Still riding the wave
Joe Satriani is known for many things: his inimitable legato technique, formidable guitar tutelage legacy, uncompromising approach to composition, those shades. But most of all, it’s 10 tracks and four words that both defined Satriani and shred guitar as a whole: Surfing With The Alien.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Surfing stands as a landmark release in instrumental guitar music, fusing Joe’s love of guitar players right across the spectrum with a sense of fun, technique and, crucially, melody – the resultant album spanned high-octane blues fusion (Satch Boogie), lyrical ballads (Always With Me, Always With You) and bombastic rock (Ice 9), with consistently thrilling results.
“Globally, the idea for the album was to celebrate everything that I really liked about electric guitar, my roots, and the players that I still really like,” Joe explains.
“And, so, for me, it went from Chuck Berry to Hendrix, from Wes Montgomery to Allan Holdsworth, I wanted to celebrate all of it. I was a kid that grew up listening to The Beatles, and The Stones, and Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and I wanted all of that in there. But at the same time, a large part of my playing is Tony Iommi and Billy Gibbons. I’m just a sum total of all of the guitar players that I think were really cool. And I wanted to make an album that was about that.
“I pitched the album to Relativity Records’ president, Barry Kobrin, in the exact same way. And he looked at me funny because it was such an untrendy thing to do, but he said, ‘Well, okay.’ He’d heard me play Satch Boogie at a club in New York City one night and so he said, ‘Okay, is the album going to be like that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, pretty much, with a couple of left turns here and there.’”
Satriani’s second release on Relativity Records, Surfing was recorded on a miniscule-for-1987 budget of $13,000 at San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios, which placed supreme pressures on Joe and producer John Cuniberti, but only served to stretch their creativity to the limit as they sought to make the record in Joe’s head using the limited resources available to them.
“It was made with a complete unselfconscious love of the things that I wanted to celebrate on guitar, and it was also made under enormous duress and the feeling that no-one would ever really listen to it and I would be run out of town as soon as I delivered the album,” Joe muses.
“It was under such a climate that it didn’t seem that anyone was going to accept such an album. So it was such a wonderful surprise when it was embraced, because it wasn’t a calculated record and much was sacrificed to get it done.”
Given the strained conditions in which the album was recorded, what’s perhaps most remarkable is just how much Joe remembers: his memory is as precise as his pentatonic runs, and the sheer amount of detail he’s able to divulge is more than most artists are able to share about an album recorded last month, let alone 30 years ago.
Kramer vs Kramer
This ability to recall is testament to a true labour of love, particularly with regard to gear. Long before he secured his JS signature models with Ibanez, Satriani armed himself with whatever guitars he could afford – even if that meant sacrificing tuning stability for the sake of functionality.
“For that particular record, I had two Kramer guitars. They were both Pacers and one was the white one that I had purchased in ’84 or ’82, and it was put together from parts at the Guitar Center,” he recalls.
“I bought it only because it had a first-generation Floyd Rose with no fine-tuners, and I was shunning that whole idea during the early ’80s: I was a no wah-wah, no-vibrato bar kind of thing. But I picked it up anyway and eventually I realised that the thing was really great if you wanted to play out of tune all the time. [laughs] The guitar itself was always falling apart and [guitar tech] Gary Brawer was continually trying to fix it.
“But I had a connection with it, and that became the guitar that I used for my first EP and Not Of This Earth, and then Surfing. And by then I had purchased a second version of that Pacer that had just three single-coil pickups; it was even worse than the two-humbucker version that I had.
“It got limited use in the studio, and after the record was finished, the guitar was never used again. I still have it, but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s such a poorly constructed guitar, but it was inexpensive and I’m just grateful that companies do that. They make guitars and they sell them for cheap for people don’t have a lot of money. That’s who I was at the time, and, so, it helped me out at a time when I needed it.”
Where he couldn’t afford more instruments, Joe also took some more innovative approaches to tone-seeking, using his so-called Boogie Body Strat.
“I also had a guitar that I had put together from parts. It was a Boogie Body Strat body made out of hard-rock maple. It was an ESP neck that was ’59 vintage style, 7.5 radius, ebony fretboard neck.
“I worked at a vintage guitar store and the owner had ties with a lot of Japanese manufacturers and US manufacturers that were beginning to pop up. So I was ordering parts and screwing them together and contacting local luthiers to finish and do frets and things, and I had put together two guitars, a red one and a black one. The red one I eventually sold, but the black one is the guitar that I wound up using a lot.
“It was a hardtail, so if I didn’t need the whammy bar I’d use that guitar: clean, funky, bluesy. I still have that guitar today. It’s on every record doing something. It’s an odd-sounding guitar because of the wood, and what I did was I had Gary Brawer make me two or three different pickguards that were preloaded with different kinds of pickups.
“So for the ‘humbuckers in the Strat body’ sound I had a black pickguard with two Seymour Duncan pickups in it. It was a ’59 in the neck and a JB in the bridge, and I would screw that one in when I needed that kind of a sound, and then when I needed to do really Stratty kind of sounds, I would tell John Cuniberti to take a break, I’d take the strings off, unscrew the pickguard, put in a new pickguard with the Strat pickups, screw it and string it up, and then do that part. That’s basically because I couldn’t afford to have all these different guitars; I just had three guitars and a bunch of pickguards. The poor man’s guitar arsenal!”
It’s these details and more that Joe intends to expand upon at 2017’s G4 Experience held 24-28 July at Asilomar Center in Carmel, CA. The guitar camp celebrates Surfing’s 30th anniversary, bringing all the album’s major players back together to answer any possible question about any aspect of the recording – and judging from Joe’s recollections, we’re inclined to believe they’ll have the answers.
“The G4 Experience this time around is going to try to explain, as well as detail and celebrate, all those moving parts to the creation of the record,” Joe enthuses. “The recording of it, the fingertips, the picks, the strings, the amps, the performing of it, how it morphed, how it changed, and how each of the new people, players, that came along to help celebrate it elevated the songs even more each time we went out with them.
“The album wouldn’t have broken through if it wasn’t for these other these very important moving parts. Obviously, me and the guys, John Cuniberti, and the musicians, Jeff Campitelli and Bongo Bob Smith, making the record, but also Stuart Hamm and Jonathan Mover that came on after the record was done, became new friends and comrades, and actually championed the record in a totally different style on tour.”
For longtime Satch fans, th
e most exciting aspect of this year’s G4 Experience is that it reunites the original Satriani band line-up, bringing bassist Stu Hamm and drummer Jonathan Mover back to the fold.
While Hamm was onboard for Satriani’s 2008 Professor Satchafunkilus And The Musterion Of Rock tour, Joe hasn’t performed with Mover since the mid-’90s – their reconnection was a curious series of events…
“We ended on a bad note. There were some just touring business stuff that pissed the two of us off and so we decided to just call it quits,” Joe reflects. “And that goes way back: that tour ended the night of my 40th birthday.”
“Fast-forward to a few years ago and I’m doing a TV show, and a drummer, Robin DiMaggio, was the musical director, and we started an interesting collaboration where we wanted to create a song that would send a message of love and hope around the world and unite people. And that became a song called Music Without Words.
“Robin is the musical director for the UN, and one day when we were talking about musical things, he mentioned that he had spoken to Jonathan Mover, and I went, ‘Oh yeah, Jonathan, we had such great times, fantastic touring experiences,’ and everything. And I said, ‘I haven’t talked to the guy in 20 years,’ and Robin just said, ‘You know, you should talk to that guy.’
“So, he sent me his number and I just called him and I said, ‘This is the weirdest thing, isn’t it? I’m calling you out of the blue. I have nothing to talk about other than, ‘Hi, isn’t it weird that we didn’t talk for 20 years?’’”
The original power trio were famed for their energy and ferocity, which paired virtuosity with showmanship to unpredictable and virtuosic effect. But as Joe points out, their origins were anything but orthodox.
“In the summer of ’87, Surfing With The Alien was about three months away from being released, and I flew out to Bensalem, Pennsylvania to go to the Hoshino USA factory to meet the Ibanez guys and talk about a JS model.
“On the way there I found out that Jeff Campitelli was not interested in going touring with this weird idea of me going on tour as an instrumentalist. So I arrived in Philadelphia, I know that the guys at Ibanez want me to play at the summer NAMM show that’s happening in Chicago a week from then. So I’ve got seven days or six days and I’ve got to put a band together.
“So I’m sitting in the office just waiting to meet the guys from Ibanez and there’s this other guy there and he looks pretty cool, looks like a young musician. So we’re like, ‘Hi, how ya doing, I’m Joe.’ ‘I’m Jonathan.’ ‘What are you here for?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I’m a drummer. I’m here just to talk to Tama.’
“I had a cassette of this new album called Surfing With The Alien, and I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing next week?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I might go to the NAMM show.’ I said, ‘Would you play with me, if I gave you a tape, would you learn a couple of songs and we’ll just play? There’s this guy, Stuart Hamm, I’ve never played with him but my friend Steve Vai said he’s a good bass player – would you do it?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it’.’
“So I gave him the cassette and I shook his hand, I said, ‘Okay, see you later, see you in Chicago.’ And a week later, for the very first time, Stu, Jonathan and I stood on stage at The Limelight in Chicago, and we tried to get to know each other during soundchecks. We pulled off the gig.”
The great beyond
Those unable to make it out to the Asilomar Center will be keen to know whether Joe intends to take the band out on tour, but his plans for 2017 are still very much TBC.
“I’m up in the air about that. I’m very focused on preparing for the last run of dates to support the Shockwave Supernova record. It has crossed my mind that I’m going to have to start thinking about the next touring band, but that’s way in the future.
“Every year that I go out on tour I think about all the craziest ideas that would be great to go out with and I think, ‘I should see if Jeff Beck wants to join my band for a month or something.’ I always think of the craziest idea first and then work backwards, because you never know, that person that you think would never return your call might be sitting at home with nothing to do.”
“But having said that, I’ve never actually called Jeff Beck and asked him to join the band, but that doesn’t mean I won’t at some point. I really don’t think he’s going to say yes ever, but, you know. It doesn’t hurt in trying or dreaming, right?”
Of course, it was Surfing that introduced Satriani to the world and allows the guitarist to entertain such ideas today, but it was its strong sense of composition and melody that ensured it stood the test of time and influenced generations of guitar players to come.
Here, Joe takes us on a journey through the brainwaves that led to the composition of each of the album’s 10 tracks, the recording process that played such a crucial role in defining the sound and feel of the record and how his perception of the songs have changed over the three decades that have passed. Surf’s up…