Time has not been kind to an overwhelming majority of guitarists who were riding high twenty years ago. In the head rush of late 80s hair metal, record labels frantically signed up every Eddie Van Halen wannabe who could hold a pen. No doubt many of those players had mad skills, but popular trends come and go and the record-buying public’s taste can be brutally fickle. In an industry where change is the only constant, many fleet-fingered speed merchants were left out in the cold when grunge came along and wiped the slate clean.
Standing head and shoulders above the rest back then and still going strong today, Joe Satriani continues to evolve as a guitarist. From the beginning of his recording career Joe’s virtuosity and unique approach to composition set him apart from the pack. “I remember when I was working on the idea of a solo guitar career,” he recalls, “and how often I got turned down because I refused to be a ‘shredder’. I started my own record company and put out my first record on my own label.” (Not of this Earth - Joe's Eclectic first release) Joe found some believers at Relativity Records when the label signed him back in 1987, but his first meeting with the company president got off to an auspicious start when the label head proclaimed, “He doesn’t look like a rock star.” But time has proven Satriani’s strong personal convictions to be a winning wager, resulting in fourteen Grammy nominations and worldwide sales clocking in north of 10 million albums.
Joe’s latest CD Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards finds him still headstrong and blazing, making confident strides into new territory that sound effortless and breezy. Satriani’s tonal palette has always been broad, but his new record might surprise even the most ardent fans. There’s a slew of sonic surprises on Black Swans, with Satriani assuming the role of guitar slinging tour guide navigating his band through an array of provocative mood pieces. “The Golden Room” has a snake charmer vibe and touches of Middle Eastern percussion. The long, spacey ballad “Wind In The Trees” features a piano solo of sparkling brilliance courtesy of former Zappa sideman Mike Keneally. Satriani conjures a tender gospel feel for “Littleworth Lane”, a dedication to the street where he grew up.
On a recent phone call from a tour stop in Madrid, Joe was in a philosophical mood and eager to discuss the past, present and future. Asked about the sonic explorations of his latest record, Satch is quick to credit one of the sources of his inspiration. “Jeff Beck has got a great catalog of what you might call ‘experiments’”, he says with a mix of awe and admiration in his voice. About Beck’s willingness to repeatedly go out on a limb, invariably expanding his horizons as a result, Joe says, “He sticks his neck out when he does that kind of stuff. The music he creates is really great and he’s done nothing but get better and better as a guitar player, like, every decade! It’s pretty amazing. He’s a real hero of mine.”
Satriani and his band just returned from a string of dates in Europe and they’re now touring the states. During the course of a 2-hour show that features much of the new record, Joe is only too happy to include older material including a number of songs from his watershed Surfing With The Alien LP. All these years later, Joe is still flush with gratitude and enthusiasm for the success of his sophomore effort. “That was the right record for me to hit a home run with,” he reckons, “Because I still love playing those songs to this day.”
Looking ahead, Joe’s muse may yet take him even further into new realms. “I’d love to do an acoustic record’, he admits. “And I’d love to do some kind of music with an orchestra, but I’m not quite sure how yet. I don’t want to just show up with my amp and have 101 Strings behind me. I’d like to do something where the guitar is more properly integrated into a symphonic arrangement. Maybe smaller too, like a chamber-size group of classical style musicians.” However, Joe is not keen to divide his attention between the current tour and the composition of new material. “I would want to write all original music for it”, he figures, “And that would take quite a lot of time.” Fear not, Chickenfoot fans: you won’t have to wait long for the band’s next record. In fact, Joe and Sammy Hagar have already begun working on new material. “Right after I finished mixing my new album”, confides Joe, “I spent three weeks writing new songs for Chickenfoot. We already have about 14 new songs that Sammy is writing new melodies and lyrics for. We’re gonna get together at the end of January to start recording the second Chickenfoot album.” Even during an extensive worldwide tour in support of his latest solo album, Joe admits that it’s nice to have Chickenfoot penciled in on the calendar as something to look forward to. “It’s always been a great experience playing with those guys,” he says, his smile obvious over the international phone lines. “It’s a lot of fun. A lot of unexpected things are always happening and the music is always good.”
Asked for his thoughts on the 40th anniversary of Jimi’s death and the future of guitar technology, Joe says, “My guess would be that people will become more comfortable with some of the more unusual technology that we have today. And then guitar players will be able to use it as part of their show and it’ll be more accepted. If you think back to when Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix were bursting on the scene, they were using feedback and a lot of people didn’t accept it. They were using the guitar to represent concrete sounds outside of musical sounds and turning them into music, and they sort of broke that barrier down. But now it’s completely accepted for a guitar player to use feedback. Now there’s all sorts of noises coming out of the guitar, and people are using it to represent the music within the song structure. I think today’s developments are coming a lot faster, but in the future it won’t be unusual for people to be using things like phone apps to create guitar sounds and listeners will accept it as being artistic and valid.”
Only time will tell what the future has in store for guitar technique and technology. But it’s a safe bet that people will still be talking about Joe Satriani.