Joe Satriani, October 10, 2004

 

Written & Photos by: Jason Perlman

 

You are not just an accomplished recording artist, but have taught some famous guitarists as well. What is more satisfying for you: Your recognition or the recognition of one of your students?
Joe Satriani: Most of my satisfaction is from playing on stage mostly, I think that’s what it is. I’ve explained to people that there is sort of a three way thing going where for me, the writing process feels like the most exciting thing until I realize I need to hear it. And then the recording process and the final result is the most exciting thing. But then as soon as that happens I feel like I need to go out on stage and bring it to the people and so it seems like I’m always involved in this circular triangular thing where I have to keep bringing the music out to people. I never really think about the teaching thing or the personal accolades. As a rule I try to stay away from pride.

 

You are also recognized but a lot of guitarists today as a major influence. Although you want to stay away from the pride thing, it has to creep up on you.
JS: It works both ways. In the same week you can get voted number one and then some other magazine just completely leaves you off the list of a hundred. A good example of that is that last year, Rolling Stone came out with the greatest 100 guitar players and they left so many amazing players off and of course I wasn’t on there at all. But that same year I was voted like #6, and like ahead of Jeff Beck in Guitar World’s poll and that horrified me, to be ahead of Jeff Beck! Then, of course, this year Guitar World had me below the guitarist from Poison at like #77. You really can’t believe those things because as a rule if you believe them when your high then you have to believe them when your low. (Laughing)

 

Your albums are almost orchestral in a way. How did you come to be the guitar player you are today?
JS: Well, I come from a background of just regular music and I got into playing guitar instrumentals by accident. It’s just music I used to do on my own and someone asked me if they wanted to help get this little recording around and then all of a sudden I had a record on the charts. I had to go on tour and all these things that were new to me, even touring was alien. I never toured as an instrumentalist before and I had no idea exactly what to do on stage or how to go about turning it into the kind of show that I would enjoy. So, I would like to think that my influence on the show and the presentation and the records comes from my love of rock music in general and that includes rock and roll, R&B, funk, jazz, British invasion, electric blues rock and every kind of thing that happened in the last six decades. It just seems to be where I’m at and maybe its just because when I was born, I was like a child of rock and so that’s the way I like to hear things.

 

In the 90s, grunge music really took the life out of feature guitarists, but there seems to be a resurgence of guitar-heavy rock and roll. Are you starting to see the effects of that?
JS: I think so. I think the indication that is the most telling is our audience. We toured the last couple of years in Beijing, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Bulgaria, and Helsinki. We really covered some ground and we’ve seen in the last three-to-four years this huge increase in young male and female concert goers around the age of 12 years to 16 years, and their all playing guitar. They’re all really keyed into the guitar players that really play; all around players. For a while there in the nineties you never saw that. I just never saw it and I think around 1998 or so I thought, "Wow, this could be bad, I might have to find a new career." (laughing) You know I was never going to stop doing what I was doing but I was feeling a bit lonely and people looked at me like an oddity. But I see now that the younger generation is really into it and in a good way. They will have a lot of great people to listen to that has done a lot of great stuff before them and I think that they will come up with something really exciting. We’re probably just on the verge of hearing some young excellent guitar players.

 

Being a major influence yourself, you also had to have some major influences as well.
JS: I started out just listening and concentrating on (Jimi) Hendrix, (Eric) Clapton and (Jimmy) Page, and guys like Johnny Winner and Todd Rundgren. And then once you get a couple of records and reading a few articles about them you realize that they’re listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King and Buddy Guy; and you go, "I gotta check these guys out." Then you listen to them and you see in some article that they’re considered second generation, so it’s like who’s the first? Then before you know it, your listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell and then back as far as Robert Johnson. Then it all starts to come into focus. Also, when I was growing up, I was taking music courses in high school. I had a great music teacher who has given me a balance of music history, learning how to figure out and to write and to analyze classical music from all periods and also learning how to read, sight read, and sight sing. There was a lot of training. And at the same time, I was playing in a Battle of the Bands, playing The Doors and Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin. I had a very well- rounded, believe it or not, musical upbringing. I started at 9 years old as a drummer and I took lessons so I actually got instruction in reading and other musical elements at the age of 9 and worked on them for two years. I felt like I got a pretty well rounded education.

There is a school of thought out there that someone cannot be a truly accomplished musician unless they can read music. Others say it is more feel. Can someone be an accomplishes musician and not know a lick about writing or reading music?
JS: It’s case by case I think. I think there is plenty of examples of people who were given the chance of education and it really opened themselves up a lot, you know the treasure chest of talent in them. At the same time, there are probably an equal amount of stories that you will hear telling about some guy that never had a lesson in his life and he is the most amazing player, singer, writer, whatever...so, I think that’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on. It’s like I’ve told my students, "If you feel that hunger and you can’t satisfy it, look for knowledge." Maybe if you get a book and learn how to read that hunger will be satisfied and that will lead to something great. Some people don’t feel that. They feel very comfortable just playing music and they don’t need to see it. They don’t need to look at other musicians ideas and so, I think that either one is a completely natural state to be in as an artist.

Technology is a great thing and over the course of the two decades you have been recording, huge strides have been made. But technology has also led to Pro Tools bands who really cannot play an instrument very well, but can sell a ton of records.
JS: Those bands eventually fade away very fast. I think the public knows a faker when they see one and the public is very well educated when it comes to music. Some artist or group may come out and sell a couple of million of records the first time and a few less the second time ,but to last twenty years is a whole other story. I think that history will show you that the really talented artists that really do it are the ones that stick around ,and the bands that are just put together by producers to sell units, they come and go. I think that it’s a double edged sword, Pro Tools is a fantastic tool in the hands of a genius and it’s a horribly dull rusted tool in the hands of a hack.

 

When you are playing or sitting down to write, do you play and write by technique or feel?
JS: Yeah, it’s the same thing. I think ultimately once you get good at a lot of techniques I think that there’s no quantitative difference or I should say qualitative difference if that’s a word. Is that a word? (laughing). In other words, the net worth of a set of techniques, they’re all equal in the end when it comes to art and music. I don’t think it really matters, it may matter when you’re a student, being able to play fast and slow, you say well, fast is something that I have to accomplish, like it takes a lot of work and it’s more oppressive in certain circles so it seems like its worth more but once you accomplished all of the techniques you realize their all of equal worth because what your trying to do is convey some sort of a message, some emotion and sometimes playing fast is the wrong tool, the wrong technique and you have to learn how to play slow and put that emphasis in there. So, although there is lots of really good words for techniques that are obvious, I think we have a lack of vocabulary for the less obvious techniques but nonetheless that seems to occupy quite a lot of music. People used to say well, someone like Neil Young doesn’t have a lot of technique and I used to always object and say, "No, this guy’s got amazing technique, it’s just that we haven’t put a word or a phrase on everyone of his techniques." But if you tried to sit down and play a Neil Young song you’d ask, "How come I can’t sound like that? What is he doing?" Then you would have to go about breaking down what he does and how he does it and you come to the conclusion that the guy is full of technique, it’s just that it hasn’t been homogenized and labeled yet.