When Guitar World connects with Steel Panther axeman Satchel via video conference, he’s keen to show off his latest acquisition: a custom Eddie Van Halen tribute model inspired by the late guitarist’s instantly recognizable striped signature guitars.
As Satchel explains, a “very awesome” fan of the band approached the Charvel endorsee, offering to build it for nothing in return – one of many perks that come with the job. New instruments aside, Satchel is talking to us today to promote the band’s latest record, On the Prowl, which features yet more fiery fretwork and ’80s-inspired tongue-in-cheek hilarity. Naturally, we had to find out more…
Friends with Benefits has some tasty harmonic minor runs. How did you approach writing that final solo?
“That whole section was based around a rhythm guitar riff that’s actually pretty complicated. It changes keys throughout the solo, it goes up a whole step and then three half steps. It switches every few bars but it stays in Phrygian dominant, from the harmonic minor family. Every time I play in that scale, I can’t help but feel like I’m sounding like Yngwie. He really owned that sound. I approach every solo from two mindsets: I think about melody and I also like to improvise.”
It’s interesting what your fingers come up with when you disengage the brain, right?
“Exactly. You might make mistakes or play something you’d normally think sounds horrible and end up really liking it when you listen back. You hear it as a listener rather than a player, so you can be more objective. So that’s what I do – nail a few takes and then listen.
“How does the phrasing sound? What’s the vibrato like? Is it too busy? If you play too many notes, the average listener won’t be able to latch on. I don’t care about impressing other guitar players because they’re so fuckin’ hard to please anyway, especially with all those six-year-olds shredding on Instagram.”
You tend to use your Charvel signature model and EVH amps for live shows. Was there anything different in the studio this time around?
“For leads, a lot of the time it wasn’t a real amp – there’s no need. I don’t think people can tell the difference, plus you can always change your tone later if you want, so I used the Neural DSP Gojira plugin. But I like to commit to sounds too. I still use the second and third versions of the 5150s; they’ve been on every record, particularly for rhythms.
“Guitar players by nature are gearheads... which is actually dangerous. It’s better paying more attention to being musical. If you keep fucking around, you won’t write a song, let alone a record. And if you don’t write a record, you can’t have any solos!”
This is out of left-field, but it’s kinda hard to imagine you holding a Les Paul. Do you own any, just out of curiosity?
“Oh yeah! I have one Les Paul that really sounds great. If I had to choose a live guitar, I probably wouldn’t pick that one because I jump around a lot and like using a Floyd Rose, which keeps everything in tune. But Les Pauls can sound great. I also have this $150 Mexican-made Strat that I bought online. I put some Fishman Fluence pickups in it and it sounds amazing.
“I really like the sound of single-coil pickups. It makes me play differently and feel like I’m David Gilmour. Or Yngwie! [Laughs] I will occasionally pick up a Strat in the studio. We once recorded a bonus track called Red Headed Step Child, which had a Whitesnake kinda vibe.
“We were in this studio called Sphere in L.A. The owner is a total gear guy and I asked him if he had one lying around. He came out with a 1959 Strat in mint condition. It felt so good and was probably worth about 50 grand, so I used that one. But if I had to pick a workhorse guitar, I’d have to pick my Charvel signature… because they give me a million dollars a year! Also, Guthrie Govan plays them, and that guy smokes!”
Some of your alternate-picking runs are not for the faint-hearted. How much of that did you learn from Paul Gilbert when you lived with him?
“I used to hang out with Paul a lot. He was very inspiring, but one thing I realized early on was that I’d never be able to play like him. He has really big hands and this ability to cross strings really fast… only he can do it like that. If you get really good at doing Paul Gilbert licks, you’re only going to sound like him.
“So I took things from him that I felt were really important, like the way he attacks the strings. There’s a sound and conviction to that. Another player I learned a lot from is Eric Johnson.
“I don’t talk about him a lot but he’s one of the best on the planet. And he’s the opposite of Paul Gilbert in how he picks; Paul is a metal guy and Eric is more on the jazz side and picks more lightly. I’m still learning and figuring out the best way to approach my solos.”
There’s a fair amount of economy and sweeped lines, too...
“Yeah, I incorporate a lot of that stuff. There are a lot of licks that feel easier if you go up, down, up, up, down or whatever. There are certain licks where I’ll definitely do those mini sweeps. It’s more economical; hey, that’s why they call it economy picking!
“The downside of that kind of picking, and Paul Gilbert will be the first to tell you this, is that it can be very difficult to be consistent timing-wise. Say if you’re doing those classic Paul Gilbert triplets – he’s very precise and his timing is very good.
“If you’re doing three notes per-string triplets with economy picking, it can be very difficult. But do you really want to do that all night? It might sound boring! I think what should drive your technique is how you want to sound on guitar. If you practice other people’s licks or scales all day long, you will get fast and clean, but it might not sound exactly like you.
“I remember Billy Gibbons saying something, back before I was born, when he was probably 100, and he said something to the effect of, ‘When I practice, I practice sounding the way I want to sound.’ That makes sense to me. He’s not practicing how to do something. A lot of people might see Paul Gilbert and feel inspired, hoping to be as clean and accurate. That becomes their goal. But what you should really do is ask yourself how you want to sound on guitar. That’s what we should all be striving for.
“I think more along the lines of how I want to sound to other people who also like music. I remember buying an Uli Jon Roth solo record a long time ago and listening to the whole record thinking there were only a couple of spots where he played really fast. I thought, ‘That’s fucking awesome!’ He didn’t feel the need to play fast for other guitar players. He played fast when only he wanted to, when it was right for the music. Eddie was the same; he always did what fit. That’s what made him so great.”
- On the Prowl is out now via Steel Panther Inc.