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Interview: Joe Satriani - Gravitational Melodies

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Interview: Joe Satriani - Gravitational Melodies


Satriani ponders his next move at the mixing board during the recording of Unstoppable Momentum. Photo by Arthur Rosato

Unstoppable Momentum is even more about the melody than many recent Satriani works, too. Having proven himself many times over as a guitarist’s guitarist, here he regards pyrotechnics as an afterthought—and this is especially apparent in the ballad “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn,” one of Satriani’s strongest melodic statements on record. The guitarist says, “On this record I wanted every moment to be super melodic. I didn’t care at all about being physically impressive. I wanted the strongest possible melody, all the better with the strongest riff. Once I was satisfied the songs had met these requirements, the technique would follow.”

Satriani also put a lot of energy into the compositions and arrangements, which led somewhat circuitously in directions that he hadn’t previously explored. For example, he wrote brass parts for the boisterous-sounding “Three Sheets to the Wind.”

“I drove my wife crazy, obsessively playing this tune a million times over the course of a month on my Ibanez JS prototype—which has a Strat-style layout—through a vintage Fender amp, totally dry,” he says. “I kept getting the sense that I was playing this very strong melody in the meekest possible way. I recorded it into my phone and listened to it when I was out doing errands. Then I realized that the melody was so strong it didn’t deserve to be played on guitar. So I tried demoing it on keyboards—a [Hammond] B3 organ kind of thing—but it still demanded to be expanded to its full potential. Initially I resisted doing it on horns, because that’s generally not what I do. But then I thought, ‘What the hell, let’s see what it sounds like,’ and the brass arrangement ended up being exactly what the melody was calling for.”

The same track also reveals Satriani’s tendency to compose in a filmic way—a practice not necessarily apparent to the listener. “When I was writing the tune, I had this movie going in my head about a dapper young guy in a natty suit stepping out of a fancy apartment in a groovy city. The tune is all about this guy drinking copious amounts of champagne, getting into all kinds of trouble, and stumbling back to his apartment at dawn, unharmed. I told Mike [Keneally] the story and he did this barroom type of piano that really made things swing.”


Just a few of Joe's go-to axes at the ready in the studio. Photo by Arthur Rosato

Home Pyrotechnics
For all the focus on melody and attention to compositional detail, Unstoppable Momentum is not without its fireworks—for this is, after all, a Joe Satriani album. Fans of the pyrotechnical will find great satisfaction in the wah’d-out Dorian solo on the aforementioned “Three Sheets to the Wind” and the punishing tapping excursions and tripped-out whammy-bar antics on “Lies and Truths,” to say nothing of the outright neoclassical shredding on “The Weight of the World.” In his own defense (not that he needs one), Satch says, “Again, I tried to play exactly what the songs called for without ever going overboard.”

In fact, not only are these shredding moments models of appropriateness, the solos on the record also exhibit a strong compositional logic, as well as a certain polish that owes much to Satriani’s recording process. The Silver Surfer of yore has a home studio that’s essentially always on standby, ready to receive his ideas and sketches at a moment’s notice. Having such a convenient setup allowed Satriani to avoid the pressure of a more formal setting and capture the very best approach for many of the solos on the record. “I recorded some of the solos with a Millennia Origin STT-1 direct into Pro Tools,” he says. “That way, I didn’t need to get caught up in the sound and had the luxury of choosing the most inspired solos for the record. Later, I re-amped some of these solos and sent them out to a Marshall and fine-tuned the sound in the studio.”

The solos also reveal a keen attention to harmonic detail and, despite their clean execution, a refreshing spontaneity. This sophistication is at least in part indebted to one of Satriani’s unlikely mentors, the jazz innovator Lennie Tristano—a pianist and composer celebrated for the complexity he brought to the language. “He always said, ‘Only play what you want to play. Never play what you think you should have, could have, or would have played. Never live in the subjunctive mode,’” remembers Satriani. “I’ve tried to follow those lessons my whole career.”

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