Satriani1[Photo: Getty Images]
Satriani2[Photo: Getty Images]
Satriani3[Photo: Getty Images]
That Metal Show might be over for the season but we’ve still got a couple more That Metal Gear’s coming your way. We’ve been talking to some of the show’s most talented guests about how they got started on their instruments and what gear they use to get their sounds. This week read an interview with one of the wizard’s of shredding, instrumental rock, Joe Satriani. Joe’s been in the top tier of guitar players since he came on the scene in the ‘80s and is also famous as the former guitar teacher of such well-known players as Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Larry LaLonde of Primus among others. As you’d expect from someone who puts so much thought and skill into his playing, Joe was a great interview and had insightful and even inspiring things to say about playing music and how to always push yourself forward as a musician.
VH1: What was your first electric guitar?
Joe Satriani: The first electric guitar was a Hagstrom III. It looked somewhere between a Strat (Fender Stratocaster) and an (Gibson) SG with 3 single-coil pick-ups. White guitar, black pickguard, lots of little switches and stuff. I was naïve about Fender, Gibson, whatever, and that was the closest thing that looked like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. I’d been a drummer since age 9 but kind of drifted away from it after three years but the day Hendrix died, I quit the football team and I go home and I announce to my family of seven at the dinner table that I’m going to be a guitar player because Hendrix died. I became a Hendrix fanatic. So, you know, confusion and mayhem and arguments ensue and then my sister Carol says, “Look, I’ll buy him a guitar.” She donated her first paycheck as an art teacher at a local high school to buy it for me.
That leads into the second question, which you’ve already started answering I think; who was the first guitarist that made you want to play guitar?
That was Hendrix. He’s a guiding light. I was the youngest of five kids so my oldest siblings were nine years older so I lived through the rock n’ roll of the late ‘50s and everything that happened in the ‘60s through them. I was always in the room when they were having parties, whether they were listening to early rock n’ roll, blues, the British Invasion, Mo-Town, I wound up with all the records because they all eventually left for school and then left the house and didn’t take their records with them. I wound up with this incredibly eclectic group of very cool records from a really great time period.
What was the first good piece of musical equipment you owned?
Probably the second electric guitar I got: a ’68 Fender Telecaster, maple-neck. Someone had refinished it in black—a home job, you know. I had started playing with an older guitar player in school. I got asked to join this band with guys who were a few grades ahead of me. The lead guitar player in that band had found that guitar for me in the classified papers from somebody in Queens, the next borough over. It was cheap, like $150, and had a Bigsby vibrato bar. I eventually brought it into Manhattan and had Larry DiMarzio (of DiMarzio pickups fame) put a humbucker in the neck position. This is before I knew who Larry was. I just happened to get steered to 48th St. Charles LoBue had a shop there and this guy Larry was working in the back putting specially wound humbucking pickups in guitars. This is like 1971. I remember meeting him because I had an issue with the installation and Charles brought out this guy covered in sawdust, curly hair, big red beard, and everything. And Charles is like, “Larry, explain it to this kid.” And of course years later Larry and I become good friends. And he helps me design pickups along with Steve Blucher. It’s just funny how fate works that way. You know?
What was the first guitar solo or song that you mastered?
Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever mastered anything. My friends seemed to get very excited when I would play Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or The Doors or Stones or The Beatles, the kind of stuff we were doing in my high school bands. I think I was famous for almost being unsatisfied. Every time we would win a Battle Of The Bands I would be totally depressed thinking, “Man, we suck. How could we possibly have won?” Because I would always see somebody else who I thought was remarkably better on the show. Although it’s good to be introspective and I suppose to recognize your talents and pat yourselves on the back now and then, I don’t see any good comes of it in the long run. It seems to me, you’re better off liking the way other people play and not so much yourself. It kind of moves you forward. It’s better to stay hungry and a little upset than to think, “I’m all that.” I don’t see where that leads to anything creative. Most of my biggest songs are ones that were written about difficult subjects that took forever to properly distill the emotion out of and when they were over I thought, “Whoa, that’s one cathartic process I don’t want to go through again,” only to find out that people like it and then you go, “Oh, great. Why can’t I become popular for writing songs about butterflies and things that are easy?” But instead it’s the other way around.
What gear are you using these days?
My main tool hasn’t really changed, which is the Ibanez JS2400. Since we started working on the development of the 24-fret JS guitar that’s been my main axe. It seems to be the thing that I can play almost anything from my catalog on. And it feels the most familiar. When I go back to it, it always feels very welcoming. I should say that in the last 7 weeks, I got sidelined by the H1N1 virus, so I was at home hanging out, doing nothing, and playing guitars. I would go through the vintage guitars, the old Teles, Les Pauls, 335s, old acoustics, just having fun, and I’d go back into my studio and I’d say, “I better see if I can still play my own music again” every couple of days. And I’d run through the set. And every time I pick up the 2400 guitar and I plug it into my Marshall JVM410, I’d just give a sigh of relief because suddenly I could do all of this stuff. I think that’s really important to find a system that provides the least amount of resistance so you start to forget about it.
You know, going back to my first Telecaster, there is a guitar that constantly reminds you that it’s in charge. Any time any good comes out of it, it’s because it let you do it. And that’s the beauty and the cruelty of that 1950, 1949 design. But I couldn’t play hardly anything from my catalog on a guitar like that. It would go out of tune in a second and it just doesn’t provide the flexibility tone wise and technique wise that a modern guitar would and certainly not that the JS guitar would. I go back to the JS and sometimes I skip all the pedals and go straight into the Marshall. To me that’s great. I was doing that yesterday. Same progression I was telling you. I started in the morning playing a couple of ‘50s and late ’40s Martins and started playing a couple of Les Pauls and then moved onto a Strat, then came downstairs and there was another one of my other old Parlor guitars sitting in the living room and eventually I make my way down to the studio and I pick up my orange JS2410 MCO—the muscle car orange guitar—and plug it into the Marshall, and turn it up, and play again some backing tracks of “Satch Boogie” and stuff like that. Big smile across my face, you know, because all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh wow, I’m back home. I can do anything.” So I’m really enjoying that.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?
For Chickenfoot I think “Sexy Little Thing” is still one of my favorite songs to play with the band. I don’t know what it is. I guess because it feels less derivative of where each of us came from in our other gigs. It doesn’t sound like a Joe Satriani song. It doesn’t sound like a Chili Peppers song. It doesn’t sound like anything that Mike and Sammy did with Van Halen. That one just seems like it fell together for all the right reasons. And when we recorded it, it was a live recording, loose and it captured some of the greatest things about the band.
It’s really hard to come up with a good answer about my own show and playing that stuff live. That’s a difficult one to think about. Somewhere in the 3rd or 4th song that’s where you get comfortable with where you are, what’s happening on stage, and you get a handle on the show. The first song is just an explosion of energy. And you’re taking in the sound of the place and everyone’s dealing with their equipment and checking out how the audience is coming off those first few minutes. And then of course toward the end of the set, there’s a bit of elation that sort of works into it, which is confusing the issue. You’re just spent from just giving everything you’ve got and so who knows if you’re playing good or not at that point. It becomes like a psychedelic experience for me.
I can say sometimes when I’m getting to the end of “Summer Song,” I’m thinking “This is the greatest.” I guess for introspection on this last tour, there’s a new song from the new record called “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn” and that’s the one of the deepest, most emotionally gut-wrenching for me to get through because I want to play it so right. I want to put out the totality of the feeling that went into writing it and recording it. But at the same time, when I finish that last note there’s a big sigh of relief that I didn’t mess it up. I take it personally if I mess it up. Even the songs that are just fun, like “Satch Boogie,” without the benefits of lyrics I can’t just talk to people. In other words, every song has to be played in a very specific way to maintain and support the true meaning of the song because it’s instrumental. I’m not just there to solo or show technique or step on pedals. I’m actually playing these melodies and they represent feelings and stories and emotions, and I know that my audience that has stayed with me all decades they’re connected with those songs. They’ve gone through life listening to these things. I’m very careful to play each song very specifically. So that means each song is a sort of roller coaster ride.
Who was the last guitar player you heard or saw that blew you away?
Ron Wood the last time I saw The Rolling Stones. It was one of those nights where he was on fire and it was all working. I talked to him briefly before this show and once again I thought, “Wow. This guy is just so…up.” There’s always a lot of tension backstage with performers, especially a big show like that, but Ron Wood always just seems to be having the greatest time. He was totally straight and would look you right in the eye. So I remember going out to watch them and thinking “This is going to be a cool night.” And I was totally blown away because he sounded great and played all the right stuff. He was a fantastic compliment to The Rolling Stones. I remember walking away thinking, “Wow, he is one of the greats.” He’s just a natural musician. That’s what’s so wonderful about him. And boy, just when you think you’ve heard everything he’s done, he just pulls out a new catalog of stuff.