Joe Satriani..More

By Matt Blackett

Walking up to Joe Satriani's beautiful San Francisco home, it's hard not to be struck by how well this guy has done for himself. But for all the hype, accolades, and accomplishments, at the heart of it all is someone who is obviously more concerned with playing guitar than the trappings of stardom.

His home studio is a small, neat room with a fairly modest collection of gear: an old Strat, two chrome Ibanez guitars, and a Music Man bass. Photos of B.B. King, Jimmy Page, and an autographed shot of Jimi Hendrix were put up by Satriani the fan, while Satriani the teacher proudly displays photos of his students Steve Vai and Primus' Larry LaLonde. Then, there are the pictures of Satriani the guitarist, showing him with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple -- his most famous sideman gigs -- and jamming with Brian May. Finally, there is ample evidence of Joe Satriani the instrumental-guitar phenomenon: seven platinum records.

And although Satriani can't help but sound like himself, he's always striving for something new and different. For example, on his new album, Engines of Creation [Epic], he abandoned the formula of past successes and recorded sans band, speaker cabinets, and microphones. Displaying a verbal and physical intensity that cloaks a mellow, thoughtful personality, Satriani talked to GP about why he adopted new recording methods, the differences between his various albums, and why he's the luckiest guy around.

What's different about Engines of Creation?

We had a rule: no mics and no speakers. These were monumental things to push aside, because I love the sound of speakers and mics. But I knew I had to get rid of certain things in order to get into a totally new space. On Surfing with the Alien and The Extremist we spent hours experimenting with microphones and mic placement, and that meant we had to compromise the time and energy we put into other aspects of the project.

Was the absence of mics and speakers the main difference?

Yeah, but it certainly wasn't the only difference. We got rid of the band, and we made the bass and drums sound like they weren't coming from humans. Sometimes we'd make them sound really tiny and non-threatening, as opposed to a record like The Extremist, where the drums came first and the guitar tones had to be thin to make room for these big drum sounds. This time around, the sonic space available for the guitars was huge. That freed me up -- I didn't feel like I had to overplay for people to notice the guitar.

How did you track the guitars?

We used Palmer Speaker Simulators. That was the interface for all the amps. We'd go out of the Palmer into a Neve mic pre and then into Pro Tools.

Does working with Pro Tools change things for you?

It allows me to be creative without worrying about the sequence of creativity. It's a big relief, because if I'm messing around and something cool happens eight bars too late, no problem -- we just move it. From there it was [producer] Eric Caudieux's job to respond technically to our collective desire to be as different -- and as strange -- as possible.

Let's talk about some of that strangeness. What's going on in "Borg Sex"?

The whole idea behind that song is to have this sexy groove with a dialog between a male and a female Borg. To give them different attitudes I chose different frequencies -- low for the male, high for the female. I also used separate scales, with the female staying in key and the male being more atonal. I created the voices by plugging my guitar into an Electro-Harmonix Micro-Synth and a Moogerfooger ring modulator.

How did you get the other weird sounds in that song?

The main part of the verse was done with a Hafler Triple Giant. It's a nasty, angry, unforgiving amp. I also used a Fulltone Ultimate Octave pedal.

Did you use a Whammy pedal in the bridge section?

I went through the Ultimate Octave into one Whammy pedal set for an octave up, and then into another Whammy pedal set for an octave down. I was also playing octaves on my guitar, so there's an enormous amount of octave information in that section. It's pretty nasty -- that's why we didn't mix it too loud.

How did the slide part on "Champagne" come about?

I played the original melody on synth and Eric said, "You're going to play that on guitar, right?" I told him I had tried, and it just didn't work. That melody is supposed to sound effervescent -- like champagne bubbles going up your nose. When I played the melody on guitar, the tune just fell apart. It was really depressing. Eric suggested I play slide on it and that was even worse -- like two cats being strangled. Then I realized that I didn't have to play the melody on guitar, even though that's what I've always done. So as a goof, I picked up this Danelectro guitar and played a slide-guitar accompaniment, but I let the synth carry the melody. It came together in two passes.

The two-handed section after the slide part is kind of a departure.

There's a story behind that. In the beginning, there was no middle part to "Champagne." Then Eric reminded me of this two-handed piece I'd written back in 1988, and suggested using it for a bridge. I told him that it was in a totally different tempo and he said, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it. Just play it and come back later." When I returned, he had put this really fast jungle rhythm under it, and that made the two sections work together.

There's yet another movement with the Mixolydian solo section.

I felt like the song needed something simple to balance it out, so I came up with that G-F-C progression, and I laid a solo over it with my chrome Ibanez through a Fender Bassman.

You're fluent in a lot of exotic-sounding scales. How does it feel to play a more "normal" scale?

No scale is more important than another. That's the payoff for working really hard to become a well-rounded musician -- the knowledge that everything is equal. And learning how to play a "simple" solo is just as hard as learning how to play something that sounds really complicated.

How many guitars are on "Devil's Slide"?

Two -- the chrome Ibanez through my Marshall 6100 head, and my '58 Strat on the neck pickup through a SansAmp PSA-1.

Are those EBow tracks in the breakdown?

No, that's feedback. Even though I said we didn't use any speakers for this record, we did something kind of tricky on that section. I was playing my chrome guitar into the Marshall and the Palmer, and we ran the signal out to a Pignose that we set up on a stand. I stood about 3" away from the speaker and got great feedback at a really low volume.

How did you do those huge chords in "Flavor Crystal 7"? They're distorted, but the overtones don't clash.

That's a combination of things. First, I'm using a guitar with the Buzz Feiten system on it. Then I layered parts with my Strat, which has regular intonation. I've always felt that was the coolest way to use the Feiten system -- blended with conventionally tuned guitars. You just get more that way. I used three different tones: the Bassman, the SansAmp, and my Wells amp, and sometimes I would play just one string. It all added up to a massive, beautiful sound.

Did you always use an amp, or did you ever track a dry, direct tone and process it after the fact?

On the song "Slow and Easy," I played the melody with the most horrible tone -- like plugging into the back of your stereo or something. I came back a couple of days later and Eric had put a really unusual plug-in on it that created that oboe-like sound. That was the only time we totally bypassed anything guitar-like and laid something down that was devoid of any gain structures.

What were the demos like for these songs?

Well, I've always made the worst sounding demos -- especially if you compare them to, say, Steve Vai's, which are perfect. Mine often have a slightly dated sound to them because of my gear -- a Kurzweil K2000 and an Alesis HR-16 drum machine.

Did any of the demo tracks make it on the album?

The melody on "The Power Cosmic Pt. I" was taken from my demo. When I got down to Eric's house in L.A., I found I couldn't play the melody. I could remember it and everything, but I couldn't pull it off to my satisfaction -- or to Eric's. We both knew the song wouldn't work unless the melody had all the emotion of the demo. So, even though the original part was tracked with a Zoom onto a cassette, I mixed it to DAT and gave it to Eric. It took a lot of work because the frequencies were pretty weird. It wasn't until the mastering stage that the tune finally came together.

When you recorded that song for Guitar Player's Soundpage in 1988 it didn't even have a melody.

That's true. I remember that Soundpage session -- it almost gave me tendinitis! I never should have written it! Back then it was just a performance piece with all the hammered arpeggios. I'd always been uneasy about putting a melody over it. I think my pride was getting in the way, because I'd have to relegate the most impressive part -- the arpeggios -- to a supportive role. I'm really happy with the way it turned out, though.

Do you have a hard time letting go of your demos?

Glyn Johns [producer/engineer on classic Who and Rolling Stones albums] once told me, "You have to come to grips with the fact that sometimes the demo is the best version of a song you'll ever record and just get over it." The album version won't be the same as the demo, but that doesn't mean it's worse. Arrangements never end. Every time you perform, you can change some little thing you didn't like on the recording. The recorded version is not the end-all, and not realizing that can really strangle the attitude in a session. This is something that I've had to learn. I definitely freaked out while I was doing Surfing. I thought it would be the last record I'd be allowed to make, so it had to be perfect.

Engines of Creation is almost all drum loops. Does that make you play differently than you would with a live drummer?

Yes and no. I'll give you an example: I recorded the song "Cool #9" [Joe Satriani] with an Alesis HR-16 drum machine, and I played one way. Then I recorded it with three separate drummers, and I played differently with each of those guys. So, to answer your question, it is a different feel to play with loops, but no more so than when you play with a new drummer.

There was a time when you were the best guitarist no one had ever heard of. Who's that guy now?

I like to mention people who I think deserve attention, but some of them might not want me to talk about them. They don't want to be known for being a guitar monster because of the backlash against that sort of thing.

Aside from the players you always mention -- such as Hendrix -- who do you like?

Look at the wall here -- Jimmy Page, Brian May, Pete Townshend, Robert Fripp -- they're all great. As for newer guys, Tom Morello has a mix of dedication and irreverance that's really priceless.

What do you think it's going to take to keep the guitar vital in this day and age?

Great songs. No one style or album can kill an instrument. It's comforting to point to something other than a lack of creativity as causing an instrument's -- or a style's -- demise. But that's misdirected. If someone comes up with something innovative and creative, everyone will listen to it -- no matter what instrument it was played on. I don't think people are as opinionated as the press would have us believe.

What can guitar magazines do to help?

There are factors at a magazine that are at odds with each other. For instance, there might be a guitarist who plays really well, but there's no story there. Or, someone rises to a huge level of popularity and can't really play. It's frustrating. I'd like to see guitar mags focus on people who are really trying to play, but I realize it's a collaborative effort. If I'm not doing anything that the public finds interesting, I don't deserve to be recognized. It goes both ways.

How do you view the players out there in the trenches -- like guitarists in Top 40 bands?

I used to be that guy, and I felt lucky to have work. That's how I paid for strings and music books. I was glad I didn't have to flip burgers. I'll tell you, though -- I started doing landscaping because I got to the point where I couldn't stand doing Top 40. But you've got to find work, and that's not the worst job you could have. You're still playing music to make people happy. For that period, I think you've made the world a better place.

After all that you've been through, are you happy with your place in the industry?

I am overjoyed. I can't believe that I got here on the simplest dream of just doing what I do. I don't take one bit of it for granted. When I played with Mick Jagger -- which was one of the coolest gigs ever -- I didn't feel as if I could really express myself. Don't get me wrong -- I'm always happy to play with great people. But it's not the same as being given the freedom to make a solo album like Engines. And they've given me that freedom nine or ten times in a row. It's amazing. I get paid to be myself.

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