Joe Satriani's Joy of Letting Go

Joe Satriani typically approaches his recorded works like an electrified, 18th-century composer—painstakingly crafting melodies and countermelodies, formulating and revising arrangements, continuously tweaking guitar tones, and moving timbral doodads around in space and time to build an impassioned and evocative soundscape. And, of course, every single element must be precisely “right,” as that term is defined by Satriani’s creative muse and policed by his ears. But as he plays iTunes versions of his as-yet-untitled new album in his modest (but well equipped) home studio, Satriani’s exhilaration and tranquil smiles betray a slightly less obsessive fixation over his latest compositions.
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“When I was thinking about writing the new album, I started coming back to all this psychedelic-era music that I loved,” he explains. “I even assembled an iTunes folder full of songs such as Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a reference tool. But the plan was never to consciously evoke psychedelic guitar tones or production techniques or song forms, because what attracted me most to those songs was their extremely strong vibes. If something added to the mood, they kept it—even if it was recorded poorly or if the performance had some quirks or outright mistakes. So my listening was more to remind me that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I was teaching myself that if a part works—or if it possesses a special atmosphere—then you go with it. You don’t ‘fix it’ or ‘do it better’ later, because that ruins it.”

Lest GP readers think Satriani has turned himself into a garage band, rest assured that the new album is beautifully recorded, and it’s full of the guitarist’s dazzling technique. Yet the psychedelic schooling has informed the sound of the album in subtle, yet thrilling ways. The rhythm tracks are a bit edgier, and the many textures careen between well-articulated guitar orchestrations and indistinct mosh pits of emotive and powerful sonic washes. Through it all, Satriani’s guitars—even his solos—drift through the sound mix like luminous jellyfish undulating beneath dark seas. This is a production approach that absolutely celebrates the guitar, but it doesn’t highlight it at the expense of the other instruments.

“I really wanted that old-school production where the lead singer is definitely the focus of the tune, but not so much that the backing falls away,” says Satriani. “I wanted this harmonious mix of a lead voice—my [guitar] melody—a groove, and all these surprising little parts. I definitely needed to deliver something strong that captures a listener’s attention, but I didn’t want that initial element of attraction to define the song forever. It was important to me that each time a listener hears a song, he or she discovers new things.”