Joe Satriani Discusses — Track by Track — His New Album, 'Flying in a Blue Dream,' in 1989 Guitar World Interview

Here’s our interview with Joe Satriani from the November 1989 issue of Guitar World magazine. The original headline was “Blue Heaven: It was worth the wait. Joe Satriani’s Flying In A Blue Dream is a master’s masterpiece.”

To see the entire Satriani cover -- and all the GW covers from 1989 -- click here.

"Sounds great, Joe … cool riff … hot solo there, Satch …"

These are the sounds of a man granted a private preview of a masterpiece-in-progress by a giant of rock guitar. Open-mouthed enthusiasm hardly becomes a Jaded Journalist, but what can you do when you're blown away?

I'm sitting In Joe Satriani's cozy suite in L.A.’s Le Parc Hotel. The guitarist opens a door leading to the terrace and considers unpacking his clothes. We agree to first hear “a few” of his new tunes, and discuss rock star finery later (particularly our mutual fondness for Big John black jeans).

Down to business. Satriani comes armed with his wife’s boom-box and a confusing array of cassette tapes. Since some of the mixes are in extremely rough form, he's brought along his Tascam four-track, too.

"Good thing you've got a trained professional here,” he deadpans, untangling the cords and assessing the electrical outlet situation. Momentarily nonplussed by the blaster's auto-reverse, he organizes his tapes, most of which contain material that very likely will soon set the music world on its ear.

Joe's been bearing down for a month, holed up in Berkeley Studios with trusty cohorts John Cuniberti (co-producer, percussionist) and Jeff Campitelli (drums, percussion), poring over arrangements, parts and mixes. For some sections, Satriani utilized the services of his touring rhythm section -- bassist Stuart Hamm and drummer Jonathan Mover.

In 1987 Satch’s landmark Surfing With The Alien garnered tremendous AOR play and, ultimately, gold record status -- both almost unheard of for a guitar instrumental lap. Unlike some of his colleagues, Satriani the performer was no stage elitist who ignored his audience. Satch brought his music to the crowd, playing with a zest and appeal rarely displayed by a non-singing instrumentalist.

And now he returns. Flying In A Blue Dream, his new album, is a winner -- a square sucker-punch against standard guitar-oriented music and its play-it-safe parameters. Those expecting Surfer II may be disappointed at first; Flying In A Blue Dream cuts a large swath across some pretty wild, fairly unchartered musical territory. Heavy dance funk, grunge-ola blues, a Celtic, almost U2-flavored anthem, and other tracks that defy easy categorization all crowd this large album. It rocks as hard as it grooves. And oh, yes, Satch sings, too. Quite nicely.

Certain to excite, impress and provoke a profound, sympathetic response in guitarists everywhere, Flying In A Blue Dream soars-surfs on wings of wondrous extremes.

What are you going play first?

This is the title track, "Flying In A Blue Dream." It's interesting how this was composed. I took an acoustic guitar and tuned it to a low, open F chord [C-F-CF-A-C, low to high]. I play a lot with open tunings. On some songs I used open A, which is nice and chimey, but I needed something lower -- I wanted it in the solar plexus region. The F tuning had the right feel, but I knew going into the studio that the low C on the E string was going to be a problem. It 's the kind of thing that's hard to hear on a cheesy car radio. In modern systems you hear low B's all the time, especially in dance music.

Like the Bobby Brown stuff.

Yeah, it's that low. I don't even know how low this blaster's going to go. [Sweet, biting feedback leads into the faint sounds of a small boy, recorded during a Fifties radio broadcast. The words are unintelligible but the effect is magical. Over a machine-like rhythm and a repetitive set of chord changes, the song begins. The melody is one of the most haunting Satriani has ever composed. Ethereal yet stinging, the tone is unmistakably Satch. Lush, cascading acoustic harmonics beautifully complement this tour-de-force of phrasing and color.]

That tune and maybe a song like "Ice 9," suggest that you might be a fan of black dance music. Most "guitar virtuoso" music, especially neoclassical players, use what I consider to be very "white" beats.

[Laughs] It 's true. I'm definitely a fan of dance music. I guess we really call it "dance" music because music seems to have become very functional. For years people were trying to be everything. Now musicians are becoming very specific.

This is only a reference drum machine. I'm still not sure how this song is going to turn out. I didn't want to tell a drummer, "Look, maybe it's going to start like this and then we plan to do this," because then he'll play a certain way and we'll be trapped. On this particular track, I wanted to leave 15 percent of it blank and wait for a late night session where John and I can brainstorm and do something that will really twist heads. Then we'll bring in a drummer and say, "Now listen to these weird parts."

So, you're going to add live drums?

Definitely. Jeff and I spend a lot of time conceptualizing and programming drum parts in advance for efficiency I usually have very specific ideas about what I want to happen rhythm-wise, and using a drum machine allows me to show a drummer exactly what I want. I don't like spending four weeks on drums. I handle guitar solos the same way. I like spend spending one day taking care of five songs.

When you play a song like this live, are you going to use samples, as you've done in the past?

This song would be very easy to do that way because the chord sequence is very short. It's under four seconds so we should be able to get good fidelity onto the Akai.

Is adding a rhythm guitarist a viable alternative?

I thought about that. Another idea is to expand Stuart's role. He's adopted some new things into his bass playing. What might work is using bass pedals and give him a guitar.

This song also reminds me of those on Not Of This Earth -- where the groove is repetitive and the emphasis is on the harmony.

The title track, "Not Of This Earth," was such a gamble, and to this day some people don't understand it. They'll focus on the rhythm section and find the piece boring. Others gravitate toward the pitch access routine of the chords and hear something complex. I kept the rhythm simple for very specific reasons. The chord progression is sophisticated and I had two distinct melodies that had to co-exist. If I had changed the bass line and the drums, the piece could've very easily deteriorated into one big mess.

By keeping the rhythm bed simple, I created a solid foundation. I wanted the listener to feel secure, to get their blood pumping, while all this harmonic stuff was evolving.

Are you an impulsive writer? Does a tune come to you all at once?

I've done about everything that way. "Flying In A Blue Dream" was quite automatic. I was working on another song and I took a break and picked up my acoustic guitar, tuned it strangely, and instantly wrote the tune. It's funny how you can struggle with one piece and write a better one in a minute. Usually, when things come easy, it means it's good.

One that came quickly happened under odd circumstances. I was talking to my wife, Rubina, about this funny conversation I overheard at a restaurant. It inspired me to grab my guitar and everything just flowed, complete with lyrics. I'll play it for you now.

I've been hearing about vocals.

Oh, I've done that for years -- that's no problem.

Didn't you sing on the first Crowded House record?

I sang background vocals, on about five or six songs. I knew the producer, Mitchell Froom, who did some work with an old band of mine called The Squares. Andy Milton and I were the singers and we had developed an interesting blend. Andy has a great voice, and I have a very specific tone -- a Long Island whine. But together we don't sound like anybody. I was flattered that someone wanted me to sing on the record.

You command a larger audience than a lot of guitar guys. Do you think you can hold those "crossover" people?

I don't know. When I went into this, I knew that public life was going to be a very weird, fantastic and cruel sort of situation to be in. I think I'm ready for any lumps to come. You have to keep a sense of humor now, this is funny [Satch readies the boom box for the next song).

["Gimmee that phone!" a voice commands. No amount of description could prepare me for this lively piece of banjo-driven, boppin' blues. While it's safe to say Rod Stewart has nothing to worry about, Satriani's wry vocal -- delivered via phone, a la Dave Edmunds' "[Hear You Knockin' " -- is extremely effective. Better still, there's not one but two overdriven solos that are absolute corkers. "You still there?" Satriani's cornball vocal inquires coyly.]

Very cool.

It's called "The Phone Call." We were doing "One Big Rush" at this studio that specialized in making commercials for TV and radio. I was looking at the control room window and I saw this phone receiver. Then I noticed a little cord and a cannon plug. I asked what the hell it was and the engineer explained it was used in commercials when they needed to make people sound like they were on the phone. We borrowed it and I just sang into it.

It's one of those spontaneous things. You never think, "Well, for my next album, I think I'll do a banjo song while singing through a phone." In this case, Deering sent me a banjo with a guitar neck on it. And I swear, this is how it happened: This guy brought the banjo in, I tuned it up, sat on the floor and started playing. John came up and said, "don't move," and stuck a microphone in front of me and we recorded. I had already tracked some drums, so we did about four or five tracks and edited from there. The original four-track version featured distorted guitars, but I prefer the banjos because there's so much more air. When you get this song loud through some nice speakers, you can walk right into it.

[While searching the tape for another song, Satriani happens upon a selection called "The Forgotten Intro." The rhythm is sparse -- simply drumsticks keeping time -- but the guitar, a series of hammered staccato intervals and counterpoint bass, is striking for its bold, tasteful economy "There's this huge climax," Satriani points out, "that's not on this version.”]

Neil Geraldo once told me that when he feels like he's at a brick wall, he simply puts the guitar down for a few days, returns to it in a few days, and feels rejuvenated. On the other hand, Eddie Van Halen says he can't do that. He has to keep hammering away until he finishes. What do you do?

I do everything. I do both. Instead of just hammering away at a song, I'll approach it from a million other angles. Sometimes I'll leave all my equipment set up and just turn on the TV for five minutes; sometimes I've gotta get out of the house. I don't think it every really leaves my head. Not if it's something that I'm committed to, or I have a deadline like I did on "One Big Rush."

Which was written specifically for the movie Say Anything.

Yeah, I agreed to write music for it because there were no aliens, no gratuitous sex or violence, the acting was excellent and it was well written. I couldn't believe someone finally sent me something I liked. Cameron [Crowe, the film 's writer/director] asked me to create something for the kick-boxing scene and gave me license to do whatever I wanted. I wrote the song on a Thursday, and recorded all the music, except the drums, on Friday. Jeff did the drums on Saturday, we mixed it on Sunday and sent it to Los Angeles on Monday.

What came first?

Definitely the rhythm guitar. I just picked a tempo that I thought fit. I didn't have to place the song at all; they told me they would recut, start and stop the piece when necessary.

It reminds me a little bit of ZZ Top's "Under Pressure."

I'm a Billy Gibbons fan, but I drew from other influences as well. I'm not sure what they are now, but it's something much older. The bridge is almost an early-Sixties, melodramatic thing -- y'know, going from the IV chord, to a VI chord, then to a I chord and topping it off with an augmented fourth. The feel has elements of European pop, the kind you hear in Spaghetti westerns. The bridge added extra depth, taking it a little be- yond rock 'n' roll.

[After playing a slicker version of "The Forgotten Intro," Joe rolls a tape containing some of his most evocative songwriting yet. A mid-tempo groove sets the stage for an emotional sequence in which alternately whining and growling guitars build to a crazed climax of frenzied jamming. As lovely as it is angry, the piece demands numerous replays. The music winds down to the sound of tinkling bells.]

We just ended in C minor. Then I modulate to the key of E-flat minor. The volume builds until it gets as loud as the previous sections. It's a hard cut and what you're hearing is just total jam. I think I'm going to call the whole thing "The Forgotten," just to keep it simple. It 'll be about nine minutes, and I think I'm the only person who's ever really heard it all the way through.

[Satriani flips the play button and a deadly funk groove pops out. Stu Hamm's bass line, centered around a three-note progression, is nicely understated. Satriani, however, is all over the place. Against clean, jangly funk chords, he cuts into a solo break that varies in tone from the strange to the demented. His use of the vibrato arm is an exercise in total abuse-like some fingernails alternately massaging your neck and scraping a blackboard.]

While I was on tour with Jagger, we were in New Zealand and I was out partying with everybody. It was red carpet everywhere. One night I went back to my room and turned on the tv and saw a program about starvation in Africa and India. I began thinking about how lucky I was, sitting in a plush hotel room, wrapped in big-time money, while at the same moment people were dropping like flies. I had my practice amp and guitar set up and immediately wrote a piece inspired by what I saw. That type of suffering is so horrible I don't even think there are words for it.

The first part is complicated because I was thinking about time and the evolution of humanity. The second part of the song, which is the slow part, deals with basic horror. It's followed by a dream/death sequence, and the ending solo is the escape of the soul. People are going to think I'm a dark individual, but that's what it is. The last section is a minor key blues about the struggle to transcend the body. I specifically went to the key of E-flat minor because I felt that moving from C minor to E-flat minor would be uplifting, yet still retain a dark minor feel.

It's time for me to make a bold statement. I think this song is going to work really well with that phone call song. They're totally night and day, but I think it's going to work.

Anything else?

Sure, this next thing is fun. It's so out and completely screwed up.

[A swinging shuffle. Distorted vocal tricks and a compelling, finger-picked Bayou riff bounce by Some raucous harmonica darts in and out, The tune builds in intensity and ends with a rousing ta-daaa.)

Is that you on the harmonica?

Yeah, but it 's a joke. I'm playing it through a Bullet microphone hooked to a Rockman. I stumbled across the idea when Jagger was looking for a wild sound while we were rehearsing for his tour. He had a harmonica and I said, "Why don't you play it through this?"

[The next tune is loony Leslie West meets impossible guitar. The beat is red-hot but erratic; the rhythm guitar is lowdown and in your face. A smorgasbord of guitar stylings carom Off each other. This sucker cooks! I catch myself involuntarily looking from speaker to speaker during this mind-boggling, now-you-hear-it-now-you -don 't display.)

This is called "The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing." It's got the weirdest groove in the world -- it'll be a test to see how well people can tap their foot during the solo. It ends right where that guitar cuts off -- it'll sound like someone just stopped the tape machine. It's going to be a hard one to play because I have to jump through several positions. I could really shock you by playing "Big Bad Moon."

So go ahead!

This is so out, it's totally out. You have to promise you won't comment on it like it's serious.

[It's as if Joe walked in on a ZZ Top rehearsal. Swampy, down-and-dirty, and a whole lotta fun. Satriani's vocals -- virtually unintelligible through the boom-box -- come off like a cross between Dusty Hill and Leon Redbone. While the guitar solos could melt steel, it's Joe’s spine-tingling harmonica spot that makes this tune. A keeper, this one. Joe grins.

This was done back in March. I had the song sped up and laid the vocals, so when you put the tape back to regular speed the vocals become low and growly.

[The next tune Joe plays is called "Strange." A knockout groove -- two parts Prince and one part Whodini -- married to Satch's other-worldly guitar. Intermittently the guitars and bass drop out, leaving Satriani 's hushed rap / singing. Then, a hot-rod guitar mows me down.]

You 're making a very black record.

It was a real challenge playing and tracking this because some of the rhythm parts are spread between three guitars. Some of 'em had to emphasize the high-hats and some had to emphasize the snare and the kick. When I programmed the drum parts, the trick was to use different levels of swing. It's funny, when you don't use those percentages of swing, suddenly the song sounds completely different.

[Joe pops in "I Believe." This is his most concise, naked and emotionally charged song ever. No vocal tricks here -- he sings this one straight. Although there's no dearth of soul-searching, meaning-of-life songs, Satriani's vulnerability and utter lack of pretense makes this song especially eloquent. The rich, Celtic feel of the arrangement adds to the tune's effectiveness.]

That's a great song. If anybody still has the perception of you as just a chops meister, that lays it to rest. What do you think when you hear all of these guys with amazing chops and no soul or songs?

I tend to think it's just me. If other people like the music, it probably has some redeeming quality that I'm not picking up. As a teacher I saw lots of mechanics. I'd call 'em into my little room and make them play through a teeny amp to see what was really happening. If they couldn't place a note at a really nice moment, I'd know they didn't have what it takes, at least not on that day.

I saw a lot of people that were faster than me but were tone deaf, others that could never become masters of fretboard technicalities but had something unique to offer. Usually, when someone has it, you notice right away, regardless of how out of tune or behind the beat or above the beat they are. If they have that little spark, it's usually there from the beginning.

Are you using a Harmonizer on this track?

Yeah, I'm using an Eventide H3000. It's got this interesting otherworldly backwards program. I didn't want to turn the tape around and do a backwards solo because that doesn't really take a lot of artistry -- just luck. I really wanted to play something that I could play again and again. The effect was a little difficult to work with. I had to play along with the track to get the proper timing so it would swell at the right time. I recorded just the effect -- no straight signal. When it comes back in stereo, it's pretty far out.

It's a very scattered kind of modulation.

It doesn't modulate anything. All it does, as far as I can understand, is listens to a second of sound, reverses it and plays it back at user-programmable intervals. It also allows you to set the left and right stereo field to different time intervals, so it appears as if parts of your solo are being reversed and then stuck next to each other.

Your friend Steve Vai joined Whitesnake, and you side-lined your tour last year to play with Mick Jagger. Would you have entertained the Whitesnake offer?

The position I filled with Mick Jagger was based on the fact that Mick asked me. Mick Jagger is not like any other band. There's only one Mick, and that 's all there was to it. I was in that lucky position where one of the most outrageous people in rock 'n' roll history said, "Hey, you wanna play in my band?" It wasn't like, "Gee, I could join Ozzy or Whitesnake or Mick Jagger, hmmmm, which should I join?" I wouldn't mind working with someone like Peter Gabriel because he takes chances. He wouldn't say, "Hey, do your ‘Aliens' thing." Which is what most people do.

What are the chances of you and Steve Vai recording together?

I think they're good. We've often talked about it, but "when" is the big question.

Do you always record in the same manner -- laying down drum machines and guitar parts first, then adding the live rhythm section later?

I do it that way because it allows the most flexibility I can change solos right up to the last minute. I also don't want my creativity tainted by somebody else's performance, however earnest it might be.

There are exceptions. Next week, for example, I'm going to cut three songs live with Jeff. I don't mean to flatter myself, but there's an interplay between Jeff and myself that 's similar to Eddie and Alex Van Halen's. And for these particular songs, I thought that interplay could be a really good ingredient. So instead of programming I gave him one of my famous horrible cassettes and told him to come up with whatever he wants and we'd record some first impressions.

I get real nit-picky about rhythm parts, because in instrumental music the rhythms are the vocals. Subtle differences speak volumes to me. My only fear about doing things live is that I won't be able to use anything. I'll have to re-record, and I hate re-recording. First impressions are golden moments, and if you have to beat a song to death you'll kill it.

It also sounds like an economical way of working.

Certainly, especially when it comes to tape costs.

"The Enigmatic" off of Surfing has a real quirky drum part.

That song started with just a guitar part on a four track. I told Jeff I wanted him to play up-beats on the kick. He programmed it and asked me if I was sure about the part because it was somewhat bizarre.

It took me a few listens to see where it was going.

I went out of my way to confuse everybody. I used everything - the enigmatic mode, an atonal solo, a guitar tuned to D diminished, artillery shells for percussion instruments, weird recording techniques, and so on. We took advantage of any inconsistency or weirdness. That album was an experiment in being anarchistic in many ways. I've only heard "The Enigmatic" played once outside of the regular musical environment. It was in a 7-11 at around 11 p.m. in San Antonio. 7-11's are weird enough that late at night [laughs]!

What is your actual demoing process?

I have an Alesis HRI6 and that goes into track one. After the groove is established, usually I'll record the bass, using an old P-bass. For the guitars, I have a black Ibanez that I've been using for quite a while now -- it's the one with the scribbling on it. It's a modified S40R with one of my own necks on it. Ibanez built it to my specifications. It's more like an early-Sixties Fender Stratocaster neck. It's slightly round and thin from the fretboard to the back of the neck -- but not too thin. It also has some custom DiMarzio pickups and a bent tremolo bar with weird, colored springs.

My other guitar looks like a Strat, but its got the customized Ibanez neck and has smaller frets. It was something Ibanez did for me, because I said I wanted a Strat, but I wasn't totally happy with the Fenders and I didn't want to buy a vintage guitar. It has EMG pickups. DiMarzio was going to make me something like EMGs, but they haven't gotten around to it. My guitar tech, Gary Brauer, just threw the EMGs on temporarily I have to tape' em up because they're so damn loud. It looks like the guitar has been bruised and someone had to put Band Aids all over it.

You mentioned your bent tremolo.

I like the bar to be lower, so I bring 'em over to Gary who puts 'em in a vise and goes "rrrrrrrr." When he's finished the bar comes out completely straight-in other words, it doesn't dip up and it doesn't dip down. That way it's right where my fingers seem to hang.

You're in a position where you can spend as much time and money as you want to finish a project. Are there too many options and temptations?

No, not at all, because it's not somebody else's money I'm spending. It's mine. There's no free lunch. When you spend ten dollars in the studio, they deduct ten dollars from your royalties. So, if I decide to rent a huge house, buy a castle in Ireland and spend $500,000 in studio expenses, I won't see a dime until the record profits $500,000. I still pay rent, need health insurance, I have to eat and everything else. When I get presented with a budget, the idea is to use the money wisely. Deficits are bad -- whether it's a small household, a record company or a country. Plus, if you spend too much time in the studio you burn out.

But, on the other hand, having more money has allowed me to go 48-track, which is remarkable. It allows for a further burst of creativity, where in the past there would have been no room.

Can you play anything you hear at this point?

I wish I could. I hear lots of parts that are extremely fast that I can't play. Then there's stuff that I listen to on Steve's or Yngwie's records that is beyond me technically How do they do it? It's so technically clean. Whatever I play, it seems to have all this Joe stuff all over -- I can never seem to get rid of it. No matter how cold and technical I get, I always wind up putting some idiosyncrasy into it and that bothers me sometimes.

Do you still put in 15-hour practice days?

I can't do that anymore. What really stopped me from playing a lot was coming down with TMJ.

What's TMJ?

It's temporal mandibular jaw joint dysfunction. It has to do with a displacement of your jaw, an anatomical predisposition toward breakdown of the area and the wearing out of the joint and nerves. I'm probably destroying this medical explanation. I found that when I practiced a lot, I clenched my teeth, and any more than a few hours would turn me into a basket case. During this break from touring I was able to take care of the problem.

I think a lot of the aggression of Surfing With The Alien had to do with the fact I was in pain. I really went for those nasty tones.

What can we expect when you return to the stage?

I don't know, but it 's going to be much better than in the past. This is a hard thing to explain, but I see the opportunity to take the audience for a bigger trip. To draw them much deeper.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.