One of guitar’s greatest instrumentalists unleashes his inner extrovert
Playing guitar with his teeth during the final performance of his previous tour, Joe Satriani had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? What part of me rears its head and starts doing stuff like this?’” he recalls. “Normally I’m a shy, retiring type of musician, but when I get onstage, I find myself feeling like that type of thing is perfectly normal.”
While Satriani may ponder the motivation behind his showmanship, fans have been dazzled by the musician’s virtuosity for roughly 30 years. With his classic sophomore album, 1987’s Surfing With the Alien, Satriani set a new standard for instrumental guitar music, unveiling a distinctive style that combined a shredder’s chops with a soaring sense of melody. Various side projects—like the acclaimed supergroup Chickenfoot—have punctuated Satriani’s career, but his solo work remains his top priority. The recipient of 15 Grammy nominations, he’s also the best-selling rock guitar instrumentalist of all time.
Satriani’s 15th solo studio album, Shockwave Supernova, ratchets up the adventurous spirit. Seizing on his onstage alter ego, the guitarist pumps up his flamboyant side, embracing the onstage extrovert. Satriani stops short of calling the record a concept album, but the idea of portraying an extravagant protagonist provided a unifying premise.
“The real reason for the concept was to allow me to make creative decisions song by song,” he says, “exploring unique moods and feelings as they relate to this central character. In that way, it’s both loose and free-form, but there’s an overall tone, one of rebirth.”
Elaborate on the album’s theme.
When I perform, it’s like someone else takes over. I felt the songs I was writing represented the different attitudes and memories and aspirations of not only me, but also perhaps this other character. I thought, “What if the album was about that guy? What if he goes from being a star through all these different changes, and finally gets to the end and realizes he’s going to evolve into something better?” There’s a bit of melancholy—a fear of the unknown—but eventually he goes with it and becomes reborn. My version of that is in the last song, where the minor-key verses represent him trying to rail for the last time. And then the song has a breakdown, and you hear this high-pitched guitar. That’s him being reborn into something better.
Did that storyline inform the music?
Absolutely. It was an artistic device, to let ideas flourish and be inclusive of a variety of material. But one thing I didn’t want was to require the audience to embrace the concept. I love the story behind Who’s Next, how Pete Townshend ultimately relinquished the idea of a concept album and just used the best songs. Glyn Johns, the producer, told him, “This storyline is crazy, but you have these amazing songs. Why don’t we just make a great album, without burdening the audience with a concept?” My thinking was the same. This album can be viewed simply as 15 very unusual songs.
Did you have specific sonic goals?
I did. I told [co-producer] John Cuniberti, “Let’s forget about preparing the album for radio, TV or video games. Let’s let fans hear what it sounds like to us in the studio.” The short story is, if you want to sell a track for a video game, for instance, then basically all the dynamic range is eliminated. In terms of dynamic range, it goes somewhere between 1db and 0. That’s a useful device when music is played at low volume, but I know my fans like to be able to turn the music up and feel it—and you can’t do that with music that’s been heavily limited, because distortion creeps in. We wanted to make a super-dynamic record where the volume shifts the way it does in real life. The idea was that even with all the distorted guitars I use, we would make a very open, clear album with lots of depth.
What guitars did you use?
I mostly alternated between the Ibanez JS2410 MCO and the MCP. And I probably played a regular Ibanez JS2400. I also used my Ibanez Signature Acoustic on one or two songs. And electric 12-strings—a 1966 Fender and an Epiphone Les Paul that I play slide on. Both those are kind of funky, but they had the tone we were looking for. There are also a couple of songs where I’m playing one of my Ibanez guitars with an EverTune bridge on it.
I no longer do scales and exercises. I went through that tortuous hell when I was in my teens, learning where everything was—every scale and every chord—and came out a better man for it. Now, when I look at the guitar, I see those things, because I put in those many hours. Physically, however, it’s a different story. I’m not the sort of gifted player who can pick up a guitar and play anything technical. It still feels like a struggle. Whenever there’s a tour coming up, I give myself six weeks to practice the show, twice a day. I need that to feel comfortable when I walk onstage for the first show. I prove to myself twice a day that I can pull this off while still feeling relaxed. I’ve been playing more than 40 years and it’s still hard for me.
Why instrumental music?
Part of it was the realization I was working on the wrong thing. In the early ’80s I was in a band called the Squares. We tried hard to be industrious and professional, and got nowhere. It was demoralizing. And it was the second time I had been through that. In my late teens I had been in a disco band, touring the East Coast, and I remember thinking, “This is the most demoralizing gig, ever.” So I quit that band and moved to California. Meanwhile, I was teaching in a music store, working with great young players like Charlie Hunter, Kirk Hammett and Larry LaLonde. And they were totally into their generation’s music. I starting thinking, “I go home and play all this instrumental music, mainly to move my musicianship forward. Maybe I’ve got it backward. Maybe I should be public with the stuff I’ve been keeping private—and take this public work I’ve been doing and put it aside.” So I quit the Squares and started trying to show people the avant-garde side of my musicianship.
Where are today’s interesting guitarists emerging from?
Probably from progressive hardcore. Bands like Periphery, Animals as Leaders, and Meshuggah are using the guitar like no one’s used it before. You have to give those guys credit for blazing this new trail. Meanwhile pop, country and hip-hop are sharing the spotlight, with EDM mixed in there as well. There’s not a whole lot of room in those areas for guitar expression. During the last 10 years, the most popular forms of music have used electric guitar as a caricature.
Are you discouraged by that?
It doesn’t impact my life at all. There’s always great playing—you just have to seek it out. When I watch an awards show, for instance, I’ll look for the live musicians playing in the background and listen to how good they are. They aren’t the focus of attention, but there are always players out there doing great work.