Interview: Joe Satriani

Martin Schmidt: How do you like the music fair so far?

Joe Satriani: It's great. It's slightly noisy, which is great when you're walking around, but when you have to talk to a crowd, it's terrible.

Martin Schmidt: Do you find it inspiring to check out new gear on an occasion like this?

Joe Satriani: Yes. I'm crazy about gear, I love it. I could spend two weeks here.

Martin Schmidt: You have a lot of signature products by now (Ibanez guitars, Vox Pedals, Peavey Amps, CAD Mike Set). Do you have your dream rig and instrument now?

Joe Satriani: It'll never be done. Once you finished one thing, you want a new, the next. I think I drove these guys (points to the Peavey guys) crazy enough, with the different amplifiers.

Martin Schmidt: Your newest amp version is a 50 Watt head. What's special about it?

Joe Satriani: 50 Watt heads do something quite different. They reach their rock'n'roll peak at an earlier point in volume and I find that a 100 Watt head is designed to give you a lot of muscle right away, a fifty Watt head is a litte bit more playable; I guess. It reacts differently to different guitars you plug into it. We had the JSX 120 and the Mini Colossus with 5 watts and I really wanted to fill in between, do some of the things I like from the 50 watt heads I have. It's more of a classic design, an older design and less complicated on the inside.

Martin Schmidt: You have three pedals out with Vox. Is there a role model, a classic pedal/echo for the distortion and echo sounds you get from them?

Joe Satriani: Let's talk about the Time Machine first. It delivers what every other digital delay pedal delivers. So in that way, it's like every other pedal, it gives you the exact what you play into it and repeat it. It has an EQ Cut and shrinks the bandwith. That means, if you want delay and you play a lot of low notes, it doesn't get muddy. If you want to sit the delay behind what you're playing, that switch, by diminishing the bandwith, it takes just one little step back. Great for ambience! As a model, I used an old tube Echoplex that I had. It was so old that it kept changing speed all the time and created a beautiful warble and tape chorusing and we simulated that digitally. If you use the vintage mode, you get that.

Martin Schmidt: How many of these pedals do you use live?

Joe Satriani: I use two Time Machines, one for short, one for long delays, one Satchurator and the Big Bad Wah.

Martin Schmidt: Do you integrate them in a switching system or do you just turn them on and off?

Joe Satriani: I just lay 'em on the floor and run right through.

Martin Schmidt: You've played Ibanez guitars for 20 years. Are you still happy with them?

Joe Satriani: Yes, great guitars.

Martin Schmidt: How did the model you use evolve over the years?

Joe Satriani: Since 1990 we perfected the compound radius, which I think was the most stunning feature of the guitar, because it came out at a time when most players wanted a flat neck, like the JEM guitars. I really wanted a vintage feel, like a '59 Les Paul or a '55 Strat, so I wasn't looking for that flat, heavy metal high fret kind of thing. But getting the action low enough meant that the compound radius had to be perfected and it took quite a long time. I took the guitars on tour, bring em back and say this is a problem, that is a problem, so over the years, they have been able to turn out exactly the neck that I want. That's fantastic. We also had some changes in the pickups. Now I'm playing with the Mojo and the PAF Joe.

Martin Schmidt: You have a new band called Chickenfoot. How did it get together?

Joe Satriani: With Sammy Hagar giving me a call and inviting me to play at an encore jam for a show that he was doing in Las Vegas. I've known Sammy for a long time and we were in a band together, six or seven years ago, called Minor Dust, that was very shortlived. It wasn't unusual for him to give me a call and say, come down and jam. It happened that Chad Smith and Michael Anthony were also coming down and we had such a great time on stage that we decided to try to make a band out of it. Since Sammy and I are still touring, we could only do it for a few days and wait a few months and then do it another couple of days.

Martin Schmidt: The music is quite different from your instrumental solo albums. Did you want to play music like this, or did it happen by accident and through the personality of the band members?

Joe Satriani: It's definitely on purpose. I wrote all the music and Sam wrote the lyrics and melodies. I wanted this to sound like a new band and I wanted the music to reflect a lot of our shared roots in rock music.

Martin Schmidt: With Chickenfoot, is there a leader or are you a democratic band?

Joe Satriani: With Chickenfoot, is there a leader or are you a democratic band?

Martin Schmidt: What are your plans with Chickenfoot? Will it be a full time project, or is it just one part of your career/musical life?

Joe Satriani: I think we're at this point, where all of us can make it a full time project until it's not. We will do it as far as we can and we have to put it on hold as something comes up. Just see what happens.

Martin Schmidt: So if you have the major hit record, you'll keep doing it.

Joe Satriani: Yeah, sure! (laughs)

Martin Schmidt: I hear a lot of '70s influences in the songwriting. Is this your favorite era for rock music?

Joe Satriani: I think from '66 to '73 is a pretty interesting period, especially '66 to '70 is Wow. That's really the beginning of rock music, when it left rock'n'roll and pop and became rock and before metal came in. Those guys, Hendrix and Jimmy Page really defined a kind of playing along with Beck and Clapton. It was still a kind of rock music that was very closely connected to its roots in blues, what made it still soulful and swing, because the players were aspiring to be third generation bluesplayers. It was before it was successful as well, so there were more chances taken with the compositions.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think it has something that's missing in today's music?

Joe Satriani: No, I just think that it is what it is. Every era is going to have different music. Every generation needs a new sound - you can count on that (laughs). Everything will change, nothing is better or worse or not as good, it just is.

Martin Schmidt: Are you still into current bands? Which ones?

Joe Satriani:
The last couple of months I've been listening a lot to Radiohead and AC/DC.

Martin Schmidt: You made a career playing instrumental rock music. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having no singer?

Joe Satriani: (laughs) Oh my god. The advantages are you don't have a singer (don't tell Sammy I said that) and the disadvantages are that you don't have a singer (laughs). I don't know. Let me put it this way: instrumental rock music is so unpopular that it is very difficult to embark on a career on purpose. My career was by accident and I've been very fortunate to be met with a lot of success and have fans around the world. I can't explain it. All I know is that it is technically not feasible.

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Martin Schmidt: Why do you think people find it difficult to listen to music without vocals? There's so much classical, jazz or country instrumental music everyone knows, but every time you see a rock band without a singer, everybody goes: It's cool, but you don't have a singer.

Joe Satriani: Maybe it's because the genre started with vocals. Classical music didn't start with vocals, so most people, when you ask them about classical music, they don't think about vocals, although there's a lot of singing, a lot of choir work, a lot of opera, but they don't think of it that way. Jazz is the same way, they think about the soloist, although there are absolutely amazing jazz vocalists. So I think that it is because rock'n'roll came about always with singers and instrumental is derivative.

Martin Schmidt: Do you write differently when you compose instrumental songs?

Joe Satriani: Yes, everything is totally different. If the three of us were in a band and the singer has a song called "The House Is Burning Down", it wouldn't matter what we would play, he would start singing "The House Is Burning Down" and the audience would know exactly what the song is about and whatever else he says, they would know, he really is talking about "The House Is Burning Down".

If we were an instrumental band with the song "The House Is Burning Down", we would go, "How do we make people feel that this song is about the house burning down?" We have to come up with fiery chords, fiery rhythms and this is, in this age, where sound is the message, it's this extra pressure to really get your tone and phrasing right. It has to be beyond your ego what you project as a guitar player and say, "This song needs a small guitar sound, because that's what the song about." You really have to apply all of your musical decisions around that. With lyrics, you have this great ability to use things that are incongruent, things that don't work. So if we were doing a song about his house burning down, we can say let's be really clever and we would play something really smooth and beautiful, meanwhile he's singing my house is burning down and it might be very artistic and people would love it, because it might be about a guy who's house is burning down and he's feeling all right about it.(laughs) And the other thing is, if he's singing the song about a house burning down, he doesn't need to be the melody about fire, because he has the word and the message is in the word, so he can repeat the same melody. An instrumentalist can't do that, otherwise people go, "What is that?" So your melody has to be more melodic and the juxtapositions of the melody and the harmony has to be more special, because you haven't got the lyrics.

Martin Schmidt: What inspires you to create new songs these days? Do you play, until you find something interesting or do you work with a concept, or a title, or a certain atmosphere to create a new song?

Joe Satriani: Everything. I don't shy away from any kind of inspiration.

Martin Schmidt: Do you have plans for another instrumental release in the near future?

Joe Satriani: Not yet. OK, you know what? It's only been one year since I finished my last solo record and I just finished producing the live DVD from the tour and while that was going on, I wrote an entire different record with the band. I need a break!

Martin Schmidt: Now you can look back on a 20 year career. How did the music business change in this time span?

Joe Satriani: Completely. There was no internet when I started and file sharing has been the most destructive force to the music business and it's been the most positive force in a fan's world. When all of us in this room go home and not work and we're music fans, the internet and file sharing is our friend. We can listen to any kind of music anywhere at any time and share it with our friends and find it anywhere 24 hours a day. Back in 1988, everything took three weeks. Musical ideas travelled much slower. The fastest thing was Fedex and that was about it. As far as the music business and record companies, it is the nadier of the business, where you say, I'm chucking it in, because their business is falling apart day by day.

Martin Schmidt: Is it easier or harder for musicians these days, with all the Internet, myspace and digital stuff?

Joe Satriani: It's easier to get heard, because of the internet, but you jump into an ocean of everybody who has it easy, so I don't know if that makes it so easy.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think playing guitar is different today than it was 20 years ago? Do you learn differently through all the new possibilities (DVD, internet, computer programs) and does that change the music in general?

Joe Satriani: Yes. Youtube is such a powerful tool for spreading ideas. It is an instant library. It's so profound for most musicians, especially guitar players. It's a bit of an akward instrument, you can't really read it and get the full story, so when we get to see somebody play something, it really makes a difference. So when you're ten years old, you can see Steve Vai play something with his tongue and learn it in a second. And that's their starting point! I think the generation coming up right now will kick everybody's ass! And that's what you want, you want the next generation blow the last generation away!

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Joe Satriani, after more than 20 years in the business of making instrumental music, certainly needs no introduction. His recorded legacy ensures his position as one of the premier proponents of the genre. Having said that, fans might be surprised to learn of his new vocal project with Sammy Hagar.

Martin Schmidt caught up with Satriani at a European music fair, and talked about his new gear and his career to this point.