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Joe Satriani: "You have to be true to yourself. The internet is a great tool, but it also has the danger of homogenizing everybody"

Joe Satriani
(Image credit: Joseph Cultice)

"You’re a great friend of mine - I’m proud to call you my buddy,” said Brian May, in a video inducting Joe Satriani into the Metal Hall Of Fame in earlier this year. “But you have been a friend and inspiration to so many,” noted the Queen legend. 

“You’ve done so much for guitar playing, lifted it to a new place and, all around the world, people like me are still marvelling at what you do.”

Seeing the footage for the first time after the ceremony, the newly inducted guitarist felt shocked and touched by such kind words from one of his earliest inspirations, joking that he would have probably been reduced to tears if he’d been in front of an audience.

“Brian is such an amazing human being, brilliant as a composer as well as player,” says Satch, speaking to TG a few weeks after. “You know how it is – within one note and you fall in love with his playing all over again, every time you hear him. That’s truly remarkable.”

Similar things could be said of Satriani’s inimitably tasteful contributions to the guitar world, from his double Grammy-nominated and platinum-selling 1987 album Surfing With The Alien – a commercial breakthrough and game-changer for guitar music at the time – to everything he’s achieved since, including his latest masterpiece Shapeshifting. 

Here the man who wrote the rulebook on shredding with finesse, through a perfect storm of tear-jerking virtuosity and choice-note simplicity, explains why your best music can only come from a real place...

The title track on your latest album has a really interesting bend where you pull up on the high E before catching and coming down on the B. Where did you learn that?

“That kind of idea was a vocal or harmonica line, I’m gonna take a guess and say it was Hubert Sumlin or Buddy Guy picking it up off harp players in the 50s and early 60s. It’s funny, in my early years everything was a mystery. I didn’t even know what a barre-chord was. But I was listening to these geniuses – Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Beck, Winter, Berry, Guy, Townshend – on the radio. 

"They all did these idiomatic blues things that didn’t make sense to a beginner like me. Sometimes I’d figure things out the wrong way until I saw them in concert. I was playing this lick wrong for so long and then I saw footage of Hendrix and realised it was the first two strings. Moments like that can feel like a revelation. And then I realised the ‘wrong’ way also had its own unique value.”

The solo has some heavy blues mixed in with some more fruity, Phrygian flavours...

“I love that idea, getting fruity! I’m happy you noticed, because it’s a compositional subtlety that’s very specific to the song. Playing like that in the middle of a song is me stating my true nature. There needs to be some sort of metamorphosis to move through different versions of me and that experience is represented by all the feedback noises using a Sustainiac pickup at the end. 

"There was a compositional thought process that told me not to go total Phrygian – the way you expressed it is great, I’m playing rock but I’m getting sorta fruity here and there! I could have sweep-picked but that doesn’t do anything other than display the fact I’ve practised… I’m looking for an emotional statement so I can tell people how I’m really feeling."

The writing is the most important part for me. It has to mean something to you

Out of the '80s virtuosos, you’ve always targeted notes with a level of restraint. Did that come naturally?

“When I was younger and doing sessions, I would see an opportunity to throw in a #4 or something outside and make it work. I’d get this look from the producer, ‘What the hell, don’t do that!’ They just wanted the expected notes – which, of course, would bore me. Then Surfing... took off and the same people were calling me back asking me to do that very thing! It was like, ‘You mean you didn’t want it before, but you do now?’

"By that point, I gave up being a session player. I’d be lying if I said holding certain notes for this length would always work. It’s about how you apply the artistry. That’s what will make or break you. It has to make sense in that moment in time. 

"Here’s a simple analogy: imagine you are playing music for a scene in a film with a cute baby walking towards the camera. You wouldn’t play your most grotesque and dissonant notes. But what if that baby is covered in blood and has a huge kitchen knife in its hand? That’s totally different! 

"I can’t say flat 9s always sound bad, they sound perfectly beautiful in Phrygian or Phrygian Dominant, but if you play a C# when everyone else is in C major you are going to stick out… there’s the context!”

Perfect Dust and Falling Stars are great examples of your ability to switch through genres. What were you using on those tracks?

“The overdubs really came together on those songs, as well as Here The Blue River. The main guitars were my JS1CR re-amped through an old Bassman into my 4x12s and the super-clean rhythms went through a Fender FM combo. That solid-state thing is so clear! 

“I sold a lot of my old tweeds and got some new Fenders. They all sound unique and usable, responding well to any guitar you plug in. At one point Chris Chaney [Jane’s Addiction] was doubling his bass with one of my 335s through a Marshall 50-watt. Other things got re-amped into a Princeton, Bassman or my JVM head to create a larger sonic picture. 

“Sometimes for a meek solo you want a meek amp and for a bold solo you’ll want a bold amp. If they go back-to-back then they need to hand off to each other well.”

Are there any new pedals that have impressed you recently?

“I used the TC Electronic Sub ’N’ Up in the last solo of Falling Stars. The pedal list was short – the Sub ’N’ Up, my Big Bad Vox wah, my Vox Time Machine delay, an MXR Dyna Comp, EP103 and Flanger. There was a Vemuram Jan Ray overdrive on one song. I used my EVH phaser, which felt like a trip down memory lane, going back to the early '80s. I was thinking about what I didn’t do in my band [Squares], and one of our rules was trying not to do whatever other guitarists were doing...”

Players come along and challenge what you thought was possible...Philip Sayce – I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone go that crazy in that direction for a long time. Yvette Young is another

So that's why you stayed away from that phaser sound early on?

“In retrospect it was a stupid idea - we should have just done whatever we wanted to do. So I wrote the song Nineteen Eighty in response to that; it’s probably what I would have done had I not followed that Squares band rule.

“I realised I should've used the Phase 90 like Eddie. I saw that pedal and thought I’d rip a solo through it. When I played it to everyone, the first thing they said was, ‘Was that a Phase 90?’ It’s so retro-sounding, but I wanted to celebrate those times.”

How else do you challenge yourself and ensure you develop?

“The writing is the most important part for me. It has to mean something to you. It might be something that requires an approach you haven’t explored before. Spirits, Ghosts And Outlaws felt like a different approach for me. 

“It could just come from a production angle, a song like Teardrops took concentration to stay true to its meaning and push myself into a different style. It was another first take that I decided to leave alone.

“Sometimes you just don’t know how a song is going to inspire you. I thought if the melody was going to be gospel-like, I wanted the solo to be like one of David Bowie’s bridges – the story of the song but from a different viewpoint.”

What do you think about the next generation of guitarists? Who is currently impressing you?

“Seeing all the amazing players at NAMM reminded me how the guitar world is very much alive and well. Look at Guthrie Govan – he’s just so good. You can’t help but be amazed because he plays so well and comes from a place of pure love. We had the guys from Polyphia at Steve Vai’s NAMM jam - those guys were remarkable and it was interesting to see them so out of their element. 

“You can throw guys like me, Steve and Paul [Gilbert] anywhere and we’ll improvise like always we do. These guys come from a completely different discipline but they’re incredible guitarists. I was so impressed they were brave enough to stand next to some old guys and see what happens!”

And vice versa, it must be great to hear other players think of things you might not yourself…

“Players come along and challenge what you thought was possible, coming from new angles. I was listening to Philip Sayce – I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone go that crazy in that direction for a long time. Yvette Young is another - she comes from an entirely different world of playing, but you can’t help be blown away by what she’s doing. 

“There’s room for everybody. There’s room for whoever wants to sit in the corner and play something beautiful and there’s room for Zakk Wylde… we need him just as much! You meet new players and realise they have this special gift in areas that aren’t part of your makeup.

“What makes me go ‘Wow, this person was born to do this!’ is when I hear someone with a beautiful yet different form of expression – they find beauty in something I missed and start running with it. Lari Basilio is like that: she has melody and rhythm that come together in a ‘wow’ package.”

In Western music, we’re fascinated by playing the 12 notes in our system over and over again

Your blues bends are quite possibly your most powerful weapon – what advice can you offer for getting more out of the pentatonic/blues scales?

“You have to be true to yourself. At NAMM, I saw how many talented players are out there, most of whom can copy anyone else. The internet is a great tool, but it also has the danger of homogenising everybody because you can learn how anybody does anything and pick it up in an instant. 

“It takes a lot to say, ‘This is the real me!’, but it’s an option we all have, though some of us rarely utilise it because they’re not given the opportunity or might be too shy. They might not have spent enough time being themselves. I know that sounds weird, like a therapy session, but it kinda is! You have to understand who you are and what you like regardless of what your community is telling you.

“I read this thing when I was young about how Clapton locked himself away and didn’t listen to anything but American blues so he could cultivate his own sound. I don’t know if it’s true and I did feel it was perhaps being described improperly – maybe as a journalistic theory that felt methodical or didactic – but I realised, more importantly, it was just Clapton discovering what he loved and, in almost a cleansing way, getting rid of all the things in his playing that he didn’t love. 

“He used his influences to find himself. That made total sense. Surround yourself with what you love so when you walk out on stage you don’t have to pretend. You can just be yourself - it’s the deepest well that you can draw most of your best stuff from.”

Some of your most famous songs have incorporated Lydian tonalities. Why do you think that particular scale makes so much sense to you?

“Context is everything. If you play a scale to someone who has grown up with it, they will absorb it like an everyday thing. If you play it to someone who hasn’t been exposed to it, then it may feel exotic to them. In Western music, we’re fascinated by playing the 12 notes in our system over and over again. 

“There was a time in human history where that seemed ridiculous. The ancient Chinese were more interested in the harmonics produced by bells than repeating the same 12 notes continually. Their first exposure to classical music mystified them, they didn’t understand why we kept repeating the same tones.

“If you look at classical Indian music, their use of scales is something else entirely. Coming up one way and down another, playing different scales at different times of the day or different moments in the performance. That has nothing to do with the way rock guitarists think: a song is a song, there is a key and it never changes, no matter what time of day or venue it is. It’s in F# Lydian, that’s the end of that! So our upbringing affects how we respond to these notes.”

All For Love also features some more outside note choices during the heavier parts. What have you learned about when to apply harmonic minor?

“It’s all about context. We could sit down right and run through a whole bunch of scales, but they won’t mean anything until you are making music. If I play a harmonic minor scale while you chug a boogie, that probably won’t work. There’s nothing wrong with either but it would take some work to make them work together as a convincing idea. 

“All For Love felt like the ultimate setup when I go into the five chord, which gave me full licence to rip with it. I almost didn’t have to do much because I had all this harmony already working for me. There’s a natural tension, you can feel the cadence coming as I head back into my minor key. That allows you to hit some crazy notes. 

“It just happened that way the first time I played a solo over it in my home studio. I tried this weird technique – pushing up with two fingers on the first string and letting the second finger off as I release the tension and allow the note to descend to its natural position. It felt really intense. 

“I don’t know if I meant to do it but it felt like ripping a new spot in the sky. Something really opened up. It was a very emotional moment, which is sometimes more enjoyable than breaking it all down into scales.”