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Joe Satriani and Steve Vai celebrate friendship, experience with Satch/Vai tour

Jon Luini

Joe Satriani and Steve Vai will perform at the Steifel Theatre in Salina on Monday, April 29, and at the Uptown Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. on Wednesday, May 1.

Joe Satriani and Steve Vai are performing at Salina’s Stiefel Theatre and at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, this week.

These dates are part of the pair’s Satch-Vai tour, which began earlier this month and will close May 12 in Santa Rosa, California.

But that won’t be the end of either musician’s touring for 2024. In July, Satriani will team up with his former bandmates in the group Chickenfoot, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, for The Best of All Worlds tour. It will feature Hagar revisiting material from not only his time with Van Halen but songs from the David Lee Roth era of the group. It’s something of a rarity for Satriani who has, aside from brief stints with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, primarily focused on his solo career since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Vai will prepare for an autumn tour with Beat, comprised of Tool drummer Danny Carey and Tony Levin and Adrian Belew, formerly of King Crimson, as they revisit the trio of classic albums that Crimson released in the early 1980s. Beat sees Vai taking over parts originally performed by King Crimson founding member Robert Fripp, who has given his blessing to both the project and to Vai’s role in it.

Speaking about his preparation for the Beat shows, Vai says, “It’s kicking my butt. Robert Fripp is a very specialized, specific type of a player. His technique he developed through fierce discipline for many years. He’s been able to craft all this beautiful music through this technique. The music is intricate and intensely complex, but it doesn’t sound it.”

Somewhere in all of that, Vai and Satriani — who have known each other since 1972 — have carved out time to plan their first collaborative album. They’ve already completed a few songs, including “The Sea of Emotion, Pt.1,” which was issued earlier this spring and was launched with a video directed by ZZ Satriani. (The tune takes its title from a hangout spot the friends went to during their school days on Long Island.)

Speaking during separate phone conversations from stops on the Satch/Vai tour, they both reflected on their ongoing friendship, musical authenticity and the music teacher who exposed them to the tools that set them on their path to success.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You’re working on a new album, and I would imagine that over the years there was talk of that but was there reticence to do that because you were both so established in your careers? 

Joe Satriani: One of the things that bonds us is that we feel so lucky that have been able to develop solo careers and write and record and tour behind our own music. We’ve got these crazy plans for all these kinds of albums we want to do to try to take advantage of this good luck that the fans have gifted us. What’s always gotten in the way is that we’d sit down and say, “You want to do something?” and one of us would say, “Yeah, but I gotta do this first,” and the other would say, “Yeah, but first I’ve got to do this.” So, it got innocently pushed [aside], and we kept thinking, “It’s gonna happen. We don’t know when it’s gonna happen but when that moment comes [we’ll take advantage of it].”

It really fell into place in funny jigsaw puzzle way with my son, ZZ, saying he wanted to do a documentary about his life growing up with a very strange father who played rock guitar. [Laughs.] His fourth birthday coincided with our very first G3 tour back in ’96. He came to me with this idea of his life coinciding and riding along with all these tours. That prompted the idea to do a reunion [of the original G3] with Eric Johnson, Steve Vai and myself. We wanted to continue touring but Eric had already booked the rest of the year. Someone said, “Why don’t the two of you just go out?” That’s what really got the idea of the album started. The moment has finally arrived.

SV: Once we announced this, people started sending me an interview that Joe and I did in one of the guitar magazines years ago in which we were asked the question about making an album together. We have been doing a lot together through the last 52 years. When I saw this interview with that question, we both felt the same way. We were both focused on our own careers at the time. When you’re ramping up like that in your career, you want to keep it focused. We were doing solo record-tour-solo record-tour-solo record-tour and then G3. We’d appear occasionally at various functions or guest appearances on records. It’s funny because, when we were asked in that article, we said, “We’re busy doing our own thing right now. But, definitely, on the horizon, at some point in the future, we’ll go out on tour.” I had said, “Yeah, maybe we’ll call it ‘The Sea of Emotion!’” [Laughs.]

Joe, you were Steve’s guitar teacher, but you also taught a lot of other players, including Alex Skolnick (Testament), Larry LaLonde (Primus) and Kirk Hammett (Metallica). None of them sound like you, and they don’t sound like each other, so it seems to me that you were very much a teacher who said, “Embrace the things that make you an individual.” 

JS: I was very well aware, when I was teaching out of this guitar store in Berkley, California, that I was teaching a generation that was creating their own style of music. It would be a disservice if I said, “No, no, no, play like me!” I fell back to when I was this long-haired, Hendrix-playing, Sabbath-playing guitar player. Carle Place High School and my Juilliard-graduate music teacher, Bill Westcott, was able to give me a university-level education in music history and music theory without changing my style at all.

He said that it’s not about style, basically. It’s about the melody, harmony, the rhythm and look at what you can do with it. All you have to do is study it and put it on your guitar and then you can make it your own. So, when I was sitting in that teacher’s chair, I felt the same way, whether I was teaching Charlie Hunter, Alex Skolnick, Larry LaLonde, Kirk Hammett, Kevin Cadogan. I would remind myself, “Don’t teach style. Teach raw materials. Show them the tools and let them decide. Be a strict teacher. Make sure they really know it.” I knew that if they really knew it, they would be in the best position to develop their own style based on their opinions, based on what they were hearing in terms of scales and chords and things. It’s great because now we’re all grown up, and we get to play together. It’s really fascinating.

SV: Finding your own [voice] happens organically unless your real desire it just to sound like the other guy. You can’t really escape your true identity. You can try to cover it up. But it doesn’t really fly because people who are watching artists or anybody that’s connected to their organic, natural expression [know that] that’s what’s engaging. Those performers are being the best that they can be when they’re being themselves. If you’re pantomiming the brilliance of somebody else, it’s never quite right. It’s much more rewarding when you find yourself.

Tell me a little bit more about studying with Bill Westcott.  

JS: I think what he taught us was to stop thinking about our fingers and to focus on the musician inside of us and in our hearts and in our brains. He was a very strict teacher when it came to making us learn about the last 400 years of Western music. He would routinely make us write music away from any instrument. He would give us manuscript paper and a pencil, send us to the corner of the room and say, “Write a cantata. I don’t want you near one instrument. You should be able to imagine the music in your mind and write it down.”

We would do that, and he would play it and suggest ways of making it better. He could sit down at a piano and play Thelonius Monk and say, “What if Bach did it? What if Mozart did it? What if Keith Emerson did it?” He had that facility and playfulness and intellect of a master musician. I guess because he was a young guy, he could reach us somehow. Even though we were young heavy metal kids, he taught us that there were composers inside of us and that that was the musician that was going to get us through the physical trials and tribulations of every decade of our lives.

SV: Had this one class that was intense music theory, and it was only available to 12th graders. The orchestra in the high school needed a tuba player, so they asked me if I wanted to take up the tuba in seventh grade. I made a deal with them. I said, “I’ll take up the tuba and play in the orchestra if you allow me to take Bill Westcott’s class all through my high school years.” So, I got Bill every day for seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. He was a miracle.

I was hungry for music theory. I was interested. I was virtually an idiot in everything else at school. I wasn’t good at anything but music and math. Bill taught me everything about composition, about music theory, about connecting all the dots, about analyzing music. Every day, I had to come in with a piece of written music. Not just a chord symbol and a melody. It had to be something he could sit at the piano and read. This is incredible training because you get to hear what’s in your head.

Then, he would give me tons of examples of how I could alter [what I’d written] to be more creative. He would play it upside down and say, “This is inversion,” then he would read it backwards, “This is retrograde. This is what it would sound like in Lydian.”

Joe, is there part of you that’s still a teacher? You might see a student achieve something and think, “I nurtured that. I didn’t do it, that’s all them, but I gave them the tools.” 

JS: Probably the most over-the-top example was teaching a 12-year-old Steve Vai. He was a kid who did not play a guitar at all. He started from scratch. I had only started playing a year before him, so it wasn’t like I was some super teacher or something. But I had been a drummer for about three years prior to switching to guitar so there was a part of me that was a slightly seasoned musician, even at the age of 15. [Laughs.]

But I knew how to practice. I knew that you needed to be exposed to the disciplines of rhythm and harmony and melody. That helped me teach myself, so when I started teaching Steve, I had a routine, and I knew that if I just exposed somebody to good practices, all I had to do was sit back and wait to see what happened. What I saw was Steve progress every week, faster than I did by far and faster than any other student I was teaching at the time.

If I showed Steve a scale and said, “Learn it everywhere by next week,” he would come back, have it down pat and would have written something with it. I’d see his unique personality already at work, choosing the notes that he thought were cool notes. That’s really remarkable when you see it develop in front of you so quickly. Within a year-and-a-half, we could sit down and play without talking. We would just start playing. When we jump on stage now and start playing, it’s like we just pick up where we left off.

This current tour that you’re on and the new music you’re making is, at its core, about friendship. 

JS: We come from humble beginnings, Italian American families with siblings and loving, supporting parents. We went to the same public high school in this little two-square-mile town in the middle of Long Island. But it really was idyllic when we look back on it because we were given so much freedom and encouragement. Even just the fact that there were garages and basements to make noise in and that there were people who allowed us to do that. We were allowed to start our professional careers at the local high school gym and backyard parties and churches and parks. We were at the right place at the right time. We are extremely comfortable with each other I guess because we have never forgotten where we come from.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.