Joe Satriani: 10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Him | TAB

January 30, 2014

ALTHOUGH HE HAS RELEASED roughly one album per year over the past 23 years, Joe Satriani’s 1987 blockbuster Surfing with the Alien—reissued in August, 2007, as a remastered and expanded anniversary edition—remains the ultimate primer for anyone interested in copping some of Satch’s trend-setting musical mojo. I had the honor of transcribing the entire album (with the exception of “Satch Boogie”) that same year, so naturally that’s the one I’m gonna zone in on!

Satriani’s soulful virtuoso playing, incredibly cool tunes, and licensed Silver Surfer cover art culminated in Surfing’s perfect package, which forced open the elusive crack in time that seems to occur every dozen years or so when guitar instrumentals once again achieve popularity. The certified Platinum album, which followed on the heels of Satriani’s 1986 full-length debut, Not of This Earth, quickly rose to number 29 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and spawned three hit singles.
Since then, Satriani has recorded a slew of solo albums, founded the G3 guitar virtuosos tour, composed music for NASCAR, and joined Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you want to play like Satch, first, you’ve gotta...


Whoever coined the phrase “those who can’t do, teach” obviously never ran into anyone like Joe Satriani, a doer, teacher, and New Yorker of the highest order. It’s well known that Satriani— who studied with jazz pianist Lennie Tristano and remains an avid Hendrix disciple—counts Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Larry LaLonde, and Charlie Hunter among his roster of former pupils, but he equally inspired and enlightened dozens of students who never achieved that degree of success, and I’m betting that, like any good teacher, Satch benefited as much from the experience as every one of his pupils did.
“It doesn’t matter if your student is Kirk Hammett or an eight-year-old kid with an action figure sitting on the amp—teaching makes you get your shit together,” Satriani told GP’s Darrin Fox in 2007. “As a teacher, your job is to—using the fewest possible words, and with the most musical economy you can muster—give the student what they need to move forward. You learn to be succinct, and to put forth ideas without alienating the student. You also learn to remove any of your stylistic tendencies or qualities from the information so as not to adversely affect them.” Teachers take note. Now, dig deep, and...


Over the past two decades, Satriani’s physical “engines of creation” have evolved from a few basic guitars, amps, and effects to a series of signature lines that include everything from soup to nuts. Satch recorded the monstrous tones on Surfing armed only with a white Kramer Pacer (loaded with an original Floyd Rose vibrato and two Seymour Duncan pickups— a ’59 in the neck position and one of the first JBs in the bridge), a pair of homemade Strat copies, a Roland JC-120, a ’68 Marshall half-stack modded with a master volume, an original Chandler Tube Driver, a Boss DS-1 and an SD-1, a Scholz Rockman, a Nomad amplifier, plus a borrowed Fender Precision Bass and bass amp.
Soon after, Satriani began an ongoing relationship with Ibanez, a fruitful collaboration that started with Satch’s favorite JS-1, Chrome Boy, and which has since spawned at least a dozen different JS models. He also began using low-wattage Wells and Cornford amps in the studio. Nowadays you can outfit your entire rig—from guitars and amps (the aforementioned Ibanez JS signature series and Peavey’s JSX amps), to pickups and effects pedals (DiMarzio Mo’ Joe pickups, and Vox’s Satchurator Distortion, Time Machine Delay, and Big Bad Wah), to picks and straps decorated with Satriani artwork— by visiting As far as financing your solo album on a credit card goes, I’m not sure you could pull this off in our current economy, but you’ll never know until you try. Until then, you’ve gotta...


One of Satriani’s most brilliant early strategies was to subvert, re-energize, and recast common blues-rock licks as catchy and memorable instrumental “verse” melodies played over irresistible rhythmic grooves. Check out how familiar melodic snippets like the Beck-ish runs in Ex. 1a and Ex. 1b take on a whole new life when injected into a high-octane, eighth-note surf beat punctuated with root-5 power chords a la “Surfing with the Alien.” You can transpose these licks to their respective adjacent higher strings, but they sound throatier as written. Ex. 1c bears an unmistakable Hendrix imprint—that kind of heavy-blues-meets-Native-American-chant vibe—which can be enjoyed with or without the optional harmonies, and Ex. 1d follows suit, incorporating a dose of traditional call-and-response phrasing. Cool enough, but that’s just a part of the big picture. You’ve also gotta...


Exotic melodies, shifting modalities, and intriguing song structures are also key to the Satriani oeuvre. Wet your feet with the stock, arpeggiated A5 figure shown in Ex. 2a, apply its rhythmic motif and picking pattern to the A5#11 and A13sus4 voicings from Ex. 2b, and you’ll hear a pretty convincing approximation of Satriani’s other-worldly Vincent Bell Coral electric sitar intro to “Lords of Karma.” Ex. 2c simulates the bass groove that defines the song’s shifting A Lydian and A Mixolydian modalities. Play it as is for A5#11 and lower all G#s a half-step to G over A13sus4. (Tip: For total authenticity, tie the and of beat two to beat three.)
When Satch’s exotic melody joins the mix, it emphasizes key chord and scale tones that define each mode. Notated in half-time to conserve space, Examples 2d and 2f both feature precise grace-note slurs and outline the raw melodic materials Satriani used to sculpt A Lydian lines over A5#11—the 3 (C#), the #4/#11(D#), the 5 (E), and the 6 (F#)—while Examples 2e and 2g illustrate the shift to A Mixolydian via G (the b7) and D (the 4/11), plus the A, B, E, and F# inherent to both modes. Check out the recording for Satch’s exact rhythms and phrasing, and then get ready to...




The fretboard, that is. Satriani’s extremely fluid legato technique, and its application to what he calls his “pitch axis” theory—essentially the organization of modalities or chord progressions around a common tone (A, in this case)—has thrilled many a 6-string surfer, and here’s how you can ride along. Utilizing the A5#11-A13sus4 progression from our previous examples, Ex. 3a illustrates how to make a short, repetitive legato line fit both chords with the least amount of fuss. The only difference between A Lydian and A Mixolydian involves the 4 and 7, so these are the only tones that need adjustment when switching between modalities. Thus, we only have to change D# (the #4/#11) to D (the 4/11) to make the transition.
The elongated run in Ex. 3b requires similar adjustments, plus changing all G#s to Gs to fit the progression, and the same principle applies to both the tapped legato runs depicted in Ex. 3c, and the wild, quarter-note-triplet-based, hammer-on/pull-off excursion shown in Ex. 3d. Try applying this concept to any combination of scales, modes, and/or chords. Just remember, you’ve also gotta...

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