Joe Satriani and Michael Anthony Create One Big Sound on Chickenfoot's "Second" Album

February 16, 2012

Joe Satriani is in a good mood. He’s hanging out in Sammy Hagar’s studio, narrating a playback of the previous night’s webcast. “We shot this right here in Marin,” he says as the band—with touring drummer Kenny Aronoff sitting in for Chad Smith—tears through a few tunes. Satriani sounds great as usual: heavy, bluesy, and melodic with chops to spare, but it’s the ensemble that is striking here. The four guys sound incredibly solid, cohesive, and natural. They sound, sub drummer notwithstanding, like a band. Not a supergroup, not some focus-group driven money grab, not a hastily thrown-together jam session, but a band.

Fresh off the release of their aptly titled second album, Chickenfoot III [Entertainment One Music], Satch, along with bass cohort Michael Anthony, chatted about what makes them sound they way they do, as well as how they got to that point.

“There was a bit more drama with the first record because we didn’t know if we were a band yet,” explains Satriani. “We didn’t know if we had an album until it was done. No one knew really what was happening. There was a lot more craziness about it. This time around we knew we were a band. We’d been on tour. We knew each other.”

Here’s what they knew: that each of them has been at the very tip-top of their chosen profession. That together they have sold upwards of a trillion albums. That they have nothing left to prove—but they kind of want to prove something anyway, just for the hell of it. And that’s what they do on their latest offering. With Mike Fraser helming the production, the record is a treasure trove of monster riffs, intriguing layers, and tones that are simply massive. Several songs feature guitar sounds that seem impossibly big, and that’s because they are—many of the tones are the product of incredibly tight interplay between Anthony and Satriani that is usually the product of meticulous Pro Tools tweaking, rather than the seat-of-the-pants free for all of these sessions. “We sometimes wouldn’t even have a chance to think about what instrument we were going to use,” explains Satriani. “People would grab whatever was handy and all of a sudden the track would be done.” The guys seem increasingly willing to trust that their process will deliver the goods, however. “We’re kind of crazy,” says Satriani. “You never know what you’re going to get, but it was very comfortable this time around.”

Okay, what’s up with the album title?

Satriani: I was in the guitar booth being photographed in 3D for about an hour and a half while the rest of the guys were having lunch or having a tequila fest or something. But at some point Carter [legendary A&R man John Carter] came in and said to me, “What do you think about the album title?” I said, “What? I’ve been stuck in this room.” He said, “It’s going to be IV.” I just kind of laughed it off.

Anthony: We all kind of laughed.

Satriani: Then Sammy switched it to III.

It’s a nice way to avoid the sophomore jinx though. There is no second record.

Anthony: Exactly. We wanted to throw everyone for a loop.

Mike Fraser produced this record. You guys didn’t bring him in until the mixing stage last time. How was it different from working with Andy Johns on the first record?

Satriani: Their personalities are like night and day. Andy was at a slight disadvantage in that we were recording the first record over a 12-month period separated by two or three months at a time. He had to record us here and then he had to record us at Lucas [George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch] towards the end of the project and he had to put everything together. Rough firsttake tracks that were going to be redone wound up being master tracks, and then we had to do some overdub work. It was a very different thing.

Anthony: Sammy had done some upgrades to his studio and suggested doing the whole thing right here. We decided to bring Mike in right away.

Satriani: This was a shorter period of time so it was more condensed and more normal, let’s say. Everybody knew we had about ten days to get most of the basic tracks down. We were at one location with one guy watching over us. And of course he’s amazing, which helps a lot. He gets great sounds.

Anthony: He gets killer sounds right off the bat and that makes you play so much better. That’s key because we don’t have the time to come in and rehearse the tunes a bunch of times before we put the tracks down. Joe had sent demos around, everybody did their homework, and we came in here and hit it hard. As soon as we started playing, the record light was on.

So there really wasn’t much rehearsal per se.

Satriani: Zero.

Did any of those raw first passes make it to the final recording?

Satriani: All of them did.

Anthony: That’s something that Chad really fought for on the first album and I totally agree. Van Halen used to do this in the early years: Keep the live takes, even if there are little mistakes or glitches. If the vibe’s there and the magic is happening, you don’t want to go in and replace everything.

How much separation did you insist on between the instruments?

Satriani: This time around, my cabinets were in a secondary warehouse, around the corner from the vocal booth. I wound up in the vocal booth and was monitoring through a small set of speakers that I could get feedback from if I wanted to. It was better, because on the first record I was in a room with Mike and Chad and Chad was so loud I couldn’t really tell what I was playing. Everything wound up sounding too bright because I was overwhelmed with volume. This time was a lot more comfortable for me. But Mike was still in the room right next to Chad.

Anthony: My amp was in a little isolation booth out of the room, but I was in the room with Chad banging. I like it that way. I can groove a lot better when he’s right there in front of me rather than looking at him in another room.

Talk me through the process of tracking a tune.

Satriani: “Three and a Half Letters” is a perfect example of what the vibe was like in the studio. We knew that we were going to get the take. About the third or fourth pass, it just got totally magical and that’s what you hear on the record. I think we overdubbed an extra rhythm guitar for the choruses. It’s kind of a trio recording, so when the chorus came in we added a guitar on the other side, panned at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Anytime the live track went into a solo, we shifted it to the middle and brought up some ambience on the sides. That’s the only weird thing when you’re tracking as a trio: balancing the stereo feel. We recorded all the basics live, with no click tracks or sequences or anything.

You weren’t recording to a click?

Satriani: No. Not on any of the tunes. That’s why we had to look at each other.

There are a lot of big downbeats that you two will hit together with the drums, and those have to be dead on. Just being able to see Joe in the booth was enough for you to nail those downbeats and the unison runs that you guys do?

Anthony: Definitely. But you’ve got to be on your toes.

Satriani: It pushes you into a new realm of playing because you have to pay attention every half a beat. Something surprising might come from somebody, including Sam. He may start to sing in a different rhythmic style that changes the way you want to play your rhythm part. And of course Chad is always going crazy. Every take he’s going for it with something totally different. So you can’t just sit back and go stream of consciousness. I think about that because when I’m doing my solo records I generally will arrange the rhythm section to get me into that mood where I can rhythmically disassociate a little bit and kind of float on top because I know the guys are into this groove. It’s so hard to even think like that when I’m playing with the Foot because we change something every beat. We’re all making it up, all at the same time. You’ve got to pay attention.

How did the tune “Up Next” come to be?

Satriani: I came up with the riff in a hotel room towards the end of the last tour and then kind of tucked it away with 100 little QuickTime files on my computer. After finishing the Black Swans record last August, I had three weeks to write some Foot songs and I busted out all those little riffs. That demo ended up being very complete. I’ll sit at home and play guitars, keys, bass, and program drums, and I’ll send the demo to everybody, but it’s just a guide. It’s going to change and I’m used to that. That particular song stayed pretty much like the demo, but most of the others actually got very different.

Having done solo records for so long, where you have a tremendous amount of control over the tune from the demo stage to the finished product, was it an adjustment for you to have to let go of these songs?

Satriani: It’s definitely different, but I’ve got to say, it’s exciting. It’s both a relief and something that brings new responsibilities. With my solo stuff, the weight on my shoulders is to brainstorm all these things. The opposite happens with Chickenfoot. I could bring in a two-note melody and Mike will finish it, Chad will come up with a new drum part, and Sammy will come in and say, “Oh man, I’ve got this idea of what to sing over it.” At that point suddenly all that responsibility is off my shoulders because I have collaborators. On some of the pieces, the demos were so light that I was surprised when we went with them. “Something Going Wrong” was just a two-minute demo of me playing acoustic guitar—but Sam was extremely excited about it, and the other guys sort of elevated it. It was one of those days where we recorded the version—I think it was the second take—before any of us had a chance to even think about what gear we were going to use. Everybody was just grabbing whatever he could and all the sudden it was done. Suddenly I realized that it wasn’t an acoustic 12-string song after all. Surprise, surprise.

What gear did you rely on the most for this record?

Satriani: There were three amps used on the record, but 98 percent of everything you hear is the prototype for my signature Marshall JVM 410H. We had a cabinet with 75-watt speakers in it, a cabinet with 25-watt speakers in it, and we also had a Wizard cabinet set up. For “Something Going Wrong,” there’s a ’53 Fender Deluxe that the 12-string got fed into as well, with a little bit of vibrato on there, and I’ve got a Fender ’59 Twin amp that was used for one of the guitars on “Different Devil.” Everything else was the Marshall. The guitars were my Orange JS2400 and two other white ones—one with a Sustainiac pickup. I also used the blue Ibanez prototype. We don’t really have a name for it, but it’s got three single-coil DiMarzio Chopper pickups. Outside of the Ibanez guitars, I had a ’55 Gibson goldtop that made it on a couple of songs, a ’59 ES-335 that’s on a few, and a 2007 Jimmy Page Les Paul.

Anthony: I used the same gear I used on the first Chickenfoot record: two of my signature Yamaha BB3000 basses and my Ampeg B-50R Rocket amp.

Which guitars made it onto the song “Last Temptation”?

Satriani: The main rhythm is the orange 2400 and the Les Paul, and then the solo is the single-coil prototype.

Is the gain coming from the amp or did you use your Vox Satchurator pedal?

Satriani: It’s all from the amp. I didn’t use any pedals for gain on this record except for the Proctavia, which isn’t really gain— it’s a whole other thing.

What about “All Right, All Right”?

Satriani: That’s the JS2400, a ’58 Fender Esquire—I forgot about that one—and the 335. They’re sort of a trio of guitars that create that sound. I think in the very beginning all you hear is the Telecaster and the 335. The JS2400 doesn’t make its appearance until the chorus riff. After that it stays in and does all the solos, all the way to the end of the song.

There’s a nice, open ringy quality to that intro tone. How did you have the amp set to get that kind of sound?

Satriani: My guess is we used Channel 2, which is called Crunch, probably on Red or Orange. Each channel has three modes—Green, Orange, and Red. There is very little gain on the intro tone. Those guitars are very dynamic so when you lean into them, they push a lot into the amp and I think it gives it that dimension— the open quality you mentioned. The more gain you use, the less dimension you get. It’s got to sit right in front of your face to have an impact.

How do you balance getting enough gain to be able to play the way you play, but have it still maintain definition? Is that tricky?

Satriani: It is tricky, and I think all guitar players generally go one number too far. We all just habitually go to 11. Everybody else in the band will eventually say, “What if it was like ten, Joe? How about that?” Fraser’s always really good at that. We’ll get a sound and he’ll say, “Can you get anything a little cleaner maybe?” I’ve made enough records with Fraze, going back to 1996, that I know that trick. That riff had been circulating in my head for about two years and I played it with a lot of different tones. I finally realized this thing needed to be ballsy but it’s got to have a lot of air around it. You’ve got to turn the gain way down and just whack the guitars.

A lot of your tones do have a ton of gain, though. Do you have any tricks for getting away with extended voicings like 7ths and 9ths with a saturated tone?

Satriani: It’s the way you strum it. When you have a lot of gain you get compression. As the gain gets higher, you get even more compression. So as you’re raking the strings with a pick you can use a little bit of your skin to bring a harmonic out that you’re looking for. I think that’s a really great way of doing it, and palm muting. Those two things together are what you use to control that sound.

Will you make little subtle adjustments with your left hand on the fly to kind of bend an interval in tune?

Satriani: If it sounds out of tune, yeah.

For instance, a major third can sound a little creepy when there’s distortion on it. When I listen to your stuff, it sounds like a lot of those intervals are just more consonant than they should be.

Satriani: The credit for that really goes to Gary Brawer, for setting up the guitars so well, and to my tech Mike Manning, for maintaining them on an hourly basis. When I’m in the control room doing overdubs I’ve got Fraser and Mike Manning going, “Hey Joe, when was the last time you tuned that?” because they know when I’m playing music I’m not in my right mind. I’m just completely in a creative, musical state of mind. I would have to be reminded every six minutes. But I do remember listening to the mixes thinking, “Man, that stuff is so in tune.” So I called Gary and Mike up and thanked them.

What’s going on in the intro to “Lighten Up”? That tone is like the bastard child of a guitar and an organ.

Satriani: That’s the Electro-Harmonix POG pedal. It’s like you make believe you’re John Lord and you’re on stage in front of 100,000 people. That pedal is great. I remember pulling it out of its box for the first time and I think I wrote the song “Super Colossal” in about two minutes. I didn’t even adjust any of the sliders. It’s got a beautiful sound and it works really great into the front of an amp. It’s very pliable and it’s huge, but it doesn’t stand in front of the guitar sound. Somehow it still feels organic. I’ve got a POG, a POG 2, and I think I’ve got a Micro POG, but I prefer the original.

What about the verse and the solo tones in that song?

Satriani: That’s the orange 2400 guitar and I know there’s that Jimmy Page guitar in there somewhere. The first solo is the single-coil prototype and then the second solo is the orange 2400 with the Vox Big Bad Wah pedal.

That orange Ibanez has a 24-fret neck. Is that a new thing for you?

Satriani: I guess it’s been two years now. I went through a definite transition where I realized I really wanted to pursue this 24-fret thing but I had to see if I could actually do it. I used it on the last solo record and then during the tour it was really a lesson on how difficult it is to move on— to change gear that you’re so used to. I would find myself sometimes onstage with the memory of a 22-fret guitar and staring at this new thing. Then, when I would pick up the 22-fret guitar for a song or two, that would throw me off. A couple times a night I’d find myself waiting for half a second going, “D? E? Which one is that?’ When I started on this project I said, “I’m just not going to do anymore 22-fret guitars.” Of course I broke that rule immediately with all the vintage guitars and my own three single-coil prototype. But I’ve got to say I’m totally comfortable with it now. I never thought that two extra frets could throw me.

What about from a tonal standpoint—what it does to the placement of the neck pickup? Did that throw you at all?

Satriani: We worked on that quite a bit. I’ve never liked the neck pickup sound of guitars when they moved the neck pickup. It just seems less useful to me. So I went to Gary Brawer and I said, “How far can we go?” I went to Steve Blucher at DiMarzio and I said, “We want to put a pickup right against the last fret if possible.” Steve sent over a whole bunch of ideas that we could check out and it was Gary who made the first prototype and sent it to Ibanez and said, “Could you do this on a regular basis? Can this be manufactured?” No one knew how little fretboard you needed to support that last fret. But that’s what we did. So we basically put that pickup right where a Les Paul’s humbucker is supposed to be. I think that’s why it functions so well for me. I really like the tone of it.

You said that the recording of “Three and a Half Letters” was pretty spur of the moment. Do you remember how you got the super-high harmonic at the end of the solo?

Satriani: That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Sam had said that he just wanted the guitar to go crazy. “Don’t work anything out. Don’t do any of that fancy stuff you do on your solo records. Just go crazy.” So we’re there that day recording live and I’m stepping on different pedals at different times. On that take I’m using the Proctavia and I just went for something. As anyone who’s tried to make those noises knows, sometimes nothing comes out. You just get silence. Other times it sounds gratuitous. But at that particular moment, something very wonderful happened and that perfect sound came out. I was using the OD-1 channel on the JVM 410H. I had the orange JS2400 and I stepped on the Proctavia pedal for that solo. So it’s a little bit of overkill when it comes to distortion, but the harmonic goddess blessed me at that perfect moment in time.

You used to be really into discovering weird noises back in the day—like pulling the B string around the neck or your lizard down the throat sound in “Ice 9.” Do you still look for weird sounds on the guitar like that?

Satriani: I do. They don’t always function the same way because weird sounds are so much a part of our everyday life now. If you go back 30 years, there were less weird electronic sounds. Today, we’re bombarded with them from all of our devices and they’ve worked their way into music. Pop music is filled with what decades ago would have been called musique concrète. It’s just odd sounds. I think because those sounds are so common these days, they can be less effective—but in “Three and a Half Letters,” at that moment it felt so appropriate to make a scream like that. But you can’t put it in every song.

The intro on “Dubai Blues” has this huge crunch to it, but also a slicing top end. How many tracks are we hearing?

Satriani: There are two tracks of the JS2400 and two tracks of the ’55 goldtop, which is the brightest Les Paul I’ve ever played, but woody. For this song, Fraser suggested that we look for something brighter, more traditional sounding. So we had the 2400, we had the ’55 goldtop. I think we also added some of the Esquire and I think I did two tracks with a regular Les Paul. I don’t know exactly when Fraze featured all eight of them or whatever, but I know that at times I can hear three sets. I can pick them out because of what they’re doing. Fraze is really good at memorizing somebody’s performance, whether it’s a rhythm part, a solo part, or a bass part. He’ll remember, “Mike’s going to do this thing halfway through the tune and I want that to be loud.” He takes each musician’s performance and he kind of writes a script of how he’s going to feature it in the song as he’s mixing. It’s really quite brilliant.

Does he actually write it out?

Satriani: No, it’s in his head. If I lay down two tracks of the goldtop and two tracks of the 2400, I know that he’s going to be looking for the magic and he’ll feature the best parts.

Talk about the blend of acoustics in “Something Going Wrong.”

Satriani: That was a funny day. Right on the spot we all decided to record it. It wasn’t really totally written. We all went to our corners looking for something to play. My prototype Ibanez JSA 12-string hadn’t had its pickup hooked up properly yet, so I said, “Sam, do you have a 12-string somewhere?” He said, “Look upstairs.” We found an Ovation 12-string with the grimiest strings on it. I don’t know the last time he ever played that thing. We miked it up, we took a D.I. out, and we also sent it to the ’53 Fender Deluxe amp and had a little trem box on it. Mike created a stereo image of it and that ended up being the main guitar. We added a JSA 6-string to balance it out. Then, we added a Deering banjo with a capo on it. Because it’s a 6-string banjo and not a 5-string banjo, you have to get the pitch up to get that real banjo sound, and the capo worked really well. So that’s what creates that sound: the 12-string, the 6-string, and the banjo.

You did some capo-ing on the first Chickenfoot record that I found interesting. The whole guitar was tuned down a full-step and yet you capoed on the 2nd fret. Why would you do that?

Satriani: It’s all about intonation. On that particular guitar, like on just about every guitar, the first fret is sharpness. Either the track will allow you to be slightly out of tune there or you’ve got to figure out another way of doing it. My way around it was to tune down and use a capo so the distance from the string to the fret is a lot more forgiving for pitch.

Michael, you’ve worked with two of the biggest rock guitarists of all time. How would you characterize the difference between playing with Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani?

Anthony: Because Eddie would always go off and play quite a lot, I would have to stick to playing the root most of the time to keep a solid foundation under what he was doing. He would ask me to just pump out eighth- or sixteenth-notes so he could do his thing. Joe’s writing is such that I can actually stretch out a lot more and come up with more melodic bass lines. Also, Eddie’s guitar tone was so big, fat, and broad that it was always a challenge to find a bass tone that would fit around it. And Alex’s drums were also so big and fat that I would have to squish my tone to a more midrange-y sound to fit in. It was very hard at times. With Joe and Chad, our sound meshes so well I can fatten up the bass quite a bit, giving me a lot more tonal range. I try to get a sound that gels with the drums, especially the kick. This makes for a tight rhythm under Joe’s guitar.

For an off-the-cuff record, it sure sounds like a lot of thought and care went into the tones and layers.

Anthony: It amazes me. Most of the guitar players that I’ve played with, they’ve got their tone—their one sound that they get—and everything else is pretty much technique. With Joe, he really treats every song so differently. You’ll have a straight-ahead song like “Big Foot,” where we can lock together and do this big heavy thing. Then on “Something Going Wrong,” he brings in the banjo and different guitars. It blows my mind in the studio. That’s really what contributes so much to the sound of Chickenfoot.

Satriani: Our heroes—Hendrix and Page, especially—that’s what they did. People don’t really remember Hendrix that way. Everyone knows that Jimmy Page produced himself for every song like it was a unique moment, but Hendrix did the same thing. He was not that sort of “this is my tone”and every song sounds the same. Everything sounded different. He always sounded like 12 different guys on every record. I love that, and that’s what I was working off of on the new record.

Do you have a favorite tone on this record?

Satriani: The tones I like are the ones where Mike and I are playing very tight together. That was something that I found from touring. After the first record, when we were out on tour, I thought, “We’re so much better playing together. Why didn’t we record more of that thing happening between us on the album?” So, in getting prepared for this album I kept thinking about writing tunes that allowed us to play that way together. With “Big Foot” or “Up Next,” it just sounds like we’re unified, and it makes a much more powerful statement. I think my favorite guitar solo tone on the record is in “Something Going Wrong,” which I cut on the blue prototype single-coil guitar. But a lot of it has to do with the freedom I felt at the moment. When I hear that tone, I remember sitting there in the control room, listening to background vocals, listening to the banjo and the 12-string and everything and I was just so moved to really go for it. From an artistic point of view, that’s what inspires me: getting all those ducks in a row. Get all those things lined up and you have that perfect moment.

Gary Brawer on Satriani’s Guitars over the Years

Gary Brawer has been Joe Satriani’s Bay Area guitar tech since 1988 (Mike Manning takes care of Satch’s gear on the road and in the studio). He is intimately familiar with Satriani’s likes and dislikes when it comes to the tone, feel, and vibe of his instruments. —Matt Blackett

What was Joe playing when you first started working with him?

Mainly his Black Dog Ibanez—the black guitar with the purple squiggles on it. That guitar was sacred to Joe, and we did a lot of work on the frets and bridge to keep it running until he moved on. There was also a lot of love for the old Kramer he used in the Squares. From what I recall, that guitar was the first holy grail of tone.

How did his signature model develop?

I had been working on his guitars for a while when Joe asked if I would work with the Ibanez folks on what would become the Joe Satriani model. It was based on Black Dog. Dan Ransom, the custom guitar builder I share a shop with, and I worked with Ibanez and built some prototypes and did some carving on guitars that they sent over. It took some doing but Joe settled on a design.

What does he look for in terms of setup?

I think Black Dog kind of set the bar for the shape of a “good” neck. Joe loves the feel of a rounder fingerboard radius that’s closer to a vintage Fender than a Gibson. The problem is, he likes super-low string height and it’s very difficult to bend the high-E and B strings without the note choking out before you get your full bend in. So, I left the 9-10" radius of the neck alone but flattened the radius of the frets themselves. You can’t go too far or you lose fret height and it becomes hard to bend. I also played with the radius of the trem’s bridge saddles, raising them as needed with shims to make the radius of the strings match the radius of the neck. I would sometimes bump the high-E string a little higher in the arc to aid in clean bending. Once in a while I would try to sneak in a refret with a slightly flatter fingerboard but it would never feel right to him.

How have his preferences changed over the years?

He’s playing 24-fret guitars now, and I did not see that coming. Joe has always been very particular about neck pickup tone and the position of the neck pickup coil at the 24th fret is very important. He asked me to remove as much of the neck past the 24th fret as possible and move the pickup right up to the end. Then we had to reshape the horn a little to fit it all together. We recently installed Evertune bridges onto four of Joe’s non-trem guitars. There are a couple of Chickenfoot songs that have some intricate rhythm work on them and Joe was interested in trying that bridge. It was a great match. He loved how the bridges kept the chords in tune on those songs.

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