Surfing with Satriani
By Naughty Mickie
Photos courtesy of the following Web sites:
Joe Satriani could be called a musical chameleon. Over the years, the guitar phenom has explored a wide variety of genres and has successfully made them his own. This could be because he studied bebop with Lennie Tristano (who introduced him to the power of a good horn section) and has been influenced by artists such as Wes Montgomery, Albert King and Muddy Waters, plus he also enjoys classical music.
It was with this in mind, and the tunes from his recent release, "Live in San Francisco," ringing in my earphones, that had me extra excited to speak with him. From the first moment I answered my telephone to hear Satriani's voice, I could feel his creative energy despite his calm professional manner and I knew that this virtuoso would teach me a thing or two before our talk was over.
Born and raised on Long Island, Satriani had a good start toward his career, the arts were encouraged in his family and he truly had music in his blood.
"My parents grew up during the Depression and the accordion was my dad's brother's ticket out of Spanish Harlem,'' he says.
Satriani's mother played jazz piano, his older brother plays blues harmonica, flute, guitar and recorder and his sister plays folk guitar.
"I was amazed that my sister could get up and do that,'' Satriani says, recalling going to see his sister perform.
Satriani joined this trail of talent at age nine when he took up the drums. He also sang in school choirs and, later, in bands.
"It was a natural thing," he says. "I like the feeling of singing, but not the sound of my voice.''
The guitar finally called to him at age 14 after the death of Jimi Hendrix. It didn't come as easily as you may think, Satriani struggled with conquering the instrument just like any musician, but he managed to succeed by keeping his focus on Hendrix.
"You need to be deaf to your own horribleness'' on guitar, Satriani explains.
He states that it is important to set a goal and keep working toward it, despite the obstacles you may face.
As soon as Satriani was ready, he began performing with high school bands at dances, bars, festivals and other venues and, at 17, he went on to tour with Top 40 bands.
During high school, Satriani took music classes and, interestingly enough, another guitar great, Steve Vai, attended the same school and studied with the same teacher. But the two musicians had much more in common.
It is widely known that Satriani shared his gifts by taking on students of his own. Once again, his family was helpful. His mother and sisters taught music, so there were plenty of materials around the house.
"I started teaching guitar because a local kid asked me to,'' he explains. "It seemed like the natural thing to do."
Vai came to Satriani for lessons and, after about a year, they would lock themselves up in Satriani's room and sit on the bed and jam for hours. The two realized that they did not have to live up to "musical standards," but could play their own unique styles of music. This sharing of ideas and sounds led to the friendship of a lifetime.
Satriani went on to travel the world, living for a time in Japan and California. He finally settled in Presidio Heights in the San Francisco area of California with his wife and son. He shares a love of sports with his eight-year-old, who likes baseball and basketball, as well as video games and snorkeling in Hawaii and Mexico. Satriani especially likes winter sports such as snow boarding. His household is complete with a Mexican Rosy Boa and a Miami Phased Corn snake.
Writing, for Satriani, whether "serious or silly" comes from the heart.
"I write based on my experiences and try to keep the connection to the emotion and place," he says.
Music comes to him in different ways. Sometimes, Satriani will get just a melody and, at other times, he will be sparked by every aspect of a song at once. Creativity can come from many different sources.
"Sometimes while reading a musical intellectual thing,'' Satriani laughs as he explains to me how he will be reading an article on theory, applications and techniques and end up sitting down and writing a piece of music, combining the subjects in his own way.
He finds the music scene refreshing.
"I always like the way the scene keeps changing." He smiles, "Get on your board and ride, it's the wave that never ends.''
Satriani enjoys the variety offered in the current scene and says that it's hard to know what will be the next big trend.
"No telling what's going to work,'' he says.
And he has kudos for the Internet.
"I love it!" Satriani exclaims. "It's revolutionized our ability to tour.''
He tells me that it has simplified his tour. Instead of carting around piles of paper, contracts can be worked out on a computer, so Satriani's manager simply totes his laptop from gig to gig.
"He can arrange everything," Satriani explains. "From the kind of lights we need to the kind of pretzels we want, all from his computer.''
Satriani is also very involved with his Web site, www.satriani.com. On it, you'll find reviews, photos, tour notes, updates and more. Satriani tries to check the site daily and respond to his fans' e-mails; he also tells them where he is and what he's doing. Even the set list for "Live in San Francisco" was compiled from his fans' online suggestions. His thoughts are often about the many people who have supported his ever-changing career.
"I'm eternally grateful to my fans for allowing me to drag them through all my different styles,'' he says.
Satriani spent his 45th birthday on stage during his "G3" tour with Vai and John Petrucci at the Beacon Theater in New York and the fans got to show him their love even more.
"Steve (Vai) secretly had the audience practice singing 'Happy Birthday' and when I came out, they sang and coated me with Silly String,'' he says, the thrill still in his voice.
Satriani's DVD, "Live in San Francisco" will be released Aug. 20. In the meantime, he is concentrating on wrapping up his tour and writing some more music. In October, he plans to begin working on a new release. This time, Satriani will be doing a complete turnabout from the techo sounds of his previous effort, "Engines of Creation," he will be paring down the instruments and going back to "essential rock." And once again, he will be shedding his stylish skin for a new shimmy that is sure to shine.
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