This interview was originally published in 2010.
The latest disc by guitar whiz Joe Satriani, Engines of Creation is both cutting edge and controversial, challenging fans to expand their minds, free their feet, and see the world’s most successful rock instrumentalist in an ecstatic new light. In Satriani’s world, circa 2000, it’s not necessarily how you riff, it’s how you rave.
And Joe raves very well. The slammin’ grooves of ‘Devil’s Slide’ or ‘Borg Sex’ wouldn’t sound out of place in any techno-fueled dancehall. The churning rhythms and whacked-out timbres seem every bit as Y2K compliant as something by, say, Prodigy or Josh Wink. Yet the surprisingly fitting guitar parts are so clearly the work of a master it’s a wonder the Chemical Brothers didn’t call on Satch long ago to set fire to what some would arguably call 21st Century disco.
And Satriani’s fretwork on Engines of Creation, from the hypnotic, pulsing rhythms right through to the searing solos, is scorching. Sure, he and co-producer Eric Caudieux tweaked some of the tones into barely recognizable sines and sawtooths. But live and in concert these same waveforms, run through Joe’s normal phalanx of delay and distortion pedals and, set-listed together with Satriani standards such as ‘Satch Boogie’ or ‘Summer Song,’ light up like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. So strap in and prepare to boldly go. Here’s part two of our Joe Satriani tribute.
Guitar.com: How did you reconcile any concerns you may have had that your fans might not accept your venture into electronica’
Joe Satriani: I think it’s our own perception of what is music that is the hardest thing to change. In that way, Joe Satriani and the average person on the street are practically the same. Both are going to do that human thing: resist change. I perhaps am in a position to sort of push myself on that level while the average person out there, who is not a musician, says, ‘Why should I change my mind about something? Why push my own envelope?’ It’s not their job. But it is mine. So that’s why I find myself constantly explaining every record I do. Electronica is as viable as any other style.
Guitar.com: But you realize many of your particular core followers, as they do of any group, expect more of the same from you.
Satriani: With every record that you put out that you succeed with, you run into that unusual thing. I remember in 1988 when I toured with Mick Jagger, we would have funny conversations about that. Here’s a guy who, at the age of 21, had done it all. His records defined what the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was all about. He experienced everything, the height to which you could go. And he knew, as most of the guys in the band knew, ‘If this ever lasts, people are still going to want us to do what we did between the ages of 17 and 21.’ But even though you know that’s coming you say, ‘I’m not going to let it affect my drive, as a musician, an entertainer, an artist?, whatever you want to call yourself. For years, when I was completely unknown I was free of it. I could play what I wanted and when I changed my mind no one cared. [laughs] I was a nobody.
But it’s a small price to pay. When I put out Surfing With The Alien people thought I went commercial because they thought Not of This Earth was the best record I ever did. Then, when I put out Flying In A Blue Dream people said, ‘How can you sing? You ruined the whole thing.’ So the next record of course I didn’t sing and people said, ‘How come you didn’t sing?’ I should just write their names down, because it’s a short list of people, but they really don’t want you to change. One day I should have like a convention or party somewhere and invite them all and just play them the old stuff. [laughs] But it’s okay, because I’m the same way. Going back to Jagger, I remember laughing about it but saying, ‘It’s really funny, but I like Exile on Main Street and I just got stuck there with you guys. I’ve bought every Stones record and liked parts, but I don’t know why I have this special connection to Exile on Main Street.’ And that’s the kind of thing the Stones don’t want to hear, especially coming from somebody like me, that I like this old record they did.
Guitar.com: So, should fans be criticized for not wanting their favorite bands to evolve?
Satriani: I think once any artist does that, creates something that you think is just the greatest work, you have to cut them some slack. When I really look at it I say, ‘Do you know how hard it is to come up with just one really great song in your life let alone one great album that millions of people are into worldwide?’ And so for that, when I feel myself doing that to some other artist, I say, ‘I’m gonna cut the artist slack because at least they did it once.’ And that is, in itself, an incredible accomplishment. Very few people have ever done that. It’s really only a handful of people that create successful records, and I’m not talking about the first week in Billboard, I’m talking about a record selling continually, decade after decade. That is a very important kind of record, because that means that it’s turning new people on year after year. It’s not like a funny trend where a certain age group goes out and buys a record and the artist has no career two years later. It’s a phenomenon. The Stones created that. And the Beatles, and Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix. Their records go platinum every year and you never hear about it. It’s not news. But they’re classic records and they turn new people on all the time. And unfortunately they get reminded about it every time they put out a new record.
Guitar.com: You mentioned that you’ve moved on to some new stuff since you finished recording Engines of Creation. What have you moved on to yourself?
Satriani: I have this sort of personal knee-jerk sort of reaction to myself. When I’m done with something I just look around my room and say, ‘I think I’ll put the drums over there, and my amp over there instead.’ I just rearrange the furniture, put away the old notes that I’ve been using, get a new book to write new ideas in, and restring some guitars with a heavier gauge, or a lighter gauge, put some new footpedals on the ground, and just start’just start vibing on what it would be like to reinvent my musical desire. And I wind up just getting into something different. I guess I have been playing a lot of older blues. I took some guitars that I had and put some elevens on them, when I’m on tour I play nines. I’ll listen to some old stuff, or some recent records that have nods toward the sound of old blues music. But I simultaneously have been working on an orchestra record, but not like a Metallica [and Michael Kamen] thing. I’ve actually been writing classical sounding music, but with melodies to be played by the guitar, just using my guitar and my [Apple] Powerbook, and a couple of synthesizers. But I may work on that for the next five years and it may never come out. It may just be a quote-unquote, ‘personal growth’ project. Which sounds like a medical condition, but actually, it’s [good practice].
Guitar.com: How do you keep on top of your playing skills when you’re not recording or touring?
Satriani: Play, play, play. Put on records that kick your butt.
Guitar.com: Is it easy for you to find those?
Satriani: I can put on The Ultra Zone by Steve Vai, and just hold my breath trying to keep up with him. (laughs) Luckily I can just give him a call and say, ‘How did you do that?’ It’s funny, when you learn about your instrument, and music theory, and how pedals and amps work, what you’re left with is that quirky thing called imagination. And that’s the hardest thing to figure out. It’s like when you’re in the studio and you’re there to record a solo, and they record you messing around on your first take and it winds up being the most brilliant solo you ever played. The song becomes a single, and then you have to go play it live. Then you spend weeks trying to figure out, ‘How did I play that? Why did I play that? What fingering did I use? It doesn’t fit every time I try to copy it.’ That happens a lot to me. Most of the solo work I do is that kind of thing where we just go with whatever happens in the studio. And I try to catch myself off-guard. But then figuring out exactly what I did later is always quite difficult. I think the process of catching yourself off-guard is a great way to maintain your chops. Practicing the usual boring exercises helps too.
Guitar.com: What kind of exercises?
Satriani: All the things you learn the first three years of guitar playing. Any chromatic, finger-twisting thing. Keeping track of your scales and arpeggios can help. That’s if you’ve got to play them. If I was going to make a blues record I wouldn’t bother practicing. I’d really concentrate more on the phrasing and things like that, because that would be more important. But when I was going out with Deep Purple and I was going to have do a bunch of things that revolved around Ritchie Blackmore’s incredible playing I thought, ‘Well, I should alter my warm-up routine to include things he built a lot of his solos on.? And it did involve a lot more arpeggio warm-ups because we used to hit the stage playing ‘Highway Star.’ When you hit the stage cold and you’ve got to play a song like that, it’s pretty hard.
Guitar.com: When you say, ‘keeping track of your scales,’ do you mean that you sit down and play the seven diatonic scale patterns?
Satriani: Sometimes I will. Sometimes I’ll play major, minor, diminished, augmented, suspended arpeggios in two and three octaves in every key. And then I’ll do three octave scales in the diatonic modes, and a couple of extras that I use a lot, like Lydian dominant, or Phrygian dominant, stuff that I’ve used on records. I’ll play those in every key as well.
Guitar.com: Do you break down scales into patterns that remain within a four or five fret range, and that stretch two octaves from the sixth string to the first string?
Satriani: I’ve spent so many years learning so many fingerings, every time I go to do it, I just pick the version I didn’t use the last time. But that’s the kind of work you do when you’re really learning the stuff. After awhile you realize that it bores you because you can do it. If you’re doing it flawlessly and you’re not making any mistakes, what’s the point? You’re not challenging your fingers. So I’ll go back sometime to some of the Lennie Tristano exercises [Ed. Note: Tristano was a jazz pianist and composer from whom Satriani took lessons as a teenager.] which was every scale, in every key, off the open strings, in other words, one string. So you’d be doing, let’s say, every diatonic scale on the first string, in every key. So you’d start in a different place [for each key, usually on the root note] and you’d go up the neck as far as you could go, then down past where you started, as low as you could go, then back up to the key that you’re in. That’s a really great exercise for really quote-unquote, ‘knowing what they hell you’re doing.’ Usually if you ask someone, ‘Do you know how to play a harmonic minor scale?’ They’ll pick their favorite key and play it in two octaves, and that’s it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean knowing like in the Biblical sense. ‘Do you actually know this scale?’ And that’s what the great musicians talk about: To know music is to know that thing inside and out, to know every nook and cranny of the scale, where it exists. And that can take hours and hours and hours of doing it every day.