Joe Satriani is the most commercially successful instrumental guitar soloist the world has ever seen. He has 6 gold and platinum records, has sold over 10 million copies to date, and has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards so far. Impressive street creds indeed!
So how did this all begin?
On September 18, 1970, the legendary Jimi Hendrix died. It is said young Joe was at football practice when he heard the sad news, and it upset him so much that he went to the coach and told him he was quitting football to take up guitar study. He was 14. He was soon studying under the watchful eye of jazz guitarist Billy Bauer and jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. They instilled in the kid a discipline to be as big as you can be, strive for the best. Before long he was teaching guitar to high school buddy Steve Vai, who would later became the Steve Vai, the guitar-shredding superstar, but more on that later. Satriani was attending Five Towns College studying music at the time and then he left home for Berkeley California to further his musical training in 1978. Then, to make some weekend money he began teaching guitar after class. Some of his students went on to become guitar wizards themselves, like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, David Bryson/Counting Crows, Larry LaLonde/Primus, and Alex Skolnick/Testament, to mention a few.
He then moved to San Francisco and hooked up with a new wave group The Squares, and began networking the scene, making connections, and was invited to play with the Greg Kihn Band, whose kind generosity helped Satriani pay for his first solo record, Not of This Earth in 1986. In 1987 he broke through with an album that charted #29 on Billboard with Surfing With An Alien which housed hits like Satch Boogie and the title track. He was starting to raise eyebrows, even Mick Jagger’s, who invited him to be his lead guitarist on his first solo tour in 1988.The 80s were a prolific time for Satriani, he produced an EP by the death metal band Possessed in 1988, and that same year put one of his own out called Dreaming (#11), which contained the hit The Crush of Love. In ‘89 he cut Flying In A Blue Dream, which was a tribute (some say) to the death of his father who died during the recording. The track One Big Push was on the soundtrack of the movie Say Anything by Cameron Crowe, and Forgotten II was used in a Labatt beer ad in Canada in 1993. Other tracks that made it to film were Can’t Slow Down, cleverly placed in a Don Johnson car-chase scene in Nash Bridges, and The Bells of Lal (pt.1) was behind an evil scene in the Billy Bob Thornton film Sling Blade.
1993 saw the release of The Extremist, his biggest money-maker to date which offered the hit Summer Song, also used in an ad for the Sony Discman, while the tracks Cryin’, Friends and the title song made ample air time on radios across the country. He toured Japan with Deep Purple in ‘93 replacing axeman Ritchie Blackmore, he was invited to stay on but declined; he was busy elsewhere. He founded G3 in 1996, which featured a trio of guitarists, the original set was with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. The subsequent sets and tours had such talented guests as Yngwie Malmsteen, Robert Fripp, Michael Schenker, and Steve Lukather to name some that have appeared in Guitars Exchange.
Joe Satriani is an Ibanez guitar man. They fit perfectly into his masterful style of legato, which seamlessly puts the notes together without a gap, two-handed tapping, arpeggio tapping, whammy bar tricks, volume swelling, and sweep picking, where the guitarist plays single notes on consecutive strings with a ‘sweeping’ motion of the pick while the fret hand touches specific notes that are fast and fluid; creating a sound that reminds us of the title of his first record: Not of This Earth. He has endorsed the Ibanez JS Series and Peavy’s JSX amp, both made specially for him. His line of signature weapons include the JS100, JS1200, JS2400, JSBDG, and the JS20th, to tick off a few on the list. Some of his pedal magic comes from the Vox Wah, the Dunlop Crybaby, a Digitech Whammy, the BK Butler Tube Driver, just to step on a few of the many.
The 21st century has seen a continuous evolution in his approach to music and the wonderful way he interprets it. In 2002 he released Strange Beautiful Music, and Is There Love in Space in ‘04, following his recurring theme of science fiction ideas, as he did with Not of This Earth, Crystal Planet (‘98), and Engines of Creation (2000). In 2006 he put his full weight behind Little Kids Rock, a non-profit outreach project that put instruments into the hands of under-privileged children all across the USA; he even delivered some of the instruments in person, and sits on the board of directors along with his old student and fellow virtuoso Steve Vai. In 2008 Joe joined the supergroup Chickenfoot, named after the peace symbol, which indeed looks like a chicken’s foot. The group was made up of singer Sammy Hagar (ex-Van Halen and Montrose), bassman Michael Anthony (ex-Van Halen), and drummer Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), then Kenny Aronoff in 2011 on drums for the tours. Hagar explains how they got the idea, “Chickenfoot started off with me, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith jamming at my club Cabo Wabo in Mexico. Then people started asking us when we were going to tour, make a record, etc. So I said if we’re going to do this properly then we’re going to have to get a guitarist, so let’s talk to Joe Satriani. As far as I’m concerned he’s the best guitarist in the world”. They put out 2 albums, Chickenfoot in 2009, (#4, U.S.) and Chickenfoot III in 2011 (#9,U.S.) but record sales were not good, so they’re holding off on a third album for the time being. Their 2 best singles were Oh Yeah which hit the charts at #21 in the U.S.,and Bigfoot at #9.
Satriani hits the road after every new release, he landed in 32 countries after his 2013 delivery of Unstoppable Momentum for example. His latest effort What Happens Next (Jan 2018) sees him getting away from the sci-fi themes and brings it back down to Earth, “I think the ultimate goal of human experience is for us to become closer,” he says. “It’s fun to write about science fiction and things like that, but it’s a little bit more difficult to get closer to people by writing about something that’s so abstract. So I focused on rock and soul as a way to recognize our shared experiences, our wishes, our dreams, our hopes and fears. This record is an invitation to get closer. That’s really what it is.” It’s his most straightforward rock effort yet that includes the high-octane Thunder High on the Mountain, the scratchy stomp of Catbot, the sultry sensual Smooth Soul, and the driving force behind the opening track, Energy.
So from his Long Island New York beginnings, trying and failing miserably to play the piano and drums, he picked up the guitar, and the rest is the legacy he has forged over 32 years. It wasn’t always easy, and he has said that he didn’t think he would ever make it, now concedes, “...here I am, once I got it in my hands, I said, ‘I’m never letting go of this guitar because this is my ticket to expression,’ you know?”.