Joe Satriani: Shred Ache

Originally published in Guitar World, December 2010

He helped usher in an era of speed-obsessed ax wranglers. But Joe Satriani can’t run from the “shred guitarist” tag fast enough.

in 1987, with the release of his multi-Platinum album Surfing with the Alien, Joe Satriani rose from obscurity to worldwide prominence and helped spark the “shred revolution.” Twenty-three years later, what are his thoughts on the genre? More importantly, does he view himself as a “shredder”? Guitar World posed the issues to Satch.

GUITAR WORLD In 2010, when you hear the term “shred,” what pops into your head?

JOE SATRIANI I think of putting papers in a machine and seeing tiny strips come out. [laughs] Okay, seriously, when I think of shred guitar…I really only think of a few people who were dedicated to it fully. I remember listening to one of those records by Cacophony [a late-Eighties speed metal band formed by guitarists Marty Friedman and Jason Becker] and thinking, I have nothing to do with this. I’m not knocking it, because I thought it was remarkable—like, “Wow, these guys are truly shredding.” At the same time, I couldn’t relate to it.

GW So did it bother you, then, that so many people—and even some guitar magazines [fakes coughing; Satriani laughs]—put you in the same box as groups like Cacophony?

SATRIANI You know, I couldn’t understand how people would think that I was a shredder. If you listen to Surfing with the Alien or Not of this Earth, which came out around the same general period, you’d know that I was just a total oddball and had nothing to do with that whole movement. When I think of songs like “Echo” and “Midnight” and “Always with Me, Always with You” from Surfing—I mean, there’s no way those compositions could be on a “shred” record. I’m not shredding on the cuts. I remember thinking, I’m much more bluesy than everybody. Maybe people weren’t seeing or hearing that at the time; they were all caught up in a scene. I was really just using speed—fast, aggressive playing—as an effect.

When I recorded those songs, I said to myself, Okay, Joe, in these sections you have to play fast and use lots of notes because that’s what will make those passages effective. And on other songs, I said to myself, Whatever you do, don’t play a lot of notes; you really have to slow down here. So I just did what I did and went off on my merry way. I understand that I’m a hard guy to pin down, and I probably was more so at the time those first couple of albums hit. I wasn’t going to get in Spin or Rolling Stone, so I guess the “shred” tag was very convenient for other magazines to pin on me. People said, “Oh, he can play fast, he’s a shredder.” Personally, that’s the last thing I would have called myself.

However, I do understand the community of shred, and I see the importance of people committing themselves to developing a certain technique such as shred. Whenever TV or movie producers want a section of music with really fast guitar, they’re going to want to find a player who has developed his technical skills to such a level that he can give them what they want. It happens all the time: a producer will say, “Okay, in this part of the movie we want the guitar player to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee,’ but with a really intense edge to it. Well, if you want to be that guy to play that part, there you go.

All musicians, whether you’re a drummer or a bass player or a guitarist or whatever—you have to be ready to explore the boundaries and limits of your physicality on your instrument.

GW Which you did, and Steve Vai did, and certainly Paul Gilbert did, as well. What would you say about Paul Gilbert? Racer X was an all-out speed metal band, so would you call what he did with them “shred”?

SATRIANI Oh yeah. Absolutely. That was shred.

GW Did you and Steve ever have conversations about the whole thing at the time? Like, “Wow, we’re being called ‘shred dudes.’ What’s up with that?”

SATRIANI Sure. It was a funny time. But it didn’t bother us too much, either. I mean, we were just happy that people were actually paying attention to us. We were just two kids from Long Island going to high school together. The thought of being professional musicians was certainly a big dream we shared, but it seemed so far off and unattainable. So when it did happen for us, we just thought the whole thing was remarkable.

It’s a weird thing: I never really think of the word “shred” until I start doing certain interviews. I’ll be talking to a metal magazine or an art magazine, and it’s always the same kind of thing: The art magazine wants to know why I’m not jumping on the latest trend or why there‘s no singing, and the metal magazine wants to know why the album isn’t harder or the playing isn’t faster or whatever. They’re always asking me that. It’s like, “Sorry, guys.” [laughs]

Actually, I would love to know, from a guitar magazine’s point of view, if there’s truly an audience out there for shred. Are people pining away for shred guitar? From where I sit, I don’t see it reflected in music sales or ticket sales.

GW In your opinion, who was the first shredder?

SATRIANI That’s a good one. When you say “shredder,” I would say it’s probably a guy who’s not a great writer but yet can play really well. So that first wave of rock guitarists—people like Hendrix and Page and Beck and Clapton—they weren’t shredders. The fusion guys—Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth—were doing their own trip; they were fusion guys. So you can put them in another bag. I see shred as a metal thing—someone who listens to Di Meola, who loves the freak-out of Hendrix and the I’ll-do-whatever-I-want nature of Page, and who innocently brought it into a new era. I’m hard pressed to name that person who just played something so simple but really overdid it. [pauses] It might be Alvin Lee from Ten Years After.

GW I was just about to name him!

SATRIANI Yeah. And it’s totally innocent, that moment from Woodstock that everybody refers to [Ten Years After’s performance of “I’m Going Home”], because Alvin Lee is a great blues guitar player. But as a shred moment…it could be that. He might have invented the genre right there.

GW What about Eddie Van Halen with “Eruption”? Shred or not?

SATRIANI To me, Eddie’s different. He’s such an amazing writer, and he has an incredible rhythm and feel and tone. He’s in a class all his own. See, there’s lots of “fun” shredders, guys who can just go up and down the neck, and they go faster and faster until you just can’t believe it. But their sound isn’t so good, the writing isn’t so good, there’s not a lot of feeling. Eddie Van Halen isn’t like that. He’s a ridiculously well-rounded musician and songwriter. Eddie Van Halen—not a shredder.

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