Widely regarded as being one of the world’s greatest guitarists, Joe Satriani is a real life guitar hero. He’s played with the likes of Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, as well as forming the supergroup Chickenfoot, but he’s best known for being a unique instrumentalist able to do extraordinary things with a guitar that negate the need for words. Ahead of his UK tour, BN1’s Gary Marlowe spoke to Satch about his influences, his music, his guitars and his love of art, as well as learning why serendipity has played such a big part in his career.
Shockwave Supernova is your 15th solo album, but I want to take you back to 1986 when you put out your very first record. The world’s a very different place now compared to when you released your debut, which I believe you self-financed by using your credit card. Did it really cost just $5,000 to make?
Joe: Almost. I borrowed the $5,000 from the credit card company and put in an additional $2,000 of my own. The recording came to just a bit over $7,000.
Looking back, I guess you must consider that to be one of the best investments you’ve ever made. Though at the time, I imagine it felt like a huge gamble…
Joe: It was a ridiculous gamble and I spent about a year really sweating it out. Just as my paying off that card became impossible I was saved only by being asked to join the Greg Kihn Band. The pay was so good, it totally cleared my debt and got me set for starting another record, which became Surfing With The Alien. That’s what happens sometimes. You’ve gotta just jump in the water!
When you released that album you were 30, I don’t imagine back then you expected it to be the foundation for building a career playing instrumental music, something you’re still doing to this day?
Joe: I wasn’t planning on that at all. I started my own record company and the idea was to learn about making records and the music business. I wasn’t thinking I’d ever have a career doing instrumental music. I left that up to the masters like Jeff Beck. Plus, at that time, the music scene wasn’t that rewarding for guitar players for that kind of stuff. So I wasn’t really thinking about it and it really did take me by surprise.
In fact, you’ve described becoming an instrumentalist as being “an accidental career”
Joe: It really was. That first record I put out was truly an experiment. I was on vacation from my band and just thought if I had drums and bass I’d be able to reach a larger audience and not be in the oddball market.
Had you originally intended to find a vocalist? Or could you not find one you liked? Or did you simply say ‘Hey I can do this without vocals’?
Joe: You know I thought that eventually I’d put a band together and of course virtually all bands have vocalists. But after the success of the Surfing album I was signed to a second deal with Epic records to make a follow-up.
Being successful as an instrumentalist is quite rare. In fact it’s hard to think of any contemporary musician who has built a career without the need for lyrics or vocals. Why do you think you’ve managed to achieve what you have?
Joe: I really have no idea. I’m almost afraid to think about it. I grew up learning how to play by jamming along to records by Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. That’s how I started. Those are the first guys who made an impression on me.
In many ways, your guitar sound is your voice. There are thousands of guitarists out there, so how did you develop your sound to be so distinctive?
Joe: I don’t know. I listened to a great deal of instrumental melodic music, both classical and jazz and that always made a big impression on me, even as a very young kid. When I first heard Beethoven, I never thought the lyrics were missing. And you’re right, there are thousands of guitarists who are really tremendous players, but playing original compositions is a different thing from just playing your guitar.
As a guitar player, you’re renowned for many things, often when people speak of you it’s about the speed of your playing. Indeed, in my review of your Portsmouth show two years ago I wrote “His searing finger-work is blisteringly fast, so much so it often felt like he was playing two guitars at the same time, such was the complexity of his playing.” Was that something that emanated from your guitar hero Hendrix?
Joe: No, actually Jimi was not known for being a speed demon. In my own music I just use the technique as means to express the meaning of the song. And if I don’t need to use it, I don’t. It’s either appropriate or it’s inappropriate. And if you’re going to play for over two hours in front of an audience, you’ve got to have more than just a barrage of notes to throw at them. That’s much more difficult when it’s just instrumentals.
One thing of course about instrumental music, is it can be interpreted in many more ways than a song with lyrics. No doubt when you’re composing songs you’ve got a particular inspiration in mind and a vision of what it’s about. You recently referred to instrumental music as being music that’s “free of context”. Over the years, people must have used your songs in ways that were probably completely different to the context you had in your head.
Joe: Yes that does happen quite a lot. The one that stands out most is a track released in ’92 called Cryin which was written during my grieving process for my father passing away. Years later, we were in Germany and we got word that a German football programme called RAN were using the song as their theme song where they ran the week’s highlights. They even invited us onto the programme to play it live! I think once the inspiration has created something fruitful for the artist, then you have to give it away and let people associate with it how they will. And that I think is the real power of instrumental music.
Ibanez are your guitars of choice, you’ve said “They’ve designed them around every little thing I need. Everything about it allows the guitar to be very expressive and less generic sounding.” For the layman, how is it that guitars that look so similar, can sound so different?
Joe: Well, there are three major parts. First, there’s the wood, which has a lot to do with how the guitar sounds in general as an acoustic instrument. Let me rephrase that and say it’s about how the strings behave when they’re strummed, the pick ups are there as the electronic component, they also pick up how the strings are responding to vibrations. And second, is the hardware, which is anything from a vibrato bar to the kind of frets which shape the neck. The third aspect – the anatomy of the player – really influences the appearance of the guitar, which in turn shapes its sound. Someone with large hands may favour a guitar which has got a very flat broad radius, others may prefer a very round neck like those guitars from the mid-50s.
You celebrated an anniversary recently with Ibanez – 25 years of the JS series – and to mark the occasion you did something really interesting that showcased another of your talents, you created a limited run of 50 guitars each featuring artwork individually drawn by yourself. Whose idea was it?
Joe: It was Bill Reim’s idea. Bill is the CEO of Hoshino USA the company that manufacturers Ibanez. I’ve known him for at least 25 years. Bill had seen my artbook and also knew I was working on an animated TV show and he’d seen me drawing on guitars now and then, but he wanted to figure out a way to do it where it would be of the highest quality. It actually took them months of research and development to try and figure out which pens would take best to the bodies, what kind of wood, what kind of base coat and what kind of finishing would not disturb the artwork. So, after six months of testing I went down to LA and did all the drawings over two intense 18-hour days!
Let’s move on to talk about Chickenfoot. With all four of you either in other bands or having other career commitments, I know it was always an unusual situation. I also know you’ve probably been the biggest instigator in trying to get the band back together. So where do things stand right now?
Joe: It’s not looking that hopeful. There’s just nothing but road blocks every time. The reality is, you’ve gotta move on.
So will you be looking for someone else to collaborate with, another band perhaps?
Joe: Absolutely! But like so many things in my career, it’ll probably be something that comes out of nowhere.
You seem pretty good at serendipity…
Joe: That’s the natural state of things. Chaos and serendipity!
I began this chat by saying the world’s a very different place now compared to when you released your debut album, and perhaps the biggest difference today is the effect that all things digital have had on all aspects of the music business – whether it’s how music is composed, recorded or played live, how musicians now make money…or in many cases, don’t. I know the conflict between art and commerce is something that’s close to your heart…
Joe: Well, it’s not really a conflict. An artist needs to engage in commerce in order to pay for the next piece of artwork. The challenge has shifted. The period where people made millions of dollars off of records was really a very small period in the history of music. The internet and file sharing made billionaires and destroyed fortunes at the same time. In my world, I still have to show up and play, and that’s something that hasn’t changed at all and will always be the same!
Even for an established artist like yourself, is it economically challenging to finance the traditional recording an album then touring it around the world for months on end?
Joe: No, not really. I think that first of all one has got to get rid of the idea of traditional when it comes to the music business. Other than walking out on stage and playing to an audience, the music business has never been traditional. Pretty much everything else has been in chaotic flux since it started. Literally, if you look at it every five or ten years, you realise it never stands still, everyone has to continually think on their feet and I guarantee you two years from now we’ll still be scratching our heads and saying wow I didn’t see that coming. But whatever it is, it’s definitely coming!
Words: Gary Marlowe
Photo: Images Out Of The Ordinary
Follow Joe at @chickenfootjoe
Joe Satriani’s latest album ‘Shockwave Supernova’ is out now