As one of the best-known instrumental rock artists to break through to the mainstream, Joe Satriani achieved guitar hero status in the mid 1980s, after the release of his self-titled EP in ’84 and his acclaimed Not Of This Earth in 1986. Recognized for his melodic style and flawless technique, Satriani secured several high-profile side gigs backing up artists like Greg Kihn and Mick Jagger, as well as filling in after Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple. Though Satch was offered the gig, he turned it down in favor of a solo career.
The success of some of his former students, like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Larry LaLonde of Primus, and Charlie Hunter, also helped to draw attention to Satch.
We recently conversed with Satriani, shortly after he completed his ninth studio album, Is There Love In Space?
Vintage Guitar: What was the most challenging aspect of making this album?
Joe Satriani: Well, having vocals on the record presented an “old friend” kind of challenge, and that was just my shyness of singing. And the difficulty of coming up with a production angle that made these vocals fit. I tend to think of myself as a musician who can vocalize, but not as a singer.
Do you typically begin by recording basic tracks as a live band?
In the very beginning it was just me alone in the studio with my engineer, slowly doing the bass, keyboards, rhythm, melody, solo, and then adding the drums last. Half of The Extremist was done that way. The rest was recorded by me and John Cuniberti [engineer/producer] a year and a half earlier, in a slightly different mode. So some albums, like The Extremist, wind up being a combination of all these different things.
In the last five or six years, Pro Tools has eliminated location and time as a factor in recording, where before, location and time was everything. You had to show up at a certain space and certain time, then turn on your juice. Now that has changed, because for this record, as with Strange Beautiful Music, so much of my guitar was recorded in my home studio, and then I came to the studio with hard drives, and other musicians came in and improvised or played around tracks that had already been laid down.
How many guitar parts do you average for most songs?
We went from just one guitar, like on “Searching,” and they started to step up. “Tumble,” which is an iTunes exclusive, got three parts, and “The Souls Of Distortion” has just three most of the time, and when the chorus comes, I think there are two additional ones. Then there are about a dozen on “Hands In The Air.” It varies based on what the song needs.
Which wah pedal was used on “The Souls Of Distortion”?
It’s either a Dunlop Crybaby 535 or a Real McCoy. I had this thought in my mind about the souls of distortion, like they were a tangible thing – these souls that inhabit distortion. So I realized that the new melody has to be distorted. But how do I make it distorted, yet clean enough where you could listen to it? I used one of those wahs and went into an amp that was completely distorted, and I turned the volume control on my guitar down just enough so that the notes weren’t really taking off, but I could still get some chimey harmonics off of the harmony. Then rather than double- or triple-tracking, I played the harmonies with one guitar. That sort of increases the amount of distortion and helps add some interesting phrasing.
Do your solos tend to be rehearsed or improvised?
Oh, they’re all improvised. There’s quite a lot of first-take stuff on this album, like “Searching” – the recording sounds like a jam. I wrote a sketch of a piece and didn’t play it for the guys until they came to the studio one night. I said, “Here are the chords, here’s the melody, and we’re going to jam after we play the first chorus.” We had never done anything like that before in the studio. But there was a cool thing going on between Matt [Bissonette, bassist], Jeff [Campitelli, drummer] and myself, and we had never really captured it on record.
The song “Just Look Up” – the long solo at the end was take number five, but it was the only take where I actually did a solo because I’d get to the end of the melody, then just say, “Let’s do another take.”
“If I Could Fly” came together after months of trying to figure out an angle. “Up In Flames” has a complete first-take solo. In fact, that’s one take from the beginning to the end.
The solo for the title track took a lot of scratching my head. After building this track with these harmonies and three rhythm guitars, the question came up, “What kind of a solo?” I recorded a very bluesy, retro-sounding solo that I thought was great. But as I was listening back to it, my inner conscience was saying, “That sucks! It’s too respectable! There’s nothing weird about it!” At the time, I remember having a problem with trying to remove this boingy sound from one of my guitars. In a moment of contrary bliss, I thought I should use the thing that’s annoying me! So I plugged the guitar in and did a solo using the byproduct of this vibrato bar that had just been pissing me off. I remember thinking that solo was really cool, but it just comes on so overt. It either was the perfect solo for this song or it just showed really bad taste, but I couldn’t decide.
Eventually, I decided on the one I thought was in bad taste because it kind of fit with the theme of the song. And when we were mixing the record and doing some other work on it, I played both solos for the guys because I figured maybe my friends will help me out on this one – and they all chose the crazy one, as well.
The song “Gnaaahh” was what I call a “setup.” I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. Because of the nature of the song, as it builds the chorus is just these high notes and there isn’t much melody to it. It’s got a lot of contrast because the first melody is kind of melancholy, and the introduction is kind of harsh. So I had this song with an arrangement built on these hard left turns, and every time you got to a new section, you’d be surprised at where the song was going. When the solo section came, I thought I should set it up so I could play any note or scale, and maybe there shouldn’t be any chords or bass. So I got to this point and plugged in an amp I thought would give me the least amount of resistance – I thought I could play any note anywhere on the guitar and it would sound pretty much the same. Then I went about improvising a barrage of notes, and wound up with something really cool. It didn’t take much work, it just took alot of setup.
Do you work on songs individually or develop random ideas and later fit them into particular songs?
Most of the time I keep meticulous notes, both on manuscript and paper, as well as in Pro Tools, about all the possibilities of a particular song – all the riffs and stuff. Maybe once an album I’ll realize I’ve written a part for one song that really belongs in another.
But to answer your question more directly, the figures that open “Bamboo” were actually another piece of music that was never finished – something I’d written called “Dawn.” I was trying to capture the feeling of being awake at 4:30, waiting for the sun to rise. I’d never been able to incorporate it into a song. Then I had this other piece that I’d been working on since 1988 that also never turned into a song. I had these parts, but they needed more structure and a melody. It was difficult because it’s not rhythmic and it’s not melodic – it’s somewhere in between. Fifteen years later, I was preparing music for this album, and I thought about using this little one-string, two-handed thing that’s got sort of a melancholy feel to it, and put some cool drums behind it.
Describe your studio rig.
My home studio has a variety of vintage and new boutique amps. Added late in the project were the prototypes of the Peavey JSX amp, which wound up on a few songs. I’ve got a ’64 blackface Fender Bassman, a Marshall 100-watt from 1969, my Wells amp by Matt Wells, and a new Soldano 100-watt head that Mike [Soldano] made for me with an effects loop switch. He also put in a Warren Haynes mod, which adds a resonance control to make it a bit deeper-sounding, like a modern amp.
I also used my two Cornford amps, 50- and 100-watt heads that Mr. Cornford made for me a couple of years ago, a Boogie Dual Rectifier, and a newer Vox AC30. I may have also used a new Marshall 50-watt reissue head.
I use a Palmer speaker simulator and move the speaker cables around to different amps. I do a track for the right channel, then decide what to use to compose an interesting menu of guitar sounds for the left and middle that can coexist. My other stuff goes into a Universal Audio LA2A tube compressor/limiter and an 1176 limiter, and all of them eventually go into the Millennia Origin STT-1, which has a mic preamp with EQ and compression on it. I’m pretty light with it. Then I go into Pro Tools. Halfway through the project I upgraded to Pro Tools HD, so it was done at a higher sample rate and has great presence.
In the other studio we used real speakers and microphones. We used a Peavey Triple XXX 4×12″ cabinet with 30-watt Peavey speakers. The others had my vintage Marshall cabinet with 25-watt Celestion greenbacks. We used those two cabinets almost exclusively.
For guitars, generally, the melodies and solos are done on my Ibanez guitars – either the JS1000 or the seven-string prototype. I also have what I call my Ibanez Telecaster, which is my favorite “Tele,” actually. For a while, Ibanez, Gary Brawer, and myself were trying to come up with the ultimate new-age Tele-style guitar. You can hear it on “Lifestyle.” It’s basically a piece of swamp ash carved by Dan Ransom. Gary did all the setup, and the pickups are DiMarzios. I [added] the neck from an Ibanez JS6, and this guitar just came alive.
I’ve also got original ’58, ’56, and ’63 Esquires and Teles, and they all have their qualities. A Telecaster was my main guitar during my formative years, so I’ve always had this affinity for the shape, sound, and the way it functions.
I used other guitars, too. Acoustics [were] usually three or four guitars. I have a 1950 Martin D-28 and a ’48 000-28. I also have a ’67 Gibson Hummingbird that goes really well with the Martins, and I have a new Ibanez 12-string. On “If I Could Fly,” it’s the Ibanez 12-string, the Martins, and the Gibson all together. They make a great sound.
There’s also a lot of electric 12-string, which I got from Mike Pierce, a guitar dealer friend who I’ve known for many years. Every once in a while, I’ll tell Mike I need something, and a couple weeks later he shows up with it. Last year, I wanted a Fender Electric XII. Three weeks later he turned up with a beautiful ’66 in Candy Apple Red. I fell in love with it and put it on the record. Most of the time it’s doubled with my ’99 Rickenbacker. There’s also an appearance of a Stratocaster here and there. I’ve got a Fender Custom Shop Strat and a guitar I built with parts from ESP and Boogie. It’s a maple body and a vintage Strat-style V-neck with an ebony fingerboard. It’s had so many pickups and seven different pickguards with the weirdest configuration. That guitar has done something on every record I’ve ever put out. It definitely has a sharper sound and a very tight low-end.
When I needed a humbucking sound, I’d use that guitar with the humbucking pickguard. Then, when it was time to do a Strat thing, I’d put in a different pickguard. That’s the way I got around not owning a lot of guitars.
Other than wahs and the whammy, which stompboxes were used?
My old Boss DM-2 Analog Delay. I brought it out for “Searching,” just regenerating the repeats and getting those great screaming tones. I also used my Fulltone Ultimate Octave and a Fulltone Deja ‘Vibe, an Expandora, and a Dunlop Rotovibe. I did a couple of things where I would record the effects coming out of the speaker.
It’s kind of ironic because we had the most robust Pro Tools system ever, and it was the first time we used it as little as possible. So when I thought, “Wouldn’t this Strat sound nice if it had this rotating speaker sound coming out of it?” I plugged it into the front of the amp, and that’s the way we recorded it. Every time I pushed up the fader, there was the Rotovibe guitar. No plug-ins necessary.
We did a lot of that, and it made recording much more exciting. And of course it cuts down on mix time. All you have to deal with is levels.
Talk about the development of the Peavey JSX amp.
I wanted an amp like Peavey’s Classic 50 as my clean and middle channels. And as my lead channel I wanted something between the Classic 50 and the Triple XXX head, with different elements. I wanted it more punchy and have a different EQ curve. We’ve put fat switches on the middle and lead channels, and added high- and low-gain input jacks. But the great thing is I don’t need any solidstate pedal distortion. It’s all tubes and it gives me a more singing, emotive tone. The thing sounds great! It uses EL34s, but you can use 6L6s, switch the bias, and you get a tighter, focused modern-sounding head.
How did the DiMarzio PAF Joe pickup come about?
I’ve always liked doing melody and solo with the neck pickup. Since I spent so many years playing a Telecaster, I got really attached to that tone. When I moved to Les Paul-style electronics I realized that in the low-end, you can get that sort of tubular tone with vintage-style replacement pickups when playing on the higher registers, but in the lower registers it would just fart out. You’d have to dial out low-end on your amp, but when you switched to your bridge pickup, suddenly there would be nothing. There were a couple of songs I play on tour where it would always be a problem.
Recording Crystal Planet, I used my amp and blended it with a SansAmp and a Zoom to scoop out the low-end. But duplicating it live was hard.
So I asked Steve Blucher at DiMarzio if they’d be willing to take the PAF Pro and do a little work on it. I wanted just a slight gain reduction and to take out some of the low-end. I wanted to keep the extended high-end, but make sure the low-end all blends better. It didn’t take Steve long to come up with the solution. I used that pickup on the G3 tour, then in the studio, as well. It was exactly what I was looking for. It’s really nice to play up and down on the neck pickup and still have the low-end stay tight.
Can you offer advice to other guitarists on developing their own sound and style?
It’s conflicting advice: don’t listen to anybody else, and listen to everybody. Don’t try to be like other players. If you’re a guitarist trying to make a living, for the most part you do so because you can play like everybody else. But at some point, when that spotlight shines on you, they’re going to ask you to be totally original. It’s a bit of a dilemma that every up-and-coming player is faced with. You just have to continually work at trying to be original, and I think that means exploring your own personality and developing strong opinions about every chord, scale, progression, tempo, temperament, and guitar tone. Eventually, the music we write and how we play reflects our roots, our influences, and our opinions about music.
Photo courtesy Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.