For the usually private Joe Satriani, 2017 ended with a very public display, as he starred in Beyond the Supernova—a documentary directed by his son, ZZ.
“It is strange to see your artistic persona through your son’s eyes—especially on film,” he says.
But Satch doesn’t stay in one temporal plane very long, and he kicked off 2018 with his most rockin’ and down-to-earth album in years, What Happens Next [Sony]. Produced and engineered by Mike Fraser, and manifest as a power trio with Chad Smith on drums and Glenn Hughes on bass, the new songs are cinematic, exquisitely textured, and dynamically potent, as well as beautifully melodic and strange and wonderful.
But perhaps most surprising was visiting Satriani’s studio workspace, and witnessing that his guitars and amps were massively outnumbered by paintings and art supplies.
Hmm. Is a full-time career change being considered here?
[Laughs.] I don’t think so. It’s simply a personal art project to get 100 canvases completed this year. I wanted to commit to further developing my style—such that it is.
When I last interviewed Andy Summers, he said his photography informs his music. Is it somewhat the same with your painting?
There is definitely something to that. I tend to play for a few hours until I don’t know what I’m hearing anymore, and, for me, taking a break from that is to go out and work on a canvas. But I’ll have my demo music on a loop so that I can listen to it with a totally different attitude—a transition from guitarist-working-on-guitar-song to amateur-painter-with-music-in-the-background. And it helps. I’ll put down the brush and make notes like, “That part sucks,” or “I like that bit,” or “I need to take out 30 percent of the notes,” or “Why am I playing that?” My songs often get written quickly, but I’ll spend months or years editing them, trying to figure out which notes to get rid of, because I’m playing too many. It’s so easy to overplay—especially with melody lines.
It occurs to me I’ve never asked why you’ve been so loyal to your signature Ibanez guitars as the engines of your creative work.
What I noticed when I was growing up and developing my style, was that Les Pauls, Teles, and Strats restricted me. I wanted to play a certain way. But my knuckles would hit the horn on ES-335s, Telecasters and Les Pauls would dig into the underside of my forearm, and things like that. The Strat was a bit more lenient, but the vibrato bar wasn’t working out for me. Then, all of a sudden, the Floyd Rose comes into being. It had to be invented, because somebody had to solve the tuning issue and make a better vibrato bar. Also, I had been putting guitars together myself with Boogie Bodies and ESP necks, and all this stuff, but it wasn’t until Ibanez sent me a 540R that I realized, “Hey, this doesn’t look like a ’50s guitar, and it produces a whole other sound.” So what ultimately became the JS guitar was about my being able to feel physically comfortable with it, and to finally get a neck profile that I liked.
Then, I had to start working on the sound, because the guitar has to be elegant in how it makes its transitions. I start a song, I play a riff, I immediately go into a melody, there are little solo flourishes around the melody, there’s an intense melody that may involve totally destroying the guitar with the whammy bar and other techniques, and then go back to the melody to finish the song. I do that for two and a half hours onstage, and instruments of that ’50s design just don’t work. Steve Blucher at DiMarzio has been working with me for 30 years to figure out pickups that would allow me to have a specific voice when I play melody, but also have a big, broad sound when I play chords. It’s easier said than done. There’s real subtlety in those shadings. In addition, Gary Brawer and Ibanez’s Los Angeles Custom Shop spent many years on getting the mass out of the tremolo bar so that it didn’t make the guitar sound boingy. It’s constant refinement, because when I play a song like “Headrush” or “Energy,” I don’t want the guitar to stop me at all. I need it to be open to interpretation.
Against the studio wall, your amp heads are standing at attention vertically atop cardboard sheets. What’s that about?
We set them up that way here and in the studio, so that we could easily move them around and plug them in one by one. I learned that when you’re auditioning several heads, you should only use one power cable. That way, you’ll never turn on an amp when it’s not plugged into a speaker cable. “Oops! There’s no load.” The newer amps can handle it, but it stresses out the vintage heads, and if your 1966 Marshall P.A. head goes down, it might be down for the rest of the sessions.
With so many amps in play, how do you decide which one to use for a specific part?
When you play melodies, figuring out the right gain structure and EQ can be difficult. If a melody is low, then you need an amp that handles bass frequencies nicely. If your melody is really high, you don’t want an amp that’s great at being screechy—you know, tiger claws across your face. But what you’re really looking to do is incite emotion.
For example, I have a few original Peavey 5150s, and they have a great big message, like, “I HAVE GAIN.” It’s not smooth like the Marshal JVM, and it’s not rock and roll like vintage Marshalls. It’s more of a huge punch in the face of buzzy gain. But, sometimes, you can kind of trick it into saying to the listener, “Look out. I’ve got all this gain under the hood. It’s ready to explode. But I’m holding back in reserve.” To me, that sound says a lot. It’s the opposite of turning up your volume to 10, and whacking away at the melody. That’s just guitar playing—it’s not storytelling. If you go in that direction, every song is going to sound the same. But if you think about the particular shades of emotion you’re reaching for, and then go looking for a guitar and an amp that somehow come together with the drums and the bass to project that emotion—well, that’s something different. This is why we had all those amp heads. Overall, we were searching for raw, rock and roll tones, but we wanted each melody to have its own signature sound. The songs deserved that love and care, and they required a lot of tinkering to discover the ideal sounds to bring them to life.
You always expend extreme efforts to seek the ultimate expression of a song. Do you know what informed that artistic work ethic?
Maybe it’s because I latched on to Hendrix recordings so early in my life, and his songs were that way. His guitar was different on every song, and I thought, that’s what a genius does. I took that lesson to heart.
Joe’s Tone Notebook
For the what happens next sessions, Satch cut down a bit on the usual carnival of gear, depending mostly on four Ibanez JS signature series models—his black JS25ART (bearing his artwork), two JS guitars in Muscle Car Purple (MCP), and a JS in Muscle Car Orange (MCO). Reamping played a key role in the project, with several of engineer John Cuniberti’s Reamp devices (vintage and new models) at the ready, as well as a Radial JD7 set up so that producer Mike Fraser and Satriani could easily switch amps.
“Reamping allowed us to just listen to the amp sounds without my having to play,” explains Satriani. “That was nice for me, because if my fingers aren’t touching the strings, my decision making isn’t tainted by the joy or anguish of playing. I could just sit back, and say, “This is exactly how people are going to hear these sounds on the record.’”
Here are the guitar/amp/effects signal paths from Satriani’s personal notebook.
Main Melody/Solo Guitar: MCP #2, Marshall 6100 Rhythm Guitars: MCO #1, MCP #2, Marshall ’71 Super Lead
Melody Guitar: MCO #1, Vox Big Bad Wah, Tech 21 SansAmp, Recti-Fi Plug-in Rhythm Guitars: MCO #1, Marshall JVM-410HJS, Marshall reissue plexi (with Dexter Mod for more gain)
“Thunder High on the Mountain”
Main Guitar: JS25ART #47, Sola Sound/Colorsound Tone Bender Pro MKll, Digi-Tech Whammy, Marshall JVM410HJS Solo: MCO #1, Xotic BB Preamp, Marshall JVM410HJS Rhythm Guitar: JS25ART #47
Main Guitar: MCP #1 (drop-D), Marshall JVM410HJS Solo: DigiTech Whammy, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Ramble FX Twin Bender, Marshall ’71 Super Lead Bridge Melody: Marshall JVM410HJS
Melody Guitar: MCO#1, Marshall JVM410HJS Intro/Outro: MCO #1, Electro-Harmonix Microsynth, Strymon El Capistan, Marshall ’71 50-watt Rhythm Guitars: Fender Custom Shop ’69 Strat (gold sparkle), ’63 Fender Deluxe, MCO #1, Mezzabarba M Zero, Gibson Flying V, Vox Big Bad Wah
Melodies: MCO#1, Peavey 5150 Solo: KSR Orthos Rhythm Guitars: Gibson Custom Shop goldtop, Korg G4 Rotary Speaker, Fender ’59 Tweed Twin, Wells amp into Fender Deluxe
Melody Guitar: MCO #4, Mezzabarba M Zero, Marshall ’71 Super Lead Rhythm #1: Fender Custom Shop Tele (red sparkle), Xotic SP Compressor, BOSS CE-2 Chorus, Lazy J J80 combo Rhythm #2: Ibanez T-style with Evertune, Korg G4 Rotary Speaker, Xotic SP Compressor, Lazy J J80 combo Solo: MCO #1, Marshall JVM410HJS
MCO #1, Tech 21 SansAmp
“What Happens Next”
Melody Guitar: MCO #1, Re-amped with KSR Orthos and Tech 21 SansAmp Power Chords: ’63 Fender Deluxe
“Super Funky Badass”
MCO #1, Re-amped with KSR Orthos Breakdown Rhythms: Fender Custom Shop ’69 Strat (gold sparkle), Electro-Harmonix Mel9, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe, Strymon El Capistan
Melody/Solo/Intro/Outro: MCO#1, KSR Orthos, Wells Amp into Fender Deluxe cab Intro/Outro: JS25ART #47, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, KSR Orthos Rhythm Guitars: MCO #1, Dunlop EchoPlex Preamp, Wells amp/Fender Deluxe Cab
“Forever and Ever”
Intro/Outro Guitar/Rhythm Guitars: JS25ART #47, Mezzabarba M Zero Melody: MCO #1, Peavey 5150 Solo: JS25ART #47, Peavey 5150