Steve Vai: "Joe Satriani Shut Me Down — and It Was One of the Best Experiences"

Back when they were two guitar-playing teens growing up on Long Island, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai were teacher and student, respectively. In 1973, at the age of 13, Vai began taking lessons from Satriani, roughly four years his senior.

In this segment from “From Surfing to Shockwave”—in which they discuss Satriani’s career—the two talk about that time in their lives and what each got from their respective guitar instruction experience. In the course of their chat, Vai relates a story about how Satch once shut him down when he didn’t prepare for his lesson, and how that became, as he says, “probably the most pivotal experience in my musical career.”

The segment starts with Satriani talking about taking lessons from be-bop pianist Lennie Tristano. Satch recalls that Tristano was a demanding teacher who would end the lesson if you screwed up.

“He was very tough,” Satriani recalls. “You made a mistake, the lesson was over.”

“That happened to me once with you,” Vai notes.

“Really?” Satch asks.

Vai then proceeds to tell how, at one of his first lessons, Satriani sent him home for being unprepared.

“It was one of the best experiences—probably the most pivotal experience in my musical career,” Vai says.

Watch the clip to hear the whole story.

Joe also talks about some of Tristano’s words of wisdom and the impression they made on him.

“He taught me great lessons about what it’s all about to be a musician,” Satch says. “What it really means to embrace improvisation as a way of musical life. It sounds easy, because people think when you improvise you’re just making stuff up. But it’s deeper than that. It’s not repeating stuff that you’ve learned that you know works with your friends, onstage…which is really hard to give up.”

Satch and Vai will be taking the G3 tour on the road once again this year. The two virtuosos will tour with Guthrie Govan and Govan’s group, the Aristocrats—bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann—who will serve as the rhythm section. So far, just three summer dates in Italy have been confirmed, but more will be scheduled.

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Christopher Scapelliti

Christopher Scapelliti is editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine, the world’s longest-running guitar magazine, founded in 1967. In his extensive career, he has authored in-depth interviews with such guitarists as Pete Townshend, Slash, Billy Corgan, Jack White, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren, and audio professionals including Beatles engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott. He is the co-author of Guitar Aficionado: The Collections: The Most Famous, Rare, and Valuable Guitars in the World, a founding editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine, and a former editor with Guitar WorldGuitar for the Practicing Musician and Maximum Guitar. Apart from guitars, he maintains a collection of more than 30 vintage analog synthesizers.