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Satch works the whammy bar on his signature Ibanez during a Chickenfoot show in Detroit in 2011. Photo by Ken Settle
When Joe Satriani returned home from the South American leg of his all-star G3 tour last October—after a nonstop year of touring that also included dates with Chickenfoot—it would’ve been perfectly understandable if he felt the need to take a holiday from music. But his mind was so filled with new musical ideas that he dove headlong into a project that had been on hold for months.
“Playing with three different G3 lineups—and having a meeting of the minds with incredible musicians like Steve Vai, Steve Morse, John Petrucci, and Steve Lukather—was so cathartic for me,” says Satch. “A lot of things crystallized and came into perspective, and I had a much better idea of the directions that some demos I had sitting around should take.”
The fully realized versions of Satriani’s demos can be heard on Unstoppable Momentum, the virtuoso’s 14th studio album. Like all his previous efforts, the music is something of a radical extension of the guitar-based instrumental work of the Ventures and other 1960s pioneers. But the album is perhaps more catholic in scope than most of Satriani’s previous efforts.
“With [2010’s] Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, I set out to make an album that was all about the band—about great players coming together to form an organic whole,” explains the famed instructor of Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, and Primus’ Larry LaLonde, to name just a few. “But for Unstoppable Momentum, I wanted to see if I could make a record kind of like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I like that, while Sgt. Pepper’s has many straightforward rock-and-roll elements, it also has an experimental side, drawing on music from every corner of the world—from classical to Indian—and it even incorporates a little comedy. And it’s just fun to listen to.”
To that end, Satch put together an all-new band of players to complement his quirky ways. Time-keeping duties went to Vinnie Colaiuta, the fiendishly skillful drummer who has worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Jeff Beck and Sting. “I played with Vinnie at a celebration for Les Paul’s 90th birthday—we did just two songs—and had wanted to work together ever since,” he says. “Year after year passed until I just called him to see if he was available for seven to 10 days last January. Our schedules happened to line up, and it was so great to reconnect.”
After careful consideration, Satriani enlisted Chris Chaney, perhaps best known for his work with Jane’s Addiction, for bass-guitar duties. “I needed to find a bass player who’s steeped in rock but can play anything, and that’s not as easy as it might sound,” says Satriani. “I asked around and Chris Chaney’s name kept coming up. It just so happens that he’s not just a great rock bassist, he’s a first-call session player in Los Angeles for movies and TV—a perfect fit for the record, given its range of influences.”
Former Frank Zappa sideman Mike Keneally was recruited for keyboard chores. Keneally, undoubtedly more familiar to some as a guitarist, turned out to be a real asset to the ensemble’s chemistry. “Mike was a no-brainer,” says Satch. “I’ve toured with him since ’96, and his musicianship is just crazy. Anything I can do on guitar, you can be sure he can play it—and faster! And he’s a full-on virtuoso on keys, a very sensitive player who knows when to step up and when to step back.”
Few electric guitarists have as prodigious a command of the instrument as Satriani, with his trademark brisk legato approach, his unique interpretation of blues and rock licks, and his extreme two-handed tapping, not to mention his ability to conjure uncanny sounds such as the lizard-down-the-throat he gets via an idiosyncratic manipulation of the tremolo bar. With such otherworldly technique, a lesser instrumentalist might make music of empty calories, but for Satriani the song has always taken priority above showmanship. That’s why the melodies—the hooks—from tunes like “Always with Me, Always with You” and the Lydian fantasy, “Flying in a Blue Dream,” are still indelibly etched in the brains of many devout Satch fans years after first hearing them.