Joe Satriani, guitar god. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Haven't we heard the same term applied to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the late Jimi Hendrix, and a handful of other venerated guitarists.
Only time will tell whether Satriani, who three years ago was a virtual unknown, truly deserves a spot on the Mt. Olympus of rock guitarists. You don't become a legend overnight.
But right now, at least, that's what everyone seems to be calling him--fans, critics, even fellow musicians such as Whitesnake's Steve Vai (formerly of David Lee Roth's band) and Metallica's Kirk Hammett, both of whom are his former students.
Not only is Satriani credited with redefining the role of the electric guitar with his amazing chops and unorthodox techniques, he's revived the rock instrumental from a decade-long commercial slumber.
Until Satriani came along, instrumental guitar albums had about as much of a chance of getting on radio, much less the charts, as albums of Gregorian chants.
That's why when Satriani cut his first record, a wildly experimental solo EP, in 1984, he didn't even bother pitching it to record companies. He put it out himself, eventually selling slightly more than 200 of the 500 copies he pressed.
"I just figured it was pointless," recalled Satriani, who will be appearing Friday night at San Diego State University's Open Air Theatre.
"Even today, if you have an all-instrumental record, you're really asking for trouble," he said. "Radio just doesn't pick up on it, and record companies just see it as an exercise in hard work. And back then, it was even worse: The whole thought of instrumental rock didn't exist; they thought of it as something that happened in the '70s."
He also financed a second album himself, maxing out his credit card to pay for studio time and hire musicians. But before the album could be pressed, Vai convinced him to send a tape to Relativity Records.
"Relativity had just signed Steve after he'd been turned down by everyone else, and he told me, 'If they're gonna do my record, I'm sure they'll do yours, too,' " Satriani recalled. "And they did."
"Not of This Earth" created enough of a stir for Relativity to grant Satriani a modest budget for a follow-up. "Surfing With the Alien" was released in November, 1987, and became a surprise hit, quickly going gold and becoming the highest-charting guitar record since Jeff Beck's "Wired," in 1976.
No one was more surprised than Satriani himself--particularly when his next two records, the "Dreaming 11" EP and "Flying in a Blue Dream" album, did equally well.
"I was a bit wary when I did 'Flying,' " he said. "I realized, after I had already recorded it, that I had maybe made a record too challenging for the audience out there. I had worked on a variety of new techniques, two-handed techniques and unusual harmonics and melodic ideas and rhythmic ideas, but it didn't seem to faze them in the least.
"And I feel very fortunate that they could appreciate my strangeness, my eclecticism. Looking back, I sometimes wonder, why did I make a record so strange and full of extremes, but while I was doing it, it felt so comfortable.
"It was really the only record I could have made, and it makes me feel good to know that people around the world really got into it."
Satriani, 34, was born into a musical family on Long Island in New York. He sang with his high school chorus, played drums in a succession of garage bands, and switched to guitar on the day Hendrix died, Sept. 18, 1970.
"And ever since that day I decided to play guitar, I've had this really strong inner drive that kept me going," he said. "As I struggled, I learned to appreciate the instrument; I had the desire to move on, and that desire helped me seek out that feeling that it was right, that everything felt good even though it was going to take a lot of work."
And work he did, practicing and teaching--his first student was Vai, with whom he had grown up--and getting better and better all the time. By the time he moved to Berkeley in 1979, Satriani said, he was playing guitar upward of 13 hours a day.
He credits this persistence, this determination to constantly improve, to his "deaf ear."
"I had the ability to simply pick it up and play, and not really worry about how lousy I sounded, and that's very important when you're learning the guitar," he said. "As a teacher, I notice that if students are too concerned with how they sound in the beginning, they rarely continue. Beginners really have to have deaf ears, or they're going to drive themselves crazy."
Up in Berkeley, Satriani spent five years with a power-pop band, the Squares, supplementing his meager nightclub earnings with a variety of odd jobs. In 1984, he decided to go it alone, holing himself up in the studio, just him and his guitar.
And even though he's now considered a "guitar god"--since 1988, he's consistently topped both readers' and critics' polls in respected national guitar magazines like Guitar World and Guitar Player--he's still learning, still growing, still improving.
"I would tend to think it's a continual thing, but I don't know--I'm one of those people who likes to just immerse myself in what I'm doing and not really worry about what might happen tomorrow," Satriani said.
"I don't see any point in diddling around with that thought; I'm more concerned with finding time to play today, because it seems there's never enough time to play, to write down all the songs, all the notes, I feel like playing."