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Inside the mind of the guitarist: Joe Satriani

Joe Satriani reveals why some singers are worse than others, names the most underrated guitarist in history, and admits to wearing some extraordinarily silly shirts

The Song That Made Me Want To Pick Up The Guitar

The Wind Cries Mary, Jimi Hendrix. It was just so totally different to me as a nine year-old kid. Where did this guy come from that his playing could be so in-the-pocket, so musical and so sexy

The first guitar I owned

My Hagstrom III electric guitar. I loved that guitar…

My first guitar teacher was…

A local guy who played a big jazz guitar, hated rock‘n’roll music and was going back to school to become a chiropractor. He wanted me to learn to play Jingle Bells out of a Mel Bay book. I brought him the first Jimi Hendrix record and he scoffed at it, and that was the end of that. But then I took lessons with jazz guitarist Billy Bauer and purchased his little pamphlets on three-octave scales and two- and three-octave arpeggios, that gave me a big boost. Also my high school music teacher Bill Westcott had a big effect on me. He taught Steve Vai as well. He was great, he was our Yoda.

The first thing I learned on guitar

Well, my older sister Marion was a folk guitarist and she let me play her nylon string guitar. She had this ‘magic chord sheet’, with about 17 chords she used to write her songs. Since I couldn’t figure out how to work out other people’s songs I immediately started writing my own two- or three-chord songs using that sheet. That’s how I started making my own music.

The best piece of advice another guitarist has given me.

John Riccio was the lead guitarist in my high school band. He was so cool, he had long hair, cool jackets, cowboy boots. We’d spend hours at his house playing, and he showed me how to use my left thumb to fret bass notes instead of the full finger barre. I’d only seen Hendrix do that before, not a mere mortal, so to me that was half of the Holy Grail! But the best piece of musical advice I ever received probably came from [legendary producer] Glyn Johns. He once told me, ‘Joseph, it’s not your job to decide what people will like and not like. It’s your job to play your guitar. So go out there and play your bloody guitar!’

The most underrated guitarist in history?

George Harrison, without a doubt. Just think about this, here’s a young kid at the start of a movement. Not someone who ever thought he’d be a virtuoso on the instrument, he was an all-round musician, and he was destined to write two of the most popular Beatles songs of all time, Something and Here Comes The Sun. His guitar playing just got better and better, right up to his untimely death. In the early days they all wanted to sound like Carl Perkins or Chuck Berry, but track his evolution and you get to the Traveling Wilburys, when he’s still coming up with these iconic parts.

I want to shout this, I want to put this in capital letters – HE WAS ALWAYS, ALWAYS MUSICAL! Most people can get good physically on the guitar, it’s not really that hard, but to be musical? That’s the real trick. There are a thousand other guitar players that could play rings around George, but what have they played that you really keep in your heart?

The one thing Joe Satriani can do on guitar that no-one else can…

Who else can be so short, old and bald and still make a living playing guitar?!

The most I’ve spent on a guitar

I once bought a 1932 Martin OM acoustic guitar for about $50-60 grand. This thing was the loudest, barking-est acoustic guitar I’ve ever witnessed in my life, and weighed as much as a bag of potato chips. I wrote a few songs for Chickenfoot’s second album on it, but it was really just a display-case item. It was so hard to play and impossible to record that I only kept it for a few months, I sold it back to the guy I bought it from for the same price I paid for it.

On a scale of one to ten I rate myself as a…

[Laughs] One – help me! Every musician knows that in the night, after a good show, you’re with your mates and you’ve had a few and you’re thinking, ‘Ah it feels good to be a ten!’ But in the morning reality seeps in, you’re nearer a one and you have to claw your way to a higher number. But that’s okay because, people don’t care. It’s very important to understand this – normal people need music to get through life, and they don’t care about what we guitarists obsess over. That’s why we scratch our head when a song goes to No.1 and you and your fellow guitar-playing friend say, ‘Can you believe that crap?’ Then there’s a million people bobbing up and down to the track and having the time of their life, and you think there must be something wrong with you. And there is – you’re a guitar player! It’s an affliction. You can’t be cured. Accept it!

The album I want to be buried with is…

What a creepy question – I always thought cremation was the way to go! The honest answer is, I just came across some songs my son recorded at high school for a musical project, and I love those songs. I’m so fascinated with his musical approach. He never wanted to become a virtuoso guitar player, and he works in the film industry now. But he’s got a great ear and I love those songs, so if there was an afterlife I’d want to take those with me.

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If I wasn’t a musician I’d be…

… in deep shit! Like every young boy I wanted to build bridges, to be a scientist, but as soon as puberty hit and I discovered girls, I wanted to be an international playboy. But when music came into the picture and I discovered there was a connection between that and the other career path I realised this was it, so I stopped developing other skills.

The one thing I’ve never told anyone about myself is…

[Sighs] Everybody always wants the scoop. Why would I tell anybody that one thing?

The guitarist I’d most like to do battle with at The Crossroads is…

Someone who’s just started!

The worst thing about singers is…

Well most people can sing, and are fine human beings. But as for lead singers… let’s just say you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.

My musical nemesis is…

The buzz! I’ve been working with vintage, single coil instruments lately. I’ve got this ’59 double cutaway Les Paul Jr, that wants to amplify every electrical noise in the house. I’m playing my Telecasters and Stratocasters thinking, ‘Why am I playing this noisy thing?’ But then I listen to music made all those decades ago with single-coils and wonder how Hendrix made all those wonderful albums with Strats. The hum is my nemesis.

The silliest I’ve ever looked onstage was…

On the Strange Beautiful Music tour. For the cover I choice a spooky picture of me standing outside in a black hoodie. But later I thought the album artwork should’ve been colourful, so I decided for the first time to wear these colourful shirts, contrasting colourful pants and hats. I got off the tour and looked at some photos of me in these clothes and my pale Italian skin and, oh my god, I should never have done that! Now I always wear black, just jeans and a t-shirt. For my very first gig I wore black t-shirt, tight black jeans and motorcycle boots. I should never have worn anything else. Well, maybe a jacket once in a while…

My favourite musician joke is…

The old faithful – how many guitarists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to screw it in, six others to tell him how he should have done it differently.

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