Joe Satriani never wanted to be a lead guitarist, and instead hoped to be a straightforward member of a band.
In an exclusive interview with UCR, the rocker explained why he’d given up trying to be a drummer at an early age, and admitted he was surprised when he found success with his instrumental output, which he only began releasing in order to keep working.
“I don’t think I ever wanted to be specifically a lead guitarist,” Satriani confessed. “I wanted to be A guitarist in a band, as far back as I can think. … As a young kid, I just wanted to be like Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr. Those were the two that I was most excited about as a very small kid. At the age of 9 I played drums for three years, took lessons. I started to fade on that because I didn’t feel like I was progressing, as my musical tastes got moved up the ladder.”
He continued that he’d then become a “fanatic” follower of Jimi Hendrix, explaining: “I never really thought of him as lead guitar or rhythm guitar, just guitar. And maybe that’s because thinking about George Harrison and John Lennon and Keith Richards and Brian Jones… they all played leads and rhythms, and to me it all just sounded like good music. I didn’t make any of those distinctions.”
Satriani wound up playing rhythm guitar in a high school group, and said he enjoyed the experience. “I always modeled myself after the Jimmy Page template, of being in a four-piece band with a singer out front. That was more obtainable to me, and I found it more interesting because you could hang with the band while there was this other melodic element that you didn’t have to think about so much.”
He found himself forced to change his approach when his band, Squares, split in 1985. He called the moment a “disaster” and explained how it led him to releasing his instrumental material. “I just started to publish… the things I used to play at home for musical development. It suddenly surprised me when I got a call back and people said, ‘Hey, we want to do a deal where you do THAT for real.’” He emphasized: “I never thought about being an instrumentalist, never mind [one who] would play the melody in the solo. No singers, all the work is on you.”
Satriani said forming supergroup Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar in 2008 was the perfect vehicle to live his original dream – especially since the former Van Halen frontman was capable of playing lead guitar. “Anytime he didn’t know something he’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do that,’ … I’d say, ‘Well, it’s easy, you just avoid that one and work on that one.’ And he’d go, ‘OK,’ and he’d just go out there and do it. He’s a natural communicator, and has that groove when he plays guitar.”
That gave Satriani the freedom to do what he’d always wanted to do. “It’s always fun to play rhythm,” he said. “On those tours I finally got to step back, take three steps away from the front of the stage…and just be like Jimmy Page playing with [John] Bonham and John Paul Jones.”