“Virtuosity on the Guitar Comes in Many Forms”: We Go Behind the Scenes of the Inaugural G3 Tour with Dream Team Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson

Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson
(Image credit: Max Crace/Future)

By the mid-1990s, Joe Satriani had things pretty much sewn up career-wise. Four of his six studio albums had gone either Gold or Platinum, and his touring dance card was filled for much of any given year.

But despite his spectacular success, something had started to feel a little...off. He wasn’t having the kind of fun he had imagined years before, when he was a budding guitarist dreaming about rock stardom.

“I thought there would be more camaraderie among other players than what I was experiencing,” he says. “As a teenager, I had this idea of what things would be like if I ever hit it big. There would be parties, and I’d get to hang out with my guitar friends. We’d jam and talk about music all night long – that kind of thing.

As a teenager, I had this idea of what things would be like if I ever hit it big

Joe Satriani

“Instead, the opposite was true: I was isolated. I would go on tour and play the same set, and then I’d go back to my hotel room and be on my own. I’d have 100 shows in front of me, and then I’d have to make another record and do it all over again.”

Satriani wanted to shake things up, but he didn’t quite know how. And then it hit him: He would create a new kind of show, one that celebrated the communal spirit of electric guitar playing that he craved.

“Nobody was really doing anything of the kind,” he says. “You had blues and reggae festivals. You’d see disco revivals and things like that. Lollapalooza had just started up. But there was nothing really that spoke to guitarists.”

It’s no coincidence that, at that time, interest in guitar was entering a slump from which it would take years to recover.

Starting in the late 1980s, rap and hip-hop had grown in popularity, and were the dominant forms of popular music as the century careened toward its conclusion. Youngsters had become more interested in the power of two turntables and a microphone than in the trenchant blast of a Les Paul cranked through a Marshall stack.

It was still too early to see the lean years that would come, when guitar heroes’ relevance would dim, but Satch’s desire for a guitarist-led event would prove timely.

“I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with my friends and peers,” he recalls. “And so I thought, Well, nobody else is doing it, so I’ll do it.”

I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with my friends and peers

Joe Satriani

Satriani met with his management team and laid out his grand vision of a traveling show featuring himself and two other guitarists (hence the “G3” moniker), with each player performing an hour-long set followed by a three-way jam.

Once his managers were sold on the idea, the hard part began: convincing booking agents and concert promoters of the package’s validity. “We were breaking the rules that everybody had been taught over the years,” Satriani explains.

“Promoters around the world, and especially in the U.S., like to keep guitarists’ itineraries separated, for business reasons. They don’t want to dilute the market. But I always thought this format would be energizing, because it went against the trends. I always knew it could work.”

Since its first run in 1996, G3 has become the longest-running guitar-centric tour of its kind. All in all, Satriani has taken the show on 18 treks across the U.S., Europe, South America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Along with Satch himself, the tour has featured guitarists such as John Petrucci, Robert Fripp, Steve Morse, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, Paul Gilbert, Al Di Meola, Adrian Legg, Phil Collen and the Aristocrats.

But none of it would have happened had G3’s maiden voyage not connected with audiences.

Satriani knew his first package had to pack a wallop, and his dream lineup – a triple-headline bill he shared with his close friend and one-time guitar pupil Steve Vai, along with Texas guitar star Eric Johnson – was a no-brainer.

“I really didn’t have to think about it,” he says. “I wanted to do it with them, and that was all there was to it. I knew we could all shine together onstage.” Vai and Johnson required no arm twisting.

The second Joe told me about what he wanted to do, I was in

Steve Vai

“I said yes immediately,” Vai says. “The second Joe told me about what he wanted to do, I was in. And it superseded other plans I may have had, because the concept felt fresh. Plus, it was something that I thought was needed in the guitar community at the time. The idea was just fantastic.”

Says Johnson, “I felt the same way. It sounded like a novel idea at the time. I remember my manager said, ‘I like this. It sounds really different and cool.’”

Some 25 years on, the first G3 tour and its subsequent editions remain a singular achievement in the world of guitar. Coincidentally, all three of the tour’s founding members are currently releasing albums and planning tours. We thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask them to reminisce about their experiences together and to fantasize what another run might look like.

It was important to me to keep the spirit of guitar music alive no matter what new style of music was becoming popular. I wanted more interaction with great players, and I knew the audience wanted the same. So I took the bull by the horns.

By the late ’90s, it was evident that guitar-based music was losing popularity as rap and hip-hop became the dominant genres. Joe, did you have a premonition that the guitar was in danger of losing some of its relevance when you launched G3 in 1996, just a few years before?

JOE SATRIANI I was more focused on what I felt the fans were craving, and what I too was craving: more fun with the guitar. Having been a performing musician since I was 14 years old, I knew that styles would change and society would simply change channels, so I wasn’t phased by what was happening in the mid-to-late ’90s.

It was important to me to keep the spirit of guitar music alive no matter what new style of music was becoming popular

Joe Satriani

It was important to me to keep the spirit of guitar music alive no matter what new style of music was becoming popular. I wanted more interaction with great players, and I knew the audience wanted the same. So I took the bull by the horns.          

Eric, as everybody knows, Joe and Steve share a long history. When you signed up for G3, did you feel like you had to break the ice with two guys who knew each other so well?

ERIC JOHNSON Well, maybe a little bit, but they were always affable and made me feel comfortable right away. Obviously, Joe and Steve grew up together, and I wasn’t a part of that. But I was totally aware of both of them and their music. I respected them and knew what they were about. I was welcomed very warmly, and that made it very easy to be a part of G3.

Joe and Steve, did you feel like you had to bring Eric into the fold, or were you two like, “Oh, he’ll figure it out”?

SATRIANI I knew it would be fine. I never thought that we had to coach each other. We were all of the same mind: “Isn’t this going to be amazing?” Then at the end of the night, when we start playing together, our attitude was, Let’s just wing it and see what happens! And I can’t tell you how excited I was every night to be destroyed by these two guitar players.

STEVE VAI Come on! [laughs]

SATRIANI It’s true. It was so much fun, because it’s one thing when somebody destroys you onstage like that, and you’re right next to them and you can see how they do it. It’s a life-learning experience. I loved that, and it’s something I’ve always loved about every G3. There’s nothing like it. You can’t replicate it in any other way.

VAI To answer the question you asked about having Eric: Yes, Joe and I have a friendship that goes way back, a very rich, wonderful friendship throughout our lives. We’ve been joined at the hip since I was 12. [laughs]

So to do G3, and to know that Eric was going to do it, too, I was immediately thrilled. Bringing Eric into the fold, it never felt like Joe and I were a group and there was an outsider. We were all very present in the moment. We were three accomplished, mutually respectful players really looking to raise the bar for ourselves and for the guitar.

I know for me, every time I get on a stage with really accomplished, inspired players, it’s impossible not to expand my own potential. Like Joe says, when you’re standing next to these guys, they push you and challenge you. You have to raise your bar because they’re doing it. That’s the feeling you get when it’s your turn. It’s very inspiring, and it’s nice.

Some of my favorite onstage moments were when the three of us were playing together and listening to one another. It’s a very intimate space, and nobody is Joe, Steve or Eric. It’s just this environment of listening and responding.

We were three accomplished, mutually respectful players really looking to raise the bar for ourselves and for the guitar

Steve Vai

Joe, during those first G3 tours, did you have a sense that you were keeping the spirit of guitar virtuosity alive at a time when it was in short supply? Did that have an impact on the shows, either in your commitment to keep doing them or in who you brought along on tour?

SATRIANI The G3 stage was the one place where you could play any way you wished. There were no boundaries. You could overdo it, or you could underplay it and be subtle. You could stand still, you could sit like Robert Fripp, or you could bring your own rock and roll circus to the stage.

I encouraged my fellow players to try anything and everything every night. We would support, echo and sometimes challenge each others’ improvisational tangents. Virtuosity on the guitar comes in many forms, and there’s no reason they can’t be celebrated right next to each other.

There have been three other tours with this lineup. When you tour, does it feel like “the band is back together”? Like you’re the Three Amigos.

SATRIANI “The Three Amigos” – I like that. [laughs] I think we should launch another tour once the world opens up a bit. It would be interesting to see where we’ve been musically. We can come back and trade our secrets once again.

JOHNSON Yeah, yeah!

VAI I’m down.

JOHNSON We could wear those Mexican outfits like [Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin] did in The Three Amigos. At least for the encore. [laughs]

Virtuosity on the guitar comes in many forms, and there’s no reason they can’t be celebrated right next to each other

Joe Satriani

Joe, when you put together other iterations, did you ever ask Steve or Eric who they wanted to come along as the third guitarist?

SATRIANI Well, it’s a complicated thing putting G3 together, because my responsibility is both creating and selling the package. It starts a year before we want to hit the road. There are a number of scenarios that we have to float to all the different promoters to get a consensus of what they will agree is worthy of the invitation, because you can only play if you’re invited. You don’t just show up.

That means that we come up with Plans A, B, C, D, E, F and G, and then we see what the reaction is. Part of the music business is pretty cruel. It’s numbers and statistics. It’s always been about ticket sales, but back then it was a lot about radio. These days, the social media thing is really a big deal. It’s the first thing promoters do: They see if you’re trending on TikTok or Instagram. They need to determine if they want to take the risk.

That’s how that starts. And, of course, there’s a fine line between sticking to your guns about what you really want to do and listening to the feedback you get from your promoters. There’s no way to know who should be the third guy in Eastern Europe versus Canada, so you’ve got to talk to the promoters to see what they think and what suggestions they might have. Sometimes they’re good ones, and sometimes you’re scratching your head going, “Really?”

It’s difficult. It’s a very long period, and we have to be extremely quiet and discreet about it until we’ve distilled all this advice and feedback. Then we put out the invitations and reach out to the players that have risen to the top of the list, and we have to see what they say. Some players don’t want to play with other guitarists.

I suppose that’s true.

SATRIANI Yeah. I think there are fearless players out there, and then there are people who are still very guarded. I think that’s the defining difference. These gentlemen here are fearless and totally confident, and they just want to make their audience happy. That’s what you want. You don’t want any other baggage coming onstage.

These gentlemen here are fearless and totally confident, and they just want to make their audience happy

Joe Satriani

I imagine sometimes choosing the third guitarist feels very easy and natural, but are there instances when you’ve thought, I don’t know how this is going to work?

SATRIANI Well, one of the most interesting characters was Robert Fripp, beyond a doubt. When he joined up, he insisted that he not be listed, and he wanted to play before the show. He said, “Look, don’t turn the lights on. I’m going to sit behind all the amps, and I’m going to play music as people walk into the venue and find their seats. And don’t mention my name.” It’s what he wanted to do.

Sometimes [bassist] Stu Hamm would play with him unannounced. He’d just come out, sit right next to Robert and he’d play along, or some of the other guys would play. It was really quite beautiful. Robert is such a wonderful human being and an incredible musician. We did a couple of other tours together, just me, Steve and Robert playing blues guitar or something. It was hysterical, and he was fearless about that. He was Robert Fripp to the very end.

JOHNSON Well, I was actually thinking of Robert Fripp when Joe mentioned him, because it was like, Wow, that’s different! He was definitely coming from left field, I think. But it was beautiful and cool. People really enjoyed it, too. I thought it sounded great. A lot of people told me, “Hey, have you heard Robert play with the G3 thing?” They thought it was great.

For the encore jams, you three have played “Red House,” “Goin’ Down” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” How do you guys come up with those songs?

SATRIANI We start emailing each other about what would be a fun song. I think I put it to the guys that we should pick songs that weren’t our own but were somehow connected to us in some way. They would be songs that the audience would recognize and that would celebrate the guitar.

It wasn’t about one of the participants’ new single or something like that. We had to drop all that pretense that we were there to sell our new thing. I think the Zappa song was Steve’s suggestion. He brought that in, and it was great. It turned into one we did over and over again through the years.

VAI Joe would always reach out for suggestions, and there were many, many songs we’d toss out. Some of them would be head-scratchers, but I always relied on Joe to decipher it all, feel through it and pick what the final jam songs would be.

That went for everything – routing, position in the set, where you’re standing onstage. It was always diplomatic, but there’s a practical sensibility that needs to be exercised in all of these things. And that was Joe, because he’s got the tools.

It was always diplomatic, but there’s a practical sensibility that needs to be exercised in all of these things

Steve Vai

Joe and Steve, you’ve done a number of G3s with John Petrucci as the third guitarist. Eric, I think you played on one tour with John. Is that right?

JOHNSON I did, yeah, in South America. John Petrucci’s amazing. I’m more familiar with him now, and his drummer, Mike Mangini. You know how there are certain groups that you don’t know their whole deal? Even though they’re almost a parallel track as yours, it’s not somebody you really listen to that much, but you still knew they were great.

I wasn’t familiar with John at first, but I was really blown away by him. It was kind of funny, though, because when I first met Mike Mangini, I didn’t know who he was. I asked him, “Are you down here teching for the band?”

It was like taking lessons every single night.

Eric Johnson

VAI I remember that.

JOHNSON Then I heard him play, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I should say that teching’s no different than playing. I think I embarrassed myself, because I didn’t know who he was. It was a bummer, because I was never able to get to know him; I think I made him feel awkward.

But he was such a fabulous drummer, and John was remarkable. They had a whole different thing going on, with the way they broke up time signatures and stuff. It was just amazing. I got schooled on that during the tour, not unlike the G3s that I did with Joe and Steve. It was like taking lessons every single night.

This is for all of you: How did your G3 experiences impact your feelings about the other two guys here?

SATRIANI Whoa… There have been so many moments when I would stand on the side of the stage watching Steve and Eric play, and then I’d look out at the audience and think, Do they have any idea how amazing this thing is? When are they ever going to see this again?” [Satriani’s cell phone rings] Oh, sorry about that. It’s my agent calling.

JOHNSON He’s saying, “Come on. Book a G3 tour!” [laughs]

SATRIANI And make it snappy! [mutes his phone] Like I said, there were so many moments. For me, in those private moments, standing there and watching them play, it was beyond remarkable. They truly felt the music, and that’s very inspiring. And then to see what they did to the audience, lifting them up, raising their spirits. It just makes you think, We’re doing the right thing.

From comedy to sadness, [Steve Vai] packs in all these different emotions, and they go way beyond guitar sounds

Eric Johnson

JOHNSON With Joe, I was really shocked at his precision, virtuosity and sound. Every single night, he would nail everything, unlike somebody else who might be talking. [laughs] Obviously, his records are beautiful, but he plays that stuff live to a T. His touch, his fingering… truly outstanding. He would just nail it all the way.

And then there’s Steve – this organic guitar orchestra. From comedy to sadness, he packs in all these different emotions, and they go way beyond guitar sounds. That blew my mind. It was just such a hemisphere of learning for me.

How about you, Steve?

VAI With Joe and Eric, I already knew of their excellence. You know, I can be a sloppy, visceral performer. I always enjoy what I do, but there’s a little part of me that says, “You can be better. You can be more concise. You can be clearer and cleaner.”

So when I’d get onstage with these guys, that’s what I recognized. Seeing them perform, I saw the presentation of a whole piece of music that was immaculate. No disrespect to any other G3 performer, but if I go back to listen to any G3 record, I go right to Eric’s performance of “Manhattan,” which is flawless.

Every night I would watch him, and beyond being absolutely entertained by a musician at the height of his potential, I would always feel like, Steve, you’ve got to do more of that. He was inspired and performed beautifully from beginning to end.

And, of course, that’s Joe’s middle name. You know how many times I’ve seen him perform? [laughs] Every time he gives you this incredible presentation. What he offers you is beautiful. The song is respected, and it’s mastered completely.

You get as much out of it as the audience.

VAI Oh yeah. When I see these guys do what they do, I could be depressed or I could be inspired. And they always inspired me. I knew how they could perform. But what was interesting for me was putting a microscope on myself.

If anything, I’ve always been a bit of a pretentious rock star. [Joe and Eric laugh] It’s true – you guys know it. And that was exorcized out of me a bit. When you work with guys like this – because they’re humble, and they’re excellent – it’s fun and educational to get your ass kicked.

We were friends before, and we’re friends after. What more could you ask for?

Joe Satriani/Eric Johnson/Steve Vai: G3 Live In Concert

(Image credit: Sony)

Order Joe Satriani/Eric Johnson/Steve Vai: G3 Live In Concert here.

Visit the Joe Satriani website for more info on G3.

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.