Surfing through a decade of extraordinary guitar achievements with Joe Satriani: guitardom’s resident alien discusses some of his most shred-tastic tracks.
Since first arriving onto the guitar scene a decade ago, Joe Satriani has continually proven to be a master of fleet-fingered, high-tech shred. With albums like Surfing With The Alien, Flying In A Blue Dream, The Extremist and Time Machine, Satch and his axe boldly surfed where few have dared and even fewer survived. So, where does a guy who’s been nearly everywhere with his trusty six-shooter go next?
That’s exactly where we find Satriani on his latest offering, Joe Satriani. On it, Satch pays homage to the musicians he grew up listening to. Visions of the raw, screaming electric blues of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page permeate the album, which some have called Satriani’s Blow By Blow. Produced by veteran helmsman Glyn Johns [Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who], Joe Satriani abandons the guitarist's trademark overdubbed, highly produced guitar attack in favor of a more honest, jammy, live feel that’s fully entrenched in the magical vibe of the late Sixties/early Seventies. The result is an album that sparkles with some of the most soulful and moving guitar playing of Satch’s career.
“Glyn wanted some real interaction,” says Satriani. “He didn't want people just looking at their chord charts or anything like that. He wanted some real musical shit to happen. He made us play the song then and there, in the moment, and that was it. Manu [Katche, drummer] wasn't going to be looped and triggered. And Andy [Fairweather Low, rhythm guitarist] wasn’t going to overdub his rhythm parts three weeks later. Everyone was asked to come up with the coolest part today, play it, and thank you very much—we’re doing another song tomorrow.”
Satriani admits that the recording process, while ultimately rewarding, did take its toll. “We were all sort of tingly and sometimes I’d have a headache by the end of the day. We’d be wasted from all that intensity.”
We recently caught up with Satch to get his thoughts and reflections on some of the finer moments in his repertoire, including signature tracks, oddities and a couple of inspired tracks from his latest guitar opus.
NOT OF THIS EARTH Not Of This Earth (Relativity, 1986)
“Not Of This Earth” was actually a joke. When I was in high school, I was in a band that only did Beatles covers. I was in it as a joke, as an aside to my serious band, which was probably even more of a joke. After rehearsals, we’d sit around the drummer’s kitchen and watch TV, which was usually tuned to one of those crummy local movie channels. They always showed the film Not Of This Earth—one of the worst science-fiction films ever made. We had the dialogue memorized and we’d act it out. When I was working on the record it came to my head that it would be really funny if one day these old friends were in a record store and saw this thing called Not Of This Earth. That was about as deep as it went.
SURFING WITH THE ALIEN Surfing With the Alien (Relativity, 1987)
We didn't know where that song was going until one afternoon when we went to record the melody and I plugged a wah-wah pedal and a Tubedriver into my 100-watt Marshall. Then, just as a whim, we said, “Let's try this harmonizer.” It was one of those Eventide 949’s. The sound that came out of the speakers blew us away so much that we recorded the melody and the solo in about a half-hour and sat back and went, “Whoa! This is a song, man! This is great!”
And then, of course, the Eventide broke down and we couldn’t fix it. We couldn't do anything. We lost our tone. The 949’s break down continually. It was also very hard to nail down the pitch wheel on that thing because it was always changing. And when we finally got the thing back up again, we couldn't get it to sit at the same spot anymore. It just sounded different. So rather than screw up a wonderful-sounding performance that may have had a couple of glitches, we decided just to leave it, because it was just swingin’. That wasn't the title track of the album for quite a while. It was going to be The Lords Of Karma. It wasn’t until we finished that track and added the jet noises that we realized that “Surfing” was the song that summed up the feeling of the whole album.
Then, the whole thing with the Silver Surfer was purely by accident. It came about because the product manager at Relativity, Jim Kozlowski, used to be called the Silver Surfer when he was a DJ in Boston. When I delivered the record, he said, “This is a great title. We should put the Silver Surfer on the cover.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I literally did not know anything about the comic-book character.
SATCH BOOGIE Surfing With The Alien (Relativity, 1987)
I wrote most of “Satch Boogie” while I was wearing a neck brace from a car accident. I was always trying to write a guitar piece that sounded like a saxophone section in a swing band, standing up and playing a lead, unaccompanied. And I always envisioned a Gene Krupa kind of a guy playing behind it. Jeff Campitelli [drums] nailed it; he totally understood what it was supposed to be like. We had great fun with that album. A lot of people don’t know this, but most of the album was recorded on spec time, or more accurately, on trade time. I bartered with Sandy Pearlman, who was doing a Blue Oyster Cult album. He also managed the studio where we were doing a lot of the recording. In order to get more recording time to finish the album—because I was over-budget with Relativity—I worked on the B.O.C. album. I repaired hours and hours of guitar parts on it in exchange for free studio time. There were a few other studios in the Hyde Street building [in San Francisco] where I traded my services to different peoples’ records for an hour or two of free time to, say, finish the backward solo on “Ice 9,” or for mixing.
HILL OF THE SKULL Surfing With The Alien (Relativity, 1987)
That came to me as I was reading The Collected Poems Of Kahlil Gibran. There was an entry that dealt with the crucifixion of Christ, but the way it was told came off like a really creepy horror film, not like in the Bible, where it’s a sacred event. When you’re a Catholic, you’re brought up to believe in that sacred event. The way Gibran told it was sort of impartial, like it was just a gruesome event that had happened in this guy’s week. They took him up to this place called the Hill Of The Skull and they did him in. At the time I was listening to a bunch of baroque composers and especially a guy named Marcello, who I hadn't previously heard of. I was really into the way he’d written a lot of his quartet pieces.
That really was the inspiration. I was trying to create the imagery of trudging up onto that Hill Of The Skull, the Crucifixion, the horror and blood-and-guts of it.
FLYING IN A BLUE DREAM Flying In A Blue Dream (Relativity, 1989)
That’s a song about these flying dreams I had when I was a child and how wonderful they were and how it used to get to the point where I knew I could get them to happen. I’d lay down in bed and just take off around my room, go out the window and fly around the neighborhood. It was a great thing and I always seemed to be able to do it.
The humorous part of that song was that when we were putting the basic tracks down, before the melody was recorded, I was going to put down some chunking rhythm guitar tracks. We’re at the top of the song, just about to start, and I turned my guitar volume down. Suddenly, a radio or TV broadcast comes through the speakers, and we all start laughing and thinking, “We’ve got to get out of this studio, there’s radio frequencies everywhere.” We start listening to it, and it was this little kid talking. It was one of those moments. I looked at [engineer and co-producer] John Cuniberti and he looked at me, and we both knew it had to be recorded. He pushed “record,” and the kid says: “And afterward, sometimes they like each other and sometimes they don’t.” All of a sudden the rhythm guitars came in. We were blown away, because it was totally by accident.
Cuniberti knew the song was about childhood. At the time, of course, we didn't know what the kid was saying—we still don't know what he’s talking about. He’s trying to explain something humorous. It sounds like an old Art Linkletter radio show or something. My only negative story about the song is that the solo was recorded when I was having a really rough time continuing the record because my father was quite ill. It got to the point where I could only play things once or twice, and then I couldn't hear them again until the end of the record. I just couldn't deal with it.
That solo was done one night after John took me out and made me drink a lot of wine and eat a big dinner because he knew I was having a hard time getting through the session. We came back, recorded that solo, and he refused to touch it. He said it was a work of art, because I had played so unusually for that moment in time. I didn’t listen to it again until after my father passed away. When I heard it back I knew it had artistic integrity, but I felt bad that there were some sharp notes and rushed phrases. If I had been in a normal state of mind, I would have corrected them. To this day, whenever I hear that solo, I think, “A bit rough around the edges,” but I also respect its emotional impact.
SUMMER SONG The Extremist (Relativity, 1992)
I came up with the title before the actual song. And it’s probably one of the most totally pointed-in-one-direction songs I've ever written. I remember trying to focus on that one feeling you get when you’re getting out of school or out of work, when your summer vacation is coming and the flowers are blooming. You know, everything is happening; your hormones are raging.
That’s what the song is about. On a technical level, when John and I were recording it, I told him, “Look, I want one guitar to seemingly play the entire song.” That was because I wanted to get away from Surfing and Flying In A Blue Dream, where there were layers of different guitars with different tones that were coming in and trading off. I wanted the image of the song to be one guy with a guitar, playing a seamless barrage of single-note phrases, from beginning to end.
WOODSTOCK JAM Time Machine (Relativity, 1993)
That’s the kind of thing I spend a lot of time doing, especially when I’m with musicians with time to kill, usually during rehearsals and soundchecks. It’s the stuff we all love to do. You almost live for it when you're out on the road. But the fans never hear these jams because you’re always playing things off the album. The night of “Woodstock Jam” I was working on the first sessions for The Extremist with Simon Phillips [drums], Phil Ashley [keyboards] and Doug Wimbish [bass]. We were at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, rehearsing in a huge, two-story barn. We were going over a song that didn’t have a title and was really just a super-electronic piece of weirdness. I had given them directions that drew from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew technique. Simon and Doug were improvising off some riffs I’d given them, and I told Phil to float on top and not get involved in any rhythmic figures. We just started doing it. And unbeknownst to us, Cuniberti, who was engineering and co-producing the record, was listening and thought to himself, “Man this sounds really good. I bet Joe’s gonna want to hear it tomorrow morning.” So he sticks a DAT in the machine and fades up to “record.” That’s why it fades up on the record. He captured the last 16 minutes of the jam. When we heard it back it was like, “Wow! It’s the coolest thing.” I couldn’t believe what those guys were doing, especially Phil. I mean, he was way out there somewhere.
I had studied with [noted jazz pianist] Lenny Tristano many years earlier, for about two or three months. He would stress that in order to play free, you had to remove all clichés. You had to remove anything that was an automatic part of your style, because to him it was like a twitch or something. Playing some blues riff that’s been around for 30 years was not improvising for him, just repeating. That was in my mind when I finally got around to doing a solo on that piece, about 10 minutes into it. I tried to free-associate and deconstruct myself, and it was exciting to hear my playing sound so non-committal. And yet, it sounds like there’s something really screaming going on. You can’t hear Chuck Berry, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix or whoever. You can’t pick out the specific lick, but you can hear the emotional influence.
ALL ALONE (also known as LEFT ALONE) Time Machine (Relativity, 1993) That’s the first time I’ve ever done someone else’s song. When I was about 16, my mother gave me a Billie Holiday songbook, and I performed “All Alone” for her birthday one year. She was really into Billie Holiday. It was the only Holiday song I could really relate to at the time, because I was so into Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. The song stayed with me all these years. I’ve always played it, always loved it. And when the Time Machine project came about, I knew it was unusual, because there would be live material, the “Woodstock Jam,” and all sorts of new things. I thought the way to complement this mix would be to step outside myself for one song and play something that wasn’t mine.
I didn’t know how I was going to do it, so I played “Since I’ve Been Loving You” by Led Zeppelin for Stu [Hamm, bass] and Jonathon [Mover, drums] and said, “What I want is just that slow, crawling blues.” I told Stu he could get distorted, told Jonathon to go crazy with his kick drum and told Cuniberti to make it sound very big and old.
Some people say the solo reminds them of Beck, but to me it was more Jimmy Page, because I did the whole thing on a ’58 Esquire. I wasn’t prepared to play solos on a guitar like that because it was strung with heavy strings. They were probably .10’s or .11’s and I usually play .09’s. But the struggling during the solo, I think, added to the feeling of the song. It was the total opposite of a slick solo.
I don’t try to hide my influences, but I don’t go out of my way to copy people either. I’m not ashamed of it. You listen to Jeff Beck and there’s so much Albert King in his playing, it’s ridiculous. But you can’t hold it against him, because Beck is still an original and one of the greatest players of all time. The same thing with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I mean, every other note is a quote from Albert King or Jimi Hendrix, but that’s in no way a detrimental comment.
COOL #9 Joe Satriani (Relativity, 1995)
One of my favorite tracks on the new record. It’s sort of the flagship song of the record, for reasons I’m not quite sure of yet. It’s just that every time I hear it, I feel like I’m hearing something new. In terms of the solo, I had a vision very early on, when I did the first demo. I wanted to play around with the idea of dividing it up in sections. You had maybe a John Coltrane play the first solo, a Jimi Hendrix do the second solo, and then the third solo was gonna be... I don’t know who, but something really weird.
S.M.F. Joe Satriani (Relativity, 1995)
I can’t stress how blown away I was when I heard this track back on the first day of recording. I turned to Glyn and said, “That’s me?” Because if you listen to Surfing or The Extremist or Flying In A Blue Dream, you hear a very carefully overdubbed, planned-out, produced-with-a-capital-P sound. And you know, there’s some distance there between the listener and where the music is coming from. Glyn eliminated that distance. When you put the CD on, and it’s coming out of some speakers in your living room or wherever, it sounds like the band’s right there. That’s how we did it. All I did was stand in front of my amp, a few feet away from Manu, Nathan and Andy. And I just played. Glyn put us all on the spot, and it turned out great.