“Every guitar sound is DI’d: it blew me away!” Joe Satriani explains why plugins are the future for him | Guitare.com
With 15 studio albums spanning a career spanning nearly 40 years, it’s fair to say we know what to expect from a Joe Satriani album. Memorable melodies and unwavering rock grooves are the order of the day – and that’s exactly how the new album The Elephants of March begins, with the catchy Sahara. But from there, the record takes a sharp left turn, with catchy major melodies disappearing in the rearview mirror.
Elephants is undoubtedly one of Satriani’s most interesting records to date. With the usual two-year release and touring cycle all but eliminated during multiple US lockdowns and global logistical issues, Satriani found himself without delay and without a cost-sensitive studio recording session, which gave him the freedom to surpass himself. The resulting record is dark and jazzy, with elements of fusion and shred.
At a time when many young guitarists on YouTube can make fun of standards once considered “virtuoso”, the prowess highlighted by Satch on this album is enough to remind us that we must still pay tribute to the Godfather. It’s also comforting for older players, as it’s a well-known truism that performers rarely improve with age. But, at 65, Satriani has long pushed the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect from instrumental guitar music, even in a time when instrumental bands continue to reshape its landscape.
If the lack of deadlines and touring cycles is responsible, may they continue for a long time. Here, we talk to Satriani about his new record, his high school guitar teacher, and the prospect of going all-digital.
In the lead up to the release of the new album, you mentioned that you challenged yourself to create a “new standard” for instrumental guitar albums.
I was definitely there to create a new standard for myself! When I think back to the previous set of records, the last two that I really thought would echo classic rock again, like I did with The extremist in 92. It was really a love letter to an era of music in which I grew up. You know I remember playing The extremist album for the record label in Los Angeles with Andy Johns at Ocean Way Studios, and there was silence in the room. They didn’t understand it. They didn’t like it, it didn’t sound like Soundgarden or whatever they thought was really popular. I remember Andy said something really rude out of frustration and he stormed out of the room, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? Really? You do not understand ?
So here I am again after change shape , which again was kind of a retro record. I thought, ‘Okay, we’re all stuck at home, no chance of being in a room together – time to level up; there is no reason to limit the scope of each song because we have to record it in an afternoon. Then I looked at myself and said, ‘Hey, don’t limit your game. Bring the absolute truth of the story into the song and to the audience. So that was the standard I was referring to – making a super powerful album.
Tension and release is very sinister, with maybe even a King Crimson vibe.
It was written in such a quick moment of inspiration. I pulled out a guitar I hadn’t played in years – I think Mike Keneally was the last to play this seven-string a few albums ago – and plugged it in. The strings were so old they were wobbling, and I immediately found this riff, installed Pro Tools and said, “I’m just going to write this tension and release thing.”
We noticed some weird time signatures in there.
I came up with this whole riff and the two main sections, and then I was like, “I want to hear this in 4/4”. So I did it in 4/4 and then I was like, ‘Well, I want to hear this 4/4 part in 7/4’. And I wasn’t worried that it wouldn’t be “on the radio” or on anybody’s playlist or anything. I just thought, ‘Why can’t I do whatever arrangement I want, based on what makes me smile?’
Is it true that you exclusively use a SansAmp plugin?
It’s really very funny. I know behind me are the Marshalls, the EVH and the 5150, and I had every intention of using all my vintage and new amps and everything on the album. But I recorded DI, and as we proceeded to re-amp into real amps and use modeling software and stuff like that, all paths always went back to the SansAmp plugin.
That’s all you’ve been using all along?
Every guitar sound is my guitar, DI with the SansAmp plugin; it blew me away!
It’s an extremely clean sound devoid of the artifacts you sometimes get with the mic. Is this something you noticed?
We all grow up thinking, “Good amp, good microphone, in a good room, go to some good machine with a good engineer.” But I’ve done so many albums and been to so many studios and I’ve had this horrible feeling that I have to compromise on what I want to play because it doesn’t sound right. I’m standing by my amp, it sounds great, then I walk into the control room and I’m like, ‘Oh that’s right, mics aren’t ears!’ Then you spend hours and hours, loads and loads of gear going through, and it’s never what it really feels like. So after a while, I was like, ‘This is stupid, what am I chasing?’ There is no rule. If it ever sounds like that, let’s start with a new reality, which is: I want the sound of my finger touching the string on the fretboard to be transmitted to the audience.
Due to pandemic restrictions, did you record this album remotely?
Technology and events will always affect me as an artist and as an album maker. Here’s a perfect example: leaving my apartment one morning in ’87, I’m supposed to go into the studio to record Surf with the alien and I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I’m a little prepared but not fully. I go down and look back for a second and I’m like, ‘Did I miss something? Should I bring anything? And there’s this wah-wah pedal that I swear I refused to play for, I don’t know, five years, and I just take this old thing and bring it to the studio.
I enter and John [Cuniberti] looks at me like, ‘You don’t play a wah-wah pedal!’ I said, ‘I know! That’s why we plug it in! In the afternoon we had this track and we were like “Wow”. It’s a simple and humorous example of how technology can really affect your artistic production.
Do you still love the album format?
This time around, what I started to notice was that I loved watching players I didn’t know on Instagram play guitar in fabulous ways that I could never achieve again. I’ve been there, I’m too old for that but I love it and I love that they do it – they’re the superstars pushing the guitar to new limits.
Never before in the history of the world have young guitarists been able to play so fast, so complicated, so syncopated, so clean, so well. It’s totally new, it’s really amazing. But I also say to myself: ‘It’s not me’.
You start looking at what you really want to do. What do you want to create? What do you want to achieve with what you are able to do? The format of the album, I really like having that time.
How did that focus your mind?
So here I am, I’m affected by this [the pandemic] and I have all the equipment I would need. I really don’t need any more equipment, you know; just a guitar and a way to record it. I really need to concentrate on my composition. I’ve known this since my high school theory teacher once said to me, “You might not be as good as you think at 21 – maybe you’re an average guitar player!”
Was it disheartening to hear?
He’s like, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way. The musician in your head and in your heart keeps growing. You need to develop these two guys more than your fingers, because after a few years you’re there – you’re not going any faster. You could get more intelligent and, if you keep training your brain and heart, you will pick the right grades and people will like it more.
So that led me to always thinking about not putting myself down because I’m not as fast as this new person who just appeared on the scene, but always thinking that the key is to write original music which is true to what you mean.
He also taught Steve Vai some notes below me, so I think he knew Steve was going to, like, [motions a rocket taking off] fly in front of me, so he was warning me.
Would you now consider a fully digital live platform?
I do not think so. Only if there was, like, a modeling Dumble; a Dumble amp is a thing of mystical beauty. It’s so dynamic. It really follows how a person plays. The problem I have with the digital setup is the dynamics. Unfortunately, to make modeling amps affordable for everyone, converters have to be affordable, so they’re a dork. And when they do, the dynamic range begins to narrow. The worst offenders are of course the pedals which are really fun but very affordable. They work in the bedroom when you’re playing against an already compressed mix but when you have a drummer that can go from 0 to 130dB, how do you adjust the volume?
So tube amps are here to stay?
I need something strong and dynamic. The last set of tours I did was the Experience Hendrix tours in 2019 with Dug Pinnick and Kenny Aronoff. It was so awesome to plug into my Marshall JVM and crank it up loud. I love loud tube amps, the dynamics are so wonderful. Then I hear someone else on this tour playing with digital stuff. When you’re nearby it sounds very appealing because you can program all the sounds you want, but once you walk into the room, for some reason, there aren’t any.
Do you worry about hardware?
A lot of equipment is for the player, do you know? Take someone like Joe Bonamassa; he’s got all the right guitars and he’s a phenomenal musician. So what really matters is that when we go to see Joe play, we want him be happy, because if he is happy he will play his best for us. Same thing when you go see Steve Vai and he plays the same guitar; we want him to be happy because then he gives us the best version of Steve.
Once you get to the point where you have a lot of instruments and amps, you realize it’s all about making you happy enough to deliver performances every night, because the name or the label or the vintage quality of this one, it really doesn’t translate into the hearts and ears of the public. It’s really just a little mind game that you play with yourself.
Satch’s The March Elephant is out now.