The music of Joe Satriani is not for everyone. The 61-year-old New Yorker affectionately known as Satch has spent the majority of his forty-year career recording instrumental guitar solo albums that some say are more like exercises in fret-board jerk-offery than bodies of artistic work.
That’s doing Satch a disservice. Sure, there are prog-guitar technical flourishes in his material, but, like Steve Vai, you only have to dig a little to reveal a real tune with genuine melody and a hook. Still, Satch’s crowd tends to be people who like to stand open-mouthed and simply gape at the brilliance of the guitar wizardry. That’s what he does.
In 1995, Satriani founded the G3 tour, a package experience for those same fans who marvel at string-speed. The first tour featured Steve Vai and Eric Johnson alongside Satch, the three players performing individual sets before all getting up together at the climax. Satriani remembers thinking from the very beginning that the idea couldn’t fail.
“I really felt in my gut that it was the perfect idea,” he says. “This was a real musical desire that came from me feeling just like the audience. I thought, when I go to a concert, if all of a sudden I saw three of my favorite players get up on stage and start playing the greatest guitar hits from the last decades, I’d be in heaven. I’d think that was the coolest thing. I had this idea in 1995, and it took a year to convince promotors, artists and their managers that it was cool, that it was okay that their artist would stand next to another artist who might be better on any given night, but the audience didn’t care. They had already picked their favorite anyway. They were just so happy that these guys had agreed to show up and play together. It would be a celebration, and a thing where the bands commune together.”
The idea worked incredibly well, and has been a success. Over the years, the likes of Uli Jon Roth, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Robert Fripp and Paul Gilbert have been included in the package, and this year, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci complete the “G3” alongside Satch.
“It’s a long and involved process, actually, because my job is to sell the idea to promotors in different territories around the world, and I can’t make them invite us to town,” Satriani says. “I can’t just throw anybody together. We start maybe nine months ahead of time. We reach out to a number of artists who I really like and I think would be unique together because of their differences and similarities, and then we see if they are willing to play with each other. Then we start to float the different versions out to the promotors to see what the consensus is and how they feel about the artists coming to town. Everyone’s busy — that’s the thing. They’re always stepping right off some other tour. They’ve made time for this particular thing. It all gets done eventually, and before you know i, we’re all on stage having a good time.”
This year’s lineup is interesting because both of those guest guitarists have full-time, successful bands. Even Satriani has been working with Chickenfoot alongside Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony of Val Halen fame.
“It’s always different,” Satriani says. “The very first G3 tour we did was actually like an unofficial G5, because we had Robert Fripp opening the show. There’s a legacy artist who’s been in a lot of popular bands — King Crimson, David Bowie, Brian Eno. And then, of course, myself, Eric and Steve. Such a diverse show. We try to continue with that. This time, since I joined Chickenfoot, we all have a band. Although I’m not quite sure I can say I’m really in Chickenfoot, because we hardly ever get together.”
When we spoke to Satriani, he was preparing to hit the road for this tour, frantically getting his bags together after weeks of procrastinating. Still, he says, after all these years, he’s gotten the touring down to a fine art.
“First of all, because we’re not a vocal band, we can play almost every night,” he says. “We don’t have to give our vocal chords a rest. We’ll play five or six nights in a row, which keeps us busy, and when you’re busy you’re not getting into trouble. I do a lot of drawing when I’m out on the road, so when I come home, I’ve got stuff that I can start painting. Believe it or not, I try to give my fingers and ears a rest when I’m not on stage or in the theater actively working on it. It’s an important thing to save the magic for the show. On my very first tour as a solo artist, going back thirty years, I pulled into Austin, Texas, at one or two in the morning, and there was a message that Steve Perry from Journey wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘You have to learn how to do nothing.’ I think the phrase he used was ‘veg out.’ You want to party until the sun comes up, but you can’t do that. You’ve got to save it for your audience.”
When Satriani isn’t on the road, he’s still recording quality studio albums, and What Happens Next, his sixteenth full-length record, has just dropped. Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, etc.) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) played on the record with him, which is almost as impressive a lineup of musicians as Chickenfoot's.
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“I’ve waited so long for this record to come out,” Satriani says. “We finished it in mid-May, and I’ve been sitting on it for the longest time. It was a crazy idea to reach out to Chad and Glenn. All I needed was a week from them; all the songs were rocking and soul, and we just needed to stay focussed and have fun. That’s exactly what it was. We piled into Sunset Sound Studio in L.A., and it’s got a great sound. In seven days, we cranked out this record.”
We’ll be hearing some of those tunes when G3 hits Denver this week; Satch says that his band has rehearsed half of the album.
“We’ll have at least six of the new ones ready to go in the show,” he says. “It can be difficult to play unfamiliar music to an audience, but there’s only a few weeks of that and then everything falls into place. We’ve always had a great relationship with Denver. We’ve played there on every tour, I think, and recorded there [the G3: Live in Denver DVD]. It’s always a lot of fun.”
G3 Tour, featuring Joe Satriani, Phil Collen and John Petrucci, 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 24, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, 303-623-0106.