Joe Satriani: Class is in Session

An interview with one of the greatest guitar players ever

By Peter Lindblad

Some of the greatest rock guitarists of this generation have been taught by Joe Satriani, and with 1987’s Surfing with the Alien, he defied the conventional wisdom that said an instrumental album could never be a commercial and critical hit. Satriani, who has won multiple Grammys for his work, has certainly taken the road less travelled to fame and fortune as a musician. 

Lesser known projects, like his revolving-door touring trio G3, have satisfied his thirst for musical adventure and exploration, while his 1988 stint as lead guitarist on Mick Jagger’s first solo tour provided a showcase for his technically flawless and emotionally transcendent guitar playing. Many feel that Satriani is the greatest guitar player ever, and even though some may argue that Eddie Van Halen has established himself as the pre-eminent shredder of his generation, a strong case can be made that Satriani has passed him by.
Nowadays, Satriani is plying his trade with the supergroup Chickenfoot, which includes veteran singer Sammy Hagar, ex-Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith. Not only is Satriani sparking the group’s dynamic musicianship with his mind-blowing fretwork, but also, Satriani is lending a hand with the writing. Chickenfoot III, the band’s second LP, has been out for a while now, and the band has been on the road with Kenny Aronoff serving as a replacement for Smith. In this interview, Satriani shares his experiences with Chickenfoot and his memories of playing with Jagger and how he was completely dumbfounded by the success of Surfing with the Alien.

Just from initial impressions, Chickenfoot III seems like a heavier album, maybe ‘70s inspired. Was that something you were going for?

Joe Satriani: I think we recognized that that’s what was happening as we were doing it. We never really plan things out. We record ourselves sort of bouncing off each other. That’s kind of like the way we operate, and every time somebody picks up on something like that, you just laugh and smile and say, “Oh, ’72 … you know.” (laughs) That’s just the way we are. That’s part of why stuck together, because we thought it was exciting but curious that we didn’t do like “Satch Boogie,” “Give It Away Now,” and a whole series of Van Halen songs put together. We just sort of … we make this other thing, and so we’ve respected it by not sort of analyzing it. We just let it happen.

From the beginning of Chickenfoot, it being a supergroup, everybody was wondering how the different styles would mesh. Was that a concern when you began?

JS: I’m sure that those guys … you know, Sammy, Mike and Chad were probably thinking about that for a while, because as the last guy to join the unit, I hadn’t spent any time with them, when they, for six months, were jamming down at the Cabo club, and they had a number of guitar players join them onstage. I don’t know at what point it got into their minds that they wanted to make a record, but at some point, they called me and they must have thought, “Boy, that guy’s weird, but maybe it’ll work.” (laughs) So, I’m just happy that they did call me because it turns out I just had a lot of music in my background that was perfect for this band. It’s so natural for me because it was like I was 14 years old again in my high school band. This is exactly the kind of music I dreamt about playing. It didn’t take any extra effort, it was just … I was just so excited I just wanted to make sure we had enough time to devote to the project with our crazy schedules.

I was going to ask you if Chickenfoot allowed you to come full circle in your career, because you started out really loving that music of the ’70s?

JS: It’s funny how that is. I mean, a lot of the music that I’m allowed to write, let’s say, or I’m inspired to write when I’m thinking about Sammy, me, Mike and Chad, I wouldn’t normally be able to pull it off in a solo situation. It would just be so difficult because that style of music is built around a singer being really expressive and charismatic. I mean, Sammy Hagar is just … he’s got an amazing voice. The sound quality of it is huge. He can literally dominate any mix that you bring his voice up in. Wow, it’s just a force of nature. And of course, that style of music really wants the singer to be slightly unusual, slightly dangerous, somewhere on the edge between making a point and just blurting out rock and roll-isms. I don’t know what that is about rock music, but sometimes you like it when they’re being vague, you know, and just sort of being who they are. It adds a certain quality to the music, and so, those are the kinds of things you can’t really do instrumentally. It sounds kind of corny. So I’ve always approached instrumental music that it’s got to be fully, 100 percent, totally inspired by something that means something to me, something that I’ve lived through, somebody that I know, and that’s my guide to making it totally truthful and from the heart. But it’s different when I’m writing, at least for Chickenfoot, I’m really thinking about trying to bring out those things that I’ve picked up on while touring with the band, which I think is why this record sounds just better than the first one we did, because it’s obvious we know each other a lot more. We’ve been able to bring more of our personalities out on this record.

And a heavier record, too.

JS: I think so. I think everybody had a couple of things they were trying to get out of each other. As you said, it’s sort of … it culminated in just a stronger sound. I know Sam kept wanting me to just let loose, and I wanted him to sing in a lower register. I thought it would be more powerful and more intimate at the same time. I definitely wanted to write grooves where Mike, Chad and myself would sound like one big Mack truck coming right at you at a hundred miles per hour because you can write songs where you tell the drummer and bass player to play something repetitive, and you can do crazy stuff on top of it. That would be almost like a solo record type of thing, when you’re trying to give that feeling that the guitars are free and doing all sorts of stuff. You need somebody in the band to be more disciplined. But I wasn’t interested in that with these guys. I wanted to be part of the band, and I wanted Sam to be the thing floating on top. So that means I had to write, specifically, things where we naturally would sync into a backbeat together and sound like one unit. I think that contributes greatly to the heaviness, so we can do those songs like “Big Foot” – that’s a perfect example.

Yeah, that’s one of my favorites. You alluded to approaching Sammy about trying something new. What was that conversation like? Was it a tough conversation to have? Or was it easy to say, “Maybe we should try something different with your voice?”

JS: Oh, I think he was totally into it because I related to him this experience I had a few months before we started really … or I started really writing for this record, and we were hanging out and I’d just come from another local studio, and I said, “Sam, they were working on a song that you sang on. It was Sammy and Neil Schon and Michael Walden, and other local musicians doing a Sly Stone song for a local film. And I was totally blown away listening to Sam’s vocal performance. He just sounded like a stone-cold R&B singer. And the register was lower and his vibrato was beautiful, his voice was the usual, a thousand feet wide. And so I was saying, “Sam, that was like the greatest vocal I’ve ever heard. Why aren’t we doing that?” So, he was definitely excited about it, because he remembered that session. And he had a good time doing it, and he started telling me about all the soul music that he loves and how he’d love to do it. So I kind of took that back with me, and during my writing period for the band last August, 12 months ago, I just focused on that a couple of times to make sure that I could sort of count on that. You know, that I could sort of inspire him in that direction, so that we could get some of those beautiful vocal stylings out of him. Still, I’d love to hear all of it. I mean, he added kind of spoken word, but he’s on the other side of it as well, where he’s screaming like the best of them on this record, too. So I just think he gives, on this record, more of himself than on the first record, which is really cool.

Like you mentioned he was asking something different of you, too. Are there points on the album where you can hear you taking his advice to heart about just trying to lose it in the moment?

JS: Yeah, yeah, absolutely – I took everybody’s suggestions. I’ve got to say, it’s a good thing when we get together. Everybody listens to everybody. Everybody tries everybody’s ideas out. Because we figure, you know, I guess basically, the other guy might be right, so let’s just do it. Why not, you know? So sometimes that means any one of us changing our part just to see if it makes the other guy feel more comfortable with his part or a suggestion of a song. You just never know. A perfect example … well, you mentioned before about letting loose. When we finally got in the studio to do “Three and a Half Letters,” by then a lot of things had happened. I mean, the record was pretty much done and we had just this one last piece of music that Sam and I had written. And our good friend, co-manager and Sam’s personal manager, John Carter, had gotten ill and passed away during the making of the record. And we were back in the studio after he had just passed doing sessions, and so all of that, together with Sam’s earlier request of letting go, was definitely something that I was feeling at that moment. And that I think allowed everybody to let go, and everybody did on that particular one. It was just a very emotionally charged afternoon in the studio. There was another moment where we were working on a song that I brought in that turned into “Different Devil.” And I’d written this acoustic piece thinking it would be a funny, little, odd acoustic song, but everybody else wanted to turn it into a more commercially viable piece of music and I was totally bumming out about that idea. But eventually Chad came back the next day, he had borrowed my acoustic guitar and while he was back at the hotel room, he came up with another chord sequence to inject into the song that Sammy felt he could sing a chorus over. And so we re-did the song that afternoon, with this new piece of music in it, and I started to … slowly I had to pull myself out of, you know, my negative view of something that I had written and realize what they were hearing and I’m glad I did because it turned into one of my favorite pieces. But it was a bit of a cathartic experience – sort of leaving the spot that you were certain about and jumping over into another spot where everyone else was certain about. But I think that’s about trust. I mean, that’s what it’s all about when you get a good band together, there’s an element of trust there. So we will follow one another if the other one suggests it.

I suppose that stems from everybody’s previous successes. Maybe you’re more willing to listen to the other guys because you know they’ve experienced a lot of success on their own?

JS: You’re absolutely right. Yeah, I mean those guys have sold some records based on really good, commercially minded songs, and so, yeah, I’m going to listen (laughs) if Chad, or Mike, or Sammy says, “Hey, we can trim this, and the song would really pop.” I go, “Yeah, you probably know a lot more about that than I do.” (laughs) Get this, this is funny. I just got a text from Chad. That is funny. He’s in Rio, and he’s just saying that he is loving the podcasts. We’ve been putting out these podcasts on every song every day leading up to the release of the album.

That’s a new marketing tool for you. Are you enjoying doing that?

JS: Yeah, I think when I finally see them … of course, I can’t stand looking at myself, and I’m always explaining they’re using the wrong camera angle (laughs). I’m not necessarily ready for primetime, probably will never be, but yeah, after a while, I realized this is a very cool thing, and I wish that all the other artists that I like would do it, because I’d be eating it up, you know.

What kinds of artists do you like these days? You’ve worked with so many and taught so many.

JS: I think the last couple of things I’ve been getting into are not necessarily that new. I mean, I’m thinking about … whew, here’s a weird one. Animals As Leaders. Have you ever heard of them? Tosin Abasi, the guitar player, is just completely … it’s the craziest way of playing guitar that I’ve ever heard in my life. He’s really great. Believe it or not, I have been listening to a lot of Black Keys. I’ve always been into listening to the stuff that Jack White does. I like when guitar players go all the way, whether they’re forging brand new territory or they’re doing revival, throwback stuff, I do really love it. And I find it just stimulating to the heart I guess. I’m always picking up; if somebody finds me a new bootleg of an old James Gang thing, I’ll listen to that (laughs). I’m always looking for more stuff. You know, probably the next thing I’ll get is that new Hendrix compilation of live stuff. That just came out. I still just listen to Hendrix all the time.

Do you still teach?

JS: No, I recently had to put a lot of this into words because I gave a commencement speech at Musicians Institute down in L.A., and I had to remind myself the last time I taught an official lesson was actually Kirk Hammett, and it was back in January of ’88. And he was the last student I gave a lesson to. He was just about to start recording … And Justice for All, and I was just about to go out on my very first tour as a solo artist for the Surfing … record. That’s how long ago it was. Our lives have changed so dramatically since then, but yeah, it’s been a while.

Do you miss it at all?

JS: No. Teaching is very hard. It’s very hard to sit in a small room, and I was teaching privately, so that meant I was teaching over 40 hours a week. I had 60-plus students, all individual lessons, an hour and half hour. That’s intense. That was my day job. What I was really doing was playing in a rock band at night, and so … yeah, that was pretty tough.

In that way, your career and that of Randy Rhoades had parallels. I know he taught as well.

JS: I don’t know too many players out there who teach. I mean, it’s a good gig to have, because the guitar is in your hand all day long. You have the opportunity to continually think about technique, and it is nice to hang out with other guitar players, rather than … I don’t know, if you worked at the post office or something, driving yourself crazy. The danger is you’ve got the guitar in your hand too many hours a day. You have to be careful of over playing and repetitive stress, and probably mentally, you don’t want to get bitter about music by having to teach kids and professionals. Even though I had students like Charlie Hunter, Larry LaLonde and Kirk Hammett and Alex Skolnick, I also had people who were grammar school teachers, lawyers, doctors, race car drivers, cable car operators, and I had kids who used to bring in action figures and put them on the amp and then pick up the guitar (laughs). I had a diverse group of young and old, men and women, and when you’re a teacher, you have a job to do, which is to get them to play the music they want to play. It’s not about turning them into rock stars, unless they specifically asked you to. Unless they were your average 18-year-old kid who comes in and says, “Make me the greatest guitar player in the world. I’ll do whatever you say, you know.” But it’s not for the faint of heart as far as musicians go. For some people, it would rub them the wrong way with their creative mind, you know. They would rather be out painting or something where they could have their solitude.

What do you like best about working with Sammy?

JS: Well, Sammy is Sammy, and that’s the best part about Sammy Hagar, just his basic personality. He’s one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s got a golden heart, and you know, the music business is absolutely insane. If there’s something bad inside somebody, the music business brings it out. That’s the bad thing about it. So, there are just a lot of those guys you want to avoid. I’ve been through some crazy stuff with Sam, and he’s been the same golden-hearted guy, and that’s a great thing. And that’s why good things happen around him. It’s a testament to his nature. But beside all that, he’s a great singer, he’s prolific, he only does stuff that he truly believes in, which is really great – which can be really funny sometimes, because you can’t believe some of the stuff he believes in. You go, “What?” But he’s not calculating in any way. He just goes straight from the heart. And he gives it all he’s got. I’ve toured with the guy, and he just wants to make everybody feel great in the audience. It’s a very important thing. You’d think that would be … that every performer would feel that way, but they don’t. And you do sometimes find performers who are selfish or who could care less, and that’s really sad and you don’t want to work with them. But Sammy cares really hard. He reminds me of the year I spent working with Mick Jagger back in ’88. I was blown away with how much Mick cared about the audience and the show, and everybody that he worked with – you know, kind and generous, but still unpredictable and totally rock and roll. He was the first guy who told me those elements can actually be together in one human being. And Sam is very prolific. He’s great. He’s got a million ideas, and so to know him is to receive calls all during the day and night, with him being 100 percent enthusiastic about something. You never know what it’s going to be. He’s never like 50 percent into something. He’s always 100 percent or zero percent, which makes him an exciting friend.

What do you think is the future of Chickenfoot?

JS: Oh, I’m pretty confident that the core group – Sammy, Mike, Chad and myself – will make another couple of records. I truly believe that. I think that every time we finish a record, I think we all got the feeling like, “Wow, this is almost like a step to some new beginning.” And then, of course, reality steps in and then, it’s like, “Oh, that’s right. Chad’s in the Chili Peppers. Sam’s got a million things going on. I’ve got a solo career. And Mike’s on a permanent vacation, which he takes very seriously.” But, we kind of put that out of our minds, and we just move ahead one step at a time – that’s what I think. I really do think there’s so much more music to share between the four of us, we will make more records.

The music industry has changed so much since Surfing With the Alien and your other instrumental albums. Could you ever foresee an instrumental album being as popular as that one was?

JS: No, oh man. When we were finishing that record, me and my co-producer John Cuniberti, we were convinced that it was the last record that people would let us make, that we were going to get run out of town, so to speak, you know. It would be like, “Thank you very much. Now go away.” No, we did whatever we wanted, we remastered … you know, we just pushed and pushed and finally handed it over, and it was like, okay. And I literally handed the record in and went back to teaching guitar, and John went back to his studio work. We had no idea. When somebody told us that it landed on the Billboard charts, I remember, and they called up and said, “It’s 186.” And I said, “186 on what?” I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “Billboard? It’s on Billboard?” And I remember, it was a moment where I was in Australia touring with Mick, and it was sitting at 29 on the Billboard charts. It sat there for six weeks, and I remember it was higher than Mick’s solo record. And we were out to dinner, and I remember Mick coming over to me and saying, “Hey, Joe, that is like the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” and congratulating me and … you know, Mick always said, “Anything you need from this organization to promote the record, you got it. You need a room. You need a camera crew … whatever.” And he gave me a solo spot on the tour every night. I’d have 10 to 15 minutes to play whatever I wanted. He was very generous that way and excited about it, but it illustrated to me at that moment, this is like, I could never have imagined this. This is freaky, to have that success and have Mick Jagger say, “Congratulations, Joe. Anything I can do to help, you know.” It was just really cool.

What other things do you have on the horizon?

JS: Wow. Right now I’m juggling interviews. It’s all about Chickenfoot right now. I’m waiting to get some tracks from Jon Lord actually, because I’m going to be adding guitar to a record that Jon Lord is doing. So I’m excited about that. And the 3-D film of my last tour, the Wormhole tour, is coming out [soon].


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