Inquiring Minds: Chickenfoot Guitarist and "Completely Hopeless" Gearhead Joe Satriani

Chickenfoot - GROUP Extra Approved Publicity Shot 1 #1567b cropped - Credit LeAnn Mueller.jpg
LeAnn Mueller
Joe Satriani is a hero to Guitar Player subscribers and a bit of an enigma to everyone else. His name is synonymous with a distinctive style of guitar playing - highly advanced fretboard wizardry, often referred to as "shredding," that draws equally from rock, metal, classical and jazz.

Recently, however, Satriani has been grinding his axe in the considerably grungier Chickenfoot. What began as a no doubt tequila-fueled lark in Cabo San Lucas between Van Halen pariahs Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony and their bud, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, is turning out to be perhaps 2009's unlikeliest hard-rock success story - Chickenfoot's self-titled album, released in June, toes a tenacious line between serious chops and serious fun.

Rocks Off spoke with Satriani from his San Francisco home last week, as "The Professor" prepared to leave on the final leg of Chickenfoot's inaugural U.S. tour, which hits Verizon Wireless Theater Wednesday night.

Rocks Off: Was Chickenfoot a spur of the moment sort of thing, or was there a lot of planning that went into it?

Joe Satriani: Sam, Mike and Chad had been jamming down in Cabo San Lucas for about six months, so I came into it late. [In 2007] Sammy gave me a call inviting me down to Las Vegas for like a little celebrity jam for his encore at the Palms Theater. So I went down there just to sort of party, and the jam was so good we decided, "Let's be a band." But I was unaware they were plotting before then, which was great, because I guess everyone was getting ready to put a lot of time and effort into it.

Unfortunately, I was just getting ready to master and release my record [2008's Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock] and had 11 months of touring to do, so that started our journey where we would get together for two days and wouldn't see each other for two months. That would repeat itself three or four times until we got to the end of the year, when we finally spent December finishing the record at Skywalker Studios.

RO: How long had you known Sammy Hagar before this thing in Vegas happened?

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JS: Sammy and I knew each other for about 15 years. We'd sort of run into each other here and there, but we never really played together other than this band called Planet Us with [Journey's] Neil Schon. Once again, I was the last guy to join the band. I was in it for about an hour and a half - I missed the recording, the rehearsals, and the only thing I wound up doing was a live radio show, and then it was kind of over. And once again, I was recording a record; it was one of those things where I said, "You guys gotta give me some advance notice."

RO: In another interview, you said you always wanted to be in a "real band." What took you so long?

JS: Well, I had this fantastic thing happen to me, which was I got a career as a solo instrumentalist - that's pretty amazing when that happens to you. It wasn't something that I planned, but it was something that just sort of fell in my lap. You know, the chance to play your own instrumental music is really something special. There's nothing quite like it. The fans that you attract are really dedicated fans, and you get to play music that's the closest thing to your heart every night.

I love that that happened, and I followed it and stuck to it and took it as far as I could go. But I started out as a kid playing in bands that were very much like Chickenfoot - basically a rock band, a junior Led Zeppelin or something like that. You've got a guitar, bass player, drummer and you got a singer. The music business is just plain crazy. There's no way to explain away how things do happen or don't happen, they just kind of happen.

RO: As someone who's spent many, many years playing predominantly instrumental music - and I know you have played with singers in the past - how do you approach playing the guitar in a group?

JS: The obvious answer would be Part 1 to that, which is you have to make room for the singer (laughs), otherwise you get a lot of bad looks. But I think the true answer is that we're dealing with a different kind of music. That's what it is. When you're an instrumental soloist, you really have to be the one who defines the piece of music with an enormous amount of melodic content, expression, exposition, improvisation, and it's all really resting on your shoulders.

When you're in a rock band, the style of rock music is that there has to be a lot of attitude that is created by equal contributions from each band member. So it might be the singer just screaming, but it's gotta be the scowl of the bass player, the irreverent drum performance and the crazy guitar thing. It all creates something, and that's gotta be mixed together with your normal content of music - good rhythm, good melody, good harmony. It's a very different thing. It's really comparing apples to oranges.

RO: New bands of a certain age sometimes have trouble selling records and getting radio play, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Chickenfoot. Why do you think that is?

JS: You know, I think we just came along at the right time. I think that's got a lot to do with it. It's one of those things that I can't really explain (laughs), but I can recognize it. When something comes along that is cool, you have to be able to recognize it and seize the moment, because you never know when it's going to come back again.

RO: You created your own line of guitars back in the '90s for Ibanez. How big of a gearhead are you?

JS: (laughs) I'm completely hopeless. There's no hope for me. I'm a complete gearhead. At some point I think in every musician's career, they get to that point where they say, "I've had enough and I need to take control of these things that are my tools, because I'm tired of being at the whim of the marketplace." And then you go, "Who's designing these things anyway?"

Chickenfoot plays with Davy Knowles & Back Door Slam, 8 p.m. tonight at Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas (Bayou Place), 713-230-1600 or www.livenation.com.


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