When Joe Satriani recorded his self-titled debut EP, he had two aspirations. One was to make the “weirdest record ever.” The other was “to do things on my guitar that nobody else has done before.” Ultimately, he accomplished both. The record, as it came out in 1984, found the Bay Area-via-Long Island guitar savant making everything from drumbeats to vocal yowls using only his guitar. But more presciently, its innovative spirit foreshadowed his status as preeminent guitar virtuoso to emerge in the Eighties.
Now, three decades later, Satriani has amassed gold and platinum plaques for guitar odysseys like his 1987 touchstone Surfing With the Alien and released 14 studio albums, the most recent of which, Unstoppable Momentum, topped Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart when it came out in 2013. From the start, he possessed an inimitable approach to guitar that balanced melody and technicality, as well as elements of hard rock and jazz, in a way that made for a sound that made him a guitar hero to a generation of young wood shedders. And since the Eighties, he’s toured as the guitarist for Mick Jagger and Deep Purple. He’s spotlighted like-minded guitar talents like King Crimson innovator Robert Fripp and Satriani’s former student, Steve Vai, on his G3 tours. He cofounded the supergroup Chickenfoot with ex-Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony and the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Chad Smith, and he’s lent his genius to albums by Alice Cooper, Queen guitarist Brian May and Spinal Tap.
This year, the guitar hero is celebrating 30 years of doing things on the guitar that nobody else has done with the release of his autobiography, Strange Beautiful Music: A Musical Memoir, and the 15-disc, remastered box set The Complete Studio Recordings. He’s also embarking on a lengthy world tour and plans on getting back into the studio for both a new solo album and another record with Chickenfoot, all before planning a G3 tour for 2015. Somehow in the middle of it all, he found time to meet Rolling Stone in a midtown New York hotel room and discuss just how he perfected his unique approach to strange, beautiful music.
What first inspired you to make sounds no one has ever made on guitar before?
Hearing Jimi Hendrix as a little kid and falling in love with everything that he did on guitar rewired my basic nature. To me, that was a normal thing that you should do: you should strive to be as innovative as Hendrix. I would always think, “Well, how would Hendrix approach something like this?”
As legend has it, at age 14 you quit the football team and picked up the guitar after you heard Hendrix died. How did that news affect you?
I just remember it being a horrible moment – just the thought that Hendrix had passed away – and I didn’t really think too much about it. Wanting to play the guitar was just immediate. My friend told me [Hendrix died], and I just walked right back in the gym and went right back into the coach’s office and told him I quit.
How did your coach take it?
He was a very intense ex-Marine. But I think I had his respect. It’s hard to believe, but I won the most physically fit award in the eighth grade [laughs]. I was part of the fitness team for two years, until they wanted me to cut my hair. I think because of that, he just didn’t give me an argument. I just took off the gear, walked home, stood up at the dinner table and just announced it: This is what’s happening.
Were your parents excited to have a future guitar hero at the dinner table?
There was a vacuum-like silence for a moment…and then my father was all for it [laughs]. His older brother was a professional musician, so he didn’t see it as a problem. I think my mother was terrified of the fact that my hero was a guy who just overdosed on drugs.
I’ve never read any “Joe Satriani was so strung out” stories.
[Laughs] I remember trying to smoke a cigarette and my body just rejected it. I couldn’t get hooked on cigarettes if I tried. But by the time all the other interesting substances were being presented to me, I just decided to stop trying things in fear that I might try it and I might like it. I was already crazy about music.
That’s an addiction.
[Laughs] Yeah, who’s the crazy one? I don’t know.
As a guitar teacher, you’ve managed to coach some famous pupils, including Steve Vai, Metallica‘s Kirk Hammett, Primus’ Larry LaLonde and Testament’s Alex Skolnick. Were you that good of a teacher or were you just lucky?
I always thought I was the luckiest guitar teacher ever. I did have just a lot of great students. You’d have Larry come in, and he would say, “Man, listen to these songs we’re writing. How do you play over that? What kind of a solo can I do?” He was such an interesting student, as were Kirk and Alex. They had great technical facility, which made teaching them really great because you could show them something and six days later they had it down.
What about Steve Vai?
You couldn’t make a Steve Vai [laughs]. That’s a one-in-a-billion type of personality that comes out together with an incredible talent facility. You grow it; you help them grow it. Hopefully, it matures and they don’t hit any roadblocks along the way.
How did Kirk grow as a guitarist in the time you worked with him?
He had a very interesting thing going on. He was in Exodus at the time we started lessons and, then all of a sudden, he got into Metallica, and they were making a record and they were on tour. So he would come in with stuff that was going to be on the Metallica records. He had a real need to get things figured out. He was totally into [Scorpions and UFO guitarist] Michael Schenker and Hendrix and stuff like that, but it didn’t really apply to what he was writing with James [Hetfield] and Lars [Ulrich], and I really was there to show him the possibilities and then sit back and watch it turn into something. He loved it. He would say, “Lay it on. Give me as much information to choose from as possible,” and then he would go on and make his own decision about it and how to apply it. And the guys in the band must have encouraged it as well, because all that stuff wound up on the records and it was so cool to hear it.
Beginning with your debut, Not of This Earth and your breakthrough album, Surfing With the Alien, you had already found a sound that used rock and elements of jazz. How did that come so easily?
When I started to write music that was completely divorced from any sort of idea of commercial success, the real me started to come out. Normally a musician in a session for a pop record would have to discard a lot of ideas because they won’t fit, because they’re not commercial. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I had to keep reminding myself I’m free of that and I’m not creating music for any of these reasons for any context other than the Joe Satriani context. “Go right ahead, Joe.” That was my internal encouragement, so I think what happened was that I started to realize that sound started come out.
If you were trying to make music that was uncommercial, were you surprised when you started getting gold and platinum records?
Oh, completely [laughs]. Between my self-released debut, Not of This Earth, and my record deal, it took a year and a half. Touring with the Greg Kihn Band helped me pay for the first record, because I’d paid for that on my credit card. When I began work on Surfing With the Alien, I was convinced, as well as John [Cuniberti, co-producer], that it would definitely the last record anybody would ever let me make. So when the label called me up and said, “You are 186 on the Billboard charts,” I just thought there was some massive mistake.
When I was playing with Mick, I remember getting the Billboard numbers, and my manager said, “Your record passed Mick’s on the chart” [laughs]. And I didn’t know what to do about it. I remember Mick coming over and saying, “Oh, Joe, this is just so amazing. You just got to keep this thing going.”
What did you learn from touring with Mick Jagger in 1988?
He was so professional. He wasn’t a taskmaster. He didn’t try to control everybody. He liked to bring people into the band that would surprise him. Just sitting down with him when he’d pick up an acoustic guitar and start playing, I was just amazed at what a natural musician he was. I realized at that time that he brought just a ton of stuff besides being a great showman; he was a deep musician and that was evident during the rehearsals. He was just so into the audience; he would do anything to make it a good show and that, to me, is so important. That shows the true mettle of a great artist, that they surrender themselves to the audience and want the audience to have a great time. And then, after the show, he wanted to celebrate with everyone.
Were you worried about taking that gig so early in your career? It was a controversial tour, because Mick refused to do a Stones tour and Keith Richards was doing his own tour at the time.
I was so out of the whole thing that I didn’t really realize what it was all about. I was so on the fringe of music that I didn’t concern myself with it. I wasn’t reading Rolling Stone magazine. That was for successful people [laughs]. And so I just didn’t think about it.
Your album after that tour, Flying in a Blue Dream, was your first with vocals, but you’ve sung only sparingly since. Why are most of your records instrumental?
[Laughs] Well, I can’t sing. I can sing, but I’m not a singer and I’ve always known that there’s a very big difference between me and them. At the end of the run of Surfing, I didn’t want to repeat what I did on that album because my heroes, like Jeff Beck, always changed direction. I didn’t want to get stuck with this whole “alien” thing – of course, that didn’t work out [laughs].
Speaking of the whole “alien thing,” your Chickenfoot bandmate, Sammy Hagar, has said he was visited by a UFO.
I know. He still believes that story [laughs].
You’re a nonbeliever?
Boy, if anyone wants to get visited from an alien, it’s me. I’m dying and I’ve been sending out that invitation to the universe ever since I was a kid. I don’t believe in little green men. That’s collective neurosis of society So I don’t believe that. I believe there’s life in outer space, but I don’t remotely think that we’d be able to even recognize it with the limited senses we have.
So why is science fiction such a recurring theme in your records?
When I still in high school, I played in a band, and we would take breaks to watch this movie on TV called Not of This Earth. It was on all the time, and we memorized the movie. When I came out to California and realized I’d lost touch with every single guy in the high school band, I thought, I’m going to call this album Not of This Earth, and when they see it, they can get in touch with me [laughs]. This was the olden days, the old sepia tone days, pre-internet. I just thought it was the silliest thing to do; it was in-joke.
But you kept with the science-fiction theme by calling your next record Surfing With the Alien.
Originally, I was going to call that album Lords of Karma, after one of the songs. But I did this interview with a British gentleman and he told me he was very disappointed with the album title, that he thought it would ruin people’s perception of the record. So after the interview, I called up the label and said, “We’ve got to change the title. Let’s change it to Surfing With the Alien, so people know I’ve got a sense of humor.”
Was putting the Silver Surfer on the cover your idea?
It was [cover designer] Jim Kozlowski’s. I was unaware that there was such a thing as a Silver Surfer. He sent me a couple of the original comic books, and I loved them. And he was able to obtain a license from Marvel and, before you know it, the second science fiction tie-in happened, and that sealed my fate.
Back to the subject of Sammy Hagar. What have you taken from Chickenfoot into your solo career?
The same thing I took from the experience with Jagger and Deep Purple: people are the most important thing. With Chickenfoot, we all showed up for a silly, Sammy Hagar celebrity jam, just to have fun. We were shocked that there was something else to it. No one wanted to be the first one to say it, because it was too corny: “Man, that was great. We should be in a band.” But all of a sudden, it all came out of everybody’s mouth and that’s undeniable chemistry.
That chemistry is so important. When it happens, you’d be an idiot to walk away from it. I wrote two songs about it on my most recent album, Unstoppable Momentum, “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out. Sometimes you just have to jump into things, because it’s so obvious it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment. And then there are times when you have to jump out, when you realize this is too much; this isn’t going anywhere.
Thinking back to 1984, when you put out your first EP, what was the biggest lesson you had to learn?
If you don’t do it, it won’t happen. In the mid-Eighties, I was stuck in a band called the Squares. I loved the band, but it was not going anywhere. If I didn’t start something else, it can’t continue. Recording a record on a credit card is just a bad idea [laughs]. But on the other side of it, if you don’t try it, then how do you know if it might turn out really good? So the lesson was just to do it. Just to go out there and do it, and that’s where the good stuff happens.