Reverb Interview: Joe Satriani on Composing and the Dangers of Being an Emotional Guitar Collector

Reverb Interview: Joe Satriani

Photo by Andrew Bates

His live performances, solo records and releases with supergroups Chickenfoot, G3 and G4 Experience have inspired legions of shredders. But few guitar players are exploring the same territory with the intensity of Joe Satriani, who has been creating highly technical guitar-driven instrumental rock since the mid-’80s.

With the “Surfing to Shockwave” tour of North America coming to a close and the G3 Experience’s European tour just weeks away, Satriani spoke with Reverb about composing instrumental music, how audiences interpret his songs, and his thoughts on guitar collecting, Jimi Hendrix and The White Stripes’ Jack White.

Songwriters talk about a phrase or something that gets stuck in their head and becomes a lyric, or mishearing something that becomes a riff. Is it different when you're writing instrumental music for the guitar?

I do get a lot of that, where people don't understand how a guitar player can do that. And I'm bewildered by it. Why is it different for me than it is for an artist, an architect, a singer? Is it just because there are no words that freaks everybody out?

Guitar players are not really different than any other kind of composer. I wake up in the morning and I'll have a feeling about a place or somebody or something that happened to me. I might read something, or bump into somebody and some feeling will hit me. And I go with the inspiration; I don't discriminate. If I want to write a song about summer coming and I'm driving in a convertible, I'm going to write a summer song. That’s my true passion: simply to write music around what I experience in life.

I write music that I hand over to the audience, and they are free to associate any feeling with it they like."

The big difference between an instrumentalist and someone who writes lyrics is that I write music that I hand over to the audience, and they are free to associate any feeling with it they like.

Can you give me an example?

I'll give you a perfect example. I wrote a song many years ago for The Extremist album. It was a song called “Crying,” and I was trying to find hope in the situation of grieving for my father's passing. And it's a complex set of emotions to try to put into music if you can't tell people in lyrics what it's about.

I’m saying I love this person; they're gone. How am I going to live without him? I’m remembering the good times. Because I’m the one alive, I’m saying I've got to continue on. And I've got to champion all the good things that this person gave me in life and that make up his legacy. And so there's a level of hope. It would be so hard to do that with lyrics alone.

So how do you put that into an instrumental song? I just did my very best and the recording on the album is one take through a Zoom. I was on tour a few months later in Europe, and we get called from a German soccer program called “Ran.” And they'd been using this song as their highlights music every Sunday and they want us to come on the program and perform it live during the show. Now how weird is that, right?

When you think about why I wrote the song, how it got recorded and who winds up liking it and for what — of course I didn't go on there saying, "Hey, you guys are using this song all wrong [laughs]." As a matter of fact, I thought my dad would get a real chuckle out of this one. It's perfect that it would get used in such a different way than how it was intended.

Joe Satriani Performing Live

You do a lot of interviews. Is there a question that you're eager to answer but haven't been asked yet?

The ones that don't get asked anymore are the specific ones about the uniqueness of harmonic progressions and things, scales. Back in the '80s you’d do an interview for “Guitar Player” or “Guitar World” and it would be in-depth about a new use of chordal shapes over bass lines or things like that.

Nobody asks any of those questions anymore. It's really quite sad. It’s more about branding and celebrity and equipment than it is about the actual creation of music or the recognition of what you've done. But that's just because I've hung around so long [laughs]. So, it's my problem.

There’s no music in the schools anymore. Maybe fewer people are asking about theory because they don't study it.

My take on it is that the introduction of video into music changed the way people absorb and enjoy it. The camera does not want to look at somebody playing. It wants to look at somebody looking back at it. The camera wants somebody staring right into the lens. MTV — It's not their fault, but once the technology that created music videos and the music video channel took over, it said: “Conform to me! I am your master.” And so people absorb music differently because they've started listening with their eyes and not their ears.

It had nothing to do with music theory or anything like that. I believe the same amount of people in 1986 knew music theory as today. I don't think anything's changed in terms of that.

Really?

Whatever happened to like four minutes of something powerful? Nobody has time for that."

I don't think anybody cares about it. If you go back to that time, pre-internet, pre-MTV, if you wanted rock music you generally had to listen to it or go to where it was happening. You certainly couldn't find it in three seconds on the internet. But that's the way we all act today. It’s all visual. We text. We watch clips. Everything's very short. It’s an “American Idol” state of mind. Every song is really just a minute and five seconds long. That makes you a superstar. Whatever happened to like four minutes of something powerful? Nobody has time for that. And I'm not saying this is bad; I'm just responding to your question.

But a hundred years ago popular music was not distributed over the radio or internet, it was distributed via sheet music and live performance. It’s a much more passive thing now, but for even more reasons than you just elaborated on.

There's always been a rub between the creator and how the music gets used. This was a reality for Beethoven. He was trying to make a living. The guy's poor and sick most of his life. And one of the ways that he makes money is publishing. He writes things, they get printed up, and he sells them in bulk to publishers in other countries.

His publishers keep saying, “Could you please write stuff that's simpler, that the wives of wealthy noble folks can play in their parlor?” This is the pressure that's put upon him. It's not very different than a producer saying, “Your song's got to be no longer than three minutes and twenty seconds because they don't play instrumentals longer than three and a half minutes on the radio.” That’s what they used to tell me in the '80s and the '90s. Can you imagine the pressure to conform?

So there's poor Beethoven; he's scratching his head. And he's just trying to make a living, you know? So he's like, “OK, you want simple? I'll give you simple.” But then he can't help himself. And he just writes crazy shit anyway because he's Beethoven. So the more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.

That's fantastic, man. I’m sorry, I kind of steered us off track...

No! I mean, I do like two or three hours of interviews every single day and anything that's different is welcome. So I'm not going to make you conform. I'm glad that you're coming from a different perspective [laughs]. This is for Reverb, right?

Yes.

Yeah. What a cool site. I'm on there all the time. Always dreaming about buying stuff that I don't need. But I always think I need that '63 Tele. If I get it, I'll write a better song. I'm not a good collector. I'm a very emotional sort of collector.

Joe Satriani

What do you collect? I know you've got Ibanezes, and many of them, but what else?

I like Teles and Strats, primarily; that's my focus. And there have been years where I've had too many SGs or Les Paul Jrs. I tend to get things that are very different from my Ibanez lines so that when I'm making the records I've got something that offers a very different sort of tonal spectrum. I'll have a Tele, a Strat and a Les Paul as the alter egos to the main Ibanez guitar that's playing the melody and solo in the middle of the track. You never know what's going to work.

There's a song called “Friends” on The Extremist album and that's got the funniest sort of layout. It's got my JS6, which was a brand new design at the time in the early '90s, playing the main rhythm on the left side. But on the right side I had two Strats with Nashville tuning; two Dobros with Nashville tuning; two tracks of Deering banjo with a guitar neck on them. And then they were all dumped to mono.

Some of the tracks we put through a Lexicon Prime Time to add a bit of a chorus effect, and they were all stacked in mono on the right side. It's just crazy, but the idea was to get the bass and the drums to sound huge and not crowd them with huge sounding guitars. It was eight or nine actual performances, spread out to the left and right, creating this harmonic background. And then that guitar, which again was the JS6, comes in with the melody and it's tucked into the mix. It was really quite interesting how we architected that recording. But it wouldn’t have worked if I didn't have this gear. I had these pieces that we were able to pull out. But those are the things I do. I collect them and from time to time I recirculate them. You sell them just so you can get some new stuff.

And start over again [laughs].

Even like on the Chickenfoot records, there's tons of stuff that's basically a patchwork of old and new. But I'm always looking on your site. I'm fascinated with “mojo” that is perhaps contained in a used guitar. I know that's completely unrealistic [laughs], but being that I'm a neurotic guitar player, I always think, “Well, if this guy owned it maybe there's something in there.”

I own a 1969 Olympic white Stratocaster, the exact one that Hendrix would've ordered, right? He would have picked one up at Manny's in New York City. I've actually used it on a couple of records, but I don't sound like Hendrix, dammit! [laughs] As much as I've tried, I can't believe he got that thing to scream the way he did. I could see how he could make a mid-sixties Strat really work, ‘cause they were pretty magical. But that '69?

Where’s the difference?

I'm not a genius vintage collector, but I would say the materials available. The wood; you never know what you're going to get. They sound sort of bassy and trebley at the same time. They don't have that sort of mid-range thing that the earlier examples had. I think they started using some sort of poly-finish on the guitars. So they feel a bit plastic-y. And they certainly sound that way. The neck profile is not what I like at all. I much prefer '61 through '64, and then maybe the mid-to-late '50s profiles of the necks. But that's just my hand, you know.

I knew they were making the pickups lighter, more trebley. They weren't as gutsy as the '50s pickups. But Hendrix made some beautiful music. Steve Vai, just the other day, he sent me a link to some naked tracks of Hendrix — bare guitar tracks — that covered the first three albums. And I'm totally blown away with how beautiful they sound. How just musically genius — one-in-a-billion — Hendrix was when he played. But also how rough and raw they were. And you can hear string pull and fret buzz and maybe a little bit too much distortion here or there. But that's the glue that makes the recording sessions work.

The guitars are just tools and the human spirit ultimately dominates the instrument."

When you isolate it, you can point your finger and you could say, “uh-oh, that pickup's too high,” or “he needs a fret mill on there.” But that's not how you make music [laughs]. It's not about that. The guitars are just tools and the human spirit ultimately dominates the instrument.

Jack White, you know, he's a perfect example of a super creative individual who loves to dominate equipment that may or may not be set up perfectly [laughs] for the performance. But he wants to get his personality involved in dominating it. And that's why he's a superstar: because we feel that. We can feel his personality, his unique creativity being bigger than the gear he's using.

Do you listen to his music?

Yeah, yeah. I've always been fascinated with his whole approach. When he first came out with the White Stripes, I just loved it. I can totally relate to his attitude of getting some wire and two pieces of wood and a hammer and making an instrument [laughs], ‘cause we almost did the same thing. We recorded a lot of the stuff in the first two albums with this spirit of, “Let's just experiment and see what happens."

When I showed up to do the Not of this Earth sessions, I told John Cuniberti, who was the engineer and had been my live sound engineer, “I'm sick of this Marshall thing, where everyone goes into the studio trying to capture this big live sound.” I showed up with a Rockman and a couple of Boss pedals and used whatever amp was in the studio. He thought I was nuts. I was just thinking: it's time to be totally contrarian. I wound up using a Princeton Reverb silver face, non-drip edge. And because we were recording at such a low volume, we could use an AKG C12A, you know, really beautiful microphones that were usually used for a voice. We would stick them in front of the amp because we weren’t worried about sound pressure. And we did a lot of things like that; we just used the wrong stuff on purpose. We'd pull a talk-back mic off the console, rewire it and put it out in the music room and stick it in front of a little practice amp. Just weird stuff like that; we wanted to be contrarian.

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He's like the opposite of a gear head. And I think of you as — and perhaps not correctly so — as being very much a gear head. I love that there's that appreciation.

Yeah, I think ultimately we're pretty much brothers in arms when it comes to music. And that's what we're trying to do: find that perfect level of truth in the performance and in composition. And the stuff that's around us is fun! It has an aesthetic beauty to it that we can appreciate; the look of a Stratocaster and the iconic Marshall stack is beautiful.

It's hard to rail against them, but you can't let them trick you into thinking that those are the only tools available, which is why I used a put-together Frankenstein Kramer Pacer on my first two albums. I said, “I'm not going to use what everybody's using. I'm going to use this thing that's falling apart [laughs], ‘cause I think it's cool [laughs].”

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