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Satriani--Just a Guy Who Plays Guitar

April 24, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

Joe Satriani, the hot new guitar hero, remembered the moment precisely. It was one of those life-changing moments, he insisted--almost a religious experience.

He was an 11-year-old Long Island kid. "It was a revelation," Satriani said of the time when, listening to the radio, he first heard Jimi Hendrix wailing on "Purple Haze."

Slouched in a chair in a restaurant, Satriani stared at the table as he recalled the experience: "I remember looking at the radio the second I heard it coming out. It's still vivid when I think about it sometimes--like it happened this morning or something. His music was overwhelming. I felt it deep inside. He was talking to me. It opened up a new world for me.

"I had tunnel vision all of a sudden. I could only focus on the radio. It was like there was this tuning fork in my body waiting for someone to come along and play the right note and make me vibrate. I think I've been a strange person ever since."

But Satriani, then dabbling in drumming, did not rush out and start playing guitar. "It took me three years before I got a guitar," he said. "It took me a long time to digest what had happened.

"But about three years after that first moment--the day Hendrix died--it all suddenly became clear to me. My reality was different. My life, my purpose was different. After I heard about his death, I went home and played my Hendrix records. Then I had to play. Soon after that, my sister bought me my first guitar."

Now 31, Satriani, who performs at the Roxy Monday and Tuesday and at the Coach House in San Juan Capristrano today, is almost single-handedly spearheading a revival of the guitar-hero tradition that flourished in the late '60s--the Hendrix days--but has largely been dormant since.

Satriani's "Surfing With the Alien"--an album of rock instrumentals, some verging on heavy metal--is a remarkable No. 29 on the Billboard magazine pop album chart. It's considered an achievement when an instrumental album cracks the Top 100.

This is Satriani's third album and, with over 360,000 units sold, the biggest ever for Relativity Records, a small New York label.

What really helped boost Satriani into the big time was joining Mick Jagger's band. As a result of the international focus on Jagger's Japanese tour, Satriani is no longer obscure, a situation that, he noted, was particularly evident in Japan:

"I'd worked there before, but it was nothing like this. I'm not used to being chased down the street by kids who want my autograph."

Jagger could have hired just about any guitarist he wanted. Why did he settle on a relatively unknown musician with just two albums to his credit?

The industry buzz about Satriani was just beginning early this year, when Jagger was searching for a guitarist. Jagger didn't know about him, but many other musicians did. Satriani's pal, Doug Wimbish, a bassist in Jagger's band, recommended him. So did Steve Vai, a former Satriani pupil. Vai was considered for the position but declined because he was already working for David Lee Roth. Satriani, Vai insisted, would be perfect for the Jagger band.

In January, Jagger flew Satriani, then touring with his own band, into New York for an audition. "It went very well," Satriani recalled. "I played with the band first. Mick wanted someone fresh and new. . . . A lot of the younger guitarists don't know (the) music--but I did. I grew up playing the Stones and Hendrix and old blues.

"After I played with the band for about an hour, Mick walked in and started singing with us. The last song was Hendrix's 'Red House.' I guess I got the job. In a moment of cockiness, I even asked him to sing a song in my show at the Bottom Line (a prestigious New York nightclub). I was amazed he said yes."

That show has since become famous. At the end of his second instrumental set, Satriani invited his mystery guest to sing. "The audience knew nothing about it," Satriani recalled, laughing. "Then Mick came up to sing 'Red House.' The place went wild."

Satriani flew into Los Angeles for the interview from Berkeley, his home since the mid-'70s. He was looking scruffy that day--shaggy hair, day-old beard, bedraggled clothes--sort of a modern-day hippie.

Hearing his music, you'd expect him to be a caldron of intensity. Actually, he's low-key, soft-spoken and almost unnervingly casual.

Though being hyped as a guitar hero, Satriani doesn't look the part. Rather than a sexy, macho man, he's the more cerebral, introspective type. "I'm a guy who plays the guitar, not a guitar hero," he insisted modestly.

But Satriani has been a hero, at least in the world of guitarists, for quite a while. Musicians flipped over his second album, "Not of This Earth," which came out on Relativity in 1986. They were raving about his adventurous technique, expressive arranging and stunning dynamics. He was the new king of the two-handed tap technique. The album is a maze of influences, crosscutting styles ranging from jazz to metal.

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