Joe Satriani, arguably the premier rock guitarist of the past decade, isn’t afraid to celebrate his roots. For him, all roads still lead back to Jimi Hendrix.
Before setting the rock world ablaze with the platinum-selling “Surfing With the Alien” album in 1987 and treading where few instrumentalists have gone since, Satriani taught guitar for 10 years. Among his students were Steve Vai, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Counting Crows’ David Bryson and Larry LaLonde of Primus.
Satriani considers himself a student, too, and the greatest lessons he learned, he says, came from Hendrix’s mesmerizing talent and tragic life. “Hendrix still managed to be the greatest electric guitar player of the century,” Satriani said recently, “but at the same time he just battled with a completely screwed up lifestyle and a completely screwed up support group that led him to an early grave. Regardless, he’s still my favorite guitarist of all time.”
The electric guitar has changed little since Hendrix came along, Satriani said.
“He did so many things so differently,” he said. “He changed the way people accepted the electric guitar in popular music and everybody, including myself all the way to every guitar player you’ve ever heard – you might argue that Eddie Van Halen is probably the most widely recognized, household-name electric guitar player since Jimi Hendrix and that (U2’s) The Edge has made his mark – but everyone has elements of Jimi Hendrix deeply rooted in their playing.
“They themselves have not contributed that much to all the other players. Eddie Van Halen hasn’t contributed as much as Jimi Hendrix, nor has The Edge, but obviously Jimi Hendrix is all over their playing. So it always leads back to him.”
Satriani will even own up to having a lot of Hendrix in himself.
“Hey, I aspire to assimilate as much as possible because he’s my hero,” he said, laughing. “I play to experience music first, that’s my first goal, to enjoy the experience and make it as deep as possible. After that, if somebody says to me, ‘I hear a little bit of him,’ I would go, ‘Yeah, I admit it.’ But I wouldn’t play in a way where I wouldn’t enjoy it but just so I wouldn’t sound like someone else. I don’t see the point in that. It would mean not enjoying life or something. It would have to be a great musical experience for me.”
Writing and recording “Crystal Planet,” Satriani’s first studio album for Epic Records, was perhaps the greatest experience of his career. It debuted last week at No. 50 on Billboard’s pop chart.
To enjoy that experience, Satriani wanted to keep the atmosphere loose and the songs more upbeat, with a touch of ingenuity.
“I made the point of not making demos,” Satriani said. “I wrote the music on tape or in a casual musical form and showed the band – (drummer) Jeff (Campitelli) and (bassist) Stu (Hamm) – the music in a very natural setting. I just sat down and played it for them and they made their own notes, came up with their own parts.
“Then we rehearsed it as a live band, so by the time we went into the studio, we were proficient at playing the music live. … I also wanted the album to have an electronic, produced sound, so we made sure that it didn’t sound like the last album (‘Joe Satriani’), where we purposely made it unelectronic and unproduced. Mainly, I wanted to introduce the element of fantasy. If you want to be able to change where the listener thinks the music is being created, then you need to use the control room to create a different atmosphere and put the musicians in different places. That allows people to fantasize more about where these musicians are or where the guitar is coming from.
“The opposite of that would be listening to ‘Down, Down, Down’ or something like that, where you can hear that every musician is in the same small room playing real close to each other. That adds a vibe to it. This time, we wanted to create different vibes per song, so we used the control room to create the atmosphere.”
Satriani also used a compositional technique, applying modulation and key changes across the whole album, rather than just one song.
“In the sequence of songs, starting with ‘Up in the Sky’ and ‘House Full of Bullets,’ each new song in the sequence starts in a higher key, so I ascend in a higher key signature with each new song,” he said. “My thought was maybe that if someone sits down and listens to the whole album and even cycles it back and starts at the beginning again, they’re going to get this feeling the album keeps moving them upward and forward.”
Naturally, Satriani is pleased with the results.
“I really love it,” he said. “When you come out with a new record, people ask you, ‘Well, is it your best record?’ You don’t want to belittle anything you’ve done before, but I do know I had a great time writing it and a great time recording it. It was written, recorded and mixed and mastered all in separate time periods which were bookended by G3 tours, so we had a lot of time to leave the studio, go out and play live and then get back into the studio and sort of bring that vitality and excitement into the record.”
BWF (before we forget): Strum along with Joe Satriani on the Web @ www.satriani.com. … The Satriani album discography – “Joe Satriani” EP (Rubina, 1984); “Not of This Earth” (Relativity, 1986); “Surfing With the Alien” (1987); “Dreaming #11” (1988); “Flying in a Blue Dream” (1989); “The Extremist” (1992); “Time Machine” (1993); “Joe Satriani” (1995); “G3 – Live in Concert,” with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson (Epic, 1997); “Crystal Planet” (1998).