“I always have themes churning around my head before i compose an album,” says Joe Satriani, with an audible “wink” present in his speech. “the challenge is waiting to see which ones rise to the top and engage me. Then, it’s about
preparation and having the guts to say,
‘I might fail, but I’m going to go out in a
blaze of glory [laughs].’”
Sitting on a couch in one of the lounges
at Skywalker Sound—George Lucas’ gorgeous
technical facility in northern Marin
County, California—Satriani has just finished
the “pre-flight check” listen of his
new album, Unstoppable Momentum [Epic].
Written on a long sheet of paper taped to
a wall in the control room is a musical
to-do list of elements that must be completed
before the songs can be mixed, and
Satch is almost giddy as he marks the final
“Xs” in the last column of each song. Engineer
and co-producer (with Satriani) Mike
Fraser runs the rough mixes for the production
team, and everyone is still bopping
around, obviously enjoying the tracks—even
after listening to these songs take shape
from basics to overdubs to rough mixes
for weeks. It’s a good sign.
It’s also a jam-packed day for the ceaselessly
multitasking Satriani. In addition to
his critical “make sure absolutely nothing
more needs to be done to these songs”
evaluation, he’s doing this interview for
the Guitar Player community, and filming
some video promos for the latest series of his Ibanez signature-model guitars. So when
Fraser and Satriani nod that all is well, and
the last “X” is drawn next to the last song,
you can hear the exuberance, relief, and
joy in the guitarist’s voice when he says,
“Let’s pack it up!” It’s a quite literal command,
actually, as an armada of Satriani’s
amps and guitars has been left set up in
the main studio, just in case another guitar
part was deemed necessary after listening
to each track. Moments later, the studio
doors open up and road cases start rolling
in and out.
“There’s a big pile of stuff in there,”
says Satriani, nodding towards the studio’s
enormous tracking room, “and I’m selling
a bunch of it. There’s gear I’ve lugged
around for like six albums, and every time
we’ve plugged it in, we all say, ‘Nope.’ So
what am I keeping it for? I have to remind
myself that I’m not in the storage business.”
But the storage theme remains a factor
in Satriani’s creative process, as he has
absorbed myriad styles, licks, tones, song
arrangements, and production concepts
throughout his life as a guitarist. Often, like
thinning out his herd of guitar gear, Satch
has narrowed his musical focus to a few
themes or ideas that wrap around a specific
album. Then, he typically constructs
comprehensive demos in his home studio
that manifest the vision.
For Unstoppable Momentum, however,
he kind of, well, stopped being strictly
defined. He didn’t do charts for the studio
players. He didn’t use his demos as a precise
roadmap. He didn’t limit his compositions
to a singular theme or concept. He
didn’t reveal the actual titles of the songs
during recording, because he didn’t want
the musicians determining what a song was
about before they started working on it.
And, at times, he didn’t even view his own
guitar as the main instrument to present a
melody. As a result, Unstoppable Momentum is an almost living, breathing statement of
not only a meticulous artist’s surrender to
his muse, but also an example of what can
happen when you allow outside forces to
bend, shape, and evolve the creative elements
you’ve birthed in solitude.
Even just hearing a few of the roughs in
the control room, it’s obvious there are some
surprises on this album. Was that your plan
through pre-production and actual recording?
As soon as I finish mixing one record, I
start thinking, “What am I going to do next?”
Then, when I’m on tour playing the material,
I’m seeing with hindsight where I really
wished it had gone. It could have been faster.
It could have been slower. It could have been
sweeter or angrier. All of this “discontent”
informs what I do on the next album [laughs].
So in the early stage of Unstoppable Momentum,
I primarily focused on wanting to be
more melodic, and to have more interesting
harmony. I also wanted to work with players
who would play things I didn’t expect. I
thought that would be very challenging and
a lot of fun. So it started at home, of course,
because I had to push myself to write the
material I had set my sights on. But when I
got into the studio, I knew that to make the
second part of the plan work, I couldn’t hand
out charts. I would have to play my group
of songs as they were setting up their gear,
and then say, “By the way, these are the 16
songs we’re going to be working on.” They
had to be free to interpret the music in their
own way, make their own charts, and take
me on a ride where I’d have to react to their
performances as a player—rather than as
The studio band you assembled was Mike
Keneally on keyboards, Chris Chaney on
bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Could
you detail each player’s contribution to the
album, and how their playing challenged
and/or inspired you?
Mike is just an unbelievable musician
with huge ears. He can handle the sweetest
thing and the most cacophonous thing. He’s
a person who adds and adds and adds, and
refines the direction that maybe you weren’t
even aware of. Even his decisions on which
keyboard to play affected how everyone else
played, and added to the moment, which was
what Fraser was always looking for—magical
moments where all of us came together
and did something worth recording. It helps,
of course, that Mike’s a virtuoso keyboard
player, and also that he’s a virtuoso guitar
player. He doesn’t question my weird guitarist’s
way of thinking. He totally gets where
I’m coming from.
You’ve played with a ton of great drummers.
What did Vinnie bring to the table that
informed your performances on the record?
I was just so excited that I was going to
actually work on something new with him.
We once did “Satch Boogie” and “House Full
of Bullets” at a Les Paul birthday party, but
that was just barely scratching the surface. I
knew there was something between us that
we could capitalize on. It turned out—as with
most really good pairings of musicians—that
it’s the roots that tie you together. There’s
a lot of soul and funk music that we really
love, so we’d be doing that stuff in-between
takes. We would go off on a tangent, and
then get back down to the take.
My demos had loops or very simple
drum machine patterns, and I tried not to
be too suggestive during the sessions—other
than to say, “Here are the accents.” But he
turned things around with every take. There
were times where I’d go, “Wow, Vinnie just
played right through that part where I always
stopped, and then he stopped at that part I
always played through.” I’d wonder, “Why
did he do that?” And then we’d give it a few
listens and realize that Vinnie’s way was
much better. He basically dismantled and
rebuilt just about everything with a new feel
that made each song more functional as an
arrangement and more fun to listen to. He
just added so much life and spice and pizzazz
and wow factor on every track.
I was hoping to draw the desire out of the
rhythm section to really dig deep. I wanted
them to try to unlock the secret of the songs,
and say, “I think this is really going to make
it work.” So I knew I had to find a bass player
who understood rock guitar and noise and
managing noise and creating a moment in
rock—none of which usually has anything
to do with what you write down on a page.
You have to learn to drift away from the
chart, and also have the ability to pull yourself
back. I think it’s the same muscle that
sends you out into the stratosphere, because
walking on the edge allows you to come back
in. I had forgotten about Chris until Mike
Boden, our editing engineer, mentioned
him offhandedly. It was like, “Oh, of course!
He does movie soundtracks every day, he’s
in studios all the time, he has all the right
instruments, he can play with a pick or his
fingers, and he comes in and nails it. In addition,
he knows 50 shades of Motown and
can lay down a funk groove. Chris’ diversity
and touch was important, because the feeling
of the groove really allows you to bring
in the melody, and I didn’t want just any old
cookie-cutter groove with this guy playing
lots of guitar on top.
The demos Chris heard had me playing
bass on them, so they came with disclaimers:
“That’s just me trying out an idea.” As we started to do takes, he’d realize the demo
bass line didn’t work anymore because of what
Vinnie was doing with the groove. We’d do
six or seven takes, and the seventh one was
always just so out there in how different it
was from the first one. Everyone would grow,
and then that seventh take would come, and
we’d go, “Wow! The song has now reached
its full potential.”
Skywalker Sound is simply an awesome
studio. I mean, it seems as if you could fit an
entire orchestra, a funk band with horns, and
a barbershop quartet in this room without
anyone getting in each other’s way. Did you
utilize the space to record your basics live?
Yeah—it was just the four of us set up very
close to each other in the back of the room.
Mike was sometimes in his booth on acoustic
piano, but, most of the time, he was outside
playing the electric keyboards. We’d play
along to a Pro Tools session file in order to
understand the full scope of the song. There
would be a click track along with some of
the sounds or parts I wanted them to hear.
Sometimes, I’d play the rhythm guitar part
live to morph into what the band was doing.
Other times, the rhythm parts that I played
at home were really good, so there was no
need to do them over, and we’d listen to the
pre-recorded rhythms and focus on capturing
a new way to phrase the melody or the solo.
GP readers are aware that some of your
home-studio tracks often make it on the
final album. What did you end up keeping
from home on Unstoppable Momentum?
The title track is a good example. We
replaced all the melodies, all the solos, and
all the rhythm guitars. What we kept was
this funny little part that we called “leprechaun
guitars.” They had such a sound! Every
time we were tracking people would hear it
and go, “Oh.” So I realized that’s an important
sound for them. This was pretty typical
for all the songs. If a home track was interesting,
we’d use it for the final mix. If not,
we’d usually go with the live-band tracks.
It’s obvious that your demos weren’t
being followed precisely for the album sessions.
Was that difficult for you?
I prepared myself for that mentally—to
just let the demo go. I just thought, “I’m so
lucky to be playing with these guys, and to be
recorded by Mike Fraser. The last thing I’m
going to do is start saying, ‘Hey, that’s not the
part.’ I’m just going to let this roll, and I’m
going to react, because I can do that. That’s
my job—to play my guitar. I came in feeling
so confident about the material, that I didn’t
have to be a stickler about whether it matches
the demo. Everyone has to go through that
problem of being too deep into the demo. I
think my process here was, “You’ve already
done it—congratulations—now it’s time to
move on and make a real record!”
And here’s another thing: I think everybody
picked up on that mood. So when we
were done—when the musicians left—we
realized we had amazing performances. We
don’t have copy performances of the demo.
We have people who came in, made up their
own minds about how the songs should go,
and they gave us incredible performances, and all with great enthusiasm about their
parts. It turned out—no surprise— that they
were right. All the choices they made, made
the songs better.
Would you ever tempt fate by listening
to your demos now and go, “Crap! I had it
right. I should have made those guys play
it the way I originally heard it”?
No way. Playing the material with Mike,
Chris, and Vinnie gave me a new understanding
of these pieces of music I’d written. I
don’t think I’ll ever go back and listen to the
demos, but if I did, I’d probably hear something
that seemed way “untaught” for some
reason. Perhaps it’s because when I’m writing,
I often struggle with the playing because
I don’t have my stuff together technically
yet. Very often, the demos are first takes.
It’s remarkable to me how much everyone’s
in the pocket now. The songs are so much
more enjoyable—less nerdy sounding, like
a guitar part trying to gain your attention.
During the composing and pre-production
process, were you at all concerned
that some of the directions you were taking
might shock some of your fans in an uncomfortable
I might have mentioned this when you
interviewed me about Chickenfoot, but [producer]
Glyn Johns once said to me, “It’s not
your job to decide what your audience likes
or doesn’t like. Your job is to play guitar
and make music.” That was a very simple
way of saying, “Don’t even go in that direction.”
It’s just not productive at all. People
know what they like, but they don’t really
want to tell you what to do, and I’ve always
felt an artist should just do what they want
to do. For example, if I’m waiting for a new
record by an artist I’ve followed for a long
time, I don’t want to think about what I think
they should do. I really just want them to
surprise me with something that I like. For
me, I don’t engage in anything that would
stop me from writing any kind of song that
I want. I just keep going until someone tells
me it’s not working.
Was that one of Mike Fraser’s responsibilities—
to tell you if something was a
He never said, “That one’s not working.”
He looked at every song and said
things like, “This could be a lot of fun—
let’s try it.” Then, he’d push us to elevate it
and crystallize the ideas. Mike isn’t a musician,
but he hears things better than most
musicians. And he’s recording us. He’s the
guy making all the sounds. He also finds
energy in moments, and he’ll say, “That’s
the thing! That’s the sh*t!”
What was the cast of guitars for this
Most of my Ibanez signature guitars on
the record were part prototypes and part
production models. I used my orange JS2400
prototype and a stock JS2400 that had many
different DiMarzio prototype pickups installed
in preparation for this year’s release of the
JS2410. We call that one “Willie,” because
it has Willie Nelson’s signature on it. There
may have been one song with my old JS1200
on it, and a couple of JS1000s—some with Sustainiac pickups installed. There’s also a
’58 Fender Esquire, a Jimmy Page model Les
Paul, a resonator, and a gorgeous, all-maple
1983 Gibson ES-335.
How about the amps?
It’s no surprise that my signature Marshall
JVM410HJS did most of the heavy lifting.
But Mike [Fraser] and I agreed that for
a guitar record with a lot of guitar coming at
you all the time, it’s really nice to have a ’59
Fender Champ bark at you at some point.
We had ten vintage Fender amps ranging
from ’53 to about ’66—Champs, Princetons,
Twins, and so on—that were used for playing
parts such as chime-y chords. Then, we had
a couple of other amps around to use if we
had a guitar part with harmonies, because
we didn’t want a buildup of the same tones.
Then, we might say, “Marshall, Fargen, old
5150.” It almost sounds like three different
guys—especially if I were to, say, play the
main melody on the JS, the low harmony
on the Les Paul, and use the Esquire for the
sting-y high-harmony bits.
A lot of the stuff I do at home will be
recorded direct and monitored using a Tech
21 SansAmp. This allows me to forget about
amps when I’m recording and concentrate on
the songwriting. Then, when we get in the
studio, we can use John Cuniberti’s Reamp
to run the direct signal into any amp we
choose—whatever is going to be good for the
part. This is great if we say, “Joe, six months
ago when you were in your basement wearing
your pajamas, you just happened to do
the best solo you ever could have done so we
need to rescue that.” Every once in a while—
maybe on two songs for this album—the
original SansAmp sound wins out because of
the nature of the part. The good thing about
the SansAmp is it’s always in your face. The
downside is that it can also stick out and be
hard to mix in with organic drums and bass
and all. So that’s why we generally Reamp
the parts I play at home, and mic them here
in the studio to get the guitar sounds to fit
in better with the rest of the track.
Can you be more specific about the role
of the Marshall JVM?
Yes. We had the prototype here and five
production models. We probably had two
that had never been played through, but
had been plugged in on every stage during
last year’s tours. And then we had one that
was played to death. So the tube life varied
and, as a result, some of the amps were a
little browner sounding than the others—
like, “Hey! I’m new!”
As I mentioned, I used a lot of amps for
bit parts, but the JVM was the one we used
for the big sounds—the ’80s JCM800 sound,
the JTM45 sound, and so on. It’s just a big
sound, and yet it doesn’t stab you in the
eye with an ice pick. I find that some other
amps are good for a single job, but outside
of that job, they’re very pointy or boomy.
The JVM is very full, and I like its ability
to do all these shades of rock guitar. It’s so
versatile. You can play melodies on it and
have them really loud in the mix. You can do
scary solos with it. It has a lot of gain, but
it also has channels that sound really great
with very little gain dialed in. When we got
into the overdub stage, the JVM wound up
being the amp that always sat on the stools
right behind the mixing board.
It also seems to jump out of the mix no
matter how it’s deployed.
That’s essential! I’m always looking for
the edge, the scary sound, the balls, the
heft. But I can’t lose the clarity. My job, so
to speak, depends on the melody being pure.
It might be angry sometimes, and sometimes
it’s sweet, but it has to be pure and punchy.
Can you share the stories behind a couple
of the songs?
Sure. For “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn,”
I sat down and improvised an organ performance
one day, and then picked up my
guitar—which has a Sustainiac in it [an infinite
sustain device]—and played over it. I
thought the piece sounded very emotional,
but I didn’t really know what it was, so I
put it away to work on some other songs.
But we’d keep bringing this thing back, and
one day I started to focus on the main part
of the improv, which was sort of church-y
organ and this sustained guitar. Finally, I
started to realize what the story behind the
performance was, and it had nothing to do
with the organ part. So I improvised other
instruments over it—doing all sorts of things
I had never done before, playing with English
horn, trumpet, trombone, flute, double
bass, and other samples. Eventually, I came
up with this piece that confirmed what I
was thinking about right from the beginning,
though I didn’t know it, because the
original intro was me saying, “I don’t know
what I’m doing, and I don’t know where I’m
going.” I had to do a lot of stuff to convince
myself that I could write the piece, and then clear out all the parts that didn’t get me to
a pure statement of melody. For me, composing
and improvising and having the two
come together is extremely important. I can’t
second guess myself during this process, and
I can’t be observing it while it’s happening.
I just have to do it. It can take a period of
months or years for me to understand some
of these things that come out of me.
There’s a song that will really shock
people called “Three Sheets to the Wind.”
It started on guitar—kind of like an Eric
Johnson thing. I was playing a Strat into a
very old Fender amp, and I was just having
one of those vintage moments, like, “Look
at me, I’m Eric Johnson!” I was having a
great time, and I came up with this song
that I really liked, so I made a little phone
recording of it. Then, I went through the
process of recording this song with others,
and I just found that something was wrong.
I got rid of the guitar part—which was really
hard, because I liked the whole Eric vibe. I
thought, “This is a really strong melody—
it just doesn’t belong on a guitar part where
the melody and the rhythm are played at the
same time. It’s too bluesy. Maybe I should
farm out the parts to other instruments.”
I tried piano, trombone, and trumpet, and
I wound up with a whole different feeling
from the song, but none of the notes had
changed. I hadn’t changed the melody. All I
did was change who plays what.
That’s a big benefit of working with MIDI—
you can reassign sounds and check out how
they affect the track. Now if your song sucks,
it’s going to suck no matter what you do. So
you kind of have to face the music there.
But if it’s good, you can get very excited,
because you realize, “Wow, I can introduce
a flavor that might serve the guitar up in a
very unique way.” That’s eventually what
happened on this song.
It’s interesting how your songs evolve
throughout the writing and recording phases.
Do you continue to “find” the song during
the mixing, and mixing process?
Not from a compositional side. Of course,
you can do rough mixes as you go along, and
you have the benefit of getting rid of that guy,
muting that track, maybe the drums are the
culprit, maybe I should turn off all the reverb,
maybe there’s not enough reverb, and so on.
You can sit there for hours and experiment.
But I don’t think a mix can save a song. It’s
either a good song or it’s not a good song.
Mixes titillate, but they don’t really satisfy.
But how the act of mixing is useful is that
it stimulates more opinion. As the composer,
I’m deciding if this is a good chord
change. Is the harmony deep enough? Is it
too dense? Does my melody have too many
notes, or too few?
Obviously, that is the main reason for
the listening session today—to provide the
last opportunity for opinions and changes
before all the elements are locked in at the
For the most part, yes—though I can
always panic and change something at the last
minute [laughs]. I want to ensure the songs
are ready to really come alive in their final
mixes. I hope listeners will hear the energy
on this album—that the positive stuff that
I do is even more positive sounding. The up
stuff is more up. The songs that are smiles
are broader smiles, and the great brooding
songs I love to write are even deeper into
that. I hope I went deeper in every direction.
Also, with this band, we’ve achieved a new
level of groove and a natural, more enjoyable
music sound. I don’t know how else to
put it. It just sounds really gorgeous, and,
rhythmically, it sounds so natural and deep.
That’s something I’m always searching for.
Is it hard to let go once the album is
wrapped, released, and no more tweaks
You know, the idea of the “definitive version”
of my songs started to be a really big
question to me. Like, is the demo the definitive
version, and I have to convince everybody
to stick to it exactly? But then I had to admit
to myself that after the albums are released, I
hardly ever listen to my own records. I go out
on stage to perform, and my reality is, “How
did I play that song tonight?” And as I play it
over and over and over again, I just assume
that people will say, “This is Joe’s new definitive
version—how we all heard it tonight.”
What happens is, you realize the song will
reveal its weaknesses and its strengths as it
gets reinterpreted. If a song is really great,
you can just play that thing any old way, and
it’s still a great song. It’s like when you hear
a great jazz player reinterpret a melody that
was originally a vocal song, and they just kill
you with it. Or Johnny Cash doing “Hurt,”
which is a Nine Inch Nails song. The melody
and the harmony—those are always the most
important things. Everything else is of the
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