Joe Satriani

Creativity and Chaos
Joe Satriani
Photo: Chapman Baehle.
Photo: Chapman Baehle.

Calling any player “the hardest working guitarist in the business” is rather like referring to one as the “best guitarist” – do it, and you’re just asking for trouble. But if output equates to effort, there’s no doubt Joe Satriani works his as… err, fingers off! The rock shredder has been doing what he does on a top-tier professional level for about 30 years, and shows no signs of slowing down; he still organizes and stages the renowned G3 tours, which for the last 20 years or so have seen him grab a couple other stalwart players for an ocassional summer-long thrill ride, and for the last four years he has satisfied his group jones with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith in Chickenfoot.

He also continues to lend his talents as a guest player on various recordings and performances, and in 2010, hip-hop vocalist Nicki Minaj sampled his “Always With Me Always With You” in her song, “Right Through Me” from her multi-platinum debut. On top of it all, “Satch” regularly cranks out solo albums that have sold more than 10 million copies and garnered 15 Grammy nominations.

His 14th such effort, Unstoppable Momentum, was released earlier this month. Produced by Satriani and Mike Fraser, it was created with the help of friends old and new, including drummer extraordinaire Vinnie Colauita, super-versatile bassist Chris Chaney, and keyboard wizard Mike Keneally. The album’s 11 songs, he says, go “in different directions… touching on a variety of musical influences.” We asked him to help us dig into it a little deeper.

To make the new album, you went back to Skywalker Sound studios?
Yeah, I love that place. I live in the middle of San Francisco, so it takes about 45 minutes and it’s a beautiful drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the hills of Marin County, into Lucas Valley, and then you pull into this little village and drive through organic farms where there are sheep and lamas and horses and cows, baseball fields, vineyards, and every once in a while some sort of building that looks like a bed and breakfast, but you walk in and there’s a room that’ll hold a 100-piece orchestra. It’s amazing! And every other day or so, George [Lucas] walks by and says, “Hi.”

I find the whole place artistically stimulating, plus it gets me out of the city, where I forget about domestic stuff and business and everything. And, after 10 hours in the studio, I also love the drive home in my convertible – no matter how cold it gets, the top is down! I put on a sweatshirt, leather jacket, scarf, and hat, even if it’s 45 degrees. There’s something bracing about it. It’s fantastic.

Even though you’ve got a lot going on – Chickenfoot and various other things – you managed to record the new album just 2½ years after Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards.
I could’ve done it earlier, but I think it’s good to take a few months to see if I really like what I’ve done. The artistic life is such that you’re never satisfied; you deal with the chaos of your own creativity. So it’s good for me to have a schedule because I’m not really good at deciding what to do next. I hate to say that – I’m supposed to be a professional (laughs)! But after all these years, I realize that my audience has the proper perspective, and that I, as an artist, should just do what I do then move on while other people figure out whether they like it.

Was there anything different about the way the songs for Unstoppable Momentum came together, and were any of them “leftovers” from previous album sessions?
There were two of what I call “catalyst songs” that had their start in 1988… but they’re not on the record! Sometimes, I work on a song, maybe even finish it, before I realize it was there to help the other songs – perhaps put certain things in perspective, melodically, harmonically, or recording-technique-wise. And some things are great because they’re cathartic for the process with the band. In this case, since we had two new players, it was nice to have more songs to see where we were as a rhythm section. We also got to think about which ones we all liked best.

Speaking of, how did the band come together?
Well, I met Vinnie Colauita many years ago at a Les Paul birthday party in L.A. He’s a tremendous musician and a fantastic individual. We clicked, and started talking about playing together. I ran into him again at a Jeff Beck show in the Bay Area, when Chickenfoot was recording its first album, then a few months later at a festival in Belgium. When I finished the G3 tour last fall, I booked studio time and gave him a call. He was working with Sting through Christmas vacation, but had 10 days in January. Then, I was speaking to Mike Bowden, who has done a lot of editing for me over the last 10 years, and he told me Chris Chaney had just been in another studio where he was working and people were raving about him. I thought, “Of course!” And it turned out Chris was perfect because he plays with Jane’s Addiction, where he brings a wonderful sense of rock and roll, which is extremely important to me, musically and personally! I knew he was a first-call session player and does a lot of film and TV work, so he’s very flexible.

The last piece of the puzzle was Mike Keneally; Mike and I were looking forward to making another record, but you always kind of roll the dice when you put together a new unit – you don’t know how everybody’s going to get along, musically. But we started playing and it was a party – a lot of fun. Every song took five to seven takes and they were all extremely different because the guys kept giving me interpretations. They’d nail the parts, but play it so differently. It was great.

The Marshall JVM410JS Joe Satriani signature model is a 100-watt/four-channel, EL34-based head. Its clean channel was designed to replicate that on the Marshal 6100, w hile its Crunch channel includes Marshall’s AFD circuit. Its overdrive channels offer slightly less gain and has two Master Volume knobs, effects loop, and MIDI implementation.
The Marshall JVM410JS Joe Satriani signature model is a 100-watt/four-channel, EL34-based head. Its clean channel was designed to replicate that on the Marshal 6100, while its Crunch channel includes Marshall’s AFD circuit. Its overdrive channels offer slightly less gain and have two Master Volume knobs, effects loop, and MIDI implementation.

Did you send the guys demos beforehand, so they had an idea of song structures?
No. We went in cold. And credit goes to Mike Keneally for that. I asked, “Do you want demos or do you want to be surprised?” And he e-mailed back, “I like surprises.” (laughs) During the sessions, on some evenings I’d know which song I wanted to do the following day, so I’d give everybody an MP3. Most of the time they’d put on their earbuds there at the studio, listen, then change gear to what they felt would work. We gave everybody the freedom to explore; Mike had a grand piano, an organ, a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes – everything – and he’d wander around and figure out what would be fun on a take. Same thing with Vinnie and his drums and Chris picking different amps and basses. It was good – a lot of fun, and everybody had room to improvise.

Did you stick to a handful of guitars and amps, or mix it up?
I didn’t use the entire complement I brought, which was an impressive-looking layout of about 100 guitars and 50 amps (laughs)! But I wound up using my Marshall signature JVM410JS heads for most of it. I brought about a dozen vintage Fender amps – Champs from the ’50s, my ’53 Deluxe, Princetons, Princeton Reverbs, Vibrolux, Vibrolux Reverb, my ’59 Twins. And if I go down the song list, I can pick places where I played one chord or one solo bit on, say, the Champ. I also had a Fargen, my old 5150, and I had a bunch of old Marshalls – 100-watts, 50-watts, 6100s – but they were generally there for complements. By coincidence, most of the vintage amps wound up on songs we left off the record.

The guitar was pretty much my prototype JS 2410, which is the Muscle Car Orange JS 1000 with an alder body and bubinga stripe in the neck. It gave a different sound – a bit more sustain and vibe in the midrange than the standard JS 1000 with a basswood body and a straight maple neck with rosewood fretboard. I also had a couple of 1000s with Sustainiac pickups, along with two or three JS guitars with Evertune bridges and in C tuning, which I used for “A Celebration.” Those tunings don’t stay very well, but the Evertune bridge allowed me to be aggressive with the rhythm and play like Ritchie Havens! And when we’d layer it with standard-tuned guitars and piano, it blended beautifully. I think there’s one bit – a four-bar melodic piece – where I used this beautiful ’83 Gibson 335, all-maple with action that’s way too low – the thing’s a buzzmeister – but I plugged in to a Strymon vibrato pedal, the JVM410JS head, and we put some delay on it; sometimes, when you lay a bunch of guitar on an instrumental where guitar is in your face, you get something great and go, “Could we add anything else?” I don’t care what it is – a Broadcaster, a Rickenbacker, something to make us go, “Oh, what’s that sound?”

It’s funny, I brought a bunch of old Strats and Les Pauls, and we’d pick them up and try them, then put them down. But I did use my Fender Electric XII for eight bars in the second verse of “Shine On American Dream,” and the guitar is swimming in delay with an open D string while I’m playing the melody on the G for a part tucked under a bunch of other guitars as support. But it was an important moment when we figured out that was what it needed. It’s a bit Spinal Tap to say, “A 12-string – that’s what this song needs!” but…

What did Chris bring for basses and amps?
He brought one of his favorite Fender Bassman amps and we rented from SIR two SVT full stacks and another little piggyback Ampeg. He would go direct and into one of the amps – he and Mike Frasier would pow-wow on every song, and I stayed out of it. I told him, “Just make sure your bass is big and fat all the time. Don’t be afraid to jump in front of everybody and leave the riff.” I like that kind of bass playing.

A couple of Ampeg SVT stacks would definitely help push him to the front…
It’s a great sound, and you ask him, “Can you do that with your fingers?” or “Can you do it with a pick?” and he can. He’s got a bunch of basses – P basses, Jazz basses, Rickenbackers, all sorts of stuff. He had five or six instruments ready, and sometimes he’d play different ones on different takes just to see if it would shine extra light.

Apologies if you’ve been asked this a quadzillion times, but how do melodies come together for you?
It’s great when you’ve got your guitar on and the recording rig is running and you can just push the Record button. But sometimes it happens in the car or when you’re raking leaves – doing something mundane, you know? You go, “Oh, man… Now?” But really, anytime it happens, it’s a wonderful thing and you do whatever you can to get it down. If I’m not near a recording device, I’ll jot it down, but most of the time it’s easier to hum into the phone as a voice message to myself. Then, every couple of weeks I gather the scraps of paper or the digital notes and see what I’ve got.

There are two songs on the album, “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out” that I had been working on for quite a while. “Jumpin’ In” grew as an arrangement over time; one day I opened the file and realized I had another piece of music associated with it – I think it was called “A Harmonic Minor.” I thought, “What is that?” So I opened the file and it was a really cool drum-and-guitar track where I was making believe I was a tenor-sax player in a swing band in the ’40s. I liked the imagery, and though it was just a digital “scrap,” it was a complete song that I’d improvised and forgotten. So I added bass and keys and brought it to the band to bookend “Jumpin’ In,’” but later decided the two songs should be back-to-back since they borrow that swing idea.

Where does the syncopation come from in those songs?
My parents grew up in the jazz age, they loved music and played it all the time. So I grew up hearing great horn players. My parents had great stories, living in New York City and seeing the greatest bands of that era. They could walk into any club, get a beer for a nickel and see the Dorsey Brothers or Benny Goodman. So, I was playing drums at nine years old, and the drum teacher, Mr. Patrikus, was a full-time jazz drummer – one of the funniest and coolest guys I’ve ever met. He used to come to the house with a sharkskin suit like he walked out of a black-and-white TV show about jazz cats. My parents enjoyed having him over for coffee, and then he’d give me lessons for a few minutes! But he taught me how to swing as much as he could. I was not destined to be a drummer, but I did understand that swing was the thing. There’s a million ways to swing, and drummers – good ones – can swing differently at the same time with each of their four limbs. The swing thing is part of my musical DNA; I started to pick up on it once I got into Hendrix, who created this groove, and with Mitch Mitchell it was so deep because they had this blues/R&B and heavy-jazz background. I found them extremely interesting, and it resonated with me.

Where on the new disc does that influence manifest itself?
I think “Three Sheets To the Wind” is the most obvious, because the swing in the verse is very different from the swing in the choruses. It’s interesting; the song was originally written as a single-coil-through-a-vintage-amp kind of thing, but I realized the melody was too strong to leave on just guitar – it needed to be blown out to a lot of instruments. Then I thought, “I should allow myself the space to swing in different places, to play with the backbeat a little.” Throw all those elements in, and the song still feels comfortable, which is important. “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out” are focused on swing, that’s so obvious.

It’s funny, the opposite happens on songs like “Weight of the World,” “A Celebration,” and to a degree, “Unstoppable Momentum,” which have more-modern views of time. “A Celebration” is like a locomotive – straight ahead – everybody’s right on time, completely opposite of “Jumpin’ Out.” I mean, you can’t play “Jumpin’ Out” like that, you have to think of the timing as a huge two-lane highway and the four band members are weaving in and out. In “A Celebration” it’s a country road and everyone’s going really fast (laughs), so they have to stay in line, you know (laughs)? It’s fascinating, how music works like that. And for a year, “A Celebration” was done at less than half the tempo you hear on the album. It was on acoustic guitar and a combination of two songs I had written on a new Republic resonator I had just taken out of its box. I immediately wrote two pieces of music on it – one I called “Texas” because it had a bit of a Texas feel, the other I called “India” because it had an Indian-type melody. After a couple days, I thought, “These two should go together,” but I wasn’t sure how. So I put them together in a way where the “Texas” part was the verse and the chorus was the “India” part. It had a verse and a solo section, and was six minutes long. Then, one day I thought, “This song doesn’t need a bridge and I should get rid the solo section, then make it more of an ensemble thing.” Then the idea was to add acoustic piano and tom-toms. I had a demo for months, then on the day after Christmas, I thought, “I’ve been doing that song all wrong.” So I recorded a version where the tempo more than doubled, I got rid of the acoustic instruments, and it became an iron horse charging through the plains – a big, uplifting thing. Then, the two melody sections, the verse, and the chorus came together with one purpose.

There are a lot of instances on the album where the melodies have a lyrical quality, like “Shine On American Dreamer,” where the root melody and chorus all but sing the title.
One of the themes I set for myself on this record was to be super melodic. So, if I had a song that had a good groove and an impressive guitar part, I didn’t want it. I kept thinking, “It’s got to have a melody that’s so strong, first, then I can figure out the rest later. Once I’m in studio or making a demo, the great melody will present opportunities for playing.” I was just not in the mood to work on songs that didn’t have big melodies. I wouldn’t say they had to be singable, but they had to have a vocal quality that reached me, first of all, and that would reach people and resonate the way a great vocal can. Sometimes, that changes the songs you do, and I realize if I’m going down that path, the album is going to have a lot of diversity. But then I thought, “That’s great, because my favorite albums are like that.” I generally don’t listen to albums where every song is the same as the one before it, just faster or slower.

I figured that approach would keep me engaged, keep me changing and moving forward and trying different things. And the cool thing is how you realize, “I have artistic license. I can have an orchestra behind me…” or “I don’t need drums on this song” or “I need a honky-tonk piano and a horn section” and “…on this song it’s just going to be guitars.” Just charging ahead. You realize that you’re free and not forced to fit into any specific context.

Satriani’s 14th solo album is titled Unstoppable Momentum.
Satriani’s 14th solo album is titled Unstoppable Momentum.

Do you ever write a song with the intent to give it lyrics, then later leave it instrumental? I ask because a track like “A Door Into Summer” seems ripe for lyrics.
I don’t know, but I took that song to the Chickenfoot III sessions and was so excited about it. At the time, I hadn’t figured out all of its melody, but I thought, “Well, it’s too long for just a guitar. It needs words.” So I played it for everybody, and they had this funny look, like the way a dog or a cat looks at you (laughs) when they’re trying to figure out what you’re telling them. I thought, “Maybe I’m playing the song the wrong way, or picked the wrong moment.” I kept saying, “Sammy, you could tell a story – you don’t have to sing, you can kind of talk or do a Sammy Hagar rap in the verse.” And he was looking at me like, “What planet are you from?” And Mike and Chad played around with it for a while, then were like, “I don’t get it.” So I put the song in my pocket and thought, “Those guys are nuts!” you know?

I have to give them some credit – I did bring about a dozen songs and we had a lot to do in very few days, so we moved on. But I kept thinking, “Every time I hear that melody, I feel good,” which was weird because not many songs make me feel overwhelmingly happy or sad, but this one had this salubrious effect.

But yes, the benefit of lyrics is you can be repetitive with musical phrases, and with different words, tell stories. But how does an instrumentalist do that? The biggest challenge was deciding where to put a bridge, and I figured it should come at the end of the song. Then, once I wrote the bridge I thought, “That should start the song…” So there was a lot of discovery. Months later, I did a pass one day with a melody and solo, then went to the studio and told Mike, “Let’s keep the solo, but I’ve got to figure out the right approach; it’s gotta be heavy and sort of cavalier.” So I played the melody six times before he said, “You got it. Leave the room, please…” (laughs)! Like a dutiful musician, I said, “Thank you, sir,” and left. So I’m not sure which of my takes makes up the first verse or last verse, but he found the best phrases and stitched them together. When I came back 20 minutes later, I was like, “That’s it!”

While we were listening to the tape, we realized that Vinnie wasn’t playing to the bass or the rhythm guitars – he was actually playing around the melody, which was brilliant because we were tracking the melody live. As we played, I was trying to edit the melody to its essentials, with the intent to double or triple the guitars on the chorus. But it wound up being unnecessary and we maintained that soul-singer image, like Aretha Franklin telling a story while the band was playing a beautiful soul beat. It just so happens to have really huge electric guitars in it.

Still, though, do you wonder if there might be lyrics floating around that could make it a hit?
Well, that would be great. I’m always waiting for somebody to come along and do that. You know, when we were touring behind Surfing with the Alien, we used to get tapes of people singing weird lyrics over songs like “Surfing…” It was so funny, and I was touched by it, but at the same time it was a little ridiculous. But, a couple years ago, when Nicki Minaj reached out and asked if she could use a bit of “Always With Me, Always With You” for a single, I thought, “That’s fantastic. First of all, thanks for asking first…”

Because artists don’t always do that…
No, they don’t (laughs)! But she did, and I thought it was great. In the last couple of years, I’ve heard a few renditions of people rapping over songs and I think, “This is cool. The music is growing in different genres, and different generations will hear it.” So I’m open to that. I’d love to hear people do it. I get really caught up in songs, and if one has deep meaning, I may put words to it to help connect with the melody.

Speaking of connecting, there’s a timelessness to the tunes on Unstoppable Momentum. A lot of them would have fit right in on Surfin’ With the Alien.
I think everyone who makes music aspires to that. There’s always a push to be timely, but actually being timeless is the quality you want. You want your music to be special to itself and not rely on trends. A lot of credit goes to my team – the musicians, co-producer and engineer Mike Fraser – they helped tremendously steering the project toward that kind of end result, where it’s got a timeless quality. You don’t want people to say, “Hey this is the latest thing and we should jump on it,” and make your whole album appeal to this or that group of people. Credit also goes to the people at Epic and Sony, who let me do what I wanted. No one there ever tells me to follow a trend, and that helps us focus on the music. Hopefully, the compositions and the performances take on that timeless quality.

This article originally appeared in July 2013 issue of VG. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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