Joe-Satriani-Issue-No27JOE SATRIANI

With a new set, the guitar virtuoso showcases his Unstoppable talent

By Russell Hall

Surprisingly, Joe Satriani doesn’t always pay scrupulous attention to detail. His new album, Unstoppable Momentum, is a case in point. Only after the project was complete did it occur to him that the opening track was in 5/4 time. “A few things got past me,” says the guitar ace with a laugh. “It never dawned on me that it might be weird to start an album in 5/4, until everything was finished. That’s when I thought, why didn’t I notice that? It was a case of blindness induced by enthusiasm.”

Satriani’s enthusiasm and singular talent have carried him in a multitude of directions for nearly three decades. Launching his career in 1984 with a self-funded EP, he took the guitar world by storm three years later with Surfing With the Alien—an instrumental album that set a new standard. His solo albums have earned 15 Grammy nominations and established him as the best-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time.

Satriani has also immersed himself in a variety of side projects. Chief among these was the 1996 founding of “G3,” an ongoing concert series for which he recruits a rotating cast of guitar legends to accompany him on tour. He’s also part of the supergroup Chickenfoot, which includes Van Halen alumni Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

But Satriani’s solo work remains his top priority. For Unstoppable Momentum, he enlisted Mike Fraser to co-produce, along with keyboardist Mike Keneally, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney. “Part of the idea was to give the players more freedom,” says Satriani, 56. “I let everyone experience the music until they felt they had something unique to offer. In every case, each musician brought something interesting, something that I didn’t expect.” Satriani discussed with us the new album, his creative process, and his fellow guitar gods.


What drove you to instrumental music?

It was totally by accident. I was playing in a trio called the Squares, and while on break I started a DIY record and publishing company and recorded some avant-garde music on an EP. One of the guitar magazines published a review—just a paragraph, but flattering. Suddenly I thought, “I should just throw caution to the wind and follow this course.”


Describe your writing process.

It’s always different. Sometimes I write on guitar, sometimes at piano, and sometimes I’m walking around humming into my iPhone. Where and when inspiration comes often surprises me, but I still operate on the presumption that every idea might be a good one. So write it down, record it, do what you need to capture it. And then bring it up a few times to give it its fair shake and explore the message behind that little burst of creativity.


How do you make final cuts?

It’s not an intellectual pursuit. I say to myself, what do I want to hear first? What would be great to follow this? I’m subject to the biorhythms of the day. If it’s early in the morning and I’ve had my espresso, I might think, “Let’s keep everything pumping fast,” while late at night I might feel I need something that’s more reflective. So I always start the sequence process weeks before having to turn in the record.


Did the guitar come easily to you?

I never considered myself particularly gifted on any instrument. The guitar was the instrument that offered the least resistance, but I struggled with it. Once the guitar is in your hands, there’s the physical fascination with just being able to play. The better you are at moving your fingers around, the more you’re going to do that. The blessing in disguise back then was I couldn’t move my fingers that much, so I tried to make everything count, to make a statement with as few notes as possible. I still think the greatest composers in classical, jazz and rock are the ones who can edit their message down to something that’s strong, important and beautiful.


What’s your perspective on Surfing With the Alien now?

It was a stroke of great fortune. I love that record. Producer John Cuniberti and I did everything we thought no one would ever let us do. The record company was furious because we went over budget. I thought, ‘When this is finished they’re going to run me out of town.’ Everyone was surprised when it was picked up by radio. The kiss of death is when you’re in a heavy rock band and you put out one acoustic love song that launches your career. It was just the opposite with me. Surfing was a celebration of everything I loved about 60 years of guitar playing.


Were you part of rock ’n’ roll’s electric guitar renaissance?

I came along at the end of that. Eddie Van Halen had already brought more positive energy to electric guitar playing. I was an early fan. He was playing what every kid my age wanted to play. Things were closing in for music in the ’70s. There was disco, punk—and fusion had run its course. But suddenly there was Eddie, smiling and laughing while he was tearing up the fret board. That’s what I had been waiting for, the re-emergence of that. And of course my friend Steve Vai was breaking boundaries on guitar in an incredible way. And he had a bunch of comrades who were doing that with him from Yngwie Malmsteen to Jason Becker. Those guys could play anything—more notes than you could listen to in a given bar.


Any surprises making the record?

I thought one song, “A Door Into Summer,” would be an interesting vehicle for Sam to sing over, but it fell flat when I brought it to the band. I remember Sammy saying, “I don’t get it. Where do I sing?” I couldn’t understand why the guys didn’t go crazy over the song—it was so big and happy-sounding. I spent the next year playing it over and over, trying to figure out if a guitar could handle that sort of R&B melody and still have an impact. It’s easy to write an instrumental that’s instrument-focused, where you put the fireworks on display. What’s harder is something that’s so melodic, because you get to a point where people think, “Why isn’t there someone singing?” To keep that from happening, the power of the performance has to be at the highest level.


Are great riffs a thing of the past?

True guitar riffs were deep—they had history and nods to musical roots. When that kind of rock was pioneered there was more audacity in the sound. When you heard “Purple Haze,” not only were the notes forbidden—that opening phrase—but there was also a lot of message in that sound. We live in a different world now where that’s been diluted. People tend to toss away the power of those things now. Once video became the main medium, those musical hooks became less important. What’s more important is for the singer to be looking right into the camera at the beginning of the song. Most music is learned through visuals these days. Riffs have taken a bit of a back seat, at least for the moment.


Why are G3 tours so satisfying?

They’ve all been great musical experiences. We’re continually blown away by how connected we become during the improvisations. There’s always an intense musicality going on among the three of us.


Who do you dream of joining G3?

We’ve come close with Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons. I’ve also asked friends like Brian May to do it. Brian’s joined us onstage three different times when we’ve been in London, and he’s been a great guest on tours as well. I routinely ask Eddie Van Halen. It would be great to get some of the guys from the past 20 or 30 years who’ve been heard only in the context of their bands. Kirk Hammett would be fantastic. But not everyone likes stepping outside their bands. You have to respect their feelings about that.


comment closed

Copyright © 2013 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·