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Beyond The Supernova: Talking G3 and Guitar Innovation With Joe Satriani

Tuesday, 24 April 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Joseph Cultice

When he broke onto the scene in the 1980s Joe Satriani was surfing with the alien, but over the course of the last decade the six-string guru has been riding a wave of popularity that continues to pick up pace. If we were to use Satch’s storming resurgence as a barometer, any claims the guitar is losing its lustre are clearly built on a bedrock of hot air.

Since 2009’s ‘Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards’ each Satriani record has raised the bar, including this year’s ‘What Happens Next’ – which saw the New York native return to his rock and soul roots alongside an all-star rhythm section of bassist Glenn Hughes and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

Byt, when he’s not sculpting solo records, the man who famously taught Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett the ways of the guitar is rarely idle. Among his many projects, Satch is a member of modern rock supergroup Chickenfoot (alongside Smith and former Van Halen duo Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar) and, as founder and ever present headliner of the G3 guitar extravaganza, regularly treats audiences to shows that feature some of the world’s finest players.

Following recent G3 gigs in America with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci and Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, Satriani is currently back in the UK for a fresh run of dates where he and Petrucci will be joined by former Scorpions man Uli Jon Roth. We spoke to him about a variety of guitar related subjects, Chickenfoot’s long awaited return and why we probably shouldn’t mistake him for Luke Skywalker.

You’ve been organising G3 shows for over 20 years now. Is it still as much of a challenge?

Putting G3s together is still very difficult. It takes a lot of time. I come up with all sorts of harebrained ideas, but selling the ideas to promoters around the world is the biggest task. There’s so much business going on for months before everybody finally shakes hands and says ‘Let’s do it’. It’s much easier to dream up G3 than to put one together.

If you could put together two line ups for G3, with one being guitarists who are still alive and the other guitarists who’ve passed away, who would you choose?

Well, if you got Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and Randy Rhoads that would be pretty amazing wouldn’t it? And alive? I think everybody wants to see Eddie Van Halen. Every time I mention I’ve reached out to him people are like ‘Wow – that would be amazing’. If you had Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and somebody else that’s either new on the scene, like Oli Brown, Davy Knowles or maybe somebody that is a generation before Brian May, that might be the thing that has that special magic, that mojo.  

Do you have a favourite G3 gig from the last two decades?

I don’t think I have a favourite. We were in LA [a few months ago] and Glenn Hughes came out and sang on three songs and then, on the last song, we did Highway Star and Chad Smith came out and played. We had Vivian Campbell [Def Leppard] as well. It was crazy. It was just so exciting. So that might be up there. This tour is providing quite a lot of highlights.  

John Petrucci is with you again for your latest dates. What makes him such a special guitarist?

He has two things that are so important. One is that he’s got this ridiculous, frightening technique. Sometimes I’ll watch the show and it inspires me, other times it scares the hell out of me and I go back to my dressing room, start warming up, and go ‘Don’t listen, don’t listen’. The other really important part is he has a huge heart. He’s a great human being and all that technique never gets in the way of his passion for music and childlike love of guitar. That’s why we have fun out here. We feel like we’re the luckiest kids in the world because we get to play all day and talk to each other about guitars.  

Every night after the show, Phil, Jon and are standing two feet from each other going over how much fun it was and asking each other ‘How did you do that?’ and ‘Wasn’t that crazy when that happened? Can you do that again?’ We love what you can do with a guitar, we love playing in front of an audience and there’s something that happens on a G3 tour that doesn’t happen on a regular gig, because you’ve got your comrades with you and there’s a friendly nudge from each to try to play better and we love that. It’s exhilarating.

In terms of G3’s continued popularity – as well as the success of your recent studio albums – do you think instrumental guitar music is enjoying something of a resurgence?

I would love to feel that there’s great evidence about that. I’ve always felt there’s a lot interest in the electric guitar, mainly from the younger generation that I see continually innovating.  It’s not necessarily rewarded in the commercial market but, nonetheless, I still see a lot of amazing players doing things that are new and exciting.

They’re writing interesting music, they’re innovating physically on the instrument. There are guys out there playing seven, eight, nine string guitars. It’s crazy, the kind of stuff that’s going on. I can’t commit to memory all the names of the players that are out there because there’s so many of them. It’s like a tidal wave of musical innovation that, eventually, I think is gonna break through. Whether it hits the charts, that’s a whole other area of discussion.  

A Washington Post article last year titled ‘While Why My Guitar Gently Weeps’ reported a fall of roughly 33% in annual guitar sales across the last decade. Does that concern you?

I don’t think the two are necessarily related because 99% of sales go to amateurs, people who just play for enjoyment and fun. They don’t really drive the innovation or artistry of the instrument, they just love playing guitar. So to think, when 15% or 30% of them drop off the radar there’s going to be a change in innovation, really isn’t reading the statistics correctly. If you told me that Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck had finally announced that there was no point in playing any more, then there’d be a serious problem.

Can you see a time when the guitar might reclaim the throne it held from the ‘60s to the late ‘80s or are those days gone?

I’m a firm believer that nothing is ever the same. It’s the main constant of our reality here on planet earth, this constant change. We naturally cling to the past to try to understand all the future that keeps coming at us. That’s just part of our nature but when you look at it historically nothing ever repeats itself. I think there will be a time where stars emerge and they happen to play some instrument that used to be popular, so people will think it’s a resurgence of the instrument, but I think we’re headed towards new stuff. I don’t know what it is, I just think it’s going to be new.  

After the epic ‘Shockwave Supernova’ and your more recent, progressively minded records, why was now the right time to revisit your roots on ‘What Happens Next’?

I was just following my inner turmoil and was gripped with not liking where I was and feeling I had accomplished something really big. ‘Shockwave Supernova’ was a cathartic process of coming to terms with something, producing an album that was very studio oriented, and my natural artistic knee-jerk reaction was to run in the other direction.

I thought ‘I don’t want to write about science fiction I just want to be me. And who is me, what’s the real me?’ It brought me full circle. As it is in the documentary ‘Beyond The Supernova’ [an intimate behind-the-scenes film about the guitarist made by his son, ZZ Satriani], that alter ego persona I thought was built up was, in effect, really me.  

It was a process of accepting all parts of myself and once that happened I understood I could go back but, at the same time, take a big leap forward and produce new music. It just took the right people around me to help that happen and that, of course, was Chad on drums, Glenn on bass guitar and Mike Fraser producing. They helped me relax and be myself so I could write about love, sex and happiness and despair and all those things all of us share as human beings. So it wasn’t intellectually brainstormed as much as it was the whole mind and body and emotion and spirit. I threw myself into it and that’s what happened.

What did you get from having Glenn and Chad in tandem that you may not have got from a different rhythm section?

A lot of what you get out of a rhythm section is 99% the music you write. If you write a blues song and give it to someone who doesn’t play blues you’re putting them in a bad position.  Some players are very broad, they love playing lots of music. Other people are more specialised. I knew going into this record Chad and Glenn were going to be my band so that helped me include all the songs I thought we shared in temperament.

I made sure everything I was trying to celebrate, in terms of my musical roots and things I get excited about when I’m playing, were elements that were shared by Chad and Glenn. Even though there’s a lot of diversity on ‘What Happens Next’, we were comfortable celebrating our roots. At the same time we were trying to innovate how we celebrate them musically.  

When you do a boogie song, in a way, you always tip your hat to every other boogie that’s gone before you. And that form of music is over a hundred years old so there’s a lot of people to say thank you to. You can almost go back to Scott Joplin, and every blues player who has tried to do that instrumental stride-based boogie, all the way up to ZZ Top and Van Halen.  

The three of us understood we were going to innovate in a particular way. I said ‘We’re gonna try to take this southern country swing and meld it together with high octane boogie – that’s our challenge’. Since we had these shared roots that’s how we were able to go from Cherry Blossom to Headrush, from Energy to Smooth Soul.

I love your lead work on Super Funky Badass. Do plan your solos beforehand or go in and let inspiration take hold?

All of that was done at home months before I got in the studio with the guys. I’d sort of improvised that arrangement, always thinking I was going to replace it with something more classy and professional. When we were up at Sammy’s studio doing the overdubs I kept listening to my guitar as I was putting the new and ‘improved’ performance on there and wasn’t liking it.

I kept thinking ‘Have I changed some of the accents or something?’ So I brought up my demo guitar and, sure enough, it sounded so perfect it was almost as if Glenn and Chad had memorised the feel of my demo guitar so much that it matched their performance better. We wound up just re-amping the original from my home studio and that’s what’s on there. What a great surprise that was. It really made me feel good.

There’s a perception that, with all your knowledge and ability, you’re a guitar-playing Jedi master who can bend the instrument to his will. Yet a song like Righteous, which you struggled to complete and even gave to Bryan Adams at one point, shows you have to work hard on refining your music.

Definitely not a Jedi master. That’s funny. To get your mojo up before a show you kind of entertain that idea. You look in the mirror and go ‘I am a Jedi master’, especially out here on the G3 tour. The other two guitar players always remind you you’re not really a Jedi master, you’re still a student. But Righteous was something I felt great about and, boy, I just couldn’t finish it.

Sometimes the doubt comes in and you think ‘Maybe it’s because I can’t and I need somebody else to help me that has a different perspective’. Bryan’s an amazing songwriter so I thought ‘He doesn’t do instrumental guitar records so would look at this like a normal human being without thinking about strings, frets, amps, pick ups or anything like that’. He just had a very honest response ‘I’ve listened to this a lot and it’s beautiful. How would I improve it?’ I thought maybe it’s not missing anything, except I just have to finish it.

Ultimately that’s what it was and when we recorded it everybody had great ideas. Glenn had this notion about where to change the emphasis of the bass feel and Chad wanted to change the tempo by a couple of clicks. I had this idea about these jungle sounding drums and before you know it, in the space of about two hours, we produced this track and it came alive. A guitar instrumental that doesn’t have any crazy pyrotechnics is hard to pull off, the ones that are just super melodic and groove oriented. So I was very happy that everybody came to the party and contributed something golden to the track.   

In terms of what happens next for you, are there any musical avenues you’ve yet to explore and are hoping to get around to at some point?

They usually come out of the blue. The other day I got an invitation to contribute to a William Shatner Christmas album. I didn’t think I’d ever be asked to do that. And Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls has a solo record out. I got to play a lot of guitar on a song called When Men Did Rock, trading solos with Rick Wakeman and doing a weird guitar/drum solo piece with Gregg Bissonette. Those things are unexpected and fun. I get to jump out of myself and sort of contribute to somebody else’s project.

But most guitar players always think ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do an acoustic album or an album with an orchestra, this kind of an album, that kind of an album?’ I try not to be too clever with that stuff. It’s important that I be myself, which means not too much planning. The more you plan, the more the devil hears.  I try to keep that to a minimum and just react naturally to what’s happening at the moment and hopefully the team around me can respond quickly to my flights of fancy.

I can’t let you go without asking about Chickenfoot. For a long time it seemed they were no more, but I believe something may be happening on that front?

There’s a good chance. I know Sammy’s planning on not being too busy. He wants to do something recording wise with The Circle and Chickenfoot. I think what I’ll do is, maybe towards the end of the European run, start thinking about writing the Chickenfoot songs and then send them off. I generally write twice as many songs as we need and see what he likes and what the other guys think. There’s time between May and October. There’s a really great set of months where we could record a great record and finally deliver something that would top the first two. We’ll have to wait and see.

Joe Satriani Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue April 24 2018 - SOUTHEND Cliffs Pavilion
Wed April 25 2018 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Thu April 26 2018 - BRISTOL Colston Hall
Fri April 27 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Sun April 29 2018 - PORTSMOUTH Guildhall
Mon April 30 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Symphony Hall

Click here to compare & buy Joe Satriani Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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