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The Rediff Interview
/ Joe Satriani
The Guitar God Speaketh
May 13, 2005
Indian rock fans can't believe their luck. Joe Satriani arrived in Mumbai on Thursday, and, starting Friday, the guitar god is set to spend a week exposing India to the might of the electric guitar.
Raja Sen, pinching himself all the while, caught up with the legendary solo supremo, and tried hard to get under the great man's fret-board, er, skin.
Welcome to India, Satch.
Thank you! Thanks to all the fans here in India for creating enough demand to allow us this great invitation to be here. We're so thrilled to perform here in India, and we really hope to make it a great week.
As a teacher, when you're teaching a great guitarist – he's already great. And guitar style being such an individual form of artistic expression, how is it when your students develop their own styles? What do you teach an already accomplished guitarist?
Well, some things are pretty simple, you know, like what scale do I use. Like Kirk Hammett, when he was taking lessons, he'd just gotten into Metallica and some of the chord progressions nobody had ever soloed before. You know, 'cause James (Hetfield) was making them up! And so I would show him alternatives; I would say, 'here are notes that are part of the progression and here are all the scales from around the world that are your options.' I never told him what to play; I just told him, 'Kirk, these are your options. And this is some fingering you can use. Now you go and decide what you wanna do.' And he always made his own decisions. That's how you do it. You see, you don't teach style -- you teach opportunity.
Among all the people you taught -- most have branched into severely different styles of music. Do you think they could be better suited playing differently or do you like the music that they've made?
Yes. It's a special, and unusual position I'm in, because I hear a Steve Vai record, I hear a Charlie Hunter record, I hear Metallica -- I instantly see and remember the young kid. I remember when Steve Vai was like this (moves hand to below chest level) before he was like that! (raises hand high above his head, laughs) And so it's like a father, or an older brother remembering younger times and I'm always reminded of that when I hear the tone of the instrument.
What's your advice to budding guitar players?
Memorise everything! (Laughs)
Now that you're finally here, can we actually expect a G3 concert (the celebrated trio of electric guitar maestros) in India?
I hope so. It usually follows that the goodwill that we create touring with a solo act helps us sort of lay the framework in order to come back with the G3 tour. The good thing is that Steve Vai and John Petrucci are very interested in doing more G3 work, and we're currently looking at going to Australia. And India's pretty close by. (Smiles)
G3 is now formed with you, Steve Vai and John Petrucci. Why is Eric Johnson (the member of the original lineup) missing? Was Petrucci picked over him? Was Eric asked to leave?
He wasn't. It was Eric's decision; he refused to continue. Each time it'd be the same thing: they did one tour and they didn't want to continue. Petrucci and Steve are welcome to stay as long as they like. I've invited them to do Australia, which is the only current invitation we have and actually, with the exception of Michael Schenker (remembered for his work in the band UFO), everybody's invited back!
I really need to ask you about one of your most unique projects -- collaborating on the incredible rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. How bizarre was that experience?
Oh, it was really a lot of fun. Those guys are just so creative and they're funny. It's a difficult experience because actors are very different from musicians -- they're very disciplined, actually. And when you play with them on stage, they're not themselves, they're those characters and they don't break from that character at all.
And so you instantly feel they're strange, cause rock'n'roll musicians go out as themselves; they don't act. But Spinal Tap stay within their characters, so you really do feel like you're a regular person on stage sucked into a movie (laughs) and you don't have any lines, and you don't know what your motivation is. So you learn to just... hang.
Pushed to a corner, who would you say is your favourite student?
I'm fond of a lot of them. You already know about the good students – like Vai and Kirk Hammett. But there were a lot that were not very good (laughs). Sometimes I think maybe I should name them, for a change. My favourite student? That would have to be my son. (Laughs) He's my favourite right now.
As a kid, you first picked up the drumsticks. What inspired the change to guitar? And why drums in the first place?
I started off on the drums probably because the drummers from The British Invasion bands were so exciting. And I really thought that the best thing to get into would be the drums. And I spent two years learning with a teacher and, even at that young age, I always felt like I wasn't fitting in, that I was suited wrong. So I took a break, and then decided to try the guitar. I still play the drums today, but I play them electronically, and (laughs) fix it later. So if I hadn't picked up the guitar, I'd just have been a crummy drummer.
What's on your iPod?
Okay, let's see, from the top it's -- John Petrucci's new album; Steve Vai's new album; American Idiot (by Green Day); U2; Neal Shawn's new record, Eye On You; and a bunch of Joe Satriani live stuff you don't want to hear anything about! Then there's a Ravi Shankar collection that I put on there, knowing that I was going to come here; and some new sorta techno Indian band called MIDIval Pundits that somebody gave me. It's a small collection, actually, because I save space on my iPod for a bunch of live material that we record, like in Japan, so that's a whole lot of stuff, so not a lot of gigabytes left on that thing.
You toured with the legendary Deep Purple. As such a huge fan of Richie Blackmore, how did it feel stepping into his shoes?
When I first got the call to do that, I turned it down instantly. I like Richie Blackmore too much. Steve Vai said to me that the way to become famous is by touring with a lot of really famous bands -- and he went on to do that, several times. (Laughs) Finally I had to call them back and say I'd changed my mind. I couldn't let an opportunity to play with this legendary band go by. And I was very nervous. I'm a great admirer of Richie, and I just couldn't imagine taking his place. I don't think I was; I was just filling in.
It was wonderful. The band is just such a great band that touring with them was the easiest thing in the world. I knew the songs in and out, obviously, so that wasn't hard at all. But their sound was so perfect, not like a live band at all. Imagine a Deep Purple album playing in a room, and you step into it -- that's what it was like. Like walking into the album and the oddest part was hearing yourself play on it. So that was the only really tough part: getting used to missing Richie's sound in the band, and getting used to playing in that position.
There are very few tracks of yours that feature the infamous Satch vocals. How do you personally rate yourself as a vocalist?
Not! (Laughs) I'm not a vocalist. I'm a musician who can sing a little bit. And sometimes a song, an album, needs words to take the story forward, and that's where I step in, reluctantly.
So what can we expect from Joe Satriani in the future?
A couple of embarrassing vocal tracks (laughs) and hopefully a lot more really cool guitar instrumentals!
Now, about the look: What's with the 'Satriani shine'? Your older album covers featured you with long, flowing hair. And now it's quite the opposite. Any specific reason?
Actually, my Italian heritage gave me hair loss as part of my genes. (Laughs) It was a gift, really, because when I look back at my earlier magazine covers, I must admit I never really had the hair for an eighties rockstar. I remember I was once turned away from a band when I was auditioning because my hair wasn't right. (Laughs) So when I started losing the hair, I decided to keep shaving it. And it's freed me up.
What's your set-list for the show like? Will we get to here classic Satch tracks? Or is it an Is There Love In Space (his latest album) promotional gig?
Well, it is and it isn't. Our set-list is quite long, so we'll play a lot of songs. We'll probably play about half the new album, and a bunch of old songs. There'll be songs from every album, and you'll probably hear your favourites!
How important is improvisation to your style of guitar playing?
The album really works as a collection of propositions that are written to receive improvisation. I get questions about solos all the time: people come up to me and ask me how do I compose my solos. And I tell them I never compose my solos; they're always improvised. And after I make the record I never really think about what finger on what string, so I wouldn't be able to answer highly technical questions about my solos. (Smiles)
I grew up improvising, that's sort of how I developed an interest in the instrument. I was initially drawn to jazz for the same reason. So during our show, we try to combine a lot of improvisation, but we also have a responsibility not to change the structure of each song. You're talking about a guitar player playing three hours of melodies; if you keep improvising, it all ends up sounding like one giant song. And I don't like that. I'm not attracted to that. I really do like the idea that the sound is coherently separated -- the audience should be able to hear each song individually separate from the other. That's kind of what the show operates upon.
What would you like to tell an expectant India a few hours before you start gigging here?
Hi, this is Joe Satriani, and I hope you come to the concert. I'm going to be playing for three hours and it's going to be a crazy, rocking show!
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda