Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #2
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
What certainly sets him apart is that he has managed to make a hugely successful career as a solo guitar instrumentalist.
If ever someone's debut album had an appropriate title, it was Joe Satriani's 1986, Not Of This Earth. In person he may be a polite, self-effacing, New Yorker, but to legions of guitar players around the world, Satriani might as well be an alien - or a god. There may well be no guitarist alive with as many followers who regard him as the best there is and they will turn out to his gigs, buy his albums, attend signing events at shows, just to get a glimpse of the man who probably most defined where Rock guitar was going after the '80s.
The strange thing is, if you ask Satriani fans what it is about him that they most admire, you get a very mixed response. Some say he is the most musical of the contemporary guitar greats, others that he's the most technically gifted, still others praise his tone - maybe he has all those qualities?
What certainly sets him apart is that he has managed to make a hugely successful career as a solo guitar instrumentalist - and not many have managed to achieve that. Other, earlier, guitar gods, like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen made their names with bands and despite achieving legendary status as players, continued to work in bands alongside equally successful vocalists. In fact possibly only Jeff Beck stands alongside Joe Satriani for having sold millions of instrumental-only guitar albums.
What so astonished fellow guitar players about Satriani was his complete mastery of the instrument from the get-go. Yes, he was a furiously fast widdler - but he was also a melodic player, with taste and style. Yes, he had all the flash techniques, but this wasn't a display of pyrotechnics for pyrotechnics sake - this was a virtuoso instrumentalist playing real music - not just waving his bag of skills at the audience.
Just as Robert Johnson is said to have had his moment at the infamous crossroads, Joe Satriani is said to have experienced his epiphany at the age of 14, famously hearing of the death of Jimi Hendrix and announcing to his football coach that he was dropping the game to become a guitarist. True or not, something of Hendrix must have entered his soul as there are still strong Hendrix influences in Satriani's playing. While no copyist, it's hard not to listen to Satriani sometimes and wonder if this was the direction in which Hendrix might have gone, had he lived.
Moving to California in 1978, Satch, as he is known to his fans, soon gathered about him an astonishing legacy of guitar pupils, including Steve Vai, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Counting Crows' David Bryson and Testament's Alex Skolnick. This was a man who was not only about to stamp his mark on the fans of a generation - he was also shaping the destinies of some of its star players, too.
Financing his first album on a credit card (don't try this at home, folks!) Satriani began to claw back some of his losses by playing in a local Californian band - and then came the breakthrough with his second album, Surfing With The Alien, released in 1987. The legend was beginning to spread and the album received not only extensive radio plays but serious acclaim from guitar fans worldwide.
By the dawn of the 1990s Satriani's status was secure. Fans can argue about the respective merits of his albums but the new decade saw his inexorable rise up the guitarists' Mount Olympus. 1989's Flying In A Blue Dream was followed by 1992's The Extremist, and in 1993 he was seconded to Deep Purple to replace the wandering Ritchie Blackmore. Eventually offered a full-time gig with the band, Satriani declined and his place was taken by Steve Morse.
A major record deal with Sony followed and in 1996 he formed his G3 project which was to see Satch treading the boards alongside an astonishingly diverse bunch of fellow guitar legends like John Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen, Adrian Legg, Robert Fripp, Michael Schenker and Paul Gilbert.
Satriani fans argue about which has been his most golden era so far but the safest bet is to say that the best is yet to came - and he demonstrated that with the release, in 2010, of Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards - an album that proves that while Satriani might have inspired a lot of guitarists who see technique as an end in itself, he himself was a master musician - not just a hugely gifted guitar player.
If one thing has been missing from Joe Satriani's career, it has been hearing him as part of a band. He put that right in 2008 when he teamed-up with the hyperactive Sammy Hagar, Hagar's fellow Van Halen member, Michael Anthony, and the superb Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to form Chickenfoot. Many such side-project supergroups send out the right signals to get the fans drooling, yet fail to deliver. Chickenfoot, however, delivered in spades - the band gelled and the first album gave room for Satriani to show that he wasn't only the the guy out front demonstrating breathtaking guitar soloing, but that he could also drop back beside the drummer, play superb riffs and rhythms and cover that side of the instrument as consummately as he had the soloing.
Tonally, Joe Satriani has something intriguing in common with the subject of Guitar Interactive's first issue, David Gilmour - both players get their sounds more from their effects pedals than from their guitars and amplifiers. That doesn't mean neither guitars nor amps are important but it does mean that having exactly the right amp isn't perhaps as crucial as it might be if you are trying to aim for some other guitarists' sounds.
All the same, the demands Satriani's highly dynamic playing makes on an amplifier shouldn't be overlooked. For the earlier part of his career, he was largely a Marshall user, relying on the timeless sound of a Marshall 6100. In 2001, however, Satch teamed-up with fellow Americans, Peavey, to develop a complete range of endorsed guitar amplifiers which Peavey called its JSX series. These rapidly became a major force for Peavey, epitomising the brand's top-end professional credentials in the hands of the current guitar god.
But like most musicians Satriani is a restless spirit, always in search of the perfect sound and by the time of the formation of Chickenfoot, he was on the move again - this time back to Marshall, whose flagship JVM series has become his amp of choice - notably the JVM 410, teamed with the inevitable Celestion-loaded 4x12s.
As for his guitars, no doubt if you thrust a cheap copy into Satriani's hands he would still sound like Joe Satriani. Then again, having to hand his much-loved Ibanez JS models would be ideal. Introduced to Ibanez by friend and former pupil Steve Vai, Satch took his ideas (he had been assembling his own guitars from parts beforehand, so knew something of the challenges involved) and spoke with Rich Lasner at Ibanez.