The lightning-fast, bi-dextral arpeggios in the bridge section of Joe Satriani’s signature “Satch Boogie” have been subjected to some pretty odd rhythmic interpretations since the release of his groundbreaking Surfing with the Alien album in 1987, when the song became a rite of passage for shredders worldwide. Interestingly, the discrepancies in this tapped tour-de-force tend to be rhythmic rather than melodic ones, and the madcap figure is often misunderstood as a haphazard series of hammer-ons and pulloffs, rather than a consistently repetitive rhythmic motif. It’s an awesome display of muscular chops and musical ingenuity that also happens to be a textbook example of a neo-classically based compositional principle called “Pitch Axis.”
In this case, the term applies to Satch’s dizzying harmonic progression of cascading tapped, pulled-off, and hammered-on arpeggios, which fluctuates between A-based major, minor, and dominant tonalities, and is played entirely on the fifth string. Given the song’s breakneck tempo, it’s understandable that microscopic, half-speed inspection will reveal some rhythmic inconsistencies, but these are barely noticeable during Satch’s real-time performance.
Examples 1a, 1b & 1c
To understand his true intention, start by establishing the basic rock-and-roll rhythm figure depicted in Ex. 1a and working it up to tempo. Next, adapt the same rhythmic motif to the tapped, 12th-fret A’s in Ex. 1b. When this feels comfortable, apply staccato phrasing as shown in Ex. 1c. (Tip: Mute the strings behind tapped notes.) Get this one down pat because each tap represents the starting point for the upcoming string of arpeggios.
Bar 1 of Ex. 2 utilizes the same tap points and establishes the one-bar rhythmic pattern that Satch employs throughout the entire bridge—two sets of six sixteenth notes followed by two sixteenth-note triplets crammed into beat four. Play this Asus#4 arpeggio twice by tapping the first note (A) and pulling off to the second, third, and fourth notes (E, D#, and open A), and then condense all six notes into an identically phrased sixteenth-note triplet starting on beat four. Repeat bar 1, and then move on to play repeats of bar 2’s Adim7 and bar 3’s Dm/A arpeggios, followed by a single pass through bar 4 and 5’s chromatic sus4 moves, all using the same rhythmic pattern.
Examples 3a through 3f (above) reveal the remaining half-dozen six-note arpeggios necessary to complete the bridge, though you’ll have to adapt them to the one-bar rhythmic motif on your own. To assemble the entire bridge, play Ex. 2 as written, repeat the first three bars, and then add two bars each of Amaj7/6 (Ex. 3a), Dm6/A (Ex. 3b), E(b9)/A (Ex. 3c), A7sus4 (Ex. 3d), Amaj7 (Ex. 3e), and A7 (Ex. 3f). Repeat Examples 3e and 3f as notated three times in succession, wrap it up with the first two notes of Ex. 3f, and you’ll be surfing with the alien in no time!