Candid conversation covers the early years, career highlights, Chickenfoot – and turning 60!
By Gary Graff
April 22, 2016
Thirty years ago Joe Satriani released his first album, Not Of This Earth, and neither he nor the world of guitar playing has been the same since.
A Westbury, NY, native with a rare gift of blending technical skill with genuine emotions, Satriani emerged from a busy teaching career – his students included Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and members of Third Eye Blind, Primus, Counting Crows and more – as a fully formed and original instrumentalist with a signature tone, but also a broad vocabulary that quickly gave him virtuoso standing amongst his peers.
1987’s Surfing With The Alien cemented his place in the guitar pantheon, and Satriani has forged forward both on his own in collaborations that include the G3 tours with good pal Steve Vai and others and the supergroup Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony. Satriani even logged brief stints playing with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, and his guest collaborations list includes the Yardbirds, John5, Stanley Clarke, Crowded House, Brian May, Alice Cooper, the Steve Miller Band – and, yes, even Spinal Tap.
Most recently Satriani reviewed his career for the boxed set Chrome Dome, while his latest studio effort, the explosive Shockwave Supernova, came out last July. And as he begins his fourth decade, surf’s still up for Satriani, with no sign of low tide in the near future.
FGPO: So 30 years – does it feel like 30 seconds, 30 years, 300 years?
Satriani: (Laughs) It depends on what time of day you ask me that question. Usually when you’re stuck in an airport or something like that, that’s when you think it’s been a 300-year career. But when you’re walking off stage it feels like it’s just been 30 microseconds. It goes by in a flash, ’cause every time I’m playing one of the old songs I feel like I’m still working on it. That’s the great thing about live performance; you keep the art alive.
FGPO: Everything remains a work in progress?
Satriani: That’s right. It’s never really dates. It’s always got something that’s got a fresh element to it. I always like revisiting the people and the stories and the places that the music is about so it’s a living, breathing, cathartic thing every time I play a song on stage.
FGPO: So how did guitar become it for you?
Satriani: Y’know, I was driven to play drums first ’cause I thought Ringo (Starr) and Charlie Watts were the coolest guys I’d ever seen, on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was the youngest of five, so I was heavily influenced by the music my older brother and older sisters were crazy about in the ‘60s, and then I was increasingly drawn towards the guitar players. It certainly looked cool. And one of my older sisters was an acoustic guitar player. I kid you not; I was jealous she could make music quietly anywhere in the house and no one seemed to mind, but any time I went to practice my drums everyone would remind me I sucked. (Laughs)
It was fun to make a lot of noise, but I thought, “This isn’t very private, is it?” And then I started to suspect I wasn’t very good at it either, so I thought, “Well, this guitar thing is really cool.” I tried saxophone and violin and piano and, as I said, the drums were so difficult and so painful for anybody standing around listening to me. But guitar, everybody seemed to enjoy it and I enjoyed it and every day I was a little better, so it was good. It was something I really felt in my heart. It just felt right.
FGPO: Was there a particular player or record that really got you focused on guitar?
Satriani: It didn’t really sink in until Hendrix died. I remember that day. I was 14, all suited up and about to play football at high school, standing outside the gym. One of my teammates came out and said, “That guy you really like, Jimi Hendrix, just died.” I took off my gear, walked into the coach’s office and told him I was quitting.
Over dinner, you can imagine – seven of us, nice Italian-American family dinner, I stood up and said, “Hey everybody, I’m gonna be a musician and dedicate myself to the guitar.” There was a lot of screaming, but when the dust settles it works out.
My father said, “If you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it. It’s not gonna be like the drums; you’re really gonna try this time.” It taught me many lessons about what it really meant to focus on something and try your best. I carry those lessons with me to this day. It was taught there that night over dinner, though.
FGPO: You’re lucky you had that kind of support.
Satriani: Well, I think my parents were tired and I benefited from that. (Laughs) If I’d been the oldest they would’ve nixed that whole musician thing completely. My older twin sisters had already sort of raked my parents through the coals of the ‘60s, so in 1970 my parents were former shells of themselves as being conscientious parents. They were sort of like, “Whatever, OK. The last one is gonna be a musician? He’s decided to become a disciple of a crazy, psychedelic musician who just overdosed on drugs? Fine. What else could go wrong?” I kind of dashed all their hopes for normalcy. (Laughs)
FGPO: Thirty years on, what’s your perspective on Not Of This Earth and your other work?
Satriani: Y’know, I try not to listen back to what I’ve done. It’s difficult to listen to my own performances. I have to do that when I’m writing and recording something. I have to do my correct diligence to give the fans the best I can do. But it’s like looking at pictures of yourself every day. Who does that? It’s too creepy. I think all of the records were produced with full enthusiasm of the time.
When we were doing the Chrome Dome (retrospective) collection and re-mastering the entire catalog, we had to just simply admit that that’s what we did. Back in ’86 that’s what we thought was cool. You don’t go back and change it, as much as I wanted to go fix the notes. That’s what I did. I’ve got to paraphrase Andy Warhol, something like,
“Don’t concern yourself with whether something’s good or not or whether people will like it. Just make good art.” I always thought that’s a good way to look at it. It’s not my job to decide what people will like; it’s my job to play guitar.
FGPO: What do you know about yourself as a player now that you couldn’t have known back then, though?
Satriani: That I’ve always played my best when I’ve surrendered myself to emotions. I always consider myself less professional than some of my friends who seem to be able to keep it together for TV or for all the right moments; I’ve never felt comfortable that way unless I completely abandon myself to the emotion or the moment.
I never knew that’s what was going on, but after so many decades of listening to recorded live performances and my friends saying, “How come it sounds like you’re out of breath after a song and you haven’t been running around or something?,” I started to wonder why is that? And I learned I’m going through something intense as I’m playing those melodies. I don’t notice it when I’m in the middle of it; I just naturally jump in, dive into the deep end of the pool and see what happens, but at the end of it I feel like I’ve done something for the audience and I’ve experienced something and feel like I’ve done the very best I could. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
FGPO: There’s a new song coming from Chickenfoot, we hear?
Satriani: There is a song. Sometimes I get excited about it, other times I think we’re not sure what we’re doing. We’ve always done things sort of separate from the industry in a way, just being self-financed and always doing these records and tours in between our “real” jobs. That doesn’t seem unusual to me, although it must seem pretty weird to the audience. I doubt there will ever be another album. Thankfully we have a gig; we have one fun gig in May in Lake Tahoe. It’ll be great to get together with the guys and play again.
FGPO: Tell us about the song.
Satriani: It kind of surprised me. I write a lot of stuff for Chickenfoot and I send it around. There’s no guarantee they like any of it. Sometimes weeks go by and I won’t get positive feedback from any stuff I’m sending them.
This one song, for some reason, triggered something with Sam. He came up with a story he wanted to tell. It’s sort of a bare bones, bluesy thing. It was really a lot of fun to work on. I did the guitars at home and sent it to Sam and he did all the vocals and then it got sent to Chad and Chad did the drums somewhere else, then it got sent to Mike and Mike did the bass and then Sammy and Mike got together and did the background vocals and then I put on the last solo guitar parts. It got bounced around a lot.
FGPO: Are you at peace with the nature of how Chickenfoot works?
Satriani: I think it will always be upsetting to me that it’s under-realized like it is. It befuddles me still. However, the other guys have plenty of things to do. I get it. But when I think about it from an artistic point of view, it just seems ridiculous that we didn’t do more. It just seems completely wrong, but it’s one of those things where you have to look at it and accept the fact that everybody doesn’t feel the same way. There are things in the world at that are just like that, and you can fight it and drive yourself crazy or accept it and move on and be happy when it does happen.
FGPO: You spent a brief time with Deep Purple. How did you feel about their finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Satriani: I wish it had come sooner. I really wish Jon Lord could’ve stood on that stage with them. I think Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore should’ve been on that stage.
But it’s a very talented band. It had a lot of really talented members over the years. My brief period of playing with those guys taught me a lesson about how people do have a hard time getting along with each other in general, and in rock ‘n’ roll bands it’s pretty much the same as any other part of life. It’s unfortunate. I think there’s going to be a time when they’ll look back and say, “Why were we disagreeing so much? It could’ve been so much easier to agree with each other.” I’m just talking as a fan, really. Even though I toured with the band for over a six-month period, I was never really IN the band. I was always just a fan and was just happy to be part of it for a minute.
FGPO: Besides the 30-year anniversary, you also turn 60 in July. Ready for that?
Satriani: Yes, it’s amazing. I’ll be celebrating on stage in France, playing in a festival. That’ll be a crazy moment. I’ve celebrated a third of my birthdays on tour somewhere, starting when I was 18 in Flint, Mich., playing with a disco band. We had a three-week engagement there at a place called the Embers Lounge or something like that. I’ll never forget it. When you’re 18 years old and on tour, it’s quite an experience. Every day is crazy. But I’m still here – that’s the great thing.