Long Island’s Guitar God Joe Satriani Talks Strange Beautiful Music

Long Island Guitar God Joe Satriani
Long Island guitar god Joe Satriani talks about touring, Hendrix, Strange Beautiful Music and his favorite local pizza joint with the Long Island Press. His unrivaled fretboard wizardry will be on full display June 7 at The Space in Westbury.

Long Island’s own Joe Satriani is perhaps the most widely lauded rock guitarist of all time.

A true legend of his craft, he’s credited with not only bringing instrumental guitar to the rock scene in such a profound way that it’s become part of the culture that now defines us, but for teaching his artistry to such noted rockers as fellow Long Islander Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.

Whether he’s on a solo tour or rocking alongside Mick Jagger, Deep Purple, or his current Chickenfoot bandmates—Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, formerly of Van Halen, and Chad Smith, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers—when Satriani’s fingers fly across the strings, he doesn’t simply command the stage, he transports the listener through a multi-layered universe of intricately astonishing sounds that have no business coming from a guitar. Not a guitar from this planet, anyway.

The concerted buildup of notes and tones, otherworldly avalanches that tell stories without the crutch of lyrics—Satriani’s guitar licks are recognizable in their unique interplay, the sometimes-haunting, always evolving waves of color build upon one other, echo and bounce off each other, collapse and are reborn again, underscored by swelling melodies that wash over audiences like an extraterrestrial sonic ocean.

Songs like “Surfing with the Alien,” “Satch Boogie” and “Crystal Planet” are flat-out mesmerizing—works of aural art in themselves. If you watch a YouTube clip or are lucky enough to catch him live you will undoubtedly see fingerwork that will quite simply bend your mind. The tracks drum up adrenaline and anticipation while simultaneously stirring deep emotions. Rich and fast arpeggios drive relentless rhythms in sequences that only Satriani has been able to master, inspiring such a devoted following that some consider him more guitar god than mortal man.

“Satch,” they call him.

Besides signing autographs on nearly every body part imaginable—many of which are then tattooed directly over his pen strokes—one fan even went so far as to name his son Satriani, asking him to sign the birth certificate, according to an interview with the Vancouver Sun.

“He’ll be wondering why he’s called Satriani and not Dave or something,” he joked to a reporter.

The Carle Place native is currently on a worldwide tour titled The Unstoppable Momentum (named after his most recent album); it hits The Space at Westbury June 7. Last month, he released a memoir, Strange Beautiful Music—a pseudo-how-to guide for becoming a rock mastermind, replete with all the technical wizardry and virtuosic magic for any aspiring guitar-maestro sorcerer, dusted with fascinating stories from his youth and meteoric rise to six-string supernovae status—and 15-album box set Joe Satriani: The Complete Studio Recordings (Legacy Recordings). They mark his 30th anniversary as a professional musician and a renewed contract with Sony Records.

He recently spoke with the Long Island Press about all this and more.

Satriani is recognized as a virtuoso who possesses a supernatural mastery of not just the instrument (of which Ibanez guitars have an entire series named after him), but all the effects and electronics through which the notes cascade from the amplifiers. He controls unmatched technical skills forged by countless teenage nights and weekends staying in, practicing, practicing, practicing. His genius is centered on lightning-fast finger play called legato, two-handed tapping, alternate picking and sweep picking, which result in flawlessly smooth, flowing rivers of sound.

Indeed, Satriani seems able to translate his very soul into sound.

His body of work encompasses 14 studio albums (and a slew of live discs), including such landmark guitar records as Not of this Earth (1986), Surfing with the Alien (1987), Crystal Planet (1998), Strange Beautiful Music (2002), Engines of Creation (2000), Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock (2008), and Unstoppable Momentum (2013). Satriani has racked up 15 Grammy nominations and earned his rightful place in rock ’n’ roll history, atop the hierarchy that include his heroes: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Since 1995, his G3 Tour—featuring Satriani and two other notable guitarists, ranging from Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen to Kings Park native John Petrucci and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, among others—has been captivating audiences around the world, and this August he’ll be unleashing his fretboard fury with three other renowned guitarists (Paul Gilbert, Andy Timmons and Mike Keneally) as The G4 Experience.

And since it’s obvious from listening to any of his songs that Satriani simply can’t contain his gift (the notes sort of just bleed out of him), he shares it—mentoring way too many renowned players to list in this article. His styles and students cross genres—from the heavy metal hellfire of Metallica and the alt-rock swooning of Counting Crows to the bubblegum power pop of Third Eye Blind.

In fact, Satriani’s ability to coax such a variety of music from his instrument has contributed to his unearthly persona, something he delights in and perpetuates. His fascination with science fiction and space began as an 8-year-old boy, before he’d ever picked up a guitar, when he was in the UFO club in his elementary school, according to an interview with Space.com.

“I grew up in a time when the national neurosis was aliens from space right after World War II,” he said. “I was born in the perfect moment of hysteria where anything flying in the sky must be from outer space.”

Satriani carried that interest into the studio, replicating ripples of time and space in songs like “Borg Sex” and “Is There Love in Space?”

A perfectionist, he has a demanding work ethic that began the day he walked off his high school football field, telling his coach he was quitting to become a professional musician. It was September 18, 1970. The day that Jimi Hendrix died.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that the spirit of Jimi awakened in a 14-year-old Joe that day?

“Even now I can’t quite say what happened in my head, but I knew that because he died, I decided to become a guitar player. That moment of decision was immediate and profound. It changed my life and everything about me,” the 57-year-old writes in Strange Beautiful Music.

Satriani began a regimen of practice—first on a borrowed guitar from his sister, and finally, his own—that has not let up to this day, another facet of his life influenced by Hendrix. That his late hero still practiced so much after he’d attained monumental success was a revelation to Satriani.

“I think it takes quite a lot of work to maintain one’s musicianship,” he tells the Press in a phone interview from his home in California.

As testament, in preparation for his upcoming tour that hits The Space at Westbury on June 7, he runs through the entire set of his concert at least once a day.

“That’s in addition to the other six to seven hours that I’m working on music, where I might be playing all kinds of guitar and bass and working on mixes and things like that,” he says.

Yet Satriani often speaks of a realm that goes beyond technical ability and lets the musician’s personality shine through. It’s this transcendental place where Satriani believes true artistry resides.

“It’s a muscle that you’ve got to learn to flex or it’s a spiritual power that you have to learn to nurture,” he explains. “It helped me to express the innermost feeling that I’m having toward a subject that I’m directing toward a piece of music and it also allowed me to sort of get over the hurdle of my own physical limitations. That’s an important thing for any artist.”

Satriani’s flexing that muscle in ways that he hasn’t for the bulk of his career: recently, as part of the supergroup Chickenfoot and in the development of an animated series with guitarist/singer/songwriter Ned Evett based off a four-minute video Evett had created from some of Joe’s drawings to the song “Lies and Truths.”

“You get two guitar players together and they start all kinds of schemes,” he says. “So we then said, ‘Let’s see if we can create a full-on series based on a very unusual story.’ We’ve been working on it for a very long time and we’re close to finishing our pilot episode. We’re basically learning as we go on this thing and we hope that at some point people will be able to see it on something like Adult Swim.”

Carle Place native, extraterrestrial guitar god-sorcerer, Joe Satriani.
Carle Place native, extraterrestrial guitar god-sorcerer, Joe Satriani.

For all of his technical expertise and precision, Satriani isn’t afraid to stretch as an artist, to experiment, and to grow. It’s a generosity of spirit that reveals itself in multiple ways: evident in his teaching others his hard-won guitar virtuosity, as well as his vocal support of artists from completely other mediums. On April 6, for example, he appeared on VH1’s That Metal Show, alongside fellow guitar demigod Yngwie Malmsteen and comedians Artie Lang and Press favorite Jim Breuer.

Afterward, he couldn’t help but gush over Breuer’s comedic talent.

“I’m just an average guy, just a musician, and I can act up from time to time, but there’s no comparison when you sit next to a guy like Jim and he’s doing his thing,” he tells the Press. “They physically embody the joke, the thing that they’re doing. It’s such a gift. It’s truly amazing.”

Breuer, who hails from Valley Stream and was profiled by the Press in March, is an unabashed heavy metal aficionado and a dedicated fan of Joe Satriani. When the Press reached out and asked if he had questions for his fellow Long Islander, the comedian immediately responded with this pressing inquiry:

“Where’s the best Long Island spot to get a slice? For me, it’s Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue in Valley Stream.” [A Press staffer’s belly agrees.]

Satriani didn’t miss a beat.

“Well, it’s been a very long time since I went hunting for pizza on LI,” he answers, “but when I was a kid, our favorite place was Frank’s on Post Avenue in Westbury.”

This conversation, between phone calls and text messages, led to Satriani making plans to record on Breuer’s upcoming rock album Heavy Metal Man this coming November, alongside other rock titans.

All of his praise and appreciation of other artists is merely a humble Satriani calling it at he sees it, a raw honesty that seems to pervade all aspects of his musicality. Consider his latest band, supergroup Chickenfoot—a quartet of music heavyweights as diverse as they are legendary.

While Satriani speaks in a precise, thoughtful manner, choosing his words as carefully as he teases out guitar riffs, the same cannot always be said for his bandmates, especially the boisterous Sammy Hagar, the group’s front man and singer. During an interview about Strange Beautiful Music, Hagar took credit for loosening up Satriani in a way he said had never been done before:

“We’re not afraid to make a mistake and go for it and try anything,” he said. “Joe loved that, and got so into it that he fell right into the same attitude. So as Chickenfoot started playing more together as a band, I could feel him getting off the hook and loosening up. I’m always telling him that, ‘We turned you out,’ which is like we took a virgin and made him a whore.”

Satriani sees things a little differently.

“Chickenfoot wasn’t a band that had any kind of discipline whatsoever,” he tells the Press. “There was zero discipline. Zero track record. I wound up being the de facto guy to pull it all together.”

After his bandmates would record, Satriani says they’d leave him and producer Glyn Johns to complete the tracks:

“So yeah, this was a bone of contention after a while because I said, ‘Guys, you can’t keep doing this.’ But that’s exactly how it happens. From his perspective, [Hagar] thinks that he’s loosening me up. But if you loosen me up, there will never be another record, because no one will be there to pull it all together.”

“I love collaborating and I recognize that although it can be difficult when you’re in the middle of it, the end of result is worth it, and usually far better than you would have done on your own,” he writes in Strange Beautiful Music.

Being part of a band is something he hasn’t experienced since early in his career, just out of Carle Place High School. For a man who’s since toured the world and is an internationally recognized guitar deity, it’s the completion of a circle.

His show at The Space at Westbury on June 7, thus, marks the coming home of a living legend.

—With Christopher Twarowski

Joe Satriani’s The Unstoppable Momentum tour rolls into The Space at Westbury for a homecoming gig on June 7. Visit thespaceatwestbury.com and this week’s “Do This” for more details. Tickets are also available HERE.