Joe Satriani Biography
When we are talking about Joe Satriani, two schools of thought clash. There are the ones who fell in love with his instrumental music and then there are the others. Those others see nothing in his style but a never-ending up and down of scales with no soul and they blame him for resisting the minimalist rock and techno hypnosis trends.
Many others accuse him of being a shredder because he dares to master the scales like no one else does and because he teams up with other virtuosos and organises gigs where the guitarists’ dexterity flirts with brilliance.
For those ones, Joe Satriani is more a regular musician than an artist.
And yet Satriani refuses to be called a shredder, at least in the pejorative acceptation of the term.
From Not of This Earth to Unstoppable Momentum, the old guitar teacher has proved that his music has the ability to evolve, on the fringe of the fashion styles and radio formats.
In an interview with the Guitar World magazine back in 1993 to talk about the new album Time Machine Joe said
“If you really play your guitar with attitude and you don’t care about any rules or boundaries that are temporarily set up by commercial considerations, then you’re a shredder.”
That is an elegant answer to the question from this journalist that saw in Satriani the best representation of a trend that was supposed to include all the 80’s guitar virtuosos. And Joe added as well:
“That’s why Neil Young is a shredder. Or Smashing Pumpkins shred guitar music. They’re nothing like Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin, but I see the same attitude there. When McLaughlin is doing a piece, he just wants to play. He loves to play and what filters through is his love of the instrument and desire to break down any boundaries that exist. I hear it in the same way in what may be more popular now in the outgrowth of alternative music. It just takes a different sonic form.”
In the strict meaning of the term, shred used to be a regular word, but at the beginning of the 80’s this word was trivialized and used to talk about a very particular kind of musician, a few from jazz-rock, some others from metal. The thing they have in common? The indescribable virtuosity to play their guitar.
Inevitably Joe Satriani has been associated with this wave and above all he has been designated as a leader of that thing that we call shred music.
That’s kind of an irony because a few years before British punk rock was fighting against virtuosity and guitar attitude. That pejorative acceptance of the shred term comes from this guitar attitude. But Satriani had never played the silly game of the guitar attitude, the music that flew through his mind is the fruit of a deep and inspired research. To prove this point you just have to see his exasperation when the journalists slam him with their usual bunch of techno-technical questions.
At first sight, Joe Satriani gives an impression of being in total control of his instrument, his sound, and of the guitar phrasing. blues, rock, funk, metal, classical music, and Indian music are the influences of the wizard. He took his influences from guitar masters like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore or Allan Holdsworth, to mention just a few. But in no way does Joe copy anyone! When Deep Purple called him to join the band from December 1993 to July 1994, he already knew all their discography but had never copied Blackmore for a single second.
Joe started in music by playing piano. Then he wanted to play drums because of the Stones and the Beatles, until the day Hendrix died and it pushed him to dedicate his life to the guitar. Joe had a lot of jazz influences such as Duane Eddy who had brought instrumental guitar to a mass audience in the 50’s, or Wes Montgomery and John Lee Hooker but also Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday who were not guitar players. Among them Joe has some hard rock influences from the 70’s like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen or Black Sabbath. Then, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Eric Satie and Bela Barltok were studied later and completed this rich range of artists.
On the gear side, the Alien likes to experiment, to create ambiances. He likes playing with sounds but doesn’t forget that the music always flows from his hands. He uses effects and amps to create his music like a painter would use colors. We can see his 25 year setup as an Ibanez JS guitar with DiMarzio pickups plugged into a Crybaby, a DS-1 before the amp, maybe some chorus and delay in the fx loop and he’s ready to surf!
He likes a lot of amps. He always played a lot with Marshall amps on stage and has his own signature amp now, the JVM410HJSS, but he once went with Peavey with the JSX, has some classics like 6105, Marshall 30th anniversary, Dual Rectifier, JS120 to mention just a few. For the pedals he made some with Vox, namely the Satchurator distortion based on the DS-1 (one of his favourite pedals), the Big-Bad-Wah, the Time Machine delay and the Ice 9 overdrive. They are his signature pedals but he also uses Whammy, Voodoo Vibe, digital Chandler, CS-3, POG… and more. To name all effects he ever used would be too long!
For almost 30 years Joe remains true to himself and keeps evolving through his albums. He combines touch and virtuosity with a very particular legato style that brings fluidity and musicality to his melodies and solos. His powerful rhythmics, from where strange modes come very often, highlights his blues feeling dotted with tapping, tremolo innovations and crazy harmonics. But the craziest part, and anyone that saw him on stage can relate to this, is that all that intricate playing seems to be as easy as pie for him. Joe stays truly himself.
With more than 10 million unit sales for 14 solo albums (2 Platinum, 4 Gold), 14 Grammy Awards nominations, 3 Platinum DVDs, the G3 concept that still enjoys a lot of success since 1996 and the Chickenfoot phenomenon, it is a colossal accomplishment and unprecedented. How can we explain this longevity? Joe Satriani is not only a guitar player, or a shredder, but he is a music wizard who reached the level of perfect control of his instrument throughout his exemplary career.
From 1956 to the 80’s
Joe Satriani was born on July 15, 1956 at Westbury (in the state of New York). He played a little on his sister’s guitar. She had played some folk music in high school. He was inspired since he was young by Blues music, the Beatles and the Stones so when he turned 8 he started playing drums, then some piano a bit later. On September 18, 1970 all collapsed around him when he learned that Jimi Hendrix passed away. Joe was only 14 but he decided from this moment to stop everything and dedicate his life to learn the instrument of his idol.
“I remember very clearly being outside the gym doors on the way to practice when a friend told me Hendrix died. I remember turning around and walking right into the coach’s office; coach Reddon was a wiry, intense ex-Marine who ran the gym like we were Marines. So I was kinda petrified but I was going through this cathartic experience, dealing with the news. I remember blurting out, ‘Jimi Hendrix has died. I’m quitting the team. I’m gonna be a guitar player.’”
The following years were long periods of practising and learning a lot with the purpose of becoming a great guitar player. He learned musical theory from Bill Wescott and started to take an interest in jazz music. Later he took lessons with Billy Bauer and the pedagogue Lennie Tristano who played such a major role in his learning. Then it was his turn to give guitar lessons to a lot of guitar players that became famous such as David Bryson from Counting Crows, Kirk Hammet from Metallica, Larry Lalonde from Primus, Charlie Hunter, Jeff Tyson and, of course, the genius Steve Vai.
In 1979 Joe formed The Squares in San Francisco with his friend Jeff Campitelli and Andy Milton. The second album of the Squares was the beginning of his relationship with the mastering engineer John Cuniberti. The band had success in San Francisco but remained unknown elsewhere, so in 1984 he recorded an EP of 5 tracks on his own Rubina label, (his wife’s name).
Steve Vai, who was in the Frank Zappa’s band, introduced Joe to Relativity Records. At the time Joe was recording Not Of This Earth, and Relativity Records gave him a chance to make a record that didn’t sound like the drum machines he’d used.
Then Surfing With The Alien came out in 1987 and that was the explosion in terms of Joe’s career. It become a platinum disc. This album contributed to introducing Satriani to the general public and he succeeded in imposing his new style even if many others like Jeff Beck had paved the way somewhat.
Satriani was half way between blues and fusion for the harmonic side and the structure and 100% rock for the aesthetic side. The same year he started his collaboration with Ibanez by launching the JS series with the very first JS1 and he helped this manufacturer to cease copying other guitars (very good guitars at that) and start making characteristic and typical models.
It is the most iconic album of Joe Satriani with the unique song « Surfing With The Alien », a very effective melody with 2 killer solos that literally drive the audience on the side of the Surfer Silver, « Crushing Day » that is still today the most technical song of this whole discography and we can’t forget the legendary « Satch Boogie » that sets the basis of Joe’s technicality for decades.
Then the intrepid fan can admire the song « Midnight » played entirely in tapping.
This success lead Relativity Records to a second print of Not Of This Earth. With those two albums Joe showed a very sophisticated sound (in fact they felt a bit cold compared to his next albums). Joe is fresh and sassy, modern in his musical approach and his experiments. John Cuniberti and Jeff Campitelli helped for the arrangement of the album that was funded Joe’s own money.
Three songs were recorded on the Surfing With The Alien Tour on June 11, 1988, and one studio song called « The Crush Of Love » together give birth to Dreaming #11. Joe confirmed his talent on stage and silenced the guys who talked about him as the king of the overdubs with no soul or spontaneous songs!
“Mick Jagger was always telling me ‘Just be yourself, just walk out there and give everyone the best show possible. That means that you have to be Joe, don’t worry about trying to be Keith or Mick Taylor and related, just me yourself.’ And so when I got off the first Jagger tour then went back to doing the solo work with Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover, I had a new sense of how I was going to show people all that I could do.”
Thanks to the producer Glyn Johns, Mick Jagger hired Joe on his solo tour the year after the Surfing With The Alien tour. Joe learned a lot about the live experience and how to be himself on stage and it was a helpful break from being a solo artist.
After six months of recording, Joe came out with a brand new 18 song masterpiece Flying in A Blue Dream. Joe went through a lot of musical styles in this album, going from blues to hard rock, from banjo melodies to some mystical tapping. Joe proved once again that he mastered the laws of Modal Music with the song « Flying In A Blue Dream » with the lydian mode as a malleable material he turned upside down. There are so many pearls on this album that we would be better to quote every single song! Let’s talk about « The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing » and « Back to Shalla-Bal » which bring rock to a new whole level and the showcase of the Satriani style in « The forgotten, Pt. 2 ».
Joe started singing in the funny tune « The Phone Call » and the very emotional « I Believe », which is a tribute to his father, and really showed versatile style with « Strange ».
With this album, Joe turned out to be one of the best guitar players of the 80’s around the world, showing a fantastic musical knowledge with his incredible touch.
After two years of writing and composing, The Extremist came out in July 1992 and this album was a continuum of Flying In A Blue Dream, with an influence that was more oriented towards hard rock with « Motorcycle Driver », « Summer Song » and of course « The Extremist » for which the theme is rock but everytime it gets enriched with some crazy chords and scales that appear a lot more in « War ». Joe also showed us he knew how to make beautiful rock ballads with « Friends » and the gorgeous « Rubina’s Blue Sky Happiness ». With so many excellent tunes in one single record the album quickly became a Gold Disc! Gregg Bissonnette on drums came up with same punch he had with David Lee Roth and Steve Vai on Eat Em and Smile and his brother Matt completed the chemistry. Joe extended his potential to create melodic themes and sort of lose the demo side he may have had before in his albums.
Time Machine came out in October 1993, a double-CD including a studio disc and a live disc. Joe recovered some unreleased or previous songs that came from the Rubina label. This album was more focused on the live performance and signals a major change of direction in relation to the past with Relativity. He created a brand new image that dispelled the myth of the cold over-produced guitar-hero that some people still thought of him.
Joe Satriani, the self-titled eponymous album, was released in 1995 and showed Joe in a new light, more bluesy and roots. The way he recorded this album is a lot closer to a live experience than a studio record. He kept a couple of songs such as « Cool #9 », which is the only one still occasionally played live because it is very appropriate for jamming and it’s the first song where Joe used a whammy pedal and « Luminous Flesh Giant » the bop song from this album and the very calm « Down, Down, Down ».
Relativity was shifting towards more urban music so Joe had to change his label and chose Epic Records (Sony). The album promotion is limited in scale by Sony and Joe had to tour a lot to affirm his new musical direction. The album is sober, without superfluous features and effects but it was very successful thanks to the musicians he hired. They included the Frenchie Manu Katché (Peter Gabriel) on drums, Nathan East (Clapton, Toto, Daft Punk) on the bass guitar and Andy Fairweather Low (Eric Clapton) on rhythm guitar.
1995 also was the year Joe shaved his head and started wearing glasses. The purpose of the glasses was at first to avoid being temporarily blinded by the lights on stage but they really made him look cool so today they are a real trademark!
A major event in Joe Satriani’s career and rock history was when 90,000 people gathered together in North America in October 1996 and discovered the G3 format (with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson the first year), who didn’t stop touring for 6 months. The G3 was a worldwide tour created by Joe Satriani and put on stage the 3 best guitar players from the time. There were a lot of G3 experiences later with a lot of guitar players like Billy Gibbons, Neal Schon, Steve Morse, Andy Timmons, Uli Jon Roth, Patrick Rondat, Robert Fripp, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, or Paul Gilbert to mention just a few. Three G3 tours have brought live CDs and DVDs.
In 1997 a gig recorded from the first G3 tour was immortalised in CD and DVD as G3 – Live in Concert and the whole world discovered this concept.
In March, 1998, the new style of Joe surprised everyone with the album cover of Crystal Planet which included 15 songs where Joe was back again with his alien style. He recovered his rock style of playing with apocalyptic solos. Crystal Planet breathed new life into Joe’s career . The new technologies brought new dimensions, the songs become magic: « Lights of Heaven », « Ceremony », « Raspberry Jam Delta-V » with the whammy pedal and the percussive « Up In The Sky ». All those songs were demonstrating the incredible artistic level he reached. He used more effects than on the previous record and his style was more lyrical than it had ever been before. Joe had found the sound that fits with machines and synthesizers, all balanced with a powerful melody, still with Stu Hamm, Jeff Campitelli and Eric Caudieux.
That year, the G3 toured all over the world with Joe Satriani, Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth (including Brian May in London and Patrick Rondat in France) for 27 events.