Joe Satriani: Talks Unstoppable Momentum with Melody, Harmony and Groove

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Joe Satriani’s musical journey leading to his 14th studio album Unstoppable Momentum, has been filled with meaningful moments from established instructor to virtuoso performer. Not many artists possess the flair for writing catchy yet technically proficient songs–but most artists are not Joe Satriani.

His landmark Surfing with the Alien album snaked its way up the top 40 charts in 1988, and is one of the few all-instrumental rock albums to gain mainstream popularity. Fast forward to 2010, the timeless “Surfing” was revisited when pop/rap sensation Nicki Minaj sampled “Always With Me Always With You” on her multi-platinum debut, but there’s no doubt Satriani’s playing is the melodic force guiding the hit single “Right Thru Me.”

Before all that, a large part of Satriani’s early career was spent as a respected guitar instructor with a student roster including Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Charlie Hunter, and Alex Skolnick (for starters)! Joe humbly recalls: “I was simply the luckiest guitar teacher at the right place and time…a few times actually.” Although he hasn’t had to teach guitar since January of 1988, he has “enjoyed it all the same” and he was “always interested in a variety of music both as a listener and a musician.”

For Unstoppable Momentum, the guitarist assembled a new studio band to record the 11 tracks at Skywalker Sound [in the Bay Area] produced by Satriani and Mike Fraser (AC/DC). The lineup features Vinnie Colauita (Sting, Jeff Beck) on drums, Chris Chaney (Janes Addiction) on bass and on keyboards, Mike Keneally (Dethklok). Satriani discussed assembling the studio band, “I took a chance that these very talented guys would have a lot of chemistry between each other and bring a new energy to the sessions.”

Joe Satriani checked in with Guitar Girl Magazine while preparing for a series of Australian Master Classes and then a European and U.S. tour. Step inside the world of G3 Tour founder…it’s life lessons from an industry road warrior.

GGM: What advice do you offer for a new guitar player, etc?

Joe: Practice is always worth it. You have to be prepared for what may come your way musically, from inside, or, from other musicians.

GGM: What advice specifically do you offer for young girls just starting out or learning the guitar? What would you say to encourage them?

Joe: Girls, boys, men, women, it’s all the same. I’ve taught both genders and all ages, the approach is the same: Locate the individual’s talents and weaknesses and teach from that starting point.

GGM: Have you had many female students over the years?

Joe: Not as many as their male counterparts, but equally talented.

GGM: What advice do you have for women being in the guitar world — or working as a professional musician?

Joe: On the music side, the advice is the same, practice, practice, practice. Women have it a little tougher on the music business side of things because of objectification, so, a strong character will help get one through the sketchy moments. I suggest reading all you can on the music business to stop from being taken advantage of.

GGM: When you first began your musical studies, did you start on acoustic guitar?

Joe: I started on drums at age 9, then moved on to guitar at 14. My first guitar was an electric Hagstrom III.

GGM: Do you feel you always had musical aspirations? What was one thing, or moment early life, that made you decide to pick up a guitar?

Joe: Watching the Beatles and The Stones on TV when I was just a young kid changed my life. At age 9, I think it sparked the musician in me to wake up and get going. I’ve never turned back because it has always seemed to be the most natural and exciting thing to pursue. When Jimi Hendrix died I was devastated, and that very day decided to become a guitarist. I had dabbled a bit on my older sister’s acoustic before then but still thought of myself as a drummer. At 14 years of age, I started my journey on the guitar.

GGM: Tell me about working with Steve Vai as an instructor?

Joe: I was teaching Steve when he was just 11 or 12, and he was immensely talented as a student. It makes teaching so much more fun and gratifying when you have motivated students with lots of talent waiting to be harnessed. When you teach you have to crystallize your own thoughts on musical concepts, this process in turn helps you understand more about the concepts you’re showing your students.

GGM: Unstoppable Momentum is your 14th studio album (which blows my mind, and I am sure yours more so!). I feel like it was just yesterday when I heard “Surfing with the Alien” and your signature sound propelled you into the world so to speak, and “Satch Boogie,” of course…

Joe: Thank you! When we finished that record I was convinced the record company would drop me and never call me back. We went over budget and delivered a record that was quirkier than what they were expecting. After we sold a few million copies they changed their minds! For me it was a labor of love and at that point in my life an artistic high point.

GGM: What was that time period like as far as the whirlwind and being in more mainstream music per say?

Joe: Exciting! I recommend it to everyone!!!

GGM: If anything, can you pinpoint how your playing has developed since that recording?

Joe: I try to improve every day I pick up the guitar. I try to write better, play better and perform better.

GGM: What inspired your playing on Unstoppable Momentum?

Joe: Melody, harmony and groove, these were my guideposts.

GGM: The song “Unstoppable Momentum” is perhaps a bit more melodic to me, has a soaring quality to it, and sounds huge. Can you tell me a bit more about the song?

Joe: It is autobiographical, a song about my musical momentum that has not stopped since I was very young. So it is celebratory as well.

GGM: The song “Shine on American Dreamer,” where did that title come from?

Joe: It’s about Americans needing to continually fix and re-focus the American dream. The financial crisis of 2008 continues to show us how a greedy few can create economic turmoil for millions of people around the world. We cannot allow this to happen again. It is a cultural problem as much as it is a regulatory issue.

GGM: When working on Unstoppable Momentum, how did you approach the songwriting process?

Joe: Same as always, I write every day and edit every day until it sounds right. This can be a time consuming process but it always yields the best results.

GGM: The album features players Vinnie Colauita (Sting, Jeff Beck) on drums, Chris Chaney (Janes Addiction) on bass and on keyboards, Mike Keneally (Dethklok).  Share with us something about the vibe of your studio lineup…

Joe: As a recording unit we had so much fun exploring each song until we came up with performances that made us happy. They are all virtuosos in their own right and they brought all down to bare on this record.

GGM: As far as the art book featuring your drawings and sketches you have done over the years. [The art is very cartoon-like and amusing]. Is your drawing something fun you have done over the years?

Joe: I’ve been drawing since I was a young kid, and have always loved making art of any kind. The new book is my first in this format. Mixing my black and white sketches with my multi-color experiments has been a very cool project for me. I feel invigorated to try more work in that direction.

GGM: As far as being in the band Chickenfoot, how do you adapt your playing to that situation? [The group consists of vocalist Sammy Hagar, ex-Van Halen and Montrose, bassist Michael Anthony, ex–Van Halen, and drummer Chad Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers].

Joe: Chickenfoot is a great band, and I’m so happy to be part of it! The guys in the band are all monster players and extroverted personalities. Every time we get together sparks fly and good music gets made. We hope to re-unite next year.

GGM: That’s great news, you really seem to gel amazingly…seems like great chemistry. 

Joe: That’s why we stayed together because we recognized that crazy chemistry and synergy. Each guy is very different and brings an interesting perspective to the unit. We are united by our roots and we celebrate that.

GGM: Lastly, Any other guitar Gods on the way for next G3 shows?

Joe: Not sure how to fit another G3 in 2013, maybe 2014. Who would you like to see?

GGM: [We can let our readers answer that one for Joe…]

Get Inside Joe’s Guitar…

GGM: What gauge pick and type of pick do you prefer?

Joe: I like heavy picks, nitrocellulose. Other than tortoise shell, they sound the best.

GGM: Did you use any new effects or pedals on this recording?

Joe: The only new pedal I used was a Strymon Ola. It’s a chorus/vibrato pedal.

GGM: What practice techniques or warm up do you do (if any) before a show?

Joe: Just simple finger exercises, nothing too intense…

For a complete run down of Joe’s gear like his signature pickup “Mo’ Joe” from Dimarzio, check out this link:

Photo credit:  Larry DiMarzio

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