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Guitarist Joe Satriani recounts making strange, beautiful music in new book

Strange Beautiful Music book by Joe Satriani


Joe Satriani’s always done a great job protecting his private life from scrutiny. Even as his star rose in the late 1980s and his face started popping up on magazine covers, he never let much slip about his home life unless it had something to do with the music. For example, most fans learned early on that Satriani wrote “Rubina” for his wife.

Guitarist Joe Satriani recounts making strange, beautiful music in new book.
BenBella Books
Joe Satriani recounts making his strange, beautiful music in new book
Peter M. Roche

That was twenty-seven years ago, and yet I still have no idea what Mrs. Satriani looks like. I don’t recall ever seeing a picture.

And that’s fine.

From the very beginning, the guitar god known as “Satch” realized most of his fans weren’t like other pop rock consumers. Generally speaking, his audience is as diverse and quirky as the music he creates. We love reading about Satriani’s gear, his inspirations, and his astounding technique. We watch his concert videos for their up-close camera angles, in hopes we’ll catch his fingers doing something that’ll sate our “how’d he do that?” curiosities.

It’s not that we don’t care where Joe comes from or who he lives with. We do. It’s just that we’re okay with him keeping his private and professional lives separate because—unlike many high-profile rockers—he’s earned our respect. Even when it was clear he was THE guitar guy to rule them all, Satriani suppressed his ego in check and conducted his affairs with a monk’s humility. He still makes himself accessible to fans, often pausing outside his tour bus (in freezing Midwest winters) after concerts to sign albums for the faithful.

We’ve gleaned enough in the hundreds of interviews Joe’s done over the decades to sense he’s in a very happy place, and that his living situation is conducive to his craft—which is really all we need. We know enough not to pry into matters that don’t concern us.

Accordingly, Strange Beautiful Music is the memoir one might expect from Joe Satriani. Available now from BenBella Books, it’s an unconventional autobiography that skimps on the star’s personal life in favor of detailed (sometimes exhausting) entries about his guitar-based musical career, all edited for easy consumption by Jake Brown (and gentlemanly prefaced by Queen guitarist Brian May).

No rock and roll hedonism here. This “Gospel According to Joe” is refreshing devoid of the cliché drug and alcohol-fueled soirees and rehab stints that comprise the bulk of other bios. One suspects Satriani wouldn’t dish on the details of late-night hotel parties anyway. Satch is only human (we think)—but if he was ever tempted by the fruits of rock star excess, he ain’t talking.

But again, the man’s passion for—and focus on—music is so all-encompassing that there’s never been much time for lollygagging. His rigid discipline precludes the sort of behavior that finds others of his ilk burying skeletons deep in their closets under mountains of dirty laundry. Accordingly, he’s unfettered by prototypical artist guilt and has few, if any, confessions to make. Certainly none he’s obliged to make to us. His common sense, street smarts, and thoughtful articulateness rival his prodigious guitar chops.

All of which means that most longtime fans will dive into Strange Beautiful Music knowing there won’t be any major bumps on the road. Satriani’s been fairly consistent over the years, establishing himself—and his otherworldly guitar talents—on his earliest releases, then honing his craft on new discs at regular two-year intervals. In his 35 years in the business, Joe’s never really been waylaid by tragedy, succumbed to the spoils of fame and fortune, or stopped crafting intriguing guitar music to perform in front of millions of people around the globe.

Strange Beautiful Music is a chronicle of that mission—an album-by-album journal documenting the impetus and inspiration behind the songs we love so well, and the sometimes painstaking steps taken to preserve them on record.

An intrepid astronaut of the aural realm, Satriani’s devoted his whole life to exploring musical space. Strange Beautiful Music is his Captain’s Log.

Initial chapters flesh out Joe’s late adolescence and young adulthood in Long Island, New York and retell the old tale of how he traded in his football gear for guitar upon learning of the death of Jimi Hendrix. Although he’d grown up listening to the classical composers (Mozart, Puccini, Wagner) and jazz greats (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Mongtomery) at home, Satriani never really considered pursuing music as a career until fateful day. Luckily, his benevolent older sisters bequeathed him with their old records and a battered acoustic. One of them—a high school art teacher—even financed his earliest lessons.

But Joe grew impatient learning “Jingle Bells” instead of “Purple Haze” and quit lessons to study on his own, teaching himself on a $125.00 Hagstrom electric guitar. He plugged into an old Univox amplifier bought by his father, enthusiastically preserving his ideas on reel-to-reel tape. His first effects pedals—many spotted in Circus Magazine adverts—included a “Big Muff Pi” fuzz box, a Maestro phaser, and a wah-wah. The whammy bar hysterics didn’t come till later; he explains that, too.

Brief stints in teenage bands like Michuocan and Tarsus followed, giving Joe a chance to stretch out on Led Zeppelin covers in and around Carle Place High School while absorbing wisdom from music teacher Bill Wescott. Still afflicted with Jimi fever, he practiced relentlessly, cutting his teeth on everything from CSN, Steely Dan, America and James Taylor to Black Sabbath and Yes. Before long he was prodigious enough to start giving lessons out of his bedroom, and it’s here we’re treated to the first of many testimonials:

“He was one of the cool older kids,” writes former pupil Steve Vai.

Vai (who’d go on to guitar fame himself with Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth) says Joe taught him to “surrender everything” when sharing musical knowledge. Apart from the natural camaraderie they shared as music-minded New York boys, this freedom to flirt with bizarre sounds and express even the oddball ideas cemented the guitarists’ lifelong friendship. Vai recalls looking forward to his 4:00pm sessions with Joe every Thursday afternoon.

But music wasn’t always enjoyable for Satch in the early ‘70s. School administrators considered the longhaired Joe “a disruptive element” and expedited his graduation. Meanwhile, neighbors complained about the noise emanating from the Satriani homestead. Although admitted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Joe found the atmosphere more akin to Animal House and soon dropped out to “go pro”—with his father’s approval. After a couple months of lessons with bebop genius Lennie Tristano, Satch embarked on his first bona fide tour with a disco ensemble.

The Berkeley in California proved more conducive to creativity. Moving to his sister’s place out west, Joe took on some sixty students at Second Hand Guitars and saved money to rent his own place in the Bary area. It was here that Joe (barely 20) schooled some of today’s best players, including Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Alex Skolnick (Testament), and Larry Lalonde (Primus).

It was also during this era that Satch wrote songs with his then-brother-in-law, Neil Sheehan, and started playing out live in a New Wave trio called The Squares. Joe got on well with drummer Jeff Campitelli, but had to assume a leadership role as bassist / singer Andy Milton shied further away from the spotlight. The group opened for Huey Lewis & The News, The Go-Gos, and Squeeze, but weren’t able to capture their energy on their first demos. This chagrined our protagonist—but not as much as the prospective record labels’ hunger for hit singles; Joe was more interested in avant garde guitar music, a la Brian Eno, Adrien Belew, and Robert Fripp.

Further inspiration arrived courtesy Vai, who’d often send Joe his own “weird” home recordings. Bankrolled by a side gig with Greg Kihn (“Jeopardy,” “The Breakup Song”), Joe teamed with engineer Jeff Holt in Oakland to track his own first solo effort, the eponymous Joe Satriani EP. Joe recalls using his homemade guitars (Boogie bodies with ESP necks—no Ibanez endorsements just yet) to make all the sounds heard on the record, including drums and percussion (achieved by tapping his pickups with Allen wrenches or rhythmically scraping the strings). Back in the age of analog, Satriani learned to “make bold decisions” and commit quickly when down-mixing or cutting tracks; only with the advent of digital technology did he have the luxury of keeping and choosing from prior takes.

The book mentions how Joe read a glowing review of The Squares one day and found it peculiar that the journalist referred to him as some sort of guitar wizard. Satriani says he never thought of himself in that light (at least until that point) but decided to try living up to the mythos. Talk about self-fulfilling prophesies—or art imitating life, and vice-versa: Magazines were propagating Satriani’s legend before the man himself embraced his destiny. He never realized how extraordinary his playing was, or that the trades considered him “the next big thing” until he read about it, just like we did.

John Cuniberti—who’d often mixed sound for The Squares in concert—loved Joe’s eccentric little vanity EP (which the guitarist sold out of the trunk of his guitar) and facilitated a deal with Relativity Records. Satriani’s first proper full-length, Not of This Earth, showcased his prowess in a hard rock context and called Campitelli to add some live percussion to the mostly-synthetic drum sounds. Even this early in the game many of Joe’s signature tools and techniques were on display: Shifting modes, pitch axis theory, pedal tones, string-tapping, etc. Joe explains these in fascinating detail, and it doesn’t matter much if one can’t quite wrap his head around the concepts. It’s fun reading how Satriani maxed out his first credit card to pay for the sessions, and how Cuniberti rifled through trash cans for extra tape, piecing the strands together with bloody fingers; the little misadventures “humanize” our heroes with “Hey, that’s something I’d do” recognition.

Returning to Hyde Street Studio (and Alpha-Omega Recording), Joe and John then set out to create what would become Satch’s benchmark recording, Surfing With The Alien. The album was a logical step beyond Not of This Earth, yet the songs allowed Joe to pay homage to various musical styles made famous by his own heroes. Electronic percussion prevailed again, but “Bongo” Bob Smith helped Campitelli decorate the spectrum with just the right amount of Latin and Indian drum flavor: Who doesn’t love the shakers on “Always With Me, Always With You?”

Joe’s first major solo tour (with Jonathan Mover on drums and Stu Hamm on bass) resulted in the EP Dreaming #11 (which also included two tracks from a popular Guitar Player Magazine “soundpage”) and generated huge buzz for the guitarist, who never expected Surfing to be a hit. The music received extensive radio airplay—literally unheard of back then for instrumental rockers—and the Olympics even licensed a few tracks for television broadcast. But sudden success brought added pressure. Joe was acutely aware that he was now responsible for not only his livelihood, but those of the musicians, techies, and roadies around him.

Satriani walks us through the makings of each and every subsequent record, meticulously laying out notes on studios he frequented, gear he used, and the musicians who participated. While his song discussions never fail to fascinate, the book’s best bits come when Joe draws on specific sense memories or incidents that made certain recordings stand out. For example, on Flying in a Blue Dream, Satriani had to overcome dental braces to sing and play harmonica on “Can’t Slow Down.” “One Big Rush” was written for a John Cusack film, and “Into the Light” was dedicated to Joe’s father, who passed away that year.

1993’s The Extremist saw Satch fraternizing with other musicians to expand his sound (and broaden his own palette) for Epic Records. He holed up in Bearsville, New York, with expensive, highly-regarded session players like Doug Wimbish (bass) and Simon Phillips (drums), but had a hard time getting his ideas across to virtuosos who weren’t accustomed to taking direction. So the bulk of the album came from additional sessions with brothers Gregg and Matt Bissonette, whose organic rhythmic chemistry charged “Friends” and “War” (under the mentorship of producer Andy Johns). Rampant airplay of feel-good rocker “Summer Song” assured Satriani that his audience was still widening; the tune even turned up in a Sony Walkman commercial.

In the ‘90s, Joe experimented with his laid-back self-titled album, jamming with guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, drummer Manu Katche, and bassist Nathan East on a bunch of songs that highlighted the band’s chemistry as much as Joe’s own lickety-split fret board talents. Producer Glyn Johns chimes in on the proceedings, noting how his work with Joe differed from his brother’s. We visit ground zero for Crystal Planet, hole up in Eric Caudieux’ home studio for the techno-influenced Engines of Creation, and regroup with John Cuniberti for Strange Beautiful Music at The Plant and Studio 21 in San Francisco, where Joe built a home studio. Satch gets into the nitty-gritty of “Oriental Melody,” “Bamboo,” “Hands In the Air,” “Crowd Chant,” “Redshift Riders,” and more, and explains why he alternated between producers Cuniberti and Mike Fraser (and old and new musicians) on Is There Love In Space ?(2004), Super Colossal (2006), and Professor Satchifunkilus and The Musterion of Rock (2008).
Mike Kenneally comes on board for Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards (2010) and Unstoppable Momentum (2013), gracing tracks like “Premonition,” “Pyrrhic Victoria,” and “Can’t Go Back” with his inimitable keyboard skills. Also joining Joe in the latter-day lineup were bassist Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction) and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Chick Corea), who added just the right grooves and percussive punch to “Jumpin’ In / Jumpin’ Out,” “Door Into Summer,” and “Shine On, American Dreamer.”

Satriani also talks about gigging with Deep Purple and Mick Jagger, escorts readers through every “G3” incarnation—the all-guitar concert spectacles teaming him with Vai and other renowned shredders (Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, etc)—and brings us inside sessions for both Chickenfoot albums. Band mates Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Chad Smith, and Kenny Aronoff contribute funny sidebars on their stints with Joe, and it’s interesting how playing in a band context affected Joe’s writing: Suddenly his riffs had to accommodate a bona fide singer (Hagar), who often wouldn’t track his vocals until the eleventh hour.

Strange Beautiful Music wraps with a comprehensive discography and a run-down of all the guitars and assorted gear Joe used on each album. Nobody’s ever going to learn how to nail the over-hand arpeggio from “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” just by reading about it, but at least the book divulges the tools and techniques The Master employed when recording such “stunts.” And while Joe’s picture has graced hundreds of magazines over the years, the book offers a batch of rare, never-before-published images of the young prodigy from family archives.

“That’s me in late ’70 or early ’71 in bassist Steve Muller’s basement,” reads one of Satriani’s unassuming captions. “Guitarist John Riccio’s amp towers over me in the back.”

You might’ve thought you were getting close to “St. Joe” and his Jedi-like guitar abilities while reading all those profiles in Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician. But this musical tour guide puts readers in Satriani’s confidence; one can almost imagine (as we did) that Satch is expounding upon his life’s work while seated on the davenport across from you, occasionally gesturing at the miscellany notes and photos strewn across the coffee table in between. The passages read as if spoken by Joe himself to someone in his inner circle, and it’s precisely that kind of “voice” that connects most effectively with readers, giving us the illusion that we’re privy to something special.

And” special” is something Joe Satriani always has been, always will be.

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