which that was their bread and butter back then.
And I said, “I know I don’t look right, and I know no one’s doing upbeat instrumental rock & roll guitar. But that’s my thing. That’s what I’m going to do.”
So they signed me, and I went back and I started working with (recording engineer) John Cuniberti at Hyde Street Studios (in San Francisco) for a couple of days at a time here and there.
We blew through the $13,000 budget so fast and I wound up bartering my session playing services for anyone in the building. There were about four studios in the building at the time, and I did a lot of work for (Blue Oyster Cult manager) Sandy Perlman and (“Don’t Fear The Reaper” rockers) Blue Oyster Cult, repairing guitar parts that had been recorded over many years for the (1988 BOC) album “Imaginos.” They were trying to sort of pull the record together.
So I would do that like from midnight to 4 a.m. and then come back the next day and Sandy Perlman, he would trade me hour for hour free studio time.
And the day that I went in to record “Surfing With The Alien,” I grabbed a wah-wah pedal, which I had refused to use for about six years, because I thought I’ll never do it as good as (Jimi) Hendrix and all my heroes.
But I thought, oh what the hell. So I bring this dusty old wah-wah pedal to the studio, and I think it was an about 11 to four in the afternoon session, and we’re just getting to the end, where I have to play the melody in the front and then the melody comes back after the solos and does this long solo.
And we’re running really late. The clients who have the studio from four to midnight show up at the front door of the studio with their arms crossed telling me I’ve got to close up.
I’m bargaining with them, saying, “Let me just do one pass,” because we’ve got this sound, and so I wound up doing this one take, and that’s what’s on the record. I just kept playing all the way until the song just ran out. We had to break down my amp and everything, so there was no recreating the sound or fixing any out of tune notes or anything. And that just wound up as the definitive performance for the song.
But it wasn’t the title of the album. The album was actually called “Lords of Karma,” and I didn’t change the title until I did an interview with a British journalist before the album was released, and he loved the the album but he really expressed a dislike for the title.
And so I call the label and asked if we could change the title and find some different artwork and they acquiesced. And that’s a whole other story. We got the (Marvel Comics character) Silver Surfer on the cover and everything. All these funny little turns of events. The sophomore record is supposed to be the slump, and it turned out to be the hit.
Another fascinating part of your career was getting picked to be the lead guitarist for Mick Jagger’s first solo tour in 1988. What’s something interesting from your experience with Jagger?
Well, it was such an out of the blue invitation. He’d been through 60 guitar players, literally 60. I think Neal Schon (of Journey) had been in the room right before I walked in. I didn’t even know it. They were going through everybody.
I think I got called because Doug Wimbish the bass player (also known for his work with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Madonna, Living Colour, Billy Idol, etc.) had met me a few months earlier at a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show.
While they were talking about their frustration trying to find a guitar player, there was a guitar magazine in the room, and I was on the cover. Doug said, “What about this guy? I just met him a couple of months ago. He seems like a cool guy.” So it’s totally random.
Mick then brings the magazine to (legendary concert promoter) Bill Graham who was running the tour and said, “You know this guy? We want to get him in.” And they look at the picture of me and they go, “Oh, that’s Joe. Yeah, he’s local for us. We know him back in San Francisco. He played with Greg Kihn and (Satriani’s early band) The Squares. And so I get this call while I’m on tour, trying to be a solo artist for the first time, failing miserably.
Long story short, that afternoon in New York City at S.I.R. (rehearsal studio) playing with Mick, he exceeded all my expectations as far as talent and intelligence and good humor and just being an all-around cool person.
He was just so musical and upbeat and not a taskmaster. Not a micromanager, not a tyrant. You know, all the things you fear one of your heroes is going to turn out to be. He was just the opposite. He was just like one of the guys, who just happened to have this unbelievable set of talents, as a performer, as a singer. Not shy to try anything. Didn’t want to rehearse things to death.
But he took performing and his audience so seriously. I was so impressed. Every show, he was the one who worked the hardest and wanted to make every show amazing. He liked everybody to be themselves, didn’t tell you what to play.
I just remember thinking, wow, if the most popular, iconic rock & roll singer can be like this, maybe other stars that I’ve never met are this cool too. And sometimes they are, which is great,
What do you think was the biggest misconception or conclusion jumped to about the early reports of a possible Edward Van Halen tribute (involving you on guitar) after that interview with (former Metallica bassist) Jason Newsted earlier this year?
I think people thought it was something that was going to be imminent. And, you know, David (Lee Roth, frontman for the band Van Halen), had intimated to me and Alex (Van Halen, the band’s drummer and Eddie’s brother) he wanted to jump on something right away. He wanted us playing in New York City last summer.
And I mean, that was crazy, because it was I think three weeks away, and I had just started really looking at the (Van Halen) catalog, and I was still working on my own music.
So it seemed a little premature. But sometimes that happens, sometimes it’s a good thing for a band to start when they’re not ready.
Very often it becomes the catalyst to get work done. If it’s an easygoing schedule, sometimes people don’t get any work done, because there’s no motivation.
So, I appreciated the different dynamics I was feeling from not only Alex and Dave, but also Sammy (Hagar, former Van Halen singer) and Mike (Anthony, former VH bassist). [Satriani, Hagar and Anthony are also bandmates in their supergroup Chickenfoot with Red Hit Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.] There’s a lot of history with those guys.
And I suppose what everyone should have waited for was for Wolfgang (Van Halen, Eddie’s son, latter day VH bassist currently leading his own band, Mammoth WVH) to make a decision, because I think ultimately it’s his choice.
When they reached out to me, they didn’t indicate that Wolfgang was in the loop, and I thought that was a little unusual. And I don’t know Wolfgang, so it’s not like I could call him up and ask him what was going on, so …
But I think in the recent months, watching him (Wolfgang Van Halen) play his dad’s (guitar) stuff at the Taylor Hawkins tributes, I think that’s a pretty good indication of where it should go.
The Van Halen family should work this out. And there’s no rush. Van Halen music isn’t going anywhere and Eddie’s legacy is totally solid, so it’s not like it’s something’s going to evaporate if they don’t rush to do a concert. Unfortunately, it’s built around this tragedy. We lost Eddie and we wish he was still with us.
Joe Satriani and his band perform 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Mars Music Hall, address 700 Monroe St. in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s “an evening with” style show, with no opening act and two-and-a-half hours of music from Satriani. Tickets start at $60 (plus fees) via ticketmaster.com.
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