Learn the many guitar styles of Joe Satriani with this blockbuster lesson

Joe Satriani
(Image credit: Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When it comes to instrumental rock guitar, Joe Satriani is one of the best loved and most revered of all. Unlike many guitarists to emerge from the ‘golden era’ of shred, with Joe it was always and remains melody first, as he crafted album after album of hook-ladened instrumentals. 

That’s not to say he can’t and doesn’t shred; when needed he can rip with the best, unleashing his terrific arsenal of legato, pick tapping and whammy bar licks. In reality he’s one of the most accomplished guitarists of the last four decades, as well as being a master of theory, with a deep knowledge of composition, harmony, scales and modes. 

But again it’s how he applies them; his music never sounds like an exercise or a study. It’s always about the song, and is why Satriani remains one of the most commercially successful instrumental guitarists ever, with an array of gold and platinum albums and sales of more than 10 million copies worldwide. Not to mention 15 Grammy nominations. 

Joe has toured and recorded with the likes of Mick Jagger, Deep Purple and Alice Cooper, and been a part of supergroup Chickenfoot with members of Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was also the mastermind behind the G3 tours, which included heavyweights like Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, Phil Collen and John Petrucci.

Joe began playing guitar on 18th September 1970, the day Jimi Hendrix passed away. From that point he dedicated his life to studying and mastering the guitar.

At a young age Joe was already a renowned teacher, famously instructing Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Larry Lalonde, Charlie Hunter, David Bryson, Alex Skolnick, and Geoff Tyson – Vai turned up with a stringless guitar and a pack of strings. So Joe’s wisdom has been passed directly on to some of the world’s most iconic guitarists, and indirectly onto us.

From his self-financed debut album, Not Of This Earth, in 1986, Satriani can boast a catalogue of ever-evolving releases. 1987’s Surfing With The Alien was a huge commercial success, from which came three charting singles: Satch Boogie, Always With Me, Always With You, and the title track itself – an achievement not seen since Hank Marvin and The Shadows. 

Joe Satriani has always evolved, but also remained faithful to his vision of who he is as an artist. This was apparent with his 1992 album The Extremist. Released when alternative and grunge music were the rage, and while many of the ’80s bands’ popularity was waning, it was his biggest-selling album to date. 

Its organic, live feel marked a departure from the synthetic drums and processed guitars of previous albums, but again Joe stayed true to his ethos, with a collection of outstanding instrumentals including the hit single, Summer Song.

Joe Satriani retains a core guitar, bass, drums and keys format, but also loves to experiment with advanced production ideas, as was apparent on 1998’s Crystal Planet, 2000’s Engines Of Creation, and 2020’s Shapeshifting. And with the release of new album The Elephants Of Mars, we look forward to the next chapter in a remarkable career. 

Satriani’s key techniques

Satriani is comfortable playing blues, melodic ballads or hard rock, which he does with authenticity and conviction. 

Wearing his Hendrix influence proudly, Joe demonstrates his bluesy side on tracks like New Blues, House Full Of Bullets, and even Satch Boogie, all of which have a very different sound but highlight Joe’s Pentatonic phrasing and soulful bends. 

Legato plays a huge part in Joe’s style, as he traverses the neck with fluid three-notes-per-string phrasing. But as well as longer flowing lines he also executes legato in ‘stuttering’ bursts, as heard on Flying In A Blue Dream

Joe has put his own twist on the tapping technique. Avoiding the obvious Van Halen clichés, he often utilises the edge of the pick to execute lines, either for the fast trill effect in Surfing With The Alien, or as a way of embellishing legato lines.

He also loves open-string pull-offs and positions shifts, both of which can be heard on Always With Me, Always With You and Satch Boogie, the latter employing modal interchange where Joe seamlessly implies different modal qualities while maintaining a constant tapping figure.

Joe has plenty of extreme techniques up his sleeve, too, one of his favourites being to add screaming harmonics, either natural or pinched, using the bar to raise them in pitch

He applies multi-finger tapping to chords: while forming a chord he will add higher extensions using two fingers of his picking hand.

Of course he also loves the whammy bar, which he uses for a multitude of applications, from melodic articulation to crazy sound effects. He applies the bar to melodies or chords, ‘scooping’ into either by slightly dipping the bar prior to picking, or for subtle or extreme vibrato.

Joe has plenty of extreme techniques up his sleeve, too, one of his favourites being to add screaming harmonics, either natural or pinched, using the bar to raise them in pitch. 

Joe will often pinch harmonics over the pickups on open strings, and raise the bar with his fretting hand. Not only does this look cool on stage, it also has a very different sound to natural harmonics. 

As well as dive bombs, rhythmic bouncing on the bar, and gargle techniques, another favourite that can be heard on Ice 9, is the Lizard Down The Throat’ technique. Joe will fret and slide around the fretboard (often ascending), while simultaneously moving the whammy bar (often depressing it) to keep the same note at approximately the same pitch = a gargling, warbily sound! 

As well as these technical elements Joe is well versed in scales and modes. Some great examples include The Enigmatic, where Joe harmonised the Enigmatic scale to produce a series of chords that  produce a very angular sounding composition. 

Time and Flying In A Blue Dream are excellent examples of how Joe modulates to different modes, often employing the same mode but in different keys, as a way of producing dramatic and exciting progressions as a foundation for a composition.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 8, Bass 5, Middle 7, Treble 7, Reverb 4

Joe mainly plays his own Ibanez JS signature series, and has used Marshall, Laney and Peavey guitar amps, plus delay pedals, modulation, wah, whammy, and Boss SD-1 or DS-1. 

I used an Ibanez JS2410 kindly loaned by Ibanez Scandinavia, into IK Multimedia Amplitube 5, Joe Satriani amp collection. Don’t be afraid of gain, but cool off some of the low end and push the mids and highs for definition. A splash of delay will help achieve Joe’s iconic tone.

Piece 1. Ballad style

[Bars 1-2 ] Things kick off with out open-chord arpeggio figure, using a familiar chord voicing for JS fans. This intro demonstrates how Joe employs  chord extensions; this one is based around the Badd11 chord. Pay attention to picking hand accuracy and the wide stretch, as well as the 6/8 time signature.

[Bars 3-6] The melody negotiates its way through B Major, G Lydian, and E Aeolian. I have tried to highlight the chord tones, so that the melody feels natural, and flows through the chords. Pay attention to dynamics and feel.

[Bars 7-10] We change key again, to A Mixolydian, resolving to B Major for the modes of G# Aeolian and E Lydian, performed over their respective chords. It’s important that this run is in time to target the final note before the key change.

[Bars 10-18] Here we see a more organic band feel and a shift in guitar tone from the processed Rockman sound to traditional amp tone. The melody follows the changes using target notes for power and drama. We also see examples of Joe’s Pentatonic blues style creeping in. Pay attention to the timing, and string bending accuracy.

[Bars 19- 22] Yet another harmonic shift, with E Major implying E Mixolydian, to G# Major implying G# Phrygian Dominant. This is a great example of how Joe uses modal interchange. Although E Major is not found in C# Harmonic Minor, the III chord of this key is E Augmented, so we are simply raising the 5th (from B to B#). 

The shift harmonically is minimal, but very dramatic when building melodies. This section again demonstrates how Joe negotiates changes, kicking off with an epic position shifting lick that highlights the key change with the final target notes. This section also concludes with some signature Phrygian Dominant style phrasing. 

[Bars 23-24] And yet another key change, this time with the E Major chord functioning as the IV chord of B Major, which achieves a Lydian tonality. Look out
for the whammy bar scoops and position shifts here.

[Bars 25-29] In this section we conclude our piece by resolving back to the opening chords. We also introduce a classic Satch tapping style lick, utilising the open second string and various position shifts. Once again we are changing key and modes, modulating from B Major to G Lydian. Pay attention to your timing for this section, making sure you keep your picking and fretting hands synchronised.

Piece 2. Odd times, scales and modes

[Bars 1-8] This is a pretty unsettling chord progression. When composing this, I took the notes of the E Enigmatic scale and harmonised them to see what chords were available. 

I have kept the open top E note throughout, which adds the desired dissonance over certain chords. Also, each chord is ‘scooped’ in by depressing the whammy bar before picking, then letting it return. Watch for the unusual 5/4 groove.

[Bars 9-16] These bars introduce the second part of our riff and see a change in feel to the track. In contrast to the lush open clean chorus chords of the beginning of the piece, this new section employs a distorted Rockman tone and tighter, two-note diad (double-stop) chord voicings. Pay attention to the tight picked open sixth string that is used as a constant pedal tone over the shifting chords.

[Bars 17-24] For this dramatic change in feel the piece moves into less dissonant harmonic territory, as well as shifting to a 4/4 time signature. This section features key changes on every chord! Yes we really embrace Joe’s ability to shift keys seamlessly and musically, without it sounding obvious. 

The chord progression shifts between Minor7add11 and Major7add#11 chords, so harmonically we are outlining Aeolian and Lydian modes throughout. Even though the changes are complex, the melody is very straightforward, flowing through the changes and targeting specific intervals and chord tones.  

[Bars 25-29] For the conclusion we shift back to 5/4 signature. This is really ‘out there’ style Satch, harking back to his earlier, more experimental pieces. This section shifts through E Locrian, E Lydian, and finally E Aeolian. There’s also plenty of legato phrasing that seamlessly negotiates the changes in typical Satch style. Pay attention to the position shifts, whammy bar phrasing, and keep the fretting hand relaxed. 

Piece 3. Blues style

[Bars 1-4] For this Phrygian melody, the bass implies the harmony and changes as it shifts. The guitar plays the hypnotic figure that introduces the swung 16th-note feel.

[Bars 5-8] This is the main riff, a kind of blues on steroids and very much in keeping with how Joe adds a twist to classic styles. This riff is based around F# Phrygian Dominant - an unusual scale choice for a 12-bar blues riff, but illustrates how Joe takes conventional ideas and makes them his own. Pay attention to the swung groove, and really aim to sit ‘in the pocket’ with the bass and drums.

[Bars 9-12] Our next riff features a classic Satch chord tapping idea. Perform the lower part by hammering on with your fretting hand, and tapping with the first and second fingers of your picking hand to add the top harmony. Watch out for the timing here; keep both hands synchronised, and mute unwanted open strings. 

[Bars 13-23] This melody shows how Joe develops simple motifs with minimal fuss. We are outlining the 12-bar progression using F# Minor Pentatonic and Blues scales, although we include the D# notes, over the B7 section of the riff, and this Major 3rd, brings a Mixolydian tonality. 

At bar 20 is a short lick based around the E Half-Whole Diminished scale. Joe uses this but not in the traditional jazz sense but more of a harmonic vehicle to an outside tonalities to his blues phrasing. Look out for the subtle slides and quarter-tone bends during this section, and again lay back in the groove.

[Bars 24-25] Here’s our solo, and we enter with a D#m7b5 arpeggio that results in a strong Dorian tonality over the F#. The next lick features some depending legato flurries, and string skipping, so stay relaxed and pay attention to the rhythmic construction of the lick, since this solo is very much about the groove.

[Bars 26-28] Here we encounter plenty of classic Satch legato, based around three-notes-per-string fingerings in F# Dorian. The legato kicks off with stuttering flurries, with certain notes being held to break up the lines, before launching into full-on fast legato phrasing runs. The rhythmic groupings of this section are tricky to follow, so aim to target each group of notes to the specific beat and stay relaxed. 

[Bars 29-30] B Mixolydian phrasing outlines the IV chord implied by the blues riff. It offers some respite from the legato onslaught, but the position shifts require focus.

[Bars 31-35] We head back to Pentatonic/Mixolydian bluesy double-stop licks,  before ending with trills performed with fast pick tapping though a descending figure.

[Bar 36] This lick starts at the end of bar 35 and is the famous ‘Lizard Down The Throat’. Fret random third-string notes sliding down the neck, while depressing the whammy bar and raising it as you slide, to maintain the pitch as you descend. This might require extra study, but the result sounds fantastic! Hit the harmonic at the 3rd fret, second string and yank the bar up before dive-bombing the strings to conclude the piece. 

Piece 4. Hard rock style

[Bars 1-9] Here are several ideas heard in classic JS recordings. Lots of big E5 powerchord riffage, as well as the tight palm-muted open sixth string. Look out for the fast E Blues scale pull-off figure, plus the arpeggiated A7/C# and Aadd11 chords, which illustrate how Joe adds harmonic variations to a powerful riff. This riff concludes with a descending E Harmonic Minor run, performed in harmony.

[Bars 10-13] The main melody features a figure based around E Phrygian Dominant. Look out for the rhythmic whammy bar lick, where you bounce your fretting hand on the bar. This melody also outlines the accompanying chords of F#7add11, and Fmaj7add#11, once again using the whammy bar for phrasing variations. I also used the wah-wah pedal for this opening melody.

[Bars 14 -17] The second half of the verse has a more blues-based feel in terms of scale choice and phrasing. This section uses a lot of double-stops and blues licks using E Dorian an E Minor Pentatonic, and our hard rock piece concludes with a fast pick-tapping trill and pick scrape.

[Bars 18-21] The chorus kicks off with a shift to A Mixolydian, outlined with an ascending unison bend figure. We modulate to C Lydian, descending the scale on the second string while picking the open first string. 

This section concludes over the D5 chord, implying D Mixolydian, and kicks off with natural harmonics at the 7th fret to outline the chord. We conclude this section with with a crazy harmonic/whammy bar pull-up idea. 

Play a pinched harmonic on the open third string, approximating the 27th fret. Simultaneously grab the whammy bar and depress it, scooping into the the harmonic, then yank up the bar to raise the pitch!

[Bars 22-24] We start with an ascending unison bend lick, but conclude with a fast three-note legato run in C Lydian targeting the D root note at the start of bar 25. Position your hands so the fingertips are making contact with the strings. Also don’t ‘grab’ the neck; stay relaxed to keep the legato smooth and aid the position shifts.

[Bar 25] We outline the B/D# chord with an ascending Diminished 7th run.

[Bars 26-31] Here’s how Joe negotiates key changes with tapping. It’s based around E Aeolian and E Lydian. We conclude with a string bend, followed by our final pinched harmonic lick, raising the bar once again with the fretting hand!

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