Joe Satriani

An interview with Joe Satriani
by Tommy Rage
August 2020

Joe Satriani

Joe Satriani

Let’s make a list. No, not a grocery list, a ‘hunny-do’ list, or that; “where’s the craziest place you made out at” list. This is a simple list for us music fans. Let’s list the greatest guitarists of all time. I’ll go first. Joe Satriani. O.K. You can go. I’m done with my list. Perhaps that’s because since 1986, Joe has routinely topped guitar magazine polls as one of the greatest technical guitar players of all time. With six gold and platinum albums, Joe continues to put out incredible solo guitar albums year after year. Releasing his 18th studio album in April, Shapeshifting, is a fluid narrative of how Joe would assemble a complete album in a new and transformative way.

“I was thinking about how very often you make a decision about getting a record process started and you know, you kind of have to say, ‘Okay. I am going to make this kind of a record which means I should probably record it there and hire this person and invite these musicians and get this set of gears that supports this style.’ So whether you are going to do a math-rock record or a pop album or a vintage blues sounding thing, it really requires you to take care of all those little details. I was just thinking about that, and I thought, ‘Well, I have done a lot of albums, and what if I went the opposite way.’ The contrarian way would be to just pick the songs that you think are the most interesting and that support some other things which is: You change. You let each song be its own entity by itself. I thought, ‘Well, that is so different, that is what I would love to do. I would love to be a different guitar player every day in the studio. Picking up a different guitar, playing in a very different way. The concept really crystallized when I wrote the title track and I was thinking about changing shape, and the word Shapeshifting came to mind and I thought, ‘Okay, here is a concept that is thousands of years old. It goes all the way back to Greek mythology and how humans can change their shape to do all kinds of things’. I knew that it was the way I should look at myself. I am going to shape-shift from song to the next song, and then I was off and running. That was the inspiration I needed. It was just that title track crystallizing in my mind, and that’s how the project would proceed.”

The journey to make to an album like Shapeshifting, continues to allow Joe the freedom to tell a tale in his own way. It’s something that Joe has done ever since he started releasing his albums back in the 80’s, and he still gets a laugh thinking back to his days as a guitar teacher for some of today’s most celebrated axe-men. “When I was a young kid, I started playing live when I was fourteen, and I had been playing less than a year. But there were younger kids than me, and they were teachers at the high school that watched me play at these high school bands, and they all wanted to take lessons. So, at the age of fifteen, I started teaching and it was just kind of something I fell into by accident. This was in New York. By the time I moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area, I wound up teaching again because I lived across the street from a guitar store, and I never bought anything, but I spent way too many hours in there, right? So, one day the owner says to me, ‘You know what? You are not going to buy anything are you?’ And I said, ‘No. I am just wasting my time here [laughter]’, and he said, ‘How about this? How about you give lessons? That way you can hang out here and play all these great vintage guitars?’  I was kind of reluctant but I said, ‘All right, I will do that.’ Then I wound up doing that for ten years at this store. I never would have guessed that the Kirk Hammett, Larry LaLonde, Alex Skolnick, Charlie Hunter, David Bryson, and Kevin Cadogan, and all these amazing young kids, would walk through the door, take lessons for a few years, and then go out and change the world. It was really a remarkable experience.”

Being able to form those early bonds with his peers led Joe to assemble a concert tour which many music fans had been dreaming of for years, but never thought would be possible until Joe decided to make it happen. Since 1996, the G3 tour has allowed Joe to tour with fellow guitar greats, and it’s something that Joe loves doing, even if putting it all together isn’t that easy. “It’s a process that takes a little bit more than a year, and we would start calling not only artists and their managers, but also agents and promoters in the territory that we are choosing, and we would have to see if there is availability, because there is great competition for venues. Then we have to get [the other guitarists] feelings about who they would like to see, and that’s my problem. It can be difficult, because sometimes as a guitar player, I think of all kinds of crazy ideas that would be great from a fan’s perspective. But, it’s about the camaraderie, and the friendship that grows out of playing with musicians that is really special. It is like the most fun you could ever have, but at the same time - touring is sort of a death-defying feat. It is just so difficult, believe it or not, to go out for two months and to endure the endless travelling, lack of sleep, the funny diet and everything. Then there is this fantastic experience every night, and it is an unusual bonding that happens. The G3 experience, as I promise everyone that I ever invited, would also be a really curious disarming of any anxiety you might have about performing with other guitar players. Which was the big hurdle, you know - to get it off the ground back in ‘95. Every musician and manager would say, ‘I do not want to stand next to that guy.’ Or ‘She might play better than me and make me look bad.’ Or you know managers would say, ‘I don’t want my artist appearing next to someone who is better-looking, taller or plays faster or louder.’ Or whatever; and I would always say, ‘No, no, no, you got it all wrong. It will never happen that way. The audience has already decided who their favorite is, so they don’t even care. They are just so happy that we are showing up together. We are celebrating guitar playing, there is no pretense anymore. It is just guitar players letting their guard down and sharing, and the audience is there with us. It is not a competition. There’s no prize at the end, so stop worrying about it, and just have a good time.’ And they always do. After the first show, they are like, “Oh this is the greatest.” 

Since the very beginning of Joe’s G3 tours, one of his long-time friends and fellow touring mates is a master guitarist himself, Steve Vai. Joe was actually Steve’s teacher at one point and still chuckles when he shares the story of when the legends first met for lessons. “He was one of my very first students. He was about 12. I just turned fifteen, and he showed up at my door, you know with—I have told the story many times [laughter], he had a guitar, a string-less guitar in one hand and a pack of strings in the other and he said, ‘You teach my friend, John Sergio. Can you teach me how to play guitar?’ And like, ‘How do I put these strings on?’ You know, so I started teaching him—Actually he took lessons with his friend because the two of them couldn’t come up with the five dollars for a guitar lesson, and that lasted for like a couple of weeks and already like Steve showed me that he was going to be genius. I thought, ‘This kid is going to be so much better than me, but I cannot teach him when his buddy is with him.’ And you know his buddy is like a slow burner. More like my level, you know, so I thought, ‘Okay. I got to talk to Steve. He is got to figure out a way to take lessons on his own. Then, just three years of lessons later, he just was remarkable. Even back then I could tell that he was just going to be a genius.’

Drawing from his years of success with both his G3 touring, his solo albums, as well as his work in the super-group Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Chad Smith, and Michael Anthony, Joe still finds joy in writing songs that fans love – even dating back to his very first noteworthy band. “It’s really fun to think that when you write songs from the moment of feeling so excited that that is going to translate to the fans. I mean, that is just, you know, it makes my existence worth everything [laughter]. I remember exactly the moment when I was sitting down with my guitar and I was just thinking about last year and how it took quite a bit of effort to get this Squares album out. Now, the Squares were a band that I was a part of, a trio, back in late ‘79 just through the beginning of ‘85, and we never got a record deal. We were, you know, the hardest working, least successful band from that era. It took us thirty-nine years, but we finally got a record deal last year, and we put our best hits of the only record we ever put out. So, the whole process was very cathartic for me and it was just a labor of love. But I was sitting here in my studio with my guitar and I thought, ‘You know, it is like I am not finished with this whole thing this cathartic process of finally releasing this album. I have one last thing to say. What is it?’ And I realized that I needed to write a song about what I did NOT do and what I thought I should have done, and what we would have capitalized on, and that’s what it felt like to play guitar on the song “Nineteen Eighty”. Which was you know, very different from 1975 and very different from 1985 and the ‘90’s. I thought I am going to crystallize this for myself and I am not going to be ashamed to play like I did back in the 80’s. The result was that it had a charm to it. Every time I played it for someone with the project, they were like, ‘Oh, this is a great song.’ Even though it is a throwback, it crystallizes in a loving way, in your memories of 1980. Then, there is “Big Distortion”, and I suppose I should apologize for the title of the song, because that’s not really a title. Sometimes I write songs that are about very serious subjects. But I also write songs in a frivolous way. I write songs about light things, happy things, funny things. That particular song is really a reaction about how much fun it is to plug in your guitar and get a lot of distortion and play really loud! I mean, it is not a heavy subject - you know what I mean. But it was honest, it was like, this is what it feels like to play guitar and love it and love the sound. The complex sound of distortions and not worrying that it is in a major scale or anything. It is just like no regrets, you know, turn it up and have fun. I scribbled down the title, “Big Distortion” to remind myself of what was so attractive to the sound and my part, and that title is so funny. Every time I say, I am going to change the title and come up with the real title for it, the band would say, ‘No, No, No, that’s great! It means something to us.’ So, I always thought - like there should be at least a follow-up set of words, may be in parentheses, but I never came up with it [laughter].”

Throughout all of Shapeshifting, Joe transitions his sound from one form to the next. Each of the thirteen songs is a progression of skillful craftsmanship, coupled with Joe’s concept that an album is really more about a story, than about just one song. “The sequencing is something I really love, and I know that in these days, in the last maybe twenty years, sequencing is sort of a lost art - because you know, digital files and people just rearrange playlist anyway they want. I love the idea that the album is a cohesive collection that puts a special message, you know, brings a special message to the listener in how it is arranged and how each song unfolds to the fan. So, I thought, I am just going to do what I love to do - which is make sure that key signatures and the tempos, and the textures all complement each other, and that there is a reason that if you make it all the way through the album, you are going to want to go to the beginning and when you hear the first song. It’s like, you know, that you have been on a musical journey, and you just want to start over again and it still sounds and feels fresh.”

Joe closes out Shapeshifting with an acoustic song, which blends and wraps the entire album together. Gathering from his early days as a music teacher through his years as an accomplished guitarist, Joe reflects on one of his early albums being released on vinyl for its 20th anniversary release: Surfing with the Alien. “It is one of those things people always ask me about that, and for years, I thought, ‘No, I should keep it under wraps’, but I thought, no this would be the perfect moment and I wanted to shine a light again on how cool vinyl is and all the independent stores that carry it. It is something I really thank them for from the bottom of my heart. I am so grateful that there are still people who do that, and they can make great vinyl products. And the artist involved can really come to the table to bring some new ideas and fresh creativity to a project. With Surfing we had to give up using the Silver Surfer on the cover because Marvel just started to play hardball with us, and I guess they didn’t want to thank me for thirty years of promoting their character, and instead, they just wanted to run me out of town. So, we had come up with new artwork.”

There is no doubt that Joe Satriani belongs at the top of any list of great guitarists. Combining his fifty years of teaching, touring and releasing brilliant albums, Shapeshifting is the quintessential Satriani album. From his Surfing with the Alien type songs of “Big Distortion” and “Nineteen Eighty” to fun banjo-acoustic Flying In A Blue Dream type songs such as “Here the Blue River” and “Yesterday’s Yesterday”. Joe still finds the joy in creating an album that is much more than just loud riffs. With Shapeshifting, Joe takes the listener on a music metamorphosis and transforms them into a blissful guitar-god wanna-be, and someone who can’t wait to hear the album again and again.

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