Joe Satriani needs no introduction. The Long Island native is one of the world’s most revered virtuoso guitarists, with a discography stretching back to 1986’s Not of This Earth and a list of students that includes such fellow legends as Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. The former was part of the initial lineup of the G3 tour, a showcase for the talents of virtuoso guitarists that Satriani founded in 1996 and that has continued to tour periodically with participants including Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
The atmosphere in the Guitar Center Hollywood Vintage Room was understandably one of palpable anticipation as the room filled with contest winners hand-picked by Satriani to attend a masterclass with their hero. During the class, Satriani demonstrated his legendary technique and fielded questions from his admirers, some of which are referenced in the following interview, which was conducted immediately after the class.
It was really cool to hear you say during the class, “I still struggle with this. There are other people out there who can play my material better than me,” because, as I’m sure you’re aware, as far as guitarists go, you’re one of those names that people throw out just to mean “exemplary guitarist.” Is that legend something that you consciously try to undermine?
No, no, no, it’s great. I think if I’d spent 40 years playing guitar and no one ever mentioned my name, I’d be a little depressed. I think it’s pretty obvious that if your name gets mentioned in a good light, you think, “OK, I’m not all that horrible. They’re not gonna come and lynch me or anything.”
You got to do what you want to do. The music business is hard enough; you cannot be dissuaded ’cause there’s always somebody in the audience giving you the look, like “I can do that,” or “I don’t want to be here,” or whatever. Whether you’re an actor, a comedian, whatever, if you get up in front of a crowd, it’s your job to lift them up, win them over, not let the detractors bring you down.
You touched on this briefly — different audiences in different places. You mentioned Japanese audiences love the flashy tricks and European audiences do the football chant. I’m curious what your experience has been regarding how different audiences around the world respond to the music.
It’s always uplifting. I think if [that reaction] didn’t happen, I would have given it up years ago ‘cause it wouldn’t have been as exciting and some of the places you go are difficult. Things happen on the way that make you think “What the fuck am I doing this for? I could be dead.”
I remember the India shows that we did a couple years ago, the whole trip was so remarkable. First of all, it’s a crazy place. They do things in their own way, and they were really doing it when we were there for that week. We had three shows in three different cities, and each time it took two days to get the show ready in what seemed to be a neglected soccer field of some kind. It would start with people with sharp shards of pottery and twigs digging holes in the ground, and twelve hours later, you’d see a structure where people might go. Then slowly you’d see something that could be a pile of wood, and somebody says it’s going to be a stage. Then 28 hours later, there was kind of a stage, and right up until about 10 o’clock at night, you wouldn’t know if you were going to go on.
Then all of a sudden, we would walk onstage — a stage twenty feet off the ground that’s moving. Everything’s crazy. It’s 110 degrees, it’s dark out, you’re covered in bug spray so you don’t get malaria, and I remember we started playing “Flying in a Blue Dream,” and the whole audience sang along — all of them. It was 20,000 people, and they’re all wearing jeans and black Metallica t-shirts. They just looked like an audience from anywhere in the world that likes rock music, and they knew the material. It blew me away.
We get that some audiences are more vocal than others. Many years ago I was on a tour, and we wound up in the UK somewhere. They have a good postal system in Britain, and all of a sudden they said, “Mr. Satriani, here is your mail.” No one ever gives me mail at any other venue anywhere in the world, but when you’re in England, it’s like, “Here’s your mail. We’ve been collecting it for you since your last visit.”
So I’m sitting there backstage looking through it, and there’s a letter from a guy from Oslo. We had just played Oslo, and I remember walking offstage at that show thinking, “I must be really bad at my job because I never got this audience off their feet. They’re just laying there.” But we plowed ahead and we did our show, so I thought, “I’ve got to read it. This guy’s probably going to say, ‘You’re a horrible band, give up.’”
The guy wrote this beautiful letter — like four pages — about his experience at the show and what a marvelous show it was and how it exercised his soul, and he went through every song and the lighting and everything. It reminded me that people are into it — they just react in a different way. You can’t hold it against them. If the folks in Oslo don’t want to sing along, it’s okay. If they want to sing along in Mexico City, you don’t quiet them — you let them do what they want.
There’s something about that metal-infused, shreddy, exuberant lead guitar that is such a universal language. It’s the kind of music that at its core is primal — it’s six strings and some distortion and that’s never going to change — but you were saying “Why” was strongly informed by hip-hop. How do you find that the changing times, technology, and trends influence you?
Well, I’m listening to music just like anybody else. I’m listening to the rhythm — Is it viscerally attractive? Does it get my bones moving? Is it sexy? — I’m looking for all of those things in the rhythm. And then is the harmony interesting? Is it opening up something in my soul and my head? So it’s not like I’m clinging to anything. I’m searching for new stuff.
I grew up the youngest of five kids, and my parents were of the jazz age, so they played music all the time. I grew up with this eclectic mix of everything and watched my older siblings go through the ’60s — every part of it — and I inherited all the records from everybody in the family. They became the basis of what I thought good music was, all the best of it, so there’s a mixture there that I relate to, that I’m very comfortable with. I’ve always looked at any music that comes along in the same way. If it makes me feel good, then I listen to it. That’s basically it.
That’s as good a rule of thumb as any.
Yeah, it should be. I mentioned that to [the contest winners] because they were asking about rules about writing, and I mentioned that guitar playing is fun to do. It’s a physically fun thing to do, and the better you get at it, the more fun it is.
It’s like with a sport — you like to challenge yourself, but a dangerous side effect of getting good is that sometimes you lose your audience because they’re not feeling it. They’re physically not feeling it. They don’t feel the fingertips, the strings — they’re not getting the visceral kickback from all this stuff. They’re just listening to it, and it’s so different.
Just standing by your amp and having the sound pressure kick you in the ass — no one in the audience hears that. You’re the only one standing that far away from it. You’re feeling the guitar vibrate, and it’s just so physical, so part of [the role of] the performing artist is to understand, “They’re not getting it like me.” I have to arrange it so that what they’re getting is the shit. They’re getting the good stuff. You have to learn to work with that.
Is there anything that you consciously do to preserve the visceral physicality of the music? One of the critiques that is often lobbed at virtuosic music is that tangibility is lost because the musicians are so good at their instruments that the human element fades into the background.
It’s a funny way of looking at it, but it’s an observation that we’ve all heard before, so it must be happening. That’s real, and it’s good for any musician to understand that, but really what’s happening is that people with what appears to be freakish ability tend to get pushed to the front. “Look at the guy with two heads play four harmonicas!” So it would be easy to say, “Oh, those two-headed harmonica players — my God, they have no feeling!”
I’m exaggerating, but that’s kind of like what happens with guitar playing. We don’t know about the millions of average guitar players because there’s no system that pushes them to the forefront. We never see them on TV. We don’t see them in the clubs. We don’t see them anywhere because they’re average.
So what do we see? We see the above-average, the freakish, the people who say, “Wow, look what I can do. I can play faster than all my friends. I’m going to put on this feather hat and these tights and I’m going to run around and see if I can make some money.” That’s the person we hear about. It’s very easy to point to it and say, “I don’t like it because of the feather hat,” or “I don’t like guys that wear tight pants,” or “I don’t like guys who have all this technique.”
In any other field, technical ability is applauded. If you see a singer, and they sing perfectly in tune, you go, “Ah! Thank God!” You love it — they put you at ease. If you hear somebody really sing out of tune, that’s bad technical ability. If you hear a guitar player play really out of tune, you pretty much have the same thing, so I think people get their criticisms crossed very often with players with technique because of who winds up being featured. It’s very rarely the demure player with taste. It’s just rare.
We gravitate towards the Neil Young, the rough-around-the-edges. We give him a chance. There’s something about him, but I think that’s because of who he is. There aren’t any other Neil Youngs we put up on that pedestal. There’s only one. We let Hendrix go absolutely crazy. There’s only one of him. And I think whether you’re talking about [Andrés] Segovia or [Niccolò] Paganini, we didn’t criticize them. There was only one of them. They came, and they went. One in a million. There’s no good way to answer [that criticism] because you can’t argue with what people like and don’t like. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it.
You mentioned that the solo in “Flying in a Blue Dream” was recorded messily and that whenever you play it live, you have an inclination to want to organize it.
Yeah, I was full of great food and wine, and I just was going for it because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t finish this last piece of the song. When I’d finished it, the engineer said, “That was brilliant,” and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I feel like a wreck.” And because it’s out of time several times and the intonation isn’t as good as it could be, that part of me wants to polish it up.
I really related to that. This is my eternal dilemma as a musician myself. I tend to gravitate toward the stuff that is rough around the edges — the Neil Youngs, the Jimi Hendrixes, the stuff that has some scuzz to it — but whenever I come up with something myself, my obsessive-compulsive tendencies kick in and it becomes a question of finding the balance between those two impulses.
It’s interesting that when you read the biographies of players, you realize that a lot of the songs that are iconic to us — let’s say you’re listening to an artist a generation older — you realize, “Wow, that was really recorded under duress or was short or they always wanted to fix it.” Just like today. I’m sure kids in the audience were surprised to hear me talk about how “Surfing with the Alien” was one take and there were people yelling at me to get out of the studio and “Flying in a Blue Dream” was [recorded] out of frustration.
But I think it illustrates the other point I made, which is, “It’s okay.” We’re guitar players. We do have to focus on the little things, but we also have to remind ourselves that the audience is really taking in the whole thing. We have to learn how to recognize, “Is the whole thing working? What is this little ingredient doing to the whole thing?”
Photography by Christine Perez
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