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Home > Features > Guitars: Surfing With Satch: The Joe Satriani Interview

Surfing With Satch: The Joe Satriani Interview
by: Matt Pinson
Joe Satriani
Photo by: Matt Pinson

Joe Satriani
Photo by: Matt Pinson
  Credited with bringing instrumental rock to the forefront of popular consciousness with his breakthrough 1987 release, Surfing With The Alien, Joe Satriani has become one of the greatest figures in virtuoso guitar, having recorded eleven solo albums (so far) that have bestowed him with an enviable thirteen Grammy nominations.

He is further noted as being the teacher to some of the most recognized names in the rock guitar world, including Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Joe’s impassioned playing has proven a timeless amalgamation of beautiful melody, fretboard pyrotechnics, and otherworldly soulfulness that has stood the test of both time and trend. Amidst today’s dark wash of emo-core, Joe’s music is still as popular as it was during the day-glow colors of the guitar solo infused eighties when his name first became a household word.

Rather than being content to ride the same big wave that landed him initial recognition as one of guitardom’s most elite, Satch has been an innovator since the onset, and has continuously pushed the sonic envelope with each successive release. Hopelessly in love with the guitar himself, he has, along with close friend and fellow fretboard acrobat, Steve Vai, created the G3 concert experience as a means to showcase the crème de la crème of guitar talent. The G3 tour gives Satch and Vai the incredible opportunity to play on stage each night with a personal wish list of fret-melting contemporaries who have included other notable guitar heroes such as John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, and others.

When it comes to instrumental guitar omniscience, Joe Satriani truly possesses The Power Cosmic, and we at tapped into some of that with this Super Colossal interview.

MPc: You have an inherent ability to create beautifully, emotional melodies over intricate grooves that are at the same time infectious and understated. This is most evident on the new album in the form of the track “Made of Tears,” but is also something you’ve showcased on many of our favorite tracks over the years such as “Time Machine”, “Flying in a Blue Dream”, and my absolute personal favorite, “The Bells of Lal Part 2.” What is your approach when writing and arranging such pieces?

JS: I like to edit each of my ideas down to their essential elements until I’ve actually constructed the song. I’ve never been a fan of incredibly intricate or complicated arrangements unless I feel that they really do become the essential part of the song, where the song doesn’t work unless it’s complicated.

Most of the time, though, I find that I gravitate towards music that has an elegant simplicity to it, whether it’s Beethoven, Mozart, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery or James Brown, Chuck Berry, Beatles or Stones. You know, there’s a simplicity to all that music. As I really started to come of age when rock music was really becoming a style of its own, I also started to love Black Sabbath in favor of Frank Zappa mainly because I thought that Sabbath was achieving so much more with so much less. I was always intrigued by that because to me, it sounded just like what Miles Davis was doing or what Beethoven achieved with “Moonlight Sonata.” There’s nothing to that, yet it’s just so powerful. So, I was constantly asking the question, “What is the secret?” (laughing) What is that? I was on a quest when I was young in my music theory classes in high school and with my friends. I was always bugging them like, “How do these guys do it? How do they come up with this powerful music with so few elements in it?” because I thought: anybody can arrange stuff, take out a piece of manuscript, write stuff that they can’t play, and then hire people to play it. It’s got its place in the music world.

When I was growing up watching cartoons, I heard a lot of music like that. Watching the cartoon, I’d rather leave that type of music off. When I heard Hendrix playing “Machine Gun,” I thought, this is the most powerful stuff ever. When you break it down, you go, “It’s so simple. How did they know that it was so powerful? How do they make the decisions on their part to focus on so few elements of performance?” This is like Lester Young playing the saxophone. They have a way of eliminating a lot of what they can do, and then, for that particular song, just focus on a few elements and drive them home. I just fell in love with that whole approach. I mean, you mentioned “The Bells of Lal part 2” – there’s a song that’s got two chords in it.

MPc: It’s where you’re able to take us over those two chords, though. It’s soulful and at the same time, over the top. I’m a fan of a lot of the folks that you mentioned, especially Hendrix. I hear the Jimi influence throughout a lot of your playing and, to me, “The Bells of Lal Part 2” is probably the most Jimi-esque Satch moment on record. You can just kind of feel the notes, and in a way, you can reach out and touch them like in “Machine Gun.” You can feel that building intensity and you ride it as you empathize with the passion behind the notes, which of course, is what Jimi was all about.

JS: I listened to Hendrix and to me it was just like a religion when I was growing up. Every note that he played was sacred for me.

MPc: Taking us back now to the more tangible side of your processes, can you explain your pitch axis theory and relate its use to the compositional techniques used in creating your works?

JS: Pitch axis theory started in the beginning of the 20th century as a sort of compositional technique that basically involved one tonal center or one key. For the layperson, that means the big bass note that they hear most often in the song and that they see as the main position of the song. Then, instead of moving that base line around every time the song goes into a different key, the element of pitch axis is really to move the key signature around that base note. So it’s the complete opposite of what had been done up until that point. This is something that I suppose you would have to say that, around the late 1800’s, grew into a solid theory right around the turn of the century. It was adopted without much fanfare in modern music because it really helped music like funk music and rock and roll, where there wasn’t a whole lot of movement.

That helped those styles very much when it came to key signatures. When it comes to dance music it’s really great. Sometimes, people like to hear that one base note groove. To try to explain it in a more practical way: if you had a song that started in the key of E Major and then went to the key of A minor and then went to the key of D Major and then somehow got back to E Major, that would be a normal approach for a pop song. The whole band would be moving in that direction, base line as well.

Now, if a person was trying to involve this other compositional technique, they’d say, “I just want this big low E bass note to be the only base note in the song.” I can point to a song called “Not Of This Earth,” which is quite similar in that there’s really just one bass note for 99% of the song. But the chords that are on top represent something entirely different. Every time the chord changes and you hear a chord on top change, it’s going into a different key. But since our base note is E, what we’re doing is we’re in the key of E Lydian, and then we’re in the key of E minor and then in the key of E Lydian. The key here is that it’s always E something, and so that’s the axis point. That’s why we use that phrase “pitch axis” because all the pitches are working off that one axis point, which is opposite to the way most music is written.

MPc: So it’s almost like once you find that fundamental bass tone, you’re creating slash chords above it that are going to loosely outline the different modalities with respect to the tonic center. For instance, if the pitch center is E, you’re going to create slash chords that are going to allow you to tap into the different tonalities of E, such as E Dorian, E Mixolydian, E Lydian, etc.

JS: It’s a difficult concept to explain without involving new phrases that would confuse the layperson. Because each time you go to explain, you go, “Oh, they don’t know what a slash chord is, what’s that?” What does that mean to the average person? You know the average person, you could say to them, “The Star Spangled Banner… It’s got a melody and it’s got some chords. The chords actually change key, just briefly, during points of the melody. But what if you sang that same melody and you never changed that first bass note?” Then they would start to understand, “Oh, I see! There’s a tension and a release and there’s this thing that centers it.”

What’s interesting is the use of it was very intellectual when it started and then over the course of the decades, it became more loose and it became very stylistic after a while and you have artists like myself who were sort of part dirty rock and roll or part clean musician and we started mixing it up. And then all of a sudden Hip Hop comes and it almost leap frogs it where the rapper himself is really thinking in terms of pitch axis.

He’s in his own pitch world. They’re using samples that disregard key altogether. Very often, whether they know it or not, they’re using a pitch axis thing. As a society we tend to move in little baby steps. Even though people will come out and say, “Wow, this artist is revolutionary” or, “That architect has a forward vision,” we all actually just build upon what has come before us. So, that’s really something to keep in mind. These musical concepts are just these teeny little tweaks that we do that are based on all ideas that have been built up and accepted over decades and even centuries.

So pitch axis doesn’t really mean anything to someone who doesn’t know the past 300 years of harmony and melody. I mentioned that to a young student, as I used to many years ago when I was teaching, and they would say, “Oh, that’s just like such and such a song” and to them they don’t see why it’s revolutionary. It’s just something they’ve grown up with listening to. I grew up the same way. I grew up with certain kinds of music so to me it’s natural. But to somebody eighty or ninety years old… they’d want to say, “But you don’t know how weird that is.” You know? (laughing) It’s a funny concept, each week I think it becomes less and less special because so many people are using it.

MPc: Focusing now on the way you write melodies, I‘ve noticed that the melodies in your songs often foreshadow and inevitably lead us to a very special place where your lead playing takes over. Your solos in songs like these seem to build very dramatically, almost in the way where someone telling a story, while on the verge of tears, eventually becomes overcome with emotion and then fully breaks down, and then again recovers their composure. It’s a very beautiful and emotional quality to your playing. Musically, this seems to relate a lot your initial referencing of the melody in your solo, your bluesy use of the pentatonic minor, which then leads to fast diatonic legato work interspersed between those magic Jimi moments. Can you offer additional insight here?

JS: That’s a beautiful observation. Well, the solo stuff is improvised, so there’s not a whole lot of though that goes into it, that’s real intellectual thought. But there’s a kind of preparation going on that I’m not aware of. Let’s put it that way. I’ve practiced for way too many hours in my lifetime and spent time agonizing over musical theories. If I’ve learned one thing, it is to forget everything you possibly can when it comes to improvising. Otherwise, you’re not improvising at all.

This is something I learned from Lenny Gistano – that you really should aim to play what you want to play and never think about what you should play, could play or would play. It’s the most difficult lesson to implement but it’s the most rewarding in terms of living an artistic life. What you just explained in a nutshell must be a personality quirk, you know? That I want to do that, that I want to ease into something, flow to melody, start to extrapolate and go through this cathartic process during this improvisation to get somewhere. I probably don’t always do that, but perhaps when given the choice, after recording five or six solos or twenty solos I would tend to think I gravitate towards the solos that do exactly that – they have some kind of inner turmoil or struggle in them and then reveal some qualities that I think are important to telling the story.

There is a song on the new record called “Cool New Way” that has an interesting little story attached to how we recorded the solo. It was one of the few songs that I had left the solo blank until the last two days of recording the record. The evening where we had successfully recorded the crowd in Vancouver for the “Crowd Chant” song, everybody left to go out and celebrate and I stayed in the studio with my engineer. We decided we’d set up the amps for guitar solos for tomorrow, the following day. We just started to get some sounds and we liked what we had so I said, “Why don’t we just start recording some stuff?”

So we recorded 23 solos I played until my hand could not feel or touch another note. And I was playing a guitar that had really heavy strings on it for me. I usually use a string gauge of .009-.042 and this guitar had strings with a gauge of .011-.056, which clearly is a bit too heavy for me. But I think I had been using it for the crowd chant song to get a thicker sound.

I recorded all those solos and we weren’t really thinking that we were looking for winners – we were just experimenting with sound and came back the next day and Mike Frasier, the engineer, said that he put together some comps of solos I’d done where he’d taken the beginning of one and stuck it on the end of another, that kind of thing. Very common practice. I sat down and I listened to it and I thought, well, I didn’t like it. It was very well performed, but it sounded like I was a machine because he had picked all the best bits.

I thought, “Let me just go back and listen, see what was going on,” and it was really interesting to listen my first solo, my second, my third. And I listened to all of them and I went back to number seventeen (I think). It was so weird because of the way that it started and it seemed to be, not schizophrenic, but it just seemed to have this sort of urgency to it like it didn’t have enough time to say all that it had to say. It had this anxiety to it that I thought was so interesting. It ended just perfectly. But, as a guitarist, I’d cringe a few times saying, “Oh I missed that note, that would have been great if I had hit it right where I wanted to.” But you could tell I was struggling with the size of guitar and the fact that it was my seventeenth solo in a row. Eventually, I said, “That’s the one I like. What can we do to save that solo?” We basically went in and found those notes that were just complete failures. We would just go in for .3 seconds and reproduce that note so it wouldn’t be distracting.

I wound up with a solo that I thought told a story and represented me in the song so much better. And it wasn’t the best technical solo. The reason why I bring this up is that I chose it, so there must be something about what I like that’s guiding me towards this. It’s not a cold analytical thing where I’m thinking, “Well Yngwie would have done that and Steve would have done this, so I’d better do this.” I can’t get myself to think that way and I always seem to follow the emotions of the moment to make that decision and then I stick with it and never go back. The same thing with “The Bells of Lal part 2”; an unusual guitar sound and an unusual song altogether. We had never done one like that. Why I chose that performance I have no idea, but at the time I went with my heart and that’s what we wound up with.

MPc: The process you describe seems to offer you two layers of emotional choice. The first is when you’re playing the part in question to begin with. You have the emotional choice of which notes you’re choosing. The second is when you have the luxury of listening back to them and are able to find what really moves you. You’ve got the ability to listen to it from the listener’s perspective and make that emotional choice as well.

JS: It’s a very difficult thing to do, to produce yourself. I agree with what producer Glen Johnson told me, which was, “It’s not your job to decide what people will like.” You have to think about that for a while because that’s exactly what you do when you’re a producer. You have to make decisions on what you think people will like. Not just what they will like, but will they get it?

When a producer is sitting down and listening to a vocal performance, they have to decide whether or not that’s the version that’s really going to tell the story to the audience, or should they make the singer do it again. But a performer really shouldn’t get involved in that – it’s a classic flaw of trying to be your own producer. What it requires is time and distance from performances somehow, or some sort of disconnect where you just learn not to be judgmental when you’re playing. And when you’re done with it, you have to make a decision that you’re not going to change anything. You’re not going to go out and replay anything, you’re just going to sit and absorb it all and then pick the best, most natural, most truthful performance. It’s the only thing that you have left as the artist/producer and that essence of truthfulness is that thing that connects with the audience. I don’t have a good word for it or phrase for it. All I know is that whether it’s Neil Young or Jeff Beck when they’re just really playing true to themselves, then I respond to it. I don’t really have a technical phrase for it.

MPc: In one of your most famous tracks, “Flying in a Blue Dream,” you make excellent use of the elastic qualities of the Lydian mode and its suspended (raised) fourth degree. What are some of your favorite modes or tonalities and what are some examples of how you might use them to evoke a certain mood or feel?

JS: I can probably more easily tell you the ones that I try to avoid (laughs). I tend to like the ones where there is a slight ambiguity, and because of that, I try to avoid the ones that have similarities with other scales in all of their other intervals with the exception of where their tritone sits. In other words, Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant; those can be scales that I use a lot, but I tend to use them where I lift the third out. “Red Shift Riders”, “War”… there are many songs where I’ve done that where I’ve purposely set up a groove and a melody that a trained musician would say, “That’s Phrygian, but it could be Phrygian Dominant, but we have to wait and see what he does with the third.” Then I just never give it to them. In that way I remove the thing that to me is too obvious.

I like that, taking those things away, those notes away and not really expressing them totally. Now I know that when I do that though, I bring up a question in the mind of the listener. Sometimes you do that for effect. It’s very similar, you could think of the things that are the most obvious. You know you think of film music, you think of those two notes that make up the sound of the Jaws moment, when the shark’s coming. You know right away what it is, but it’s a very undeveloped little piece of music. I mean it’s two notes. Western music, even Eastern music, it’s maybe 12, 13, 14 notes in our chromatic scales. A little bit more in countries where they are microtonal. But the brain can retain about 11 notes before when number 12 and 13 come by the brain starts to forget the first two. This is something that is just part of our human nature.

Music is the same way when you’re writing (I guess) what you call program music, in other words, instrumental music that’s supposed to tell a story without the use of lyrics. You have at your disposal these elements that you know can push buttons with people. So when you do the [sings Jaws theme] today, that pushes a particular button. Fifty years ago, no one would have thought about sharks. So the association is very important and it’s something that is redefined every day because we are a very social society. I think it would be similar if you’re playing pop music and then you bring in an element of music from a country where there is strife or turmoil. You do that and it introduces a question in the listeners mind. It would be like if during the era of World War II and people were listening to a swing song and in the middle of it, the soloist plays something that’s based off a Japanese scale. That would insight questions and perhaps anger in the hearts of Americans. And musicians do this all the time. And they do things to bring up the past or they try to push the future.

In the Hip Hop culture, since it’s based a lot on samples, the producers bring in samples from different artists on purpose to push our buttons. So scales in my view are the same way. I have to be aware that certain scales will elicit certain feelings from different people depending on who they are, where they’ve grown up and where they go. A typical thing is a Lydian mode. Those of us who listen to a lot of world music may find the Lydian mode very peaceful and others who never listen to music outside the American experience may find it very weird. They may think it’s odd. And I’ve had that experience when I’ve been teaching or when I’ve been playing for friends who aren’t musicians and I can see that their reaction is more like your average moviegoer reaction. It’s like that Jaws effect.

For Americans, if you play anything that sounds like it’s coming from the Middle East, it’s going to make them think about the Middle East. If you play that for someone who’s grown up in Africa, it’s not that weird to them. They don’t think of it the same way. In different times in our lives, since I’ve been alive, there have been these hot scales, let’s put it that way, that you can pick up. Sometimes it’s the opposite; sometimes it’s playing it very straight that can really unlock a set of emotions in people. In other words, not throwing in the musical tensions that are so obvious now and removing the tension resolution can certainly open up an entirely different response.

MPc: The things you offer here are incredibly insightful. Something that I can glean from you right away is that there’s a lot of thought behind what you’re doing.

JS: You know when I am asked to think about it; I know that there is a lot going on. When I write, I am not really thinking. I just kind of go with it. But if I have to, I’ll turn on that part of my head and analyze things like this.

MPc: Another of your trademarks is the frequent use of natural and artificial harmonics. In particular, you are famous for one particular technique where you play a harmonic close to the bridge and raise the pitch into the stratosphere with the vibrato bar. Can you explain what it is exactly that you are doing here and offer some detailed instruction in how to do this?

JS: Harmonics are available up and down the length of the string and most people when they are playing artificial harmonics; they’re playing them at the twelve, the seventh or the fifth fret across the strings. Those are the ones that ring out the most. You’re lightly coming in contact with the string but not pressing it down. You’re basically intersecting a string and so you’re getting fundamental harmonics. You’re getting the root, the third, the fifth. You’re getting flat seventh and ninth and it’s difficult sometimes to get the roots, but you can get the roots as you’re going through that particular harmonic routine. If someone looks at, let’s say, the fifth fret and they start to move their finger from the fifth towards the nut of the guitar, what they will find is the harmonics going in that particular direction basically raising up in thirds; root, third, fifth, flat seventh and a ninth and it keeps going up and up. But they’re really hard to attain. If you take that particular set of harmonics going in that direction and sort of flip it around, and bring it so that it is positioned somewhere between your two humbucking pickups or, right around starting where your middle pickup is if you’ve got three single coil pickups, down by the bridge there. The harmonics are basically doing the same thing but going in a different direction. They’re starting in that middle area of your picking area and heading towards the bridge. So if you could look at your guitar and visualize that then you realize that there is this harmonic field down there, that every string has got all these harmonics down there.

There are even more than that but you’d hard pressed to hear them or get them stimulated unless you’ve got a lot of gain on your guitar. What happens with a lot of high gain is that you’re changing the sound wave and it squelches certain harmonic content and it raises other harmonic content so that you basically have a hyper-harmonic sound available to you. Stimulating these harmonics is really the key here that seems to twist peoples’ heads around when I do it. Basically I am creating an artificial harmonic, which means I am hitting the string in a certain place, not only with a pick but a little bit with the flesh of my thumb, in a very particular place, deliberately to stimulate a root, a third, a fifth, a flat seven and nine or an octave.

Sometimes I’m doing it on two or three strings all at once and I’ll reach over with my fingerboard hand, my left hand since I’m right handed, and I will operate the vibrato bar mainly to change the pitch at which the strings are sitting because if [I want the harmonics to raise up then I’m gonna bring that bar way down so that the strings will loosen and the harmonic that I’ve stimulated is going to be quite low and this will help bring it up.] Now, I’ve done this a lot and of course when I go to do it in certain places I know exactly where I’m going. I’m saying to myself, “I want to hear this thing go all the way up to a major third.”

From practicing it I automatically go there and I know basically how to do it. I have to say – 75% of the time, I’m right on. The rest of it sometimes, it’s just in the heat of the moment, I’m a centimeter off and I’ll get the fifth instead of the third. There’s a bit of rock and roll thrashing going on there mixed in with an attempt to be very deliberate with it. But that’s pretty much what I’m doing. One of the most fascinating elements about playing with high gain and getting harmonics on these sets of strings is that sometimes you wind up with two harmonics that create a third harmonic that wants to go in the opposite direction than where your main pitches are going.

People have asked me this a lot. They’ll say, “I don’t understand how you do it. I saw you go down and grab this harmonic, push the bar down and bring this high note way up into the stratosphere. But at the same time we heard this low note going lower and lower and lower as you were going higher and higher and higher.” That’s just a matter of physics. The music that we hear, the fundamental notes that we hear are really supported by, I don’t want to say invisible, let’s just say they’re not easily heard, not apparently heard harmonics. In other words, one note is really supported by 20 different notes or one hundred different notes into a spectrum of sound that just goes beyond us. But it’s as if one note, let’s say when you’re listening to G, you’re really listening to a very intricate foundation of harmonics that eventually result in a recognizing G. When you’re hitting these harmonics, you’re shining a light on little parts of that structure. It’s almost like you’re shining a flashlight underneath the building. And when you start playing with them, you start to reveal all these other harmonic structures that are part of what we’re listening to. And that’s why sometimes those notes go up and you’re hearing other harmonics go down. Distortion has a way of sort of amping up that particular element that I find really fascinating and that’s why I love distortion.

MPc: Speaking of distortion, I’d like to credit you with having one of the most beautiful guitar tones on record. Although I know so much of that comes from your fingers, and much as a lot of us would like to clone that somehow, I know it’s not going to happen. (laughs) Instead, let’s talk about some of the tools that you’re using… Most recently you could be seen on stage with your trusty Ibanez JS1000 series guitars, loaded with DiMarzio Fred and PAF Pro pick-ups in the bridge and neck positions, respectively. Your newer signature Peavey JSX amplifiers have replaced your old staple of Marshall JCM800 heads and 1960B cabs with Celestion Greenbacks. And your pedal board has contained a number of different boxes, including staples such as the Boss DS-1 Distortion, Digitech Whammy, Dunlop Crybaby Wah, and a host of others. Can you offer some more detailed insight into what you use to create your signature lead tone, both now, and circa Flying in a Blue Dream?

JS: All my guitars on this particular tour in the making of Super Colossal have had the PAF Joe in the neck pickup and at the time a prototype for a pickup called Mo’Joe, which now I just basically brought out the production model for all my guitars on the tour. The Mo’Joe is like a Fred that has just a little bit more gain, but more importantly the low end is robust. In the past, I was using amps that had a lot more low end in them and we tried to get as light as we could to make more of a vintage style pickup with the Fred. I started to think I wanted to fill in that gap a little bit and make it more of a full-bodied pickup. So now the Mo’Joe basically has more of the elements of the Fred particularly in the low end so it’s a thicker, heavier version of that.

MPc: I’ve always described the PAF Pro that you’ve used as having a very Strat-like quality in the neck position, especially in, say, the tenth position where, when you’re playing a typical “bluesy” D pentatonic minor lick for instance, you get this hollow, almost “wooden flutey” sound from it. This is very difficult sonic quality to describe, but you always hear it in the neck position in a good Strat, right around there. The PAF Pro seems to have a lot of that quality. Does the PAF Joe do what the Mo’Joe did in its evolution from the Fred, and build on the basic design by placing extra emphasis on the finest qualities of the PAF Pro?

JS: Oh it does it more so. The elements that you are mentioning are always very important to me. That’s because I spent so many years playing a Telecaster and a Stratocaster and my first Les Paul was a Les Paul Deluxe so I kind of fell in love with the sound of the neck pickup. But I always found on your general Gibson style guitar, you ran into muddiness. It was always a problem. It was always just disparity between the two. When I started building my own guitars, I was building basically Stratocaster kit guitars and I would have a universal rout underneath the pickguard and I would put in humbuckers of all different kinds. I spent a good decade messing around with this idea. I eventually decided that the problem was that there wasn’t really a good humbucker made that could really make a single coil lover really happy. I solved some of the problems of the single coil but at the same time was able to achieve that tubular tone.

MPc: Many people have been surprised seeing the inexpensive Boss DS-1 pedal as a staple in your pedal board for so many years. How much of your trademark lead tone, now and in the past, comes from this or other overdrive/distortion pedals versus amp overdrive?

JS: I came across that particular pedal for two reasons. Number 1: being really devoted to the way that Hendrix and a lot of those guys pulled off their shows back in the mid to late 60’s to early 70’s before there were master volumes. I realized that having a clean amp and having a box creating distortion was a very interesting element not only to the show and how they were able to reproduce things live, but what it did to the balance of the strings compared to if you just had an amp turned up really loud. It has to do with something guitar players call “sag.” When you are using a tube circuit, very often when you push it, and the further you push it, the more “sag” you get. And it’s almost like a timing thing. But what I notice is that your treble strings are thinner than your low strings and your low strings tend to fart out. You know the low end can get really loose. You wind up with something that’s really more like a vintage tone. But that only goes so far. You can’t really play “Machine Gun” with a vintage tone. It doesn’t really work. So, Hendrix was able to do a lot of that stuff because he had this ultimate gain that leveled the playing field between the strings response in terms of volume. In a way, it reduces the dynamic level coming out of that amplifier. What it does is it saturates the energy into a smaller band and certain techniques wind up sounding very intense. Low strings don’t overpower the treble strings. That’s the simplest way of putting it.

And then you have notes that last for a very long time. If you’re playing a Telecaster into a Deluxe Reverb you can’t do that. So when I started to work into this accidental career as an instrumentalist, I had a realization. The first tour I brought up [BK Butler designed] Tube Drivers, overdrives, [Boss] DS-1’s... I was trying to figure out. “How can I reproduce all those funny little amp setups we had in the studio, and to the point where I can improvise with them, not just reproduce them tone for tone?” If I used twenty different amps in a studio, a lot of it had to do with the way they were miked, not the way the amp sounded. So that element of course is gone when you hit the stage. Your amp setup has to somehow replicate the entire recording process, not just the amp setup in the studio. I found that some of the little boxes were quite good at creating the effect of all those amps miked up with different mikes, preamps and compressors, EQ’d for recording. The most impressive line were this particular set of distortions that had this particular op amp that just seemed to trim the low end and not pass too many highs. Basically make the treble strings sound just as sweet as the low strings. You can really play the entire guitar and it wouldn’t be such a dynamic roller coaster. That way you can get down to the business of playing the melody and playing the solos and not worry that it was going to sound disjointed.

MPc: Now for your older setup before you got into your signature amps, you were using your JCM 800’s. A very loud but pretty clean amp.

JS: You know, I don’t think I started with those. I think that the very first setup I had had a pre- master volume, four input, hundred watt [Marshall JTM], and then one of those [Marshall JCM] 800 Mark II lead things. But they were stolen and then I had to, I think I was getting loaners from Marshall. They were Jubilee’s or something. It wasn’t until I got the [Marshall 30th Anniversary] 6100’s that I really found the clean channel I was looking for. That made quite a difference for me. And that was because it was really clean, a bit lifeless sounding as a clean channel. But it was clean enough where I could just work the pedals. I was still traveling with the DS-1 overdrive, the Fulltone pedals and maybe an old Chandler Tube Driver.

MPc: I have been in recent correspondence with BK Butler regarding hand-building one of his famous Tube Driver pedals with the Bias mod for me. He mentioned building a couple of these for you and Eric Johnson. What are your thoughts on these and how are you using them? It seems like you’re getting a lot of your live sound coming through the pedals. How does this one play into your tonal palette?

JS: Yeah, I’ve got two of those. Each tour that I do, I do something different on purpose, because I’m involved in developing amps and pedals and guitars. I make a point of taking my prospective products out with me so I can really say to a consumer, “I’ve taken this on the road, I know what it does.” Like with the JFX amps I did two sets of tours that wound up getting filmed that each time I ran the amps very differently. This particular tour that we just finished that just got filmed as well for HDTV I used the JFX heads in a third, another, completely different way. The idea is to see how far you can go as if you were somebody else, who just wanted something else out of an amplifier. I do the same with the pedals. I don’t think people out there notice the difference all that much, but for me as a player, it’s a world of difference.

MPc: I’ve seen you live well over a dozen times and I can hear quite a bit of difference between many of your shows.

JS: That’s good then. The idea is that I would be able to get behind designing products that are so different that if I were a guitar player out there looking for things, I would notice there are pieces out there that are “night and day.” I would use them as tools, if I wanted “day” I’d pick up this one. If I wanted “night” I’d pick up that one. It’s kind of like what my pedal board looks like. I’ve got very specific tools that are used for specific songs. A modern guitar player today has got to have an arsenal of these things. They don’t want stuff that sounds the same – they need little boxes that do outrageous things for the right moment.

MPc: So just to give people a reference, if I were to say “Alright Joe, I’m going to take away all your tools and I’m only going to give you what you need. I want you to play one song. I want you to play “Flying in a Blue Dream” because most people are familiar with that. I’m going to take away all your tools so you have to choose ahead of time.” What would be your ideal way of getting that tone?

JS: Well, I would use clean channel of the JFX. I’d get a slightly altered, vintage Boss DS-1. I can’t tell you the alteration, though, that’s a secret!

MPc: Aaaaagggghhh, that was going to be my NEXT question! [We have two prime suspects for this mod, but have yet to confirm anything.]

JS: …and a little bit of delay, any delay, about 400 milliseconds and a couple of repeats, not too loud and that’s really all I need for that one.

MPc: Now somebody without the alteration to their DS-1… How close are they going to get?

JS: I have had to play that song in so many different situations. If I had a Fender Champ and a little [Boss] DS-1 and a delay pedal, I could do it. I’ve had to do it. I’ve done it with a Sansamp. I do it live to radio all the time. You know, when I’m playing at parties and stuff, I just plug in to whatever people have.

MPc: What’s next for Satch? Any plans for the next album or G3 tour?

JS: What we have coming up is in October there will be an HDTV special – almost three hours of a DVD that will come from the performance in Anaheim that was shot by the HDTV people. It’ll be the entire show.

I’m working on some pedals with a designer right now and our little mini amplifier that myself and Peavey have been working on is just about ready. I’m waiting to get the very first prototype from the factory. We’re very hopeful that it’ll be shown at the summer NAMM show. It’s a little five watt Class A amp, like a Fender Champ except that we’ve put some very unusual new elements in it that make it the ultimate little practice amp.


Matt Pinson, former senior editor, is an accomplished musician and engineer based in the San Francisco Bay area. His production audio engineering talents are used by television networks and motion picture companies, and he consults on equipment and music technology for professional musicians.

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