Joe Satriani - Instrumental Hero - G3 2007 Update

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Joe Satriani Interview

On the eve of the new G3 2007 tour, this time with fellow virtuoso guitarists Paul Gilbert (of Mr Big, Racer X and solo fame) and John Petrucci (from progressive metal titans Dream Theatre) Joe found time to give Alloutguitar an update on life as arguably the premier instrumental guitarist of the last two decades.

Did you grow up in a particularly musical family or environment?

My sister Marian played guitar and my mother Katherine played piano and I started playing guitar when Hendrix died. He was – and still – is my number one guitar hero.

As perhaps the most famous guitar teacher of modern times, what were your own experiences of having lessons?

I tried lessons with a local guy who tried to teach me simple songs not related to rock music. I quit after three weeks and started learning from books instead. Getting through songs was easy, making them sound good was hard. I can’t remember what I was trying to play first, but most likely it was something I wrote myself.

When did you first start a band?

Within a few months I was playing with some friends of similar ability. We were awful but had a great time playing together in my basement!

Did you learn how to read music from the start, and did it come naturally?

I knew how to read from my drum lessons back when I was nine years old. Guitar is a bit harder to read, so I didn’t focus on it so much.

As a player renowned for theoretical knowledge and technique when did you start to pay particular attention to these aspects of your playing?

My high school music theory teacher, Bill Westcott, was a great guy. He taught me how to sight sing, trained my musical ear and got me immersed in music theory at a young age. I loved it; it answered so many musical questions I had and became an essential part of my musical development. As mentioned above, the theory stuff came in high school at the age of 16. About the same time I was trying to practice a few hours everyday, going beyond the normal stuff and trying to learn every scale, chord and technique there was to learn.

What was the local scene like for bands and venues?

High school dances and Battle of the Bands, small clubs and parties, that kind of stuff. My first ‘real’ gig was at a dance at Carle Place High School, and I was 14 years old.

When did you start gigging regularly?

By the time I was 15 I was doing weekend gigs, leaving home for a few days to play out on the Island at strange clubs.

Did you do much work on learning Jazz standards – going through the Real book?

I spent time learning bebop back when I was still living in NY. I took some lessons from Lennie Tristano and worked very hard at making it a part of my musicality.

Have you ever gigged trad jazz?

Yes, as a bass player though. I played gigs accompanying a piano player.

When did you start to think that this could be a long term career?

I always believed it was the only thing I would ever do.

Did you ever consider studying at Berklee or the then new GIT?

Or places like University of Miami etc? I was accepted at Berklee, but declined to go through with it. After one semester at a local music college I went out on my own and never looked back.

What guitarists were you into during this late teens period?

Hendrix, Beck, Page, Clapton, Richards, Harrison… and Eddie Van Halen influenced everyone – period. He is a master musician.

After graduating High school did you ever have any other sort of career?

Music has always been the main focus of my life.

How did you break into teaching?

I started teaching at a local guitar store across the street from my apartment – mostly rock to kids my own age and younger.

Famously, Steve Vai was an early student; was it immediately apparent that here was someone amazingly gifted?

Although Steve started as a beginner, he showed immense talent and drive. After a few months his real musical talents started to blossom. It was very exciting to see it happen right in front of me.

When did you start working on your whammy bar/harmonics and tapping/legato techniques in earnest?

My first guitar was a Hagstrom 3, which had a whammy bar, so I started in with it right at the beginning. My main influences in using the whammy bar were Hendrix and Beck.

When you moved out to San Francisco did you make an effort to find and break into the local music scene?

It was difficult to ‘find’ it, so I never broke into it – I just started my own.

You were soon playing with renowned local act The Squares…

I started The Squares with my brother in law. We later found Jeff Campitelli and Andy Milton playing at a local club.

When were you aware of Yngwie Malmsteen – and did you incorporate any of his influences into your playing – such as sweep picking?

Only because I had to teach it to my students!

As a teacher and performer in the early to mid 80’s were you aware of something in the air that would herald a new era of super flamboyant technique?

No…

Do have you any theories as to why there was such a breaking through the ceiling in terms of technical ability?

Not a clue… it seems rather strange in retrospect…

During this period Joe built a formidable track record as teacher to many future stars, including Alex Skolnick (Testament and now acclaimed fusion sosl artist) Kirk Hammet (the mighty Metallica) Jeff Tyson (from cult LA super studio outfit T-Ride) and Larry Lalonde from Primus. I wonder if there was anything he glimpsed in these players at the time?

I had faith in all of these guys. They were all very determined, hard working and uniquely talented.

Were there any other notable students that you feel, in a just world, would have been star players?

Doug Doppler is awesome.

You famously recorded ‘Not Of This Earth’ using a credit card; how did you then get the record released after you’d recorded it?

Did you get many knock backs from record companies? Steve Vai introduced me to Cliff Cultreri of Relativity Records. Cliff had just agreed to release Steve’s Flexable record, and Steve suggested checking out my latest, Not Of This Earth.

So I presume that when Steve Vai’s career took off and he was out with Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz and Dave Lee Roth, you managed to remain in close contact?

Yes, Steve and I have always stayed in touch.

What were the recording and writing sessions like – and did you feel at the time that this was the start of what something that could be big?

We had no budget. Time was so very tight, and we thought no one would ever bother listening to any of it!

After ‘NOTE’ was released did you get many calls to play on records/do sessions/play with artists live – or was it pretty much business as usual?

Nobody called – they thought I was a nut case!

In 1986 a lot of the Shrapnel albums that would be key to the ‘shred/neo- classical’ genres came out – did they have have any impact whatsoever on the writing process of ‘Surfing With The Alien’? Did you consider the Shrapnel route?

Mike Varney rejected the first record I sent him! He remains a good friend to this day, but it was no secret that I didn’t really fit into that shred genre.

You defined a genre yourself with ‘Surfing…’ with your commercial yet intricate instrumentals compositions: again – to repeat an earlier question perhaps – but at this stage were you aware that you were on the cusp of something important and life changing here?

No; I was a struggling musician trying to get heard.

And then, of course, came ‘Surfing With The Alien’…

The success of Surfing With The Alien took us all by surprise. When you go from zero to selling millions of CD’s the impact is intense. But, in my case it was always about the music and the song writing. There were many other players who more outrageous, faster, louder etc… I concentrated on my compositional skills, my recording skills, and eventually live performance.

How did the recording and writing process of ‘Surfing’ differ to ‘NOTE’?

No real difference – I just wrote music around my feelings and desires.

When you finished it what were the initial reactions to the record from your family/friends/peers/record company – did anyone shout: “We’ve got a hit here folks!”

No, everyone was cautious. Only Cliff at Relativity had a sense about what I had just recorded and what it could do.

When did you get a manager – and how did you go about it?

When I got the job playing lead guitar for Mick Jagger, I signed on with Bill Graham and Bill Graham Management. They were running the tour for Mick, and I had known them from gigging in the Bay Area for years.

What was it like working with Jagger?

Touring with Mick was great. He is a powerful musician and performer, fun to hang with, and very generous with his time and talent. It was a fantastic, red carpet rock’n’roll trip!

You’ve always had a good relationship with the guitar press – how did that come about; as many players have found that not to be the case?

They asked me direct questions and I’d give them direct answers. I think it was easy for them to see that I really loved music and guitar playing, and I treated them as friends who felt the same way.

Many of the ‘Surfing…’ tracks lend themselves very well to the sports and advertising industries – did you have much success placing these; or was it not considered a cool/advantageous thing to do? When the album hit big I imagine that you gave up teaching straight way?

I started touring behind Surfing in early ’88. I never went back to teaching, there was no time for that. The sports thing can work against an artist as well, because the studios often trivialize the music by looping it, copying it, burying it in the background… Eventually people don’t take it seriously as real music, they think it’s just background noise for sport TV!

What, in retrospect, is your take on that whole 80’s guitar explosion – and why did it die so suddenly?

It was fun, but I haven’t got a clue why it happened or died out.

How did you go about preparing for ‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ – after all the expectations much have been pretty big?

It is also somewhat of a darker record than ‘Surfing…’ Same as I always did, write songs about how I was feeling. Every record is so different from the others to me. I can’t compare them, that’s not my job. I just make them as truthful as possible and let them go…

Tracks like ‘The Forgotten’ show an increasingly lyrical, emotion filled and evocative melody and soloing style – was this at all intentional?

Oh yes…

Was the tour for this album much bigger?

We toured for eleven months in 1990. It was a lot of hard work and great times.

With the release of ‘The Extremist’ you showed no signs of slowing down and, moreover, it seemed that you were impregnable to the severe downturn (in market attitude and record sales) that afflicted the majority of the guitarist in the instrumental field – any idea why you were still able to do so well?

I would like to think it was all about the songs. It was my heart-felt attempt at a classic rock record. We spared no expense. When it was released Grunge was just getting started. It was a record that seemed to be in a bit of a time warp, but eventually outlasted most recording of its time.

The Deep Purple gig – when and how did that come about, and what specific things did you learn from that experience?

Just one of those calls you get out of the blue… I love those guys, and playing with them was really fantastic. Nobody can replace Ritchie Blackmore – but it was fun to make believe onstage every night!

Your mid to late 90’s output shows an increasing experimentation sonically as well as song structure/music styles – was this an intentional development to move away from a style that you had so successfully developed/defined with the first ‘Surfing/Flying/Extremist’? 1995’s ‘Joe Satriani’ album showed a definite development of music styles…

I gained a wider audience with the release of ‘Joe Satriani’. It was a risk to make a record like that, but my whole career has been built on risk. Musically and creatively it was a fantastic growth period. It was released the week Relativity collapsed as a rock label, and was in effect without a label for 6 months until I moved over to Epic/Sony. Still, it has been a consistent seller and a critical favourite.

When and how did you first come up with the G3 Concept?

In 1995 I was looking to hang out with other players more often, so the G3 concept seemed like the way to do it. My management team and I decided we would create our own micro guitar festival so I could jam with my favourite players every night.

I imagine the logistics were pretty daunting – and what were the initial responses from the promoters?

It took quite a lot of convincing, and about one year to get everybody on board for the first G3.

Your recorded output has remained remarkably consistent with a new studio release every 2/3 years, solo tours and the whole G3 organisation. Has the market remained consistent?

It seems that in the last couple of years there has been a definite resurgence in ‘proper’ guitar playing… You learn to ride the waves, do good work and have fun… I see younger and younger faces in the audience each year, so, yeah it seems there is a resurgence.

What impact do you think the internet has had on the guitar scene in general, and your own career specifically? If you were starting out again would you welcome the increased promotional opportunities that this presents?

As an established artist how much do you think the multitude of ways to rip music off has affected your record sales? The Internet has turned the music industry upside down. I worry that musicians will find it harder and harder to get paid for their efforts…eventually they may just give up.

A lot of serious guitar fans – particularly all the forum regulars – have been calling for some time now for some of a new generation of players to be included on G3; obviously the economics of a tour like this dictate that players of some international standing are included, but as arguably the finest showcase opportunity out there for new players, is there any chance that this could happen? For example there has been a big buzz in the guitar media around Guthrie Govan: would he – for example – ever be considered?

The reality is that you get invited to tour by local and international promoters. They take the financial risk of putting on shows. If you propose a tour with several unknown artists the promoter will always decline to invite you to their territory. They often have ideas of their own as to who to put on a show, so, it’s always a little give and take between art and commerce. If an artist like Guthrie, who is amazing by the way, could sell 80 thousand CD’s then the promoters would line up to book him. But, without radio, TV, and ticket or CD sales to go on, the promoters will be afraid to get involved. It’s the same for all musicians, not just guitarists.

I can see this as a continuing brand for many years to come – do you agree?

Yes I do, and I’ve enjoyed every one of the G3 tours…

Music DVD releases are increasingly popular; particularly in our genre do you think that the day will come when a new DVD release will be afforded equal – if not more – importance than a new album?

We’re already there…

What are your plans for the future in general – as you show no signs of slowing up! Do you agree that nowadays there seems to be no age barrier to being a rock guitarist – so theoretically all of you could keep doing G3 and everything up into your 80’s and 90’s like Les Paul and BB King? Is that a nice prospect?!

I’ll keep on playing until they ask to stop!

What gear are you using on this tour – amps/guitars/main effects?

Ibanez JS1000’s and JS1200’s. Peavey JSX heads and cabinets, and a few pedals here and there…

What strings and picks do you use nowadays?

Standard heavy picks from Planet Waves, and D’Addario strings.

Finally, a lot of UK readers have been pressing us to ask what are the prospects of G3 coming over to the UK in 2007?

A G3 in the fall…maybe!