A rock guitar master not only plays amazing riffs, he’s taught other rock greats how to play them.
By Steve Houk
When you watch Joe Satriani play guitar, at times you think you’re watching someone who could have invented guitar playing.
The guitar virtuoso’s flair, style, technique are effortless, even at his most frenetic. He is almost second to none as far as his overall mastery of the instrument. So it would make sense that he would also be a renowned guitar teacher as well, a mentor to some of rock’s greatest axe men. Who does he give the credit to for his guitar teaching vibe?
“I’d probably have to give credit to my mother,” Satriani told me during a recent break in his tour. “She was a professional grammar school teacher her whole life and had an office in our basement where they used to let me rehearse when I was a young drummer at age 9, so the idea of teaching seemed kinda natural. So when I was younger and somebody asked me for lessons, I thought, I can do that. And I remember going down to the little corner of the basement that was her office and getting, you know, couple of pencils, a ruler, and some paper, and then going up to my room to teach a lesson thinking, OK, this is what you do when you’re a teacher.”
And what a magnificent and revered teacher and player he would become from there. Joe Satriani has been at or near the the top of the list of innovative, groundbreaking, virtuostic rock guitarists since he released his first solo record Not Of This Earth in 1986. Amidst teaching riffs to some of hard rock’s best guitarists, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Primus’ Larry LaLonde, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan, his high school buddy Steve Vai and many more, he has released 14 more mesmerizing solo records, as well as playing in rock supergroup Chickenfoot, who are mulling a reunion. Satriani brings his “From Surfing To Shockwave” show to the Lincoln Theater in DC on Saturday April 2nd.
Ironically or not, it was a music teacher that Satriani hooked up with as a teen that really carved the path he would follow his entire career. After a dissapointing semester at a Long Island music college after high school, someone suggested Satriani hook up with an eclectic music teacher in Queens, not too far a drive from his Long Island home. So he took the plunge, and never looked back.
“I wanted to know the secrets of music and I just wished there was someone that I could find to teach me that would not force me to change my style,” the 59 year-old Satriani said. “I knew I was a rock and roll kid, and just thought, I don’t want to just drop that and become a jazz head or a classical head or something, why can’t I just stay the way I am, ya know? So a friend says to me, call Lennie Tristano, he’s the father of cool jazz, he teaches every kind of instrument, every kinda musician, he’s the weirdest most intense guy you’ve ever met in your life. I thought, I’m game, so I started taking lessons from him, and those lessons with Lennie really changed my life, because he approached music in the way you would imagine a Yoda or Zen Master would. He was the roughest around the edges Be-Bop-era musician, and he was totally blind, he didn’t even have pupils in his eyes. He was just the most unusual character, but taught me lessons that I still work on to this day. He taught me what it was to be a musician and how to practice and what improvisation really was, and those were great lessons to learn as a teenager, they were essential.”
Satriani eventually moved out to California, where both his playing and teaching careers flourished, beginning with an ultimatum from a store owner that set the stage for his next phase of successful instruction and mentoring.
“I moved out to California and lived across the street from a guitar store,” Satriani said. “I’d go in there and hang out but never buy anything. So the owner came up to me one day and said, ‘If you’re not gonna buy anything, you have two options. Get out, or why don’t you teach some lessons?’ And that turned into ten years of like 60 students a week, while playing in a local band at night. But I was basically teaching guys like Kirk Hammett, Charlie Hunter, Larry Lalonde, all sorts of players that wanted to change the world in a few years. They came to take lessons after seeing me play. It was quite an interesting period there in Southern California.”
After joining up with a Green Day-esque power trio in the early 80’s, what could have been bad luck turned very good when Satriani cut his own solo record during a break from his band.
“I recorded a very avant garde solo EP while on break, I did all the instruments, I put together my own label, my own publishing company, I did this whole thing as like a personal project. And when I presented it to the band, they were pretty discouraged by the whole thing, and that made me really look at what I was doing with these guys in a different light. I wound up leaving the band, and I thought well, I’m gonna maybe pursue this and try to make a real record with real drums and keyboards and bass, and that became Not Of This Earth. It turned out to be the right choice, to do my own thing, although it was the product of being unlucky, as a musician, ya know. That sort of unluckiness turned into a bonanza of sorts.”
Satriani’s most recent effort, the 2015 concept-album-of-sorts Shockwave Supernova, was conceptually a new foray for the guitar ace. The idea came to him from a feeling he had on stage as one of his tours was ending, and he took it and ran with it.
“The idea basically came to cuz I was playing with my teeth too much,” Satriani said with a likely smile, “and I thought, who’s making me do that, and obviously it was me. I’m not a lead singer type guy, I’m more of a shy retiring serious guitar player type, but one time onstage, at the end of the last tour in Singapore, I was walking on stage thinking, remember what your dentist said, don’t play with your teeth anymore. But of course I did, I did everything, I pulled out all the stops. Then I was thinking a few days after the tour that it would be an interesting concept if I was having a crisis of personality, there was a struggle inside of me, the alter ego Shockwave Supernova who would do anything to become popular, including make up a goofy name like Shockwave Supernova, would start to take over and it would have to be a struggle. And if it was musical concept, how would using guitar instrumentals, how would the two personalities battle it out. And they would basically have to argue their case through music. And so I thought, this is a great concept for me, I thought it was too complicated for the general public, but I thought if I use it just to get the project crystallized, it would be enormously artistically satisfying, and I think it would yield something very interesting for the fans. For me it helped focus the composing and the playing. It also gave me this artistic license to play freely in terms of representing different periods over the last 30 years. So I could really go retro for a reason, to tell a story.”
As it has been since the beginning of his illustrious career, Joe Satriani’s creative process and philosophy is a simple one: don’t think too hard, and go with the flow. And that seems to still be working better than ever.
“I do kind of just try to be as natural as possible. If I wake up in the morning and I think, the music that I write today has got to be danceable or something like that, then I just go with it. I don’t really second guess myself, because you never know, sometimes you may start out like, well, I’m gonna write a country song cuz I feel like it, and then you wind up writing music and you realize, oh this would be so much better if it was metal sounding. One thing leads to another but you really can’t anticipate how the creative mind leapfrogs from one idea to another. I’ve learned just to not discriminate against myself when I’m in a creative mood. I’m always searching for something new and exciting, so I guess that feeds the confident change in direction.”
Joe Satriani performs Saturday April 2nd at the Lincoln Theater, 1215 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009. For tickets, click here.