Joe Satriani is the most popular instrumental rock guitarist in the history of music. Though he has yet to win a Grammy Award for his work, Satriani is one of the most often-nominated artists (15 to date). His albums and live performances meet with near-universal critical acclaim, and his total record sales to date exceed 10 million units.
He said Child was, “taking these songs and saying ‘this is a great start, but you would do better by changing the lyrics, and making it more focused.’ oh my God what an amazing experience!”
In addition to his own thriving career – marked both by solo tours, his G3 concert tour series, his G4 Experience guitar camp and his 19th album, 2022’s Elephants of Mars – Satriani has long been an in-demand musician, sought for his expertise playing live and/or in the studio with Blue Öyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Mick Jagger, Spinal Tap, the Yardbirds and many others. In his spare time he’s also guitarist for supergroup Chickenfoot.
While Satriani is a deeply technical player – in musician’s parlance, a “shredder” – from the very beginning his work has been distinguished by a strong emphasis on melody and accessibility. And that’s very much by design. “I try to keep a very strong melodic floor to even the craziest solo,” he says.
“When I sit down to turn some feeling – whether it's simple or very complex – into music, I'm trying to do two things,” Satriani explains. “One, I'm trying to get it right for myself. I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm translating this inspiration correctly into music.”
But that’s only half of the equation. “I also want to see if I [communicate] get that story to my audience,” he says. And Satriani acknowledges that where instrumental music is concerned, much is left to the listener’s imagination. “It has this great power of allowing the listener to reinterpret it,” he says. “And that goes back to a broader meaning of music.” Satriani believes that human beings need music.
“And when we put on a piece of music to help us celebrate or commiserate, we're making the choice to use that music as we see fit,” he says And that might or might not line up with the composer’s original intent.
He provides an amusing example to illustrate his point. “I write a song about diving off a cliff into a beautiful mountain pool of crystal clear, freezing cold water. And someone may hear it and think, ‘This is the perfect song for when I need to write code for my software project!’” Satriani emphasizes that ultimately, the artist gives up control over the song’s meaning when it’s shared with the wider audience. “I write a love song, and they think it's sad,” he says with a chuckle. “I write a sad song, and they use it as a love song!”
And Joe Satriani is okay with that. “That is the beauty of it,” he says. And that delightful disconnect is part of what separates instrumental music from songs with words. “If [a tune] has lyrics, of course, then you're kind of forced to know what it was that the artist is trying to tell you,” he explains. “But when you hear ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ you can decide for yourself: ‘This song is about this, today.” And Satriani keeps this reality in mind when he writes music.
The acclaimed guitarist has a fertile mind when it comes to creating memorable melodic lines. One of his early breakthrough tunes was the soaring instrumental “Always With Me, Always With You,” an elegiac track from his second album, 1987’s Surfing with the Alien. The song combined lightning-fast fluid runs with a fetching, ballad-like melody. The track earned Satriani the first of those many Grammy nominations, in this case for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
And though he’s written hundreds of songs since then, Satriani exercises strict quality control. Not everything he composes (or records) finds its way onto a Joe Satriani album. “I think every project has a couple of songs that leave you scratching your head,” he says. “Halfway through, you go, ‘I thought that was going to be great.’” In those cases, he puts the song off to the side and moves on to something else.
When he’s working on an album like The Elephants of Mars, Satriani says that he routinely brings a lot of material to the project. “I've always got 20-30 songs,” he says. “Sometimes 50.” As the project progresses, some inevitably fall by the wayside. Others are reworked, and the best ones make it to the finish line. And if the plan calls for the record to include ten tracks, he might decide to complete a few extras. “Some people on my team are saying, ‘Give 10; don't give many more.’ And other people are saying, ‘You might as well work on 16, because you never know.’”
And in Satriani’s case, you really don’t know. “The last day in the studio, you might decide that four of them aren't quite ready yet,” he admits. Satriani has a good sense of which among his songs are best suited for each album, but he listens to people he trusts, too. “Even the record company – filled with really talented people who do this all the time – can listen to an album and get surprised and say, ‘You know that song we thought was [a deep album] track? I think it's the single!’”
But even if a song ultimately doesn’t make the cut, Satriani holds onto it. “I do a record just about every two years,” he explains. “Sometimes I do a song, and I don't quite know how to finish it. And then two years later, ‘Now, I get it. This is what I was trying to do, and I've gotten better, so I can finish it now.’”
Sometimes the timeline exceeds two years. Satriani mentions “Through a Mother’s Day Darkly,” a breathtaking highlight of The Elephants of Mars. He wrote the song in 1999, while working on what would become Engines of Creation, his eighth studio album. But the unfinished, keyboard-based track didn’t make it onto that record.
“I kept trying to bring it into every album,” Satriani says. “But it was always either too dark or moody or cinematic. There was something about it that never worked with each album's theme.” Yet as he began work on his last record, Satriani returned to the 20-plus year old basic track. “It was kind of an open-ended session file,” he says. So he cued up the track in ProTools [digital recording application], picked up a guitar and improvised over it.
But Satriani and his producer Eric Carieux agreed that the recording still wasn’t complete; it needed something else. They reached out to the guitarist’s songwriting partner Ned Everett and asked him to record a spoken-word voiceover, using dialogue from Satriani’s Crystal Planet comic book series. That element added just the right amount of drama, and a bit of humor as well. “Suddenly it all came together,” he says. He describes the result as “a soundtrack to an imaginary film.”
There’s certainly a filmic quality to Joe Satriani’s music. In fact his songs have often been used in movies, television commercials and other visual media. Satriani is generally quite pleased when his music is chosen for those kinds of applications. He admits that he was “pretty shocked that the Olympics would use a number of my songs to close out their television broadcast.” Director Cameron Crowe requested a Satriani tune for a kickboxing scene in his 1989 film Say Anything; the guitarist wrote “One Big Rush” to order.
Satriani also recalls an accidental success in the form of an early ‘90s Sony Walkman commercial. “We spent a lot of money on [music] videos – we had a really fun video for ‘Summer Song’ – and we just couldn't get MTV to play them,” he explains. “So we got a call from Sony, and they said, ‘We’d like to use your song to do these radio and TV commercials to support a product called the Walkman.’” Satriani agreed, but with two important stipulations. “We said, ‘Well, yeah, but don't talk over the music. And put a chyron at the end like it's an MTV video.’”
Sony agreed, and the Walkman spot ran often on MTV, including during commercial breaks on the channel’s annual awards show. “We wound up being on the MTV Awards more than if we had been on the MTV Awards,” Satriani says with a hearty laugh. “Summer Song” went on to become the guitarist’s biggest international radio hit to that point.
That whole idea of instrumental music being open to interpretation does have its hazards, though. There are the rare occasions when music is repurposed in a way that doesn’t meet with the artist's approval. And that happened to Joe Satriani in the early 1990s.
At the time, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet remained as that country’s Commander in Chief. And without permission, his Air Force used Satriani's “Always With You, Always With Me” in its recruiting ads. “My first thought was, ‘Why would they play that song? It's a love song!’” Satriani says. “If they would’ve asked us, we would have said no: ‘We don't do foreign military endorsements.’”
He believes the commercial would have confused his South American fans, but admits that there wasn’t a great deal he could do about it. “Artists really have very little control over their art,” Satriani says. “You just never know what people are doing around the corner with your song. So, at some point, you throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘Well, the only thing I can do is to put out my own message.’”
And Joe Satriani has been focused on doing just that. For example, his current track-by-track podcast series digs deep into the creation of The Elephants of Mars. And it’s the latest in such endeavors from the guitarist, a practice that extends back to the release of his 2006 album Super Colossal, if not earlier.
“The Internet really helps,” he says. “I can connect and bond with the audience all over the world, which is great!” He believes that the Internet's reach and immediacy make for an important tool to communicate and connect, not just for him and his audience, but for all artists. “From Bombay to Paris and New York to San Diego,” Satriani says, “you can instantly tell your story.”