When the legendary shredder recently switched from a 22- to a 24-fret neck, he was surprised to discover how tricky it was to get used to the extra two frets. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler.

Were you less able to experiment once you were established?
I became clearer about where I wanted to experiment. On the early records I was reacting against the small community I was working in. Before Alien was a success I was doing sessions. Any time I played in my style—the same one that later became popular with Alien—the producers would shut me down quite rudely: “Don’t play that, it’s terrible. Play like that other guy.” Within a year, those same people were calling and saying, “We would love you to come in and do that thing you did with the whammy bar and the wah-wah pedal.” I was happy to decline and say, “No, that’s mine. You can’t have it now.” I wasn’t getting more conservative, I was protective of the things that were special to the early records. I wanted to focus on the quality of the melody and it was difficult because my competition was all about athletics and big hair. But all you need is your audience saying, “We loved that song where you just played the melody,” to give you confidence to write 100 more songs that emphasize the melody over showmanship. Also, I was still playing Chuck Berry riffs, because I thought it was important to be true to my roots and influences.

The albums are like diaries: You are letting people into your life.

Do you feel you can stray from what made you popular?
Absolutely. One of the mysteries of success is the “wrong” direction that artists take at any given time that make their audiences go, “What are you doing?” Your audience will fall in love with one set of songs because of when they heard them and what they were going through. You shouldn’t fight that—the randomness should give you the courage to strike out and try something different every time so you will connect with new people. The first two records were combining Kraftwerk or new wave-like drum machines with guitar. Later, the Extremist was me celebrating classic rock roots. It was the wrong record for what was happening in music at that time, but it ended up doubling my fan base. The [stripped down] Joe Satriani record and the techno record [Engines of Creation] might have resulted in a few fans saying, “I’ve had it with this guy,” but we gained far more than we lost because others were saying, “Finally, I can listen to this guy.” Glyn Johns [producer of Joe Satriani] once said to me, “It’s not your job to decide what people will like. It’s your job to play your guitar, so go out there and play your bloody guitar.”

Would it be correct to say the latest record, Unstoppable Momentum, harks back to Joe Satriani, in terms of the interaction with the live rhythm section?
Yeah, with Vinnie Colaiuta, Chris Chaney, and Mike Keneally, I took a chance they would be inspired by each other. There was true chemistry there and we took advantage of it by listening to a demo and then tracking within an hour or so. I gave everyone the opportunity to try something different on each take and after six or seven takes we had enormous variety to choose from. All of it was great—it was just a question of which feel we liked the best. It added an organic quality to the record. I wanted a full production, but I also wanted the feel to be very natural.

Joe Knows Gear

A look at Satch’s current rig, in his own words.

For this tour, my tech Mike Manning and I only brought out three guitars—the fewest since the Surfing with the Alien tour. We’d been bringing seven to nine instruments. This time I wanted to feel the smallest variation possible between guitars. My primary instruments are the Ibanez JS 2410 MCO [Muscle Car Orange] guitars, and a JS 2400 signed by Willie Nelson.

Once I started playing with Chickenfoot I began tuning down to Eb and using D’Addario .010–.046 sets. Before that I was using .009 sets at concert pitch. I’d been using Planet Waves heavy picks but recently ordered some extra heavies. For amps, I use my Marshall JVM410JS signature head. It’s comfortable having your own signature gear to plug into and wrap your fingers around. These days I have the most input into the gear, which makes for the least resistance.

I use my Vox Big Bad Wah at the beginning of the chain and my Vox Joe Satriani Time Machine delay at the end of the path. In between varies according to the song, but there is probably an Ibanez Flanger, a DigiTech Whammy pedal, and an Electro-Harmonix POG or Micro POG. Sometimes that’s it, or I might add a Voodoo Labs Proctavia. The Proctavia’s EQ curve is good for me, because I have a lot of low end in the amps.

Once I started working on the amp, I had to leave my signature Vox Ice 9 overdrive and Satchurator distortion at home. If I’m going to make an amp that has gain channels, I have to prove that they work. I did two tours using just the Marshall heads for overdrive. They have four channels with three modes each, so it was not like I was hurting for gain structure. The only thing in the amp effects loop is the delay and a Neunaber Technology Wet reverb pedal.

Gear has to be practical. I’ve had to play a variety of music over my career, so I’m not looking for a one-trick pony sound. It has to be flexible enough to work in many situations. If a guitar has a whammy bar, the tuning has to be impeccable. An amp has to sound good at low volume and high volume—it has to be switchable and be quiet. It needs all those things you’re required to have together whether you’re playing on television, in a small club, at a wedding or whatever. I’m always thinking about the working musician because that is how I started out.

What was it like working with Vinnie Colaiuta?
Some stuff, like the drum intro to “Jumpin’ Out” was a supreme Vinnie moment. Every take he would do a different but amazing fill. It had me thinking, “Wow—it’s too bad I can’t have seven of these.” [Laughs]. But even on “Shine on American Dreamer,” which is a straight rock song, he understood the emotion behind the song. He was masterful in how he hit, what he hit, and how he toyed with the time on the fills moving from the verses to the choruses to make them more dramatic. It was like he was tapping into my mind and soul.

Having done this for two decades, how do you stay inspired onstage?
Onstage the audience gives me the live energy that makes me want to play. If I could, I would do five-hour shows. This recent live unit—Marco Minnemann, Bryan Beller, and Mike Keneally—really freed me up. Though they are more technical players than I’ve played with before, they somehow made me more relaxed. I felt I played a little bit better because of the confidence coming from the rhythm section. We were playing 90 percent of the new record. It could be the new people, new material, or new equipment. The 24-fret JS guitar finally became more comfortable to play, which took some anxiety out of the live performance.