With more than 30 years of making groundbreaking albums — including the latest, Shockwave Supernova — teaching a legion of future rock superstars (Steve Vai, Metallica's Kurt Hammett), and supporting the upper echelon rock elite (Mick Jagger, Deep Purple), Joe Satriani should be a household name. Still, the strictly instrumental musician estimates that on most nights "85 percent of the audience is seeing me for the first time."
Satch, of course, knows he must play his better-known songs, but as a conscientious musician with respect for his fan base, Satriani regularly includes a few lost gems.
"I don't ever try and thumb my nose at the audience," he says by phone from Colorado. "But, I'm not going to play music I don't want to play, or music that's not going to go over in [certain venues]. The hardest part is the set list. That's about 20 songs, which means about 85 to 90 percent of the catalog doesn't get played."
With soaring instrumentals, hard-hitting fusion-esque jams, jazzy interludes, and science fiction-like sound effects, Satriani and his power trio wow audiences no matter what tracks are played. Growing up on a mixture of jazz, rock, soul, classical, and science fiction, Satriani's tastes run the gamut of styles. But did you know he once was the guitarist for a disco band? Surprising, but true. Here are a handful of perhaps unknown (at least lesser-known) tidbits about Joe Satriani.
A child of the 1960s, Satriani was enamored of science fiction TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond. The strange musical accompaniment and sound effects, coupled with the creative guitar expression of guys like Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, shaped Satriani's musical direction.
"That was my foundation, all those funny TV shows about UFOs, and my heroes like Hendrix. It seemed very natural to me to bring the sound of the world into music and represent it on guitar . . . It was all about breaking the rules."
Satriani played in hard rock cover bands in high school and later was influenced by jazz fusion. Unknown: He also worked in a touring disco band.
"We called it progressive dance music," he says with a laugh. "After about six months, while on the road in Ohio, I realized this was the worst kind of hell for a musician — to be on stage and have nobody pay attention to you. Prior to that road trip, I was taking bebop lessons. I went back to that."
His 1986 debut EP, Not of This Earth, was made "for personal development" and to "see what it would be like to create something unusual and then try to sell it." Even after the instrumental concept proved successful, Satriani remained surprised.
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"Instrumental music doesn't really work. I don't think you'll ever see me being asked to play at the Super Bowl. People don't think of it as a popular movement," he says. "I don't think I ever thought instrumental music was going to be my career. I became an instrumental guitarist by accident."
Even after the follow-up success of Surfing with the Alien (which Satriani was positive would be "the last record they'd ever let us make"), the idea of taking an instrumental show on the road was initially daunting.
"I had never performed instrumental music in front of an audience before. I told [Relativity Records founder Barry Kobrin] I'd never done this before, and he was totally shocked. I'm a guy in a rock band. I play rock music with a lead singer," Satch says with a laugh. "He said, 'You better learn fast because you have a hit record on your hands and people are going to want to see it.' "
Learn he did.