Over the course of fifteen studio albums, Joe Satriani has delivered quite the impact on rock guitar. His labyrinthine approach to his instrument of choice has led to Satriani developing a dedicated audience and leaving countless aspiring players feeling a sense of defeat after attempting to jam along to “Surfing With the Alien.”
This grandmaster guitar player rekindled his connection with longtime co-producer and engineer John Cuniberti for his new studio album ‘Shockwave Supernova.’ Perhaps not coincidentally, Satriani’s latest installment features some of his best compositions to date with a top notch production quality to support the arrangements.
Music Enthusiast recently had the opportunity to sit down alongside Joe Satriani to discuss his new album, his work in the rock supergroup Chickenfoot, and what he considers to be his three-point guide to continued success.
Music Enthusiast: This is your first album in five years where you worked alongside John Cuniberti, who has engineered titles of yours that date back as far as your 1986 debut ‘Not of This Earth.’ At this point, is John more or less an official fifth member of the band?
Joe Satriani: (laughs) Either that, or… yeah, I suppose so. Throughout my entire career, I’ve only worked with five engineers, really when I think about it. The first EP I did was with Jeff Holt. Even prior to that, John Cuniberti was my live sound engineer in a band called The Squares for a good four of five years. He was also our studio engineer for all of our demos, and then he became my main co-producer and engineer for quite a few of the very first full-length albums. ‘Not of This Earth,’ of course ‘Surfing With the Alien,’ ‘Flying in Blue Dream.’ He did half of the ‘Extremist,’ he did a lot of ‘Time Machine.’
As John’s career started to branch out, he became a studio builder and then he became a mastering engineer. He did projects like ‘Live in San Francisco’ where he would record us and then he would give the mixing duties to Mike Fraser. They did a couple of records like that, like ‘Is There Love in Space?’ was a Cuniberti engineering and a Mike Fraser mixing project. John and I did ‘Professor Satchafunkilus.’ I think that I’ve done more albums with John than I have with anyone else. Sometimes he was just the engineer, but most of the time he was the co-producer. So yes, I agree with you. He’s like a member of the band in a way. I certainly treat him that way.
He’s never held back; if he thinks I suck, he’ll say, “Man, you suck today. Let’s come back and record another day.” I think you need that. There’s no point acting precious when you’re trying to make a record. It’s hard enough to figure out from your own point-of-view your best work, so you don’t want somebody around you who’s like a yes man, if you know what I mean.
As Glenn Johnson once said to me, “You have decide what side of the glass you’re on. Are you out there with the band or are you in here with the producer? (laughs) But you can’t do both.” That’s why I like working with co-producers, because when I walk out there with the band I don’t think like a producer. I need to be directed, and I also need to be encouraged to be myself and not worry about the technical things. I like working with John and this is most certainly the most fun we’ve ever had working on a record. We haven’t done a 15 song record in a long time.
I was going to mention that the sound on ‘Shockwave Supernova’ is arguably your best album sonically, and does justice to the depth of the compositions. Is your current songwriting process centered around the guitar and built up?
You know, as I sit here and look across all of these songs, I would say that I can’t think of a song… I think the only songs that actually started on keyboards were “Butterfly and Zebra” and “Keep on Movin’” for a second. I came up with that part on keyboard and I’m not much of a piano player, so once I figured out that opening riff I realized that I needed to hire somebody to do this for real. I quickly switched to writing the rest of that song on guitar.
“Butterfly and Zebra,” that was a piece of music that I belief existed as a piano piece before I realized what the story was actually about. I would say that’s the only song that was purely not on the guitar to start with. It’s not unusual for me to take a different instrument to complete a song on. I do that as a way to ensure that I don’t play all over it and ruin it by placing too many notes over it.
It’s fun to play guitar and that is a danger, you know? My fear is that I’m going to be noodling all over something. Discipline in writing is the only hold back from the actual playing until your creative mind says, “I thought about this, I’ve imagined the melody. My heart is telling me to only play these five notes.” No matter how much fun you’re having while playing this song, remember the heart told the brain, “I need you to pull it back a little bit.” (laughs) That kind of editing during the composing process is extremely important, otherwise every song sounds the same.
What equipment did you use on the album in order to achieve your tone?
I wound up using less than some of the other records that I’ve done. I tried to center around a small group of electric guitars to do 90% of the work. Those would have been the fairly new guitars that I’ve had for the past three or four years. My orange and purple guitars, which are called for no apparent reason, “2410” and “2450.” They are the muscle car orange and the muscle car purple guitars. They’re basically 24 fret, JF Ibanez guitars. They’ve got Mojo pickups in the bridge and they either have stock Satch Tracks in the neck position and half of them have a Sustainiac pickup in that position.
That effect that the Sustainiac seems to show up on a couple songs for the last two or three records, which is why I’ve had to put them in more guitars than not lately, especially for touring. I was using my signature Marshall head, the JVM 410 HJS. I’ll tell ya, all these model numbers drive me crazy. (laughs) I stayed away from pedals. I mean, I used a wah-wah pedal but I don’t think I used any other pedal, really. I tried to get the sound of my fingers on the strings as much as possible, and one way that I found that really helped was to record a lot of the guitars in my studio, “DI” Direct, and then monitor the sound using software guitar emulation like Sans Amp or Guitar Rig and get close to the point where it would help me focus on the actual phrasing in the most subtle details of playing.
When we got the big studios and added the drums and the bass and the rest of the band, we then take that DI signal and re-amp it and we put it out into a big room into some nice speakers and microphones. John Cuniberti really knows how to move a microphone around a pair of speakers. In that way, it gave me a second chance to say, “Should this guitar be through a little combo or should it be through a big Marshall stack? How soft or how aggressive should it sound?” We’ve been doing that slowly since the mid-90s since John invented the Re-Amp device, but we used it more on this record than on any other record because there was so much guitar work that I had done at home.
I used the JVM primarily, but I also have a little group of about four old Marshall 100 watts, a ’71, a ’74, a ’73. I think one of them is actually a hand-wired reissue of a 100 watt plexi. They were tweaked by Bill Schneider from Broken Guitars in Oakland. Bill worked for Green Day for many years as a tour manager and guitar tech. He’s a cool bass player and he’s actually in a band with Billie Joe, but he’s got a real talent for tweaking Marshalls, which he did for Billie Joe for years. Those were the main amps. I brought along around 20 other little combos, Fenders, Gibsons, Wells, the stuff I’ve collected.
Some songs like “San Francisco Blue,” I think there’s like six guitars on that thing. The problem that you’re faced with is how I get separation when it’s the same guy playing those six guitars? What we did was we used a prototype of this 1×12 combo that I put together with Marshall, it should be coming out in January. It’s a 20 watt amp, it’s every fresh and in-your-face sounding. I used that for the main melody and solo, and then for all the other guitar harmonies we used all the old Fenders. There’s a Brown ’63 Deluxe, there’s a 1960 Tweed Deluxe, Champs. We kind of gave each guitar a different amp and recorded it a different way. On the harmonic choruses it’s very in-your-face, but you can tell that each amp has it’s own personality.
Sometimes it’s like that, and other times you get something like “Cataclysmic.” They’re all in E, right? I suppose during the verse, “Cataclysmic” is just guitar, bass and drums. There’s a lot of gain on the amp, but that’s it. Again, for me it’s a matter of depth and how close you want the guitar to sound to the listener. Other times there’s not enough dimension to it, so you want to put a few mics in the room and pull them back from the speaker cabinet and record some of the ambiance.
You do explore a variety of different styles throughout the album. “Crazy Joey” has a laid back, almost reggae identity that’s highlighted by those climbing arpeggios. What’s the story behind that number?
It’s a funny story. I’m going to go and give you all these useless details. I originally wrote the song during a session where I was trying to come up with some interesting Chickenfoot ideas. I had written it while really trying to give a platform for Chad Smith, and I was writing it on bass guitar when I realized that after just completing the first verse, I thought, “Wow, Sam is going to hear this and feel there’s no place for him to sing.” I felt, “Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe all these open spaces aren’t for Chad to fill up. They’re actually for me to fill up.” I started thinking about how it’s not about how crazy Chad is, it’s about how crazy someone else is.
Every time I would come walking down the street, people would worry and say, “Oh no, something’s about to happen.” As it always does with Crazy Joey. So I felt that it inspired me to put together these organized arpeggios in that major which is all happy and light, and then the chorus comes and it’s all blue. It sort of turns on a dime, and that was to illustrate the fact that it looks like it’s all going to be fun and then this guy Crazy Joey does something that you wouldn’t expect. Really, that was the only emotional architecture of the song and I just went into it like that.
The arpeggios are really hard to play, not because they’re super fast but because if you don’t do them perfectly the song kind of falls apart. Some songs you can kind of be sloppy with, like if you’re doing a psychedelic song then you have what I like to call an eight lane highway. You can slow down and change lanes any time you want. With a song like “Crazy Joey” that has it’s own ensemble with those arpeggios note-for-note, it’s like a two lane country road. (laughs) You’ve just got to stay in your lane and you can’t veer hardly at all, otherwise the whole thing just falls apart. As a recording artist I thought this was really funny because the song sounds so easy and light, and yet it requires so much concentration. That attracted me to try and record it the right way. And of course, Marco Minnemann’s drumming on it is absolutely astounding.
You mentioned how “Crazy Joey” was initially written with Chickenfoot in mind. I thought that those two albums exposed a different strand of your DNA as a guitar player. I’m personally impartial to the second record, ‘Chickenfoot III.’ Did you take anything away from those sessions and months of road work, especially working with such a high tier singer like Sammy Hagar?
Yeah, it’s always exciting working with Sam. He’s got such a huge sounding voice. He told me right from the beginning, “My voice is really big. You have to be careful of how you write for it because my voice can take over on a track.” I thought he was just kidding, you know? Because he’s such a lighthearted guy and really fun to work with, but he was being totally serious.
With each record that we did I realized what he meant, and that’s his voice is not only sonically big but it has a presence to it that can shrink everybody’s contributions quite easily. I don’t know why that is, I don’t know if you can put a technical explanation to that but I found it really exciting. I found that when I write guitar parts that were a little more subtle and supportive, I could get him to sing in ways that I never heard him sing in his solo career or in Van Halen.
A perfect example is a song called “Sexy Little Thing,” where I delivered the entire guitar track with the title to him and that was it. The way that he completed that song was remarkable, it was pure enthusiasm. It allowed the guitar part to be this little happy part, and I realized that you don’t have to go crazy in your playing to achieve energy because he brings so much of it in his vocal performance. Those two albums were so different in not only how they were recorded or the atmosphere that was going on at the time, but in what all of us were trying to achieve.
We’ve never been a band that spent a lot of time on tour, so we never got to really figure each other out. We just would be like, “We have three days. I’ll meet you in San Francisco and we’ll try and write and record these.” That’s kind of how we did all those records. It was always something that was stopping us. Halfway through the first record, our producer Andy Johns had a complete breakdown and we had to put him into rehab and he couldn’t finish the record. The second record, one of our managers and Sammy’s personal manager John Carter was diagnosed with cancer and passed away just within those first few months and that was devastating.
We’re just like everybody else in that we’re dealing with the crazy stuff of life that just comes at you. It just so happened that during all of this we were making these records, and add to the fact that we’re like a real band that we’re always playing together. We rarely played. (laughs) The records are like us just sort of getting together on a song and recording it really fast and keeping all the live takes, you know what I mean? But very exciting. Although I’ve sort of given up in telling people that there is going to be another record, I keep working on Chickenfoot songs in the hope that that one day Sammy, Chad or Michael call me and say, “Hey, I want to do it now. Can you meet me next week in the studio?” I want to make sure I’m ready and have a bunch of songs, so I actually do have quite a bit. If they come around, I’m ready.
I’m glad to hear that, because I feel that both of those Chickenfoot albums were very solid efforts. At the end of the day, however, do you feel that there’s more creative freedom to be had working as a solo artist? Like you mentioned, having those extra lanes to move in and out of?
Yes. They’re so different. I could never accomplish something like “Shockwave Supernova.” That takes a lot of space to create the drama. I can’t imagine somebody like Sammy trying to figure out, “Where’s my part?” In fact, there is one and I shouldn’t feel a pressure to change the vision that I have for a song like that just to try and put a singer in. Nor would Sam want that. He would prefer that a song that I bring is perfectly tailored to have a singer, and that’s normally the best way to work with Sam. You just get him inspired and then you have to let him figure out the story and where he’s going to put the melody and everything. He’s a tremendous musician and is a great guitar player himself so he knows what he’s doing. We really have to love what we’re doing if you expect us to give our best performance. I always treated him completely different. Every once in a while there will be a song, like we talked about on “Crazy Joey” that in it’s infancy could have been a band song or could have been a solo song. Pretty soon into the writing process it gets revealed which way it’s going.
Turning back towards to the new album, are you looking forward to taking these songs out on the road later this year? I would imagine that the opening track “Shockwave Supernova” would be the perfect song to open up the show, especially with it’s brooding attitude.
Yeah! I’m very excited about this new record that I’m going to be playing live with the band who wrote most of it. I have Mike Keneally on guitars and keyboards, and I have Marco Minnemann on drums. They’re on the majority of the songs as my rhythm section. I think that as we just talked about, when you’re in the studio that’s your first brush with these songs. I think everybody wants to take this live and see if we can even make it better than the album, and I’m very excited about that.
What I’ve been telling people is that it’s a three-point way of life for me. The first thing is the writing, which is a solitary kind of thing and what I maybe enjoy the most. The second part is recording the record, which can be stressful because it costs so much money (laughs) and you’ve only got a certain amount of time with the musicians you’ve hired and at some point your budget makes you stop. And then finally is you get to forget about the first and second part and go out and you rock in front of your fans, and there’s nothing like that. It seems like I can’t live without any one of those three things. Once you reach the end of writing, you kind of go crazy and want to get into the studio. Then once you get into the studio, you want to go out onstage and generally I like to work until I’m so exhausted that I can’t do another show. Then it’s time to do another record.
I’m really looking forward to watching you perform songs from the new album when you head back down to Florida.
I’m sure that we’ll be back by you hopefully in March. The U.S. tour begins next February, so we’ll probably start out in California but because of the time of year we’ll probably keep south. (laughs) Thank you!