The master shredder

By Tom MacIntosh

Joe Satriani (Satch to his mates) 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!

Things broke open for him with his 2nd album Surfing With the Alien in 1987. Before that he was barely a blip on the screen after his so-so debut effort Not of This Earth in 1986. He was the guitar world’s best kept secret having taught guitar lessons to the likes of one Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett (Metallica), David Bryson (Counting Crows), Larry LaLonde (Primus), and Alex Skolnick (Testament) to name a few of the heavy hitters. 


Surfing With the Alien is considered his best collection of material, having charted so highly for an instrumental: #29 on Billboard 200, and stayed there for 75 weeks, the longest of his many runs. Amazingly it was cut on a tiny budget of just $13,000, relied heavily on drum machines, dubbed high hats, cymbals, snares and toms, lending what Satriani called an “awkward charm” to the sound. In fact, the only song with real drums is Satch Boogie, played by drum whiz Jeff Campitelli. Most of the material on the 10-song setlist are improvised, the exception being Crushing Day where the solo was rehearsed previously. The album became a pioneer in the ‘shredding guitar’ style, as shown on the above-mentioned Satch Boogie, the title track, and the heavy metal Crushing Day. But it also features some lovely slower change of pace tunes like Alway With Me, Always With You, the atmospheric Echo, and Midnight where he deftly uses two-handed tapping technique to evoke a Spanish fingering touch. 

Together with producer John Cuniberti, percussionist programmer Bongo Bob Smith, sound designer Jeff Kreegar, Campitelli, and mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, they laid down a bed of mesmerising musical rhythms and chord arrangements over which Joe could have the freedom to improvise everything he wanted.


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 album cover design of the Marvel Comics superhero the Silver Surfer (3 decades ago) fits nicely into the present with the resurgence of Marvel characters in movies today, and ironically, Satriani likely never thought he would be as bald as him so many years later. Marvel Comics even paid tribute to Joe in the comic strip Silver Surfer by creating Planet Satriani, and in return, Joe has composed pieces with them in mind, The Power Cosmic 2000, and Back to Shalla-Bal. And speaking of “irony”, the record hit Gold in February ‘89, and Platinum in February ‘92. And 32 years later the record still holds up and in fact has been reissued several times, first by Epic Records in July 1999, the 2nd on its 20th anniversary in August 2007 by Epic/Legacy Recordings which is a double album with a DVD of Satriani’s live performance in 1988 at Montreux Jazz Festival, and the latest package was released in 2014 containing newly remastered copies to every Satriani studio album from 1986 to 2013, called The Complete Studio Recordings (Legacy). It is a must-have record for fans of prog rock from one of the best, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, “It put Satriani on the map. Beautifully played and well-paced, it manages to capture all the icy fire of fusion jazz without losing any of the visceral power of rock & roll”