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Interview: Joe Satriani - Gravitational Melodies

Satch works the whammy bar on his signature Ibanez during a Chickenfoot show in Detroit in 2011. Photo by Ken Settle

Satriani recruits a new band and goes back to his roots with the eminently hummable “Unstoppable Momentum.”

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.”

Memorable Melodies
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.

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.”

Satriani and crew in the studio. Photo by Arthur Rosato

Despite Tristano’s existential advice, some of Satriani’s prepared solos were scrapped in the studio once the full band had been assembled and recorded. Certain moments simply called for alternative strategies. A good example is “Jumpin’ In,” with its repurposed blues riffs and eccentric lead tones. “At home I had recorded a very pure, traditional legato solo for the tune, but after I played it in the studio a few months later I realized it needed something more modern sounding. So I went all contrarian and plugged my Whammy pedal into a Boss [OC-2] octave device, a brown one I’ve had for years, and from there it went into a Boss DM-2 analog delay and on into a cranked-up Marshall with a lot of distortion. This setup made more noise than the actual notes played—it was a really cool sound toy to play with.”

200 Pedals … Just in Case
As you’d expect, Satriani had an enviable selection of other “sound toys” at his disposal in the studio. There was a quartet of prototypes for his signature Ibanez JS2410, a smart new guitar with an alder body, a three-piece maple-and-bubinga neck, a 25.5"scale, and a DiMarzio Pro Track neck humbucker paired with his signature DiMarzio Mo’ Joe bridge humbucker.

Also at hand was a fleet of Ibanez JS1000s, some with Sustainiac pickups for searing long notes, a couple with EverTune bridges for stability when using slackened tunings (as on “A Celebration”), and a special road-worn specimen nicknamed Willie because it was signed by Willie Nelson. Satriani also used a 1992 Ibanez JS6 prototype. “It’s unlike any of my other signature models,” he says. “It’s got a Gibson [24 3/4"] scale length and an oiled mahogany body. The guitar just growls—it’s so thick and musical sounding.”

It may come as a surprise to casual observers accustomed to seeing Satriani with his Ibanez guitars and Marshall amps, but he also brought a selection of vintage Fender gear to the Unstoppable Momentum sessions. It included his 1958 Telecaster, his 1966 Electric XII, and a dozen tube combo amps. “On ‘A Door into Summer,’ I played rhythm on the JS6, along with two tracks of the Tele. The Electric XII makes a four-bar appearance in ‘Shine On.’ It’s always cool to have the unexpected bit of color that a completely different setup can provide in the middle of a song. After 64 bars of me playing an Ibanez through a Marshall in your face, two bars of another flavor like a Champ or Vibrolux Reverb is a welcome thing.”

Joe Satriani's Gear

Four Ibanez JS2410s, various Ibanez JS1000s, 1992 Ibanez JS6, 1958 Fender Telecaster, 1966 Fender Electric XII

Four production Marshall JVM410HJS heads, Marshall JVM410HJS prototype head, Marshall 4x12 cabs, late-’60s Marshall 4x12 with Altec Lansing speakers

Vox Big Bad Wah, Strymon Ola dBucket Chorus & Vibrato, Boss DM-2 Delay, Boss OC-2 Octave, DigiTech Whammy

That said, most of the album’s amplified timbres came from an ensemble of Marshall heads and cabinets. “We used four of my Marshall signature heads and the original prototype,” says Satch. “They’re remarkably consistent—they all sound the same—but we sometimes grabbed one over another depending on how long it had been played. The head has such great sustain, body, depth, and presence. It makes my sound so fresh and organic, which can be tough with high-gain settings. I generally used the bottoms that came with the heads, though I did use one late-’60s 4x12 with Altec Lansing speakers.” He also used a Peavey 5150 amp from the first year of its production.

As for pedals, Satriani was anything but “the Extremist,” sticking mostly with his Vox wah but branching out here and there. For instance, on the breakdown of “Jumpin’ Out” he used his new Strymon Ola dBucket Chorus & Vibrato. “Before recording a new album, I sometimes go out and spend way too much money on pedals,” he confesses. “It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling—I’ve got every possible pedal for any direction, just in case the producer suggests something that I hadn’t thought of. I’ll bring 200 pedals to the sessions and only use four.”

YouTube It
Need video confirmation of why Joe Satriani is considered one of the most frightening shredders on the planet? Then crank up your YouTube and surf with the alien.

When this track from 1987 hit the guitar universe with its twisted interpretation of a classic rock ’n’ roll form, Satriani’s stature as a guitar god was pretty much cemented.

Satriani has always had a way with ballads, and this live 2006 footage from the Grove in Anaheim revisits perhaps his most influential ever.

Watch studio footage from the Unstoppable Momentum sessions as you listen to Satch's new tune "A Door into Summer."