Thirty years into his career and Joe Satriani is still learning. Widely considered to be one of the greatest living guitarists, Satriani has released 15 studio albums, garnering himself as many Grammy nominations and a combined 10 million units of album sales, making him the highest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time.
This year, Satriani, 59, is looking back on his illustrious career with his “From Surfing to Shockwave” tour, a retrospective that will see him performing songs from the beginning of his career all the way through his most recent album, last year’s Shockwave Supernova. The experience, he says, has helped him to learn a little about himself and his progression as an artist.
“I really grabbed the bull by the horns back then, in the middle of the ‘80s,” he says. “I started to think, what really dissatisfied me about what I was surrounded by back then in terms of instrumental guitar music was that it wasn’t really composed very well. There was just no end in sight when it came to talented players… [but] it’s really the writing that’s going to get you the home run.”
With his debut album, 1986’s Not of This Earth, Satriani experimented with song structures and the technical aspects of songwriting, setting the tone for much of the boundary-pushing that would come to define his career. His songwriting features a wide variety of tones and inspirations — “There are songs about departed loved ones and there are songs about meeting an alien being and taking him to the beach,” he says — upon which equally varied song structures were built. “Sometimes the song structures are very much like a vocal song… And then other songs have these long protracted intros before they get to the verses that only happen once, and then it goes into a long improv,” he says. “I kind of play with arrangement.”
The knowledge of musical theory that enabled him to write such experiments in form dates back to music education he received as a young person. Starting at nine years old, Satriani took drum lessons for a few years before moving on to guitar, though he retains an admiration for his drum instructor, whom he describes as “a jazz cat, 100 percent… [He was] the real deal who could really swing.” Satriani then took music theory lessons at his Long Island public high school before moving on to private lessons with famed improvisational jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, which lasted for “about two and a half months,” he says.
“He was blind, so there was no printed material,” Satriani says. “He never showed me one fingering. He would put enormous tasks in front of me every week, to learn every chord and every key and every scale, harmonized everywhere. It really taught me about not only the discipline of practicing, but also learning how never to judge yourself when you’re improvising. To truly improvise was to shed yourself of every picked-up lick and nuance that you were copying from someone else. That really went against being a professional rock-and-roller… His whole thing was, ‘Get rid of all that and just play Joe. That’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear how good you are at imitating Hendrix or Tony Iommi or Wes Montgomery. I just want to hear Joe. So how do you get to that?’ And you’ve just got to peel off the layers.”
“Those were fantastic lessons of self-discovery,” Satriani adds.
As his own career eventually took off years later, Satriani found himself in the role of the instructor, teaching guitar lessons to a variety of soon-to-be famous pupils including Primus’s Larry LaLonde, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan, among others.
“Like Lennie, I tried to stay out of the way of all personal styles that the student would bring in,” Satriani says. “[For example], my lessons with Larry really centered around an era when his generation was inventing thrash metal. It was fascinating to see it happen, to watch this younger generation just take music in a new direction. I was keen not to influence them with my style, because I was the older generation by then. I just thought, ‘I’m going to give them the raw materials and just see if I see anything physically that I think is funny, that I can help them with.’”
Though he no longer teaches regularly, Satriani is hoping that the “From Surfing to Shockwave” tour will help raise awareness for music education, which he maintains is extremely important. A contest attached to the tour will donate its proceeds to Little Kids Rock, an organization dedicated to funding music education in schools.
“When I was going to a public high school, I could join the chorus, the orchestra [and] the band,” Satriani says. “I could have the school invent advanced music theory classes for me. I could take individual instruction on just about any instrument you could think of… And it was amazing! [But] today, when I go to visit a high school in San Francisco, I am appalled at the teeny budget that they are struggling with. Certainly there are no guitars. There’s nothing! They basically play some mp3s in the class and try to talk about music. It’s really horrendous that, in the United States of America today, average kids cannot get a good education in the arts, a well-grounded education so that, when they become adults, they have a lot to draw from. It’s just crazy.”
Partnering with Little Kids Rock, he says, has re-opened his eyes to the significance of that education. “It’s really great, when you go to one of these classes and you just spend 45 minutes, and you realize you can take an 11-year-old kid and teach them so much in such a small amount of time. It creates a garden of opportunities for them. This is the time when young people need to be inspired and they need to be shown the way. We’re not trying to turn them into professional musicians. We’re just trying to bring music into their lives so that they become better, more intelligent people.”
Joe Satriani performs at Iron City on Monday, March 14. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m Tickets are $45. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.