“I Always Want to Transcend the Technical Aspects of the Guitar to Move People”: Joe Satriani’s Top Five Career-Defining Tracks

Joe Satriani
(Image credit: JESSE WILDE/FUTURE)

Of all the shredders that emerged in the ’80s, Joe Satriani is perhaps the guitarist whose style is most rooted in the history of classic rock and blues, something that both Mick Jagger and Deep Purple clearly picked up on, as he had touring stints with both acts. His later rock supergroup, Chickenfoot, with Sammy Hagar on vocals, made it clear that Satriani was as comfortable in a band setting as he was fronting his own music.

“It’s a very different discipline to be part of a band as opposed to fronting my own solo material,” Satch explains. “It can be a bit of a relief when you’ve got a born front person like Sammy Hagar or Ian Gillan, and you realize, Oh, I can just hang out back here near the drummer. It’s kind of nice for a person like me, who’s shy. However, if you’ve had those moments where you’ve played your own instrumental music in front of 90,000 people and they’ve cheered, that feedback is so powerful. You don’t get that direct audience connection with your own music when you’re part of a band.”

As a solo artist, Satriani has amassed a body of work that has pushed the boundaries of instrumental rock music, while never relying on technical expertise at the expense of emotional content. “It’s so easy to write complicated songs,” he says. “You take a piece of sheet music and you fill in the dots. Then you find some crazy musicians who are willing and able to play it, and you go, ‘Look this is so complicated, isn’t it great?’”

He laughs. “When you try to play it live, what do you do? Basically you’re busy all the time, just playing the parts. It’s very different going to see a band like Free: There’s a singer, bass, drums and guitar. They can move with the audience; they’re not bogged down with ridiculous parts.”

Four of Satriani’s song selections are long-established favorites fans expect to hear at every show. And they haven’t lost their freshness for Satch, even after almost 30 years of playing them. “I’m still trying to get them right,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m so grateful that I’ve got an audience that allows me to play those songs and refine them each time I play them. Many times, recordings are the first attempts at a song, and there are things that evolve the longer you play them live. We always respect the song as much as we can. I always tell the band that we have to be specific.

“Each song is not an opportunity to display your chops. We’re not in a fusion band playing in a club; we’re a rock band playing on a big stage. Our audience knows these songs, so let’s respect that. The songs actually allow for interpretation because of the delicacy in the way that they’re arranged.”

1. “Surfing With the Alien” from 'Surfing With the Alien' (1987)

“This was definitely the song that introduced me to a worldwide audience, and I think, in retrospect, it was probably the best song to make that introduction. When we started recording, we didn’t know that this would be the title of the album or that it would be the first track. We were just having fun, everybody was coming up with great ideas, and it became the obvious choice to open up the record.

“When I finished it, I thought that it was a representation of everything that I like about guitar playing. It had some Hendrix and Chuck Berry – a bit of everything; it was a natural. It wasn’t dark and brooding, and it didn’t sound like I was jumping on any particular bandwagon.

It didn’t sound like I was jumping on any particular bandwagon

Joe Satriani

“I think Relativity, the record company, were scratching their heads over me, because I didn’t look right. [laughs] They had Steve [Vai] at the time, and he looked perfect – he always does – for the role of guitar god. It was both fun and heartbreaking to make the album; we had some terrible obstacles to get through. We didn’t have enough money to finish it off at one point. We had to master it twice, because there was a discrepancy in the left-to-right balance that I wasn’t prepared to accept.

“The day we were finishing the track itself, I was really just winging it to come up with something for the end. We’d been using an Eventide Harmonizer, which kept breaking down, and we couldn’t control the stereo pitch alteration. The malfunctions caused us to run late, so the guys who’d booked the next session were literally standing there glowering at me, waiting for me to finish. I performed the end solo with the whammy bar in front of a hostile audience. [laughs] I would have changed a lot of things about the album if we’d had a much bigger budget, but as for whether I’d have gotten a better result, nobody can ever know that.”

2. “Flying in a Blue Dream” from 'Flying in a Blue Dream' (1989)

“I feel that the structure of this song, musically, is extremely unique. Whenever I write a song, I always go into it thinking I can make some kind of innovation that no one has thought of – maybe some chords or some juxtaposition of ideas that hadn’t been used before. This song embodied that spirit of experimentation on so many levels. I used an open F tuning for the rhythm guitars, and I tuned my ’64 P-Bass down to a low C. I don’t know why I didn’t just get a five-string to solve that problem. [laughs]

I wanted to re-create the feel of a great tune from the jazz-pop era

Joe Satriani

[Producer] “John Cuniberti, who programmed the drum machine, wanted to try what was a really modern approach back then: to use no fills and follow the bass and acoustic guitars, which were constantly repeating in a minimalistic way. We didn’t call it ‘techno’ back then, but the approach was in that vein.

“I thought, for the melody, I wanted to re-create the feel of a great tune from the jazz-pop era. When Sinatra or Tony Bennett would sing a song, they’d start in a conversational low tone, then the notes would rise through the register. And eventually, when they got to the last few lines of the story, that would be the chorus, and the highest notes of the melody. I thought it was a very elegant way to tell a story, rather than starting on 10. That required me to really focus on how I can get my fingers to communicate a beautiful melody to an audience, to really inspire them.

“The beginning of the song came about by accident; we could not get rid of RF noise and interference – TV, radio or whatever. One day we were laughing at how many TV stations I could dial in with my volume control, and we started to hear this kid talking. John pushed ‘record,’ and it just happened to be right at the start of the tape reel. Then the guitar chords came in over it. It was a great coincidence. The solo was just a burst of craziness I played after a few glasses of wine. I often think I could do it so much better now, but it’s definitely got the vibe.”

3. “Summer Song” from 'The Extremist' (1992)

“It was tough to pick the third song for this – whether to go for what meant the most to me or which reached the most people, because that is what really defines your career: what people hear. I was on a promotional tour for Surfing With the Alien with a radio promo guy from Relativity Records, and I asked him what he thought would be the next step, career-wise, to reach more people. He said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. All we need is that one ‘summer’ song. If you can come up with one track that encapsulates the vibe of summer, I would have a much easier time walking an instrumental track into a rock and roll radio station.’

“I was working on that idea, and I just started focusing on the rhythm and the two chords, and letting the movie in my head run – driving around having fun, getting out of school... girls – you know? [laughs] It was difficult to record. The first time we tried, it failed; it just sounded kind of shuffly. We reconvened at another studio, and it was too much like ‘Surfing.’ We had a drum machine and it just wasn’t working. We got the Bissonette brothers in – Matt on bass and Gregg on drums – but we still couldn’t nail the vibe live. So we decided to use the track we already had with the drum machine and got Gregg to play to it. He really got it.

“Andy Johns was producing, and he worked with Gregg on nailing down the exact feel. The song hadn’t happened until that point. When we played it for the record company, they didn’t get it. We made a video that MTV wouldn’t play, but Sony came in and offered me a commercial. During the MTV awards, they booked two spots during every ad break and the song got played about 10 times that evening, and that made it my biggest international radio hit.”

4. “Crowd Chant” from 'Super Colossal' (2006)

“After years of touring, we used to scratch our heads on the bus after shows about how, any time I tried to do a call-and-response, I would just get moans and groans from the audience. They sounded like zombies or something. [laughs] We were thinking that, obviously, I must be playing the wrong notes and they can’t follow what I’m doing.

“Finally, we decided that they don’t know what to sing because they’re not prepared for it. I was working on the ‘Pavane’ by Fauré, and figuring out a way to use that in a song, when I suddenly realized that I could put it together with my crowd participation idea, as it was such a beautiful melody that they’d want to sing it. I made a long demo, playing what I thought was cool, then every day I’d go back to it, making it simpler and simpler. I realized that the simple things were more fun, like pentatonics, for example. Of course the ‘Pavane’ was in a minor key, so I was combining the happy and the sad.

“We wondered if we could make the crowd sound work. We had about 10 musicians who could sing, and a bunch of other people, kids or whatever, to follow along. We did one take which sounded really good. When we added the second take it sounded like a hundred people, and the third overdub sounded like a thousand. After about seven passes it sounded immense. [laughs] It was originally called ‘Party on the Enterprise’, with some loops from the old Star Trek TV series, but Sony was afraid of being sued so we couldn’t use it. It’s become a great encore song.”

5. “Sahara” from 'The Elephants of Mars' (2022)

“This one was conceived and recorded very quickly. It was originally intended to be a vocal song. I was imagining the singer having a crisis: He’s frantically walking down the streets in the middle of the night, when he gets confronted by a female deity, who tells him love is the answer. I explained the whole concept when we were doing the album, but I think it overwhelmed everybody, and we couldn’t get it to work as a vocal track.

“The producer said it’s too bad we can’t do it as an instrumental, but I thought it would be very tough to make it work, as the structure of the song had so much repetition to allow for the lyrics. I worked on it, and it was actually very challenging to play an instrumental melody on top of a rhythm guitar part where there’s a really awkward bend. [laughs] It made it sound like things were out of tune. I was bending the D string on the fourth fret of a 12-string guitar. I created a minefield for myself when it came to putting the melody on top.

“The main reason I picked this song for this list was that it was such a discovery of guitar playing as I went along building the track, and I felt that, by the time that it was over, I’d become a better guitar player. There wasn’t anything on it that was particularly difficult from a technical point of view, but the hardest thing for any musician is to really nail the emotional content of what you’re trying to express. I always want to transcend the technical aspects of the guitar to move people.”


Mark McStea

Mark is a freelance writer with particular expertise in the fields of ‘70s glam, punk, rockabilly and classic ‘50s rock and roll. He sings and plays guitar in his own musical project, Star Studded Sham, which has been described as sounding like the hits of T. Rex and Slade as played by Johnny Thunders. He had several indie hits with his band, Private Sector and has worked with a host of UK punk luminaries. Mark also presents themed radio shows for Generating Steam Heat. He has just completed his first novel, The Bulletproof Truth, and is currently working on the sequel.