Virtuoso reality

Guitar hero Joe Satriani talks about technique, Black Swan and Nicki Minaj

Joe Satriani is an archetypical electric guitar virtuoso. He’s been releasing instrumental, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll records since the ’80s, and many of them have been nominated for Grammys and other awards. He began his career as a guitar teacher, a sort of guru for advanced guitar techniques, and his former students include Steve Vai, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter. In 2008, Satriani filed a copyright infringement suit against the pop band Coldplay alleging their song “Viva la Vida” included “substantial original portions” of his song, “If I Could Fly.” In recent years, in addition to his solo career, Satriani has also performed with the group Chickenfoot, alongside former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

Satriani’s current solo tour comes to Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort on Friday, an. 14.

Let’s talk about the new album, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. Where did that album title come from?

It’s a two-parter really. “Wormhole Wizards,” obviously, is the title of one of the songs, and the “black swan” phrase I picked up reading some book years ago and just liked it. I did some research behind it, and the more I learned about it, the more I liked about it. So I wrote it down in my little phrase book I keep of interesting words and phrases. It popped into my head when I was editing the songs for this album. I had about 50 songs, and I was trying to edit the list down to about 15 or so, and I realized that I was picking some songs that might surprise my long-time fans, and I thought about that term “black swan”: something that you don’t expect, something that you don’t think you’re ever going to see, but once you encounter it, it’s sort of a game changer. It seemed like a cool phrase to work into some kind of album title. As I was fooling around with some of the titles of the other songs, it seemed to go really well with “Wormhole Wizards,” because they don’t really go together, so they sort of act upon each other in an opposing way, which I thought was sort of stimulating.

And no relationship to the movie Black Swan?

No, it’s funny. I have a feeling that it popped into my head because it was just sort of in the stream of consciousness out there. After I had decided on it, about a month afterwards, I saw there was a book out about economic crashes or something like that, and it was called The Black Swan, or something like that, and I thought, well, that’s very interesting. And then the movie came out, and I thought well, that’s really weird. You know, things happen in threes, so we’re the three.

Did you see the movie?

I haven’t seen it yet. It’s funny you should ask that because I was invited to go see it tonight, but I’m going to wait until I get home, so I can see it with my wife.

What’s going on with Chickenfoot?

Chickenfoot will be in the studio by the end of this month. We’ve got a whole slew of songs we’re working on, and the original lineup will come on, and we’ll see if we can get a record finished up by the beginning of March.

When you go from doing your solo stuff to Chickenfoot, how does your perspective change? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a vocalist?

Well, you know, those guys are rock stars, so the food is much better when I’m with Chickenfoot. They’re part of that multi-platinum, rock ’n’ roll hall of fame group of musicians, so there are private jets and celebrity chefs showing up all the time. It’s a little bit more down home when I’m doing my solo work.

The new record is more of a thoughtful record, where Chickenfoot is a party record. Would you agree with that?

Without a doubt. There are certain things that a vocal band can do—and since both [bands] are playing rock music—that instrumental bands can pull off. I have the benefit of not having lyrics, so the music is a lot more suggestive because of the absence of direction from lyrics. The burden of having lyrics is that you’ve got to come up with really great ones [laughs]. They really put a face on a band.

Sammy is a feel-good guy. He hates conflict. He loves to lift people up. It’s like if there are two people in a room, he’ll make sure they’re having a party. And when he goes to a concert to play, that’s exactly the way he feels. That’s the sensibility he likes to bring when we’re writing it together. Even when he wants to make a comment about a serious subject, he makes sure there’s a way to do it where he can get people on their feet. It’s a very interesting way that he likes to do that.

So when you put the two together, yeah, it would seem like my solo record is dead serious in comparison. But taken on its own, I think you can see some whimsy here and there. … I’ve got to say that [producer] Mike Fraser did such an amazing job. … And Mike is such a creative guy when it comes to using the studio as an instrument. It’s one of the better-sounding recordings I’ve ever been involved in. I don’t know how he does it, but I love working with him.

Can I ask about Coldplay? Are you still in legal dispute with them?

No, not at all, but I’m not at liberty to talk about that at all.

So was that resolved out of court?

You know, all I can say is “no comment.” That’s the only thing I can say.

On a more positive note, I know Nicki Minaj used your song “Always with You, Always with Me” as the basis for one of her songs last year.

Yeah, that was very cool. They actually sent me an early version of it, and asked permission the right way, and included me in as a co-writer, and they did it all above board.

What did you think of her song?

I thought it was really interesting how she developed a melody off of the bass line, and my melody was sort of like counterpoint to the rhythm arpeggio—this is real musical stuff—but when I was writing the song, I realized, boy, you know you can do that, you can use the rhythm figure as simply background, and then sing off of the … bass line, this very simple three-note bass line, with a slow rhythm, or you can try to get some counterpoint going with any other rhythmic figure, so for some reason, when I wrote that song, I decided to go the counterpoint direction, so when I heard her version, it kind of reminded me of my thought process, many years ago, of writing that song. That goes way back to 1987, so that was a while ago. … I found it fascinating. Of course, it makes sense because she’s singing, and you could never really sing lyrics to my melody, it’s a very instrumental kind of a melody. She’s a great rapper, and I think she’s really good entertainer, so we may see her around for a while.

In the early days of your career, you were known as a guitar teacher. Can you tell me about your philosophy and approach to teaching guitar?

Pretty simple, just teach everything you know to the student. If they express a desire to be great, then they give you license to really lean on them as a teacher. If they’re coming just to learn to play some songs so they can relax after a hard day, then you don’t lean on them, and you just try to make them learn how to play some feel-good music. That’s the approach I took. Most of my students were people who just wanted to have fun with music, but there was a good handful that were so driven, it was really exciting to teach them. They were all extremely different in the styles of music they like, but they all shared a commitment to be the best guitar player they could be, and that’s always fun, as a teacher, when you’ve got really motivated students.

What are important things for guitar players to know? Are there foundational things that are getting neglected now?

I think there’s still a steady stream of really good guitar players. Every year, there are good players. You don’t see them fronting the band necessarily, like I do, and because rock music isn’t as popular anymore, you see less Eddie Van Halens coming to light all the time. But the guitar players playing with people like Nicki Minaj or all styles of music that are more popular today, they’re just as good, it’s just that they’re dealing with different styles of music, with different arrangements.

Primarily, the key element is that you have to learn how to play music with other musicians for people to listen to. There isn’t really a book about that. There are plenty of books about scales and exercises and music theory and everything else, but eventually, once you learn all that legwork, the important thing is can you actually play music with other musicians, and when you do it, can you make people feel good? That’s our primary job as musicians. We’re supposed to lift people up or drag them down or something. We’re supposed to provide energy by the way that we play. That’s still something that I mention all the time to prospective students, if I’m doing a clinic or doing club shows, people ask me about that all the time. It doesn’t take a genius to know that you’ve got to memorize the notes and the chords and the scales, so I figure that’s obvious. But a lot of people get caught up in the technique, and they forget the primary objective.

How do you balance technique and the emotional aspects of playing?

You do have to just try to play what you feel, no matter what. If it turns out that you need to lean on some technique to get a song idea across, then you do it. But I think to live with it, personally, you’ve got to like it. It’s got to come from your heart. That’s the way I do it. Some songs, I don’t sound that amazing on because I’ve made that decision that there’s no need for it. I don’t need to play fast to get this song’s point across. People ask me about that technique versus feeling all the time, and I’ll say, if you think of a song that goes really fast, any song in any genre, there’s some technique going on there. … If you’re listening to The Ramones, not everybody can play like that. That was their technique, and they all learned how to do it. They might not have been able to play hip-hop or jazz or blues, but they could sure play that! And I think if you grabbed the average jazz musician or blues musician and tried to get them to play some Ramones songs, they wouldn’t be able to do it, either. Sometimes people get blinded by music that’s new, and they think that there’s no technique going on, but everybody’s got technique, you can’t play without technique, it’s just that there are styles of music that sometimes mask it or sometimes push it to the forefront. If you were in an orchestra, you had to play “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and you were the soloist, you better have some technique, or it’s not going to work. Technique is generally a musician’s friend, but it’s not good to misuse it.

The guitar is probably still the most popular instrument in the world. Why do you think that is?

That’s a good question. For some reason, when the finger hits those strings it conveys a lot of personality, and I think that’s what people really want, they want to hear what’s in the performer’s soul. That’s why the voice is always going to be the most popular thing, the most moving thing. I think people are confused about life, and we just need to hear other people talk about it and sing about it. It makes us feel better [laughs]. So any instrument that comes close to that is also going to make us feel good. So I think the expert violinist is really going to move our heart just like Neil Young just torturing the guitar. It just reaches you somehow. You feel him. And that’s what we want—we want to feel that connection to the person.