Born c. 1957 in Carle Place, New York; married; wife's name, Rubina. Education: Attended Five Towns College. Addresses: Home-- Berkeley, Calif. Office-- c/o Relativity Records, 187-07 Henderson Ave., Hollis, N.Y. 11423.
In 1988, Joe Satriani blasted into public consciousness with an entrance that was as unexpected as it was grand. For the past fifteen years he inhabited the crowded world of lesser-known rock guitarists, honing his virtuosity away from the celebrity limelight. But with his second album, Surfing with the Alien, he rose from the multitudes to a place where Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, and other guitar greats once stood. In fact, by the end of the year Satriani had already cut some deep marks into the history of rock guitar.
Surfing shot to Number 29 on the charts, becoming the first rock guitar instrumental LP to enter the Top 40 since Jeff Beck's 1980 There and Back. (Remarkably, it remained at that spot for seventy-seven weeks.) In the nineteenth annual readers poll of Guitar Player Magazine, he won the categories of best overall guitarist, best new talent, and best guitar album--the only guitarist other than Beck (in 1976) and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan (1983) to score a triple victory in the poll's history. To the critics, the meaning of all of this was clear: The rock guitar messiah of the '90s had arrived.
Satriani is indeed a guitar hero. "He has amazing chops," declared Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, "unorthodox approaches to whammy and one- and two-handed techniques, and a talent for melodies that venture beyond the common." What gives wings to his music is a desire to transcend everyday life. His mission, as he told Guitar Player in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the TV series "Star Trek," is "to boldly go where no man has gone before. To seek peace and harmony." His songs on Surfing, though wordless, explore the realms of science fiction--one of his favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.--and the supernatural. "Echo," for instance, "deals with the reincarnation of lost loved ones," as he explains in the liner notes; in other songs on the album, he seeks to evoke dreams,"the journey of our spirits through time," and the site of Jesus's execution. On the whole, his songs are aptly described by both the title of his previous album-- Not of This Earth --and the name of his music publishing company, Strange, Beautiful Music.
As a child Satriani grew up in a musical environment. Each of his four older siblings played instruments; he himself took up piano and then drums. It was a Hendrix solo, though, that ignited his passion for guitar. He was eleven at the time, he told the Los Angeles Times, and "Purple Haze" came on the radio. "It's still vivid when I think about it sometimes," he recalled, referring to the guitar solo, "like it happened this morning or something. His music was overwhelming. I felt it deep inside. He was talking to me. It opened up a new world for me. I had tunnel vision all of a sudden. I could only focus on the radio. It was like there was this tuning fork in my body waiting for someone to come along and play the right note and make me vibrate." The full impact of that experience hit him about three years later, on the day that Hendrix died. "My life, my purpose was different," he told the Los Angeles Times. "After I heard about his death, I went home and played my Hendrix records. Then I had to play." Abandoning his drums and quitting the school football team, he turned instead to a Hagstrom III solid-body guitar. His parents, recognizing the seriousness of his new interest, supported and encouraged him. "My father taught me discipline," he told Pulse! "If he knew I didn't practice one day, he'd wake me up in the middle of the night and march me downstairs in my pajamas to sit there and practice."
It wasn't long before Satriani was playing local gigs on Long Island. At home, during marathon practice sessions, he would play along with records, absorbing styles and techniques from Hendrix, Beck, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, and Johnny Winter. Though he never took guitar lessons, high school studies in music theory enabled him, at the age of seventeen, to take on a few students--one of whom was his classmate and future guitar great Steve Vai. His background in music theory carried a second bonus: "When I got to Five Towns College to study music," he told Guitar Player, "there was absolutely no point in my being there." Dropping out and confused about what musical direction to take, he tried a variety of things: lessons with jazz pianist Lennie Tristano for a couple of months; a cross-country tour with a several-piece dance band called Justice; a brief stay, mostly spent practicing, in Los Angeles; and then, desiring a complete change of pace, six months in Japan. His time in Japan, he told Rolling Stone, refreshed his attitude and boosted his playing: "I lived in a tiny little house way up in the mountains in Kyoto. It was great for my playing because I only played by myself and it was just Japanese nature all around me. It was starting all over, and there were no distractions, no one telling me that what I was playing wasn't relevant."
Returning to the States in 1977, Satriani settled in Berkeley and set up shop teaching guitar--a part-time job that helped pay the bills and soon established him as the whiz who had coached Vai and Metallica's Kirk Hammett. Beginning in 1979, he put in five years with the Squares, a pop-rock group whose style--an unlikely cross between the Everly Brothers and Van Halen--impressed critics but failed to win them a record contract. In 1984 he struck out on his own, recording and producing a self-titled EP that showcased his experimental side. "For the few people who heard the EP," wrote Guitar Player, "the much-needed clarification 'every sound on this record was made on an electric guitar' was hard to believe, especially after hearing the sound effects of 'Talk To Me' and the popping bass in 'Dreaming Number Eleven.' "
Not of This Earth was born of the same adventuresome spirit. Satriani financed the project with a credit card--"I couldn't get anyone to lend me a dime, " he told BAM Magazine --and, in his strong, melody-based style, unleashed more of his unique guitarisms. "His writing, arranging, and production kept the guitar center stage," Guitar Player noted, "with tones ranging from dentist drills and record-scratch rubs to crunch metal and the squeaky clean." He also outdid himself in the recording process. "The guitars were recorded in a different way, just to be different," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Why compromise and go for something commercial? I figured people would hate it and no one would buy it, so why not make the kind of record I wanted?" At the urging of Vai, who is still close with his former teacher, Relativity Records gave the record a listen. An independent label that had Metallica and Megadeth as young bands, Relativity has had experience in selling new artists; in Satriani they saw both artistry and accessibility. Their vision proved correct: Not of This Earth, which they released in 1986, sold 30,000 copies--no small feat for an all-instrumental LP. While most mainstream listeners unknowingly passed the album by, musicians were flipping over it, hailing its maker, according to the Los Angeles Times, as "the new king of the two-handed tap technique." But as Joe wrote in the album's liner notes, the best was yet to come: His next effort would "turn heads" and "drop jaws."
He was right, of course. With over 360,000 copies sold, his 1987 Surfing with the Alien represented a quantum leap over his previous work. Initial momentum for the album sprang from a few radio stations that were adventurous enough to feature a little-known instrumentalist. Then came the big break. Mick Jagger had scheduled a tour of Japan for the spring of 1988, and he needed a lead guitarist. Again through Vai's recommendation, Satriani got an audition. "Mick wanted someone fresh and new," Satriani told the Los Angeles Times. On the other hand, he added, "A lot of the younger guitarists don't know [the] music--but I did. I grew up playing the Stones and Hendrix and old blues." Needless to say, he got the gig--a role that cast him alongside Beck, who had played lead on Jagger's solo LP Primitive Cool. In Japan Satriani was mobbed for autographs; upon returning to the States three weeks later, the media were upon him. Surfing began a swift ascent up the charts, eventually surpassing Jagger's Primitive Cool. Meanwhile, he toured almost constantly throughout the year, alternating between Jagger's band and his own.
Having recorded his third LP in the spring of 1989, Satriani plans to hit the road. For him, the rigors of touring actually help to improve his playing. "Having a constant outlet for your ideas just increases your ability to play better," he told Guitar Player, "and finding acceptance in the musical community gives you more confidence.... I remember when there was so much music I wanted people to hear, and they didn't hear it. They only heard me at my musical job, doing these other things, and this had a negative effect on my playing. That's why I dropped out of playing in traditional-type bands and decided to go into doing instrumentals." Yet at that time, going solo brought its own share of disappointment: The world simply was not ready for what Joe Satriani had to offer. "People would tell me, 'You gotta use a vocalist or nobody will want to listen to it,'" he told Pulse! "Or they would say, 'It's not fusion, it's not metal--what is it?' But I never got so frustrated that I put it on the shelf. I just kept working on it. And I thought, 'One of these days people will like it, they'll be ready for it.' I just really believed all along that it would eventually happen."
Yet while Satriani hoped for public acceptance of his music, he never set out to achieve fame. "I've never been a career-minded, guitar-solo kind of guy," he told Rolling Stone. Ironically, he is now a premier "guitar-solo kind of guy"--and remarkably, his outlook as a musician has not much changed. Unlike the many rock guitarists who are motivated by stardom, his concern is still simply to grow as an artist. And as he told Guitar Player, that means forging ahead on his own path: "I try to do what people say they won't do. Whatever is considered standard operating procedure, I generally try to go the other way, just to see what happens--usually with good results. I take chances a lot. A year or two goes by, and I look back at what we've worked on, and I like it because it's so outrageous and strange."
by Kyle Kevorkian
Joe Satriani's Career
Guitarist and songwriter; began teaching himself guitar and playing local clubs on Long Island, N.Y., at the age of 14; at age 17 began teaching guitar; played with pop-rock trio the Squares in Berkeley, Calif., 1979-84; recorded and toured with Mick Jagger's world tour, 1988; solo performer. Studio work includes collaborating with drummers Tony Williams and Danny Gottlieb, writing commissioned pieces for PBS, Dole Pineapple, and Otari, singing back-up vocals for Crowded House, co-producing Possessed's EP Eyes of Horror, and contributing to the soundtrack for the 1989 film Say Anything.
Joe Satriani's Awards
Named best overall guitarist and best new talent, and cited for best guitar album in Guitar Player Magazine reader's poll, 1988.
- Solo LPs
- Joe Satriani (EP), Rubina Records, 1984.
- Not of This World Relativity, 1986.
- Surfing with the Alien Relativity, 1987.
- Dreaming #11 (EP), Relativity, 1988.
- Flying in a Blue Dream Relativity, 1989.
- (With the Greg Kihn Band) Rock & Roll & Love EMI.
- (With Danny Gottlieb) Aquamarine Atlantic Jazz.
- Say Anything (soundtrack), 1989.
- Cash Box, May 7, 1988.
- Guitar Player, February 1988; January 1989; November 1989.
- Guitar World, December 1987.
- Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1988.
- Pulse!, March 1988.
- Rolling Stone, April 21, 1988.
- USA Today, May 6-8, 1988.