Satriani--Just a Guy Who Plays Guitar

Joe Satriani, the hot new guitar hero, remembered the moment precisely. It was one of those life-changing moments, he insisted--almost a religious experience.

He was an 11-year-old Long Island kid. "It was a revelation," Satriani said of the time when, listening to the radio, he first heard Jimi Hendrix wailing on "Purple Haze."

Slouched in a chair in a restaurant, Satriani stared at the table as he recalled the experience: "I remember looking at the radio the second I heard it coming out. It's still vivid when I think about it sometimes--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. I think I've been a strange person ever since."

But Satriani, then dabbling in drumming, did not rush out and start playing guitar. "It took me three years before I got a guitar," he said. "It took me a long time to digest what had happened.

"But about three years after that first moment--the day Hendrix died--it all suddenly became clear to me. My reality was different. My life, my purpose was different. After I heard about his death, I went home and played my Hendrix records. Then I had to play. Soon after that, my sister bought me my first guitar."

Now 31, Satriani, who performs at the Roxy Monday and Tuesday and at the Coach House in San Juan Capristrano today, is almost single-handedly spearheading a revival of the guitar-hero tradition that flourished in the late '60s--the Hendrix days--but has largely been dormant since.

Satriani's "Surfing With the Alien"--an album of rock instrumentals, some verging on heavy metal--is a remarkable No. 29 on the Billboard magazine pop album chart. It's considered an achievement when an instrumental album cracks the Top 100.

This is Satriani's third album and, with over 360,000 units sold, the biggest ever for Relativity Records, a small New York label.

What really helped boost Satriani into the big time was joining Mick Jagger's band. As a result of the international focus on Jagger's Japanese tour, Satriani is no longer obscure, a situation that, he noted, was particularly evident in Japan:

"I'd worked there before, but it was nothing like this. I'm not used to being chased down the street by kids who want my autograph."

Jagger could have hired just about any guitarist he wanted. Why did he settle on a relatively unknown musician with just two albums to his credit?

The industry buzz about Satriani was just beginning early this year, when Jagger was searching for a guitarist. Jagger didn't know about him, but many other musicians did. Satriani's pal, Doug Wimbish, a bassist in Jagger's band, recommended him. So did Steve Vai, a former Satriani pupil. Vai was considered for the position but declined because he was already working for David Lee Roth. Satriani, Vai insisted, would be perfect for the Jagger band.

In January, Jagger flew Satriani, then touring with his own band, into New York for an audition. "It went very well," Satriani recalled. "I played with the band first. Mick wanted someone fresh and new. . . . 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.

"After I played with the band for about an hour, Mick walked in and started singing with us. The last song was Hendrix's 'Red House.' I guess I got the job. In a moment of cockiness, I even asked him to sing a song in my show at the Bottom Line (a prestigious New York nightclub). I was amazed he said yes."

That show has since become famous. At the end of his second instrumental set, Satriani invited his mystery guest to sing. "The audience knew nothing about it," Satriani recalled, laughing. "Then Mick came up to sing 'Red House.' The place went wild."

Satriani flew into Los Angeles for the interview from Berkeley, his home since the mid-'70s. He was looking scruffy that day--shaggy hair, day-old beard, bedraggled clothes--sort of a modern-day hippie.

Hearing his music, you'd expect him to be a caldron of intensity. Actually, he's low-key, soft-spoken and almost unnervingly casual.

Though being hyped as a guitar hero, Satriani doesn't look the part. Rather than a sexy, macho man, he's the more cerebral, introspective type. "I'm a guy who plays the guitar, not a guitar hero," he insisted modestly.

But Satriani has been a hero, at least in the world of guitarists, for quite a while. Musicians flipped over his second album, "Not of This Earth," which came out on Relativity in 1986. They were raving about his adventurous technique, expressive arranging and stunning dynamics. He was the new king of the two-handed tap technique. The album is a maze of influences, crosscutting styles ranging from jazz to metal.

Remarkably, it was recorded for about $7,000--his limit on a credit card he received in the mail. "The letter that came with it said I was getting it because of my good credit record," he said. "They were obviously confusing me with someone else. But I didn't care, because I needed the money to finance that album."

Though peanuts by record-industry standards, the album's budget seemed enormous to him; his first record, "Joe Satriani," was made for only about $1,000.

So far, "Joe Satriani" has sold just a few hundred copies, mainly by mail order through guitar magazines. "It's all guitar and no percussion," Satriani explained. "It's made up of a lot of weird sounds. It was very experimental."

"Not of This Earth," he added, was also very experimental: "The guitars were recorded in a different way, just to be different. 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?"

It turned out to be more commercial than he figured. After long negotiations, Relativity Records bought and released it. "It sold 30,000," Satriani said. "For an album like this, that's a whole lot."

For the follow-up, "Surfing With the Alien," his budget was bigger. The album also turned out much better. "It's more commercial," Satriani said. "There are songs like 'Surfing With the Alien' and 'Satch Boogie' that can be played on the radio."

The staff at Relativity, which had Metallica and Megadeth when they were young bands, knows how to sell a new artist--even a hard sell like an instrumental rocker. "They worked hard for the record, and eventually it started to build," Satriani said.

"There's a market for this music out there--somewhere--and the Relativity people knew where it was and got people interested in it. If I had signed with some big company, that might not have happened. This album needed the special attention that only a small label could give it."

Both Relativity albums, with the exception of percussion, are all Satriani--playing bass and keyboards as well as guitar. Though he has written songs that include lyrics, he sticks to instrumentals for a very simple reason: "I don't write lyrics as well as I write and arrange music."

Satriani has been in many bands since he started playing guitar about 18 years ago. In most, he lasted for just a short while. "I was impatient and fussy," he admitted. "Also, some of those musicians hated my music."

He did spend five years in the Squares, a pop-rock outfit that featured songs with vocals. But that band never had a record deal.

Until recently, Satriani partially supported himself by teaching guitar. His most illustrious pupils are Vai, a beginner when he started with Satriani, and Metallica's Kirk Hammet. Though renowned as a teacher, Satriani has never taken guitar lessons himself. He does, however, have a strong background in music theory, thanks to a sharp high school teacher and classes with jazz pianist Lennie Tristano.

Now that Satriani is touring with his own band--drummer Jonathan Mover and bassist Stu Hamm--he probably won't have much time for teaching. And if Jagger decides to do more touring, Satriani might have to squeeze that in, too.

Satriani joked that finding time to bask in his sudden success isn't easy: "It was only a couple of months ago I was trying to get some club bookings here--I won't mention any names--and I was treated like dirt. They're sorry now. Things are happening so fast now I hardly have time to gloat."

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