When the fourteen-year-old Joe Satriani learned, during high school football practice in 1970, of the passing of his musical hero Jimi Hendrix, he walked over to the coach and quit to become a guitarist.
Over the next sixteen years, he taught guitar lessons, mentoring such legends as Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett. In 1986, he went into debt to produce and release his first solo album. Although it didn’t initially sell well, his follow-up album Surfing With the Alien propelled him to global stardom and earned him lasting respect as a pioneer in the instrumental rock genre.
Satriani’s singular commitment to playing the music he loves has helped him build an incredible career with no fewer than seventeen solo albums and a host of side projects with musicians such as Sammy Hagar, Chad Smith, and John Petrucci.
The defining feature of Satriani’s music is undoubtedly its technical sophistication. He is a phenomenally accomplished guitarist, and his wild soloing keeps his songs interesting and varied, despite the lack of vocals. However, there is much more to his music than just virtuosic skill. His songs often include passages of simpler, more rhythmic playing that contrast with the more grandiose sections, resulting in songs that move through different moods and tempos to create an overall sense of a journey through the music.
Satriani’s distinctive feature as a musician is his deep personal interest in innovating new ways to write and play the music he loves. Over the years, he has experimented with different time signatures, seven-string guitars, electronic compositions, a wide variety of playing techniques and sound effects, and a huge range of stylistic influences. He says, “Just as a blues player can play 20 blues songs in a row but find a way to make each one different, . . . I always want to find different ways to do something.”
He is also noticeably unconcerned with other people’s ideas about what he should play. “I assume most guitar players are like me,” he says. “They’re playing, having fun; then they get a magazine in the mail that says ‘Shred Is Dead’ and they say, ‘what the hell?’ They throw it away and keep on playing.”
Satriani’s commitment to his own love of music and interest in experimentation has resulted in a range of sounds that, although distinctive, share a sense of grandeur and scope that makes his music unlike anything else out there. Many of his song titles have science fiction influences, such as “Redshift Riders,” “Crystal Planet,” and “Is There Love in Space?,” and his soaring guitar sound fits these themes perfectly. His music is, in general, very upbeat, and he has clearly learned how to express his sense of life through his music without needing to rely on lyrics.
For an example of Satriani’s virtuosic playing and the expressive tonality of his music, check out this 2006 live performance of “Super Colossal”: