Joe Satriani Opens Up in His First Guitar World Interview from 1987
Here's our interview with Joe Satriani from the December 1987 issue of Guitar World, which featured Joe Perry on the cover. The original story by Gene Santoro started on page 42 and appeared with the headline, "Wailin' With The Alien."
Things have certainly been changing for Joe Satriani. Suddenly a lot of people besbooides a few musicians know his name, have heard about his awesome chops, are picking up his first record, Not of this Earth.
Which must be why, on this hot and muggy Sunday night in New York hundreds of folks have thronged to a converted church, now a club, called Limelight. In conjunction with the New Music Seminar, Guitar World is sponsoring a concert featuring Satriani.
He finally appears onstage, with bassist Stuart Hamm and drummer Jonathan Mover around 1 a.m. to anticipatory roars, and proceeds to carom his fat, freaky sounds from the choir loft to the vaulted wooden ceiling.
He doesn’t do any leaps or splits, through he moves around; mostly he’s busy peeling off licks from a bulging book, digging in for the right riff, the cutting tone, the squealing harmonic pinched to stab at the right moment, a wang-bar doodle or some finger vibrato twisting the knife, a two handed tap to finish you off. In a word—taste.
Guess that’s one of the things Steve Vai and all those other cats who used to drop by his Westbury, Long Island, house a few years back learned from him.
By the time you read this, more evidence of Satriani’s tastiness will have hit the record racks. Surfing With The Alien is still in rough mixes at this writing, but its power and range, from meditative acoustic work to metalloid romps, are clear enough. So Joe and I sit in his midtown Manhattan hotel room surrounded by guitar cases and a few crated rack effects, breathing deeply in the air-conditioning, inhaling espresso and Perrier and talking.
He’s a soft-spoken guy, though he obviously knows exactly what he wants and how to wait, if necessary, to get it. After hearing—who else?—Jimi Hendrix, the 14-year-old Satriani abandoned his drums for a Hagstrom III his guitar-playing sister bought him.
He taught himself some basics by playing along with his older siblings' records, a variety of discs that included the Stones, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield as well as Motown hitmakers, early r&b and even some jazz stuff belonging to his parents.
Guitar lessons ended after a couple of shots: "The guy was teaching me 'Jingle Bells' and I had already memorized the chord charts from the back of an Alfred Guitar Book my sister had."
A more fruitful path opened up when he studied theory at Carle Place High School with Bill Wescott, whom he credits as "my main musical influence. Besides teaching me theory and all the technical things like writing and sightreading, he personally demonstrated what it was like to be passionate about music. It made me feel like I wasn't such an oddball if I got emotionally involved in what I was doing." It was via that school that Vai and others discovered Satriani.
After passing on Berklee for a brief dip into the Five Towns College music program, Satriani studied for two months with jazz piano great Lennie Tristano, whose hardnosed training shaped many fine players.
Like other Tristano alumni, he has some tales to tell: "It was really intense. In terms of' discipline, and self-evaluation, and changing my entire picking style, it was really a dramatic experience. I've never been that strict with any of my students. If I made a mistake during any of the parts of the lessons that weren't improvising, he would just get up, walk over to his desk, take out the book, and say [mimics Tris tano's rasp], 'Okay, Joey, I guess I'll see you next week.'
I had a couple of 60-second lessons where I'd just play the wrong scale 'cause I'd be so nervous. The flip side to the coin was that when you did all right, you'd be in there for two hours and he'd have 15 people standing in the hallway waiting for their lessons.
"He taught me what learning my instrument was about. Before then, I'd learned how to play by jamming, so everything I did was simply by feel: although I knew scales and modes, I didn't know them everywhere, only where I had played them. He would have you do these enormous lessons, like learn the harmonic and melodic minor scales in every key for every possible fingering starting off of every string and every fret. And that would just be point one of a seven-point lesson. If you fucked up and said 'I should' or 'would' or 'could,' he'd blow up and give you a lecture about living in the subjunctive mode. But he was a beautiful, crazy guy."
While he was working with Tristano, Satriani was gigging around Long Island with a several-piece dance band called Justice; then they hit the road, touring cross-country for about a year. A brief stop in California found him woodshedding for 15 hours a day and deciding to continue his musical career; a six-month sojourn in Japan was followed by his settling down in Berkeley, CA, where he set up shop as a guitar teacher and formed a power-pop trio called the Squares in 1980.