JOE SATRIANI’S IMPACT ON THE EVOLUTION OF ROCK GUITAR PLAYING IS NEARLY INCALCULABLE. ALREADY RENOWNED IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA AS AN EXCEPTIONAL PLAYER AND TEACHER, SATRIANI WAS CATAPULTED ONTO THE GLOBAL STAGE WITH THE RELEASE OF 1987’S PLATINUM-SELLING SURFING WITH THE ALIEN—AN ALBUM THAT DEMONSTRATED THE COMMERCIAL VIABILITY OF INSTRUMENTAL GUITAR ROCK, THEREBY OPENING THE FLOODGATES TO A TIDAL WAVE OF FOLLOWERS THAT STILL HASN’T FULLY SUBSIDED.
TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER, SATRIANI FEELS THAT HIS 14th STUDIO ALBUM, BLACK SWANS AND WORMHOLE WIZARDS [EPIC], REPRESENTS A DEPARTURE FROM all the albums he has made thus far. “The expression ‘black swan’ dates back to the ancient Greeks, and means something you are unlikely to see,” explains Satriani. “I chose it as part of the title because the songs on my new album may surprise some people who are familiar with my previous work. But I didn’t want to use that as the entire title because it was a little too stark and might be misleading, so I juxtaposed it with Wormhole Wizards, which has a nice ring to it when you say it out loud, and works as a sort of yin/yang thing when you put the two expressions together.”
Joining Satriani are his longtime drummer Jeff Campitelli, Mermen bassist Allen Whitman, and keyboardist Mike Keneally (also known for his virtuosic guitar playing). “I’d known Joe back in the G3 days, of course, but it was still a surprise to get the call from him,” says Keneally about his being asked to play keyboards on Black Swans andWormhole Wizards and eventually to join Satriani’s touring band. “Joe had been thinking of making keyboard a bigger part of the band, and my name popped into his head because he realized that there was inherent value in having a keyboardist who understands how a guitar player thinks.”
The record was produced by Mike Fraser, who has worked with AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Metallica, as well as producing three of Satriani’s previous solo albums and Chickenfoot, the eponymous debut from Satriani’s “other” band, which includes Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and Van Halen alumni vocalist/guitarist Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony. “Mike Fraser is absolutely amazing,” says Satriani. “Besides being multi-talented in the studio, he’s really good at maintaining a macro perspective and understanding where a project could be going. It’s funny, when you’re making a record there’s a balance between sonic drama just for drama’s sake, and pure listen-ability. Can you listen to the record on headphones, in your car, in a big room, in a small room? Can you listen to it more than twice and still like it? Mike has a way of balancing all those things out and making the music sound better and better each time you hear it. And he brought the whole project in ahead of schedule and on budget, which is practically unheard of!”
You’re using a lot of classic rock tones on this record. Was that a conceptual decision going in, or did things just evolve that way?
It may have something to do with the experience of making the Live in Paris: I Just Wanna Rock DVD, which was the end of the period in which I was using Peavey gear and high-gain pedals such as the Vox Satchurator and Ice 9 prototype. I went from that to using Marshalls and older stuff again with Chickenfoot and on the Experience Hendrix tour, so I had been experimenting a lot sonically when I began working on the new record. My main concern, however, was to really reach people, and part of that was finding gear that eliminated as many barriers as possible between the listener and myself. I found that using Marshall JVM210 and JVM410 amps and occasionally a Tech 21 SansAmp worked great for recording direct in my home studio. Then, when I got to Skywalker Sound, Mike Fraser was able to re-amp a lot of those tracks through old Marshalls and the new Wizard and Two-Rock amps. He’s really great at getting in-your face, fresh, natural guitar sounds if that’s what you’re looking for.
The track “Littleworth Lane” is a straight up blues, which is atypical for you. Do you feel an affinity with the blues?
Absolutely. When I was just a young kid starting to play guitar, I was fascinated by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and how slow everything they played was. As a young kid your hormones are raging, and I was playing Black Sabbath and Zeppelin and Hendrix and all that stuff in all the bands I was in. We just loved the excess and the volume and the distortion, but at the same time I was fascinated by the depth of the blues, and so I would spend hours playing as slowly as I could trying to figure out where these guys were coming from. What was the basis of their soulfulness? Because I was just a kid growing up on Long Island, I didn’t know what the Delta was or about growing up in Chicago. But that was the beginning of that journey, and I’m still on it. I keep thinking that once I truly mature then I’ll be able to play some blues.
A lot of the tunes on the new record have an Eb center. Were you tuned down a half-step?
Yes. This is the first entire album that I’ve done that way. We adopted that tuning for all the songs on the Chickenfoot tour to make things easier, and then when I did the Experience Hendrix tour I discovered that everyone was tuning down to Eb, which was great because we already had these guitars that were set up for that. So, when I came off that tour I decided to do the next record in Eb. Also, I had gone from .009 string sets to .010 sets, and gotten used to the bigness of the sound.
I’ve done different things with keys on albums. The most intense example was on the Crystal Planet album. Every song in the sequence was arranged in an ascending key, which I thought was brilliant at the time— but, of course, nobody noticed. Other times I just write a bunch of songs and pick the ones that hold together best, and if too many of them are in the same key, I’ll either just change the key for a few of them or simply leave them the way they are. I never even thought about key when picking the songs for Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. I just wanted to find enough songs that were different from each other but complementary, and were a true reflection of where I was coming from at the time.
Describe the various ways that you use a pick.
If I want a smaller sound, I grip the pick to where only a little bit of the tip comes out. If I want a big sound, I let more of the pick stick out, and I don’t pick so hard. If I want a biting sound, obviously I dig in. But picking harder creates an envelope of compression that most tube amps will react to, and when the sound gets too compressed, not all of the frequencies make it out into the speakers. When you have fewer frequencies it sounds smaller. The other thing is where you pick. If you play a note while picking close to the bridge, and then play as you move down the string until you are over the fretboard, you will hear an incredibly diverse range of tones coming out of that one note. So, when I’m playing a melody I’m conscious of that. Or, let’s say I’m playing the same kind of riff a couple times in a row. Maybe I’ll start it where I’m picking over the neck and it’s got this beautiful hollowed-out sound, and then as I continue I move the pick back towards the bridge and it gets more aggressive and fuller in the upper midrange. Then, for harmonics, I’ll pick with very little of the pick sticking out while allowing a little of the flesh of the side of my thumb to touch the string at certain points to create harmonics. So, I’m doing a lot with that pick.
You also use your pick to fret with.
Yes. And you get a harder sound than when fretting with your fingers. I remember watching Wishbone Ash on Don Kirshner’s RockConcert back when I had just started playing, and that was the first time I saw somebody play a note and then use their finger on their picking hand to hammer on with. I was like, “Oh my god what’s that?” I’m sure Eddie Van Halen was at home. We’re the same age. He was probably watching and thinking that he had to do something like that, and he beat us all to it. He just put it together and took it farther than everybody else.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the two-handed stuff, however, is that doing it within a solo has a way of making everybody sound the same. It’s really discouraging because it’s so much fun to do, and it allows you to create a flurry of notes—but it’s instantly homogenizing. So I’ve avoided doing that, especially for fast passages. If I really want to do something like that, I’ll use the pick, because I think for some reason it has more of you in it. It shouldn’t, because it’s not your finger, it’s a pick, but somehow it does. Maybe it’s because you can do so little with it that you wind up doing something more purposeful than just a flurry of notes.
The times when I have done two-hand tapping, on the songs “Midnight” and “Day at the Beach,” it was very complicated with lots of harmony. It was sort of like using “Eruption” as a starting point and saying, “How can I use that as a springboard to do something that Eddie didn’t do so I’m not copying him?” The idea was to use four fingers— two on the left and two on the right—and create real harmonies and complex chords outside of the sort of, “Hey look at me” guitar hero thing.
Jimmy Bruno said he saw jazz guys tapping back in the ’60s.
I think Tal Farlow may have done it. And it’s something Lenny Breau could have done in his sleep, though he probably thought it was silly.
Is there a particular pick that you really like?
I like standard heavy picks, though the ones I use have my artwork on them. A while ago a guy gave me an actual turtle shell pick—a very large one—and I’ve got to say that it does sound better on both acoustic and electric. I don’t know what it is about the turtle shell, but it makes a huge difference. I’ve also got some signature Planet Waves Chrome Dome picks that I use on certain songs, and some very thin agate picks. But I use standard heavy picks 99.9 percent of the time.
Describe your fingerpicking techniques.
The first guitar that I ever fooled around with was my sister’s nylon-string acoustic, and during the time before I got an electric guitar there was a lot of Brazilian music floating around. I never liked classical guitar playing because it always sounded out of tune, and like the music should be played on piano instead—but when I heard Brazilian guitar played with the fingertips rather than hard nails, I really liked it. So, I developed this style of picking with the pads on my fingers that I used for years, and when I began fingerpicking my technique grew out of that. Then, it was only a few years ago that I forced myself to practice Travis picking and regular arpeggio-style fingerpicking on a steel-string, because I had no background in it at all. The entire year previous to recording the Satchafunkilus record I would go on YouTube and listen to different guitar players’ tunings and styles. I picked up Steven Stills’ tuning and used it for “Bitten by the Wolf” on the Chickenfoot record. So now my Travis picking is pretty strong, and I do still like that soft Brazilian picking, which I used on “Clouds Race Across the Sky.”
Speaking of practicing, what sort of things do you practice?
When I was a kid learning scales, it would take me eight hours to play a Lydian Dominant scale all over the neck in every key without making a mistake. But eventually I got over it. I learned where all the notes were, and I learned all the chords—there was no longer any mystery to it. So all those hours of practicing aren’t necessary anymore. I can go back to the important things, like writing music and improvising. My writing requirements are really heavy these days because I’m in two bands, and it’s always on my shoulders to write more music.
If I’m getting ready for a tour or I’m trying to get my chops up before recording or something like that, I may put on one of my songs with the melodies and solos taken out and just improvise along with it for a couple of hours. And I always start slowly when I do.
The only time I do exercises is before gigs, because generally I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve had to get up at 7:00am to go to a radio station, I’ve come back and slept for two more hours, then grabbed a quick bite, then met the fans for two hours, then went back to the hotel for my clothes, and when I get to the gig I’m on in 25 minutes—so I need something to get in touch with my muscles and tendons. But I don’t overdo it. I don’t want to give it away backstage when people are paying good money to see me give it away onstage. I really need to save as much energy as I can for the gig. It may sound funny, but guitar playing is still hard for me—it feels hard—and I’ve got to be vigilant about it.
KENEALLY ON SATCH
“Joe is a magnificent guitar player,” enthuses virtuoso guitarist and Satriani keyboardist Mike Keneally. “And he has found a way to present instrumental guitar music—which is traditionally thought of as non-commercial—in a way that people actually enjoy [laughs]. Joe is also a rock and roll guy, and I dig that. He’s able to present so much exciting playing in a real straight-ahead rock format, with very little jazz or progressive rock influence, or any of that kind of thing. His music has the same visceral power as a good Aerosmith song. And I’m really appreciating how fundamentally strong his catalog is. I know that people are going to see these shows and be totally satisfied. Joe’s not at all a self-indulgent musician. He’s focused on what’s going to work for his audience. At the same time, I think Joe’s also probably got a lot of rock listeners to think, ‘Hey, you really can sit and listen to a bunch of music that doesn’t have any vocals on it,’ so in that sense he’s been a gateway drug for a lot of people to get into more experimental guitar players.
“Another important point to make about Joe’s playing is that his lines are presented in such a highly evolved fashion that it’s easy to imagine that every note he plays was prepared in advance. Of course, he has practiced a lot of his melodies to where he knows every nuance, as though he were playing a classical composition—but what I noticed when we were running songs in the studio—and we could easily run a song 20 or 30 times to get the ideal take—is that when we came to the solo section each time he would just go flying, and yet every solo would sound inevitable and perfectly prepared. He also holds himself to an awfully high standard. If he makes one mistake during a five minute song in rehearsal, he’ll just kind of shake his head and go, ‘Gotta work on that one.
“Finally, there’s a kind of Zen stillness to Joe’s approach. He moves around the stage and acknowledges the audience, and he’ll point to the balcony when it’s time to do that—but he brings a real calmness and economy of motion to what he does. There’s a tremendous amount of pyrotechnical ability going on there, but always serving his melodic concepts, and always fitting neatly into the song structure. Each song has a specific personality and a feeling that he’s trying to achieve. As a player he has presented a lot of world-class musicianship, in a very accessible package that a lot of people really enjoy. For any guitarist who is interested in playing well and simultaneously not being puzzling to their potential audience, he’s got to be inspiring!” —BC