Joe Satriani is more than just a star-studded guitar player. In just a short while, he’s not only built himself from the ground up, but he’s also taught the instrument to an entire team of guitar gods. Very few can manage to claim his crown.
But what truly separates Joe Satriani from the herd is his incredible prowess on the instrument. He embodies the true nature of ‘A virtuoso by day and stage performer by night.’ Not only does he manage to bring out heartfelt songs, but he also injects his personality into his sound.
How do you even begin to start dissecting an icon like him? Well, it’s not easy. But if you can get a handle on his quirks and playing habits, you might get one step closer. And with that, you can channel Satriani’s guitar mastery and start to merge it with your own. So, here’s how to do just that.
How Joe Satriani Developed His Playing Style
For anyone not keeping tabs, it might’ve seemed like Joe Satriani popped into existence and took the guitar world by storm. But that’s not entirely the case. Although he burst through the music scene and built himself up in a relatively short time, it’s a little more than just an appearing act.
Joe’s guitar journey started at the ripe age of 14. Having heard about the death of Jimi Hendrix, Satriani quit his football team and decided to pick up a guitar instead.
His early influences included a cast of guitar greats like Allan Holdsworth, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. This had a heavy hand in instilling a lot of his go-to’s on the guitar like Beck inspired volume swells, and string bends or Clapton inspired blues licks.
Just after a year of having played, he had deeply mastered the instrument. This began a three-year stint of teaching players like Steve Vai, among others. It was an experience that pushed him to go beyond his own ability to have a larger understanding of music in general. All of this helped shaped him into the kind of player he is today.
Playing Like Joe Satriani
Joe Satriani might have strong foundations with his music theory, but a lot of his playing shines through thanks to his impeccable technique and playing habits. Below are some aspects of his playing that you should grasp if you want to start playing like him.
Build Strong Modal Fundamentals
If there’s anything that Joe Satriani excels at, it’s the power of being able to summon modes into his playing to invoke certain moods. And it’s one thing to know modes, or play them, but it’s something else when you can execute them to the extent that Satch does it.
Rather than using the characteristic intervals of a particular mode, Satriani builds his entire playing intention around that mode. Modes stop being just a point of accenting notes, and more building a sonic framework.
After all, A Dorian has the exact same notes as E Minor or G Major. So, playing them with diatonic sensibilities in mind might just defeat the purpose. But if you execute your playing based on a Dorian tonality in your mind’s ear, then you’re heading in the right direction.
You can put this into practice in your playing by going through modes with a fine-toothed comb. Instead of thinking of modes as mysterious flavors for your licks and solos, try to have a more contextual approach to them. It can be especially helpful to try song analysis exercises or songwriting practices on your own to build these fundamentals.
Master the Cascading Legato Run
Legato is something that’s very intimate in Joe Satriani’s guitar vocabulary. He’s known for flawlessly executing them on his records and on stage. And a very particular way to serve it Satriani style is by using his signature cascading legato run.
The technique works by playing a standard legato that’s picked between the bridge and neck pickups. He then varies it up by either into another grouping of notes or using his other hand to tap notes into legatos. It creates a mix of intermingling notes that sounds as if the were notes flowing down like a waterfall.
The great duality of this technique is that he’s able to use it both as a song embellishment and a shred technique. When used melodically, it acts as a way to ornamentally dress a passage of notes. But when used to shred, it can make good work of fast high gain notes.
A good approach for mastering the cascading legato run is to watch any of Joe’s legato lessons. This will give you the basic concept of the run which you can then build on practicing chromatic three note per string exercises. Finally, cap it off by studying how Satriani puts it into practice by learning legato runs on songs like Flying In a Blue Dream.
Bends and vibratos are often sidelined as exclamation points to use in your soloing. The only problem with this approach is that they’re almost exclusively used at the end of phrases. Often in the exact same way. But the truth is, these are powerful articulation techniques. And ones that Joe Satch uses often uses to his advantage.
The most common way this is implemented is by accenting a melody by calling specific attention to notes with bends. He can be seen doing this, particularly by bending in modal or chromatic notes for stronger emphasis.
Vibratos are played much in the same manner. Instead of being used as bookends to finish a melody, they’re inserted wherever there needs to be key stresses in the sound. They’re not so much decorations as they are seasonings.
It can be helpful to put this into practice by vocalizing your melody. Once you have a good idea of what it sounds like outside of the guitar, figure out the points you want to emphasize. That’s where you want to add in your bends and vibratos.
When in Doubt, Go Back to Basics
A big part of why Joe Satriani plays the way he does is thanks to a strong foundation both in technique and knowledge. And that’s what you might need to tap into to get playing like him.
Satriani famously studied under big-name Jazz musicians like Billy Bauer and Lennie Tristano. During his studies, he was involved with a strict regimen involving theory, technically demanding songs, and ear building exercises.
Through this trial of fire and through his own time teaching, Joe managed to solidify his fundamental concepts and understanding.
That’s why it’s always important to remember that you strengthen your basics before moving further. If you’re struggling with even conceptualizing a classic Satriani technique or lick, the chances are that you lack the basic building blocks to get off the ground.
Be sure to go through one of the many lesson series that Satriani has about guitar fundamentals. Even if you’ve already learned something your own way, it can be helpful to see how he approaches it so you can appropriate it the best you can.
Satriani has never had a dearth of sounds to play around with. In fact, it’s something that powered his abilities at expressing himself on the guitar. So, if there’s any lesson you could take from his guitar playing, it should be to play as exotically as possible.
Since Joe is such a modal player, he’s been known to favor certain tonalities in his playings like Lydian, Dorian, and Phrygian. It’s something that was inspired in him by the playing of Martin Barre.
Satriani uses this to the full extent in his songs whenever he can. Not only that, but he’ll even venture out to more ethnic scales like the Gypsy scale or the Hungarian minor scale.
You don’t have to go all out with this kind of approach right away. But for starters, you should place your emphasis on trying to sound as exotic as you possibly can.
Use 4ths to Create Intrigue
Creating a specific emotion through intervallic pulls has been a common practice in music, but rarely is it seen implemented much in the world of rock. That is, of course, if you don’t count Joe Satriani.
In interviews, Joe has talked about the significance that the 4th has in his playing. Most of his melodies start on the 4th in lieu of a diatonic interval for an interesting sound. For harmony, he is known to stack 4ths on top of each other to build big m7#5add4 chords across all six strings.
These are both solid tactics to add to your playing. Start with a note on the topmost string and keep stacking 4ths to notice how they tinge the sound. Depending on how high you stack your chord, it could end up sounding more or less dense.
Let Your Energy Rip Through Your Playing
Satriani is arguably one of the few instrumental players who have made a major breakthrough in an otherwise pop music dominated industry.
Despite being a big icon, he manages to exude the same kind of energy with his playing.
Any time you can see Joe Satriani play live, you can notice the extra flourishes that he adds to top his hand movements. He’ll often jump to techniques like pick rakes and big tremolo slams to add some extra character to his playing.
Now, playing with animated movements might not sound like the biggest step to modify your playing. But if players like Steve Vai can see the utility of using the powerful expression, then there’s bound to be something in it for you.
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Surf the Pitch Axis
Although introduced to Joe by his teacher Bill Wescott, the pitch axis theory is one of the concepts commonly associated with Satriani. He has called it his secret songwriting weapon. And it has helped him write songs like Satch Boogie. For a guitar player, it’s a good gateway into his
According to the pitch axis theory, you can build your songs around a single pitch and use it as an axis to orient your chromatic notes and scales. Say you choose B as your pitch axis; you can now design your chord progression from any mode as long it has B in it. It’s a concept that’s not unlike tritone substitution.
But where it really shines is in Satriani’s songs like ‘Not of This Earth’. Using E as his pitch axis, he’s able to cycle through a progression of E Lydian, E Aeolian, E Lydian, and E Mixolydian. This makes for a very disorientating but interesting sound.
Although this concept might be hard to grasp at first, it can be really useful to have in your arsenal. Not only will you be able to emulate Satch’s chord progressions, but you’ll break out of the habit of playing in only major or minor.
Alienate Your Sound
Aliens are something Satriani is constantly intrigued by. His obsession with them grew so far that he sought to model his sound after them. And when that wasn’t enough, he gave us an entire album dedicated to the love of his extra-terrestrial beings called Surfing with the Alien.
Joe channels this obsession by trying to make his guitar sound as otherworldly as possible. He does this by a combination of techniques like pinch harmonics, dive bombs, pick tapping, and backward slides into notes.
With a combination of effects like wah and pitch shifters, he can use these techniques to make his guitar sound like anything from an old theremin to bright Star Wars like phaser sound effects.
Not only does this makes for a great way to affect your sound, but it’s also a fun exercise to do. And as a bonus, there aren’t any major skill-based techniques to learn. All you need to do is experiment with sound until you can mimic your favorite space opera.
Joe Satriani has no shortage of people that look up to him. Whether it’s his progenies or aspiring guitar players, there aren’t many that wouldn’t want to be like him. Hopefully, the techniques above will give you some indication of emulating his style that is a little more involved than just putting on a pair of cool shades.