Influential guitarist uses mind as primary 'instrument'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even when he's playing on stage, guitarist Joe Satriani somehow manages to make his 10 fingers sound like a one-man guitar orchestra.

Satriani, one of the world's most famous and influential guitarists, has just released a live new album and DVD, "Live In San Francisco" (Epic). The discs are guaranteed to leave many guitar players - not to mention air-guitar players - knotting their fingers trying to replicate his all-instrumental concert pieces.

But the fleet-fingered virtuoso has some advice for musicians in their bedrooms and garages: Don't give up on music if you're struggling to play the guitar at its highest level.

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"There is something I learned from my high school music-theory teacher," says Satriani during a recent telephone interview. "He said to me, 'you may find one day that you're not going to be a great guitarist, so you might want to work on the musician in your head.' "

The budding guitarist was taught to compose music on pieces of paper without using a guitar, piano, or drums.

"The music really comes from the inside, and if you can't get your fingers to do it, it doesn't matter, you can write for somebody else."

Learning that the mind is the most amazing musical instrument of all was a lesson the guitarist says he took to heart, and to this day he often composes with just a metronome, pen, and paper.

Satriani's prodigious guitar skills as a teenager didn't lead to his big break after he completed high school in Long Island, N.Y. Instead it was Steve Vai, a teen guitarist, whom Satriani had taught in his bedroom. Vai grabbed fame by the collar after impressing Frank Zappa with a demo tape.

Satriani didn't quit his day job as a guitar teacher, but he did quit the East Coast scene. In 1978, he moved to California where he spent the next 10 years teaching.

"I had 10-year-olds who really wanted to learn Metallica or 50-year-olds who were lawyers and just really wanted to play Creedence Clearwater Revival on the weekend," he recalls. The guitar maestro's lesson roster also included future big name axe-players like David Bryson (of The Counting Crows), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), and jazzman Charlie Hunter.

But it was former-student Vai, by this time a shoo-in candidate for guitar magazine covers, who used his influence to help his friend land a record deal. The payoff? Satriani's breakthrough, 1987's multimillion selling "Surfing With the Alien," an album of hummable melodies comprised of densely layered guitars, broke radio's reluctance to play instrumentals to air the ballad "Always With Me, Always With You."

"Very often the first thing that hits me is the feeling," Satriani says of the inspiration for his often ethereal and atmospheric pieces, some of which come to his imagination fully formed, others as fragments that he works on for years.

"I would say there's some sort of an internal movie connected to the emotion of the inspiration," he reveals. "I try to hold on to that little spark of inspiration as long as I can, [and] I'll write a title or a poem or a story or sketch out the chords."

The guitarist admits to worrying, when he first started out, how he would ever filter his diverse influences - Johnny Winter, Louis Armstrong, and Erik Satie to Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane - into a seamless musical style. "Then I realized that I had to forget about it.... I should just freely associate," the guitarist says.

When asked why the electric guitar is so conducive to uniquely individual expression, the six-string virtuoso replies that "the physics of the instrument - the amount of pressure that the finger has to put on the string in order to get it to work - gives it an identifiable stamp."

Refining his own stamp on the fretboard is an ongoing goal for Satriani. He's continually working on his phrasing. "It's a technique that people don't call a technique. They call it something else - they call it 'feeling,' " he says of shaping the sound of each note. "It's the most difficult thing to work on, because there aren't any exercises."

Some critics say Satriani overplays, with too many notes. The guitarist responds with an analogy: "If you were going to write a song about the flight of the bumblebee, are you going to write something with French horns and really long notes and expect the audience to get it?"

Having just completed a nationwide tour as the top-billed guitarist of the G3 (Guitarist Three) tour festival with Steve Vai and John Petrucci, Satriani is gearing up to record his next studio album.

"Thematically, I'm thinking mainly rock, and I'm trying to make sure that I express the song with as few instruments as possible," he says of the project.

"I'm always working on trying to represent these experiences that I have in life with more interesting musical forms than, let's say, your average guitarist would use," Satriani says.

Visit www.csmonitor.com to hear extra audio clips from this interview.

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