Strange Beautiful Music is the memoir one might expect from Joe Satriani. Available this November in paperback, it’s an unconventional autobiography that skimps on the guitar god’s personal life in favor of detailed (sometimes exhausting) entries about his guitar-based career, all edited for easy consumption by Jake Brown (and gentlemanly prefaced by Queen’s Brian May).
No rock and roll hedonism here: This “Gospel According to Joe” is refreshingly devoid of the cliché drug and alcohol-fueled soirees that comprise the bulk of other bios. One suspects Satriani wouldn’t dish on the details of such backstage antics and late-night hotel parties anyway. Satch is only human (we think)—but if he was ever tempted by the fruits of rock star excess, he ain’t talking.
All of which means that most longtime fans will dive into Strange Beautiful Music knowing there won’t be any major bumps on the road. Satriani’s been fairly consistent over the years, establishing himself—and his otherworldly guitar talents—on his earliest releases, then honing his craft on new discs at regular two-year intervals. In his 35 years in the business Joe’s never succumbed to the spoils of fame and fortune…nor has he stopped crafting intriguing guitar music to perform in front of millions around the globe.
Strange Beautiful Music is a chronicle of that mission—an album-by-album journal documenting the impetus and inspiration behind the songs we love so well, and the sometimes painstaking steps taken to preserve them on record.
An intrepid astronaut of the aural realm, Satriani’s devoted his whole life to exploring musical space. Strange Beautiful Music is his Captain’s Log.
Initial chapters flesh out Joe’s late adolescence and young adulthood in Long Island, New York and retell the old tale of how he traded in his football gear for guitar upon learning of the death of Jimi Hendrix. Although he’d grown up listening to the classical composers (Mozart, Puccini, Wagner) and jazz greats (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery) at home, Satriani never really considered pursuing music as a career until fateful day. Luckily, his benevolent older sisters bequeathed him with their old records and a battered acoustic. One of them—a high school art teacher—even financed his earliest lessons.
Brief stints in teenage bands like Michuocan and Tarsus followed, giving Joe a chance to stretch out on Led Zeppelin covers in and around Carle Place High School while absorbing wisdom from music teacher Bill Wescott. Still afflicted with Jimi fever, he practiced relentlessly, cutting his teeth on everything from CSN, Steely Dan, America and James Taylor to Black Sabbath and Yes. Before long he was prodigious enough to start giving lessons out of his bedroom, and it’s here we’re treated to the first of many testimonials:
“He was one of the cool older kids,” writes former pupil Steve Vai.
Vai (who’d go on to guitar fame himself with Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth) says Joe taught him to “surrender everything” when sharing musical knowledge. Apart from the natural camaraderie they shared as music-minded New York boys, this freedom to flirt with bizarre sounds and express even the oddball ideas cemented the guitarists’ lifelong friendship. Vai recalls looking forward to his 4:00pm sessions with Joe every Thursday afternoon.
But music wasn’t always enjoyable for Satch in the early ‘70s. School administrators considered the longhaired Joe “a disruptive element” and expedited his graduation. Meanwhile, neighbors complained about the noise emanating from the Satriani homestead. Although admitted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Joe found the atmosphere more akin to Animal House and soon dropped out to “go pro”—with his father’s approval. After a couple months of lessons with bebop genius Lennie Tristano, Satch embarked on his first bona fide tour with a disco ensemble.
The Berkeley in California proved more conducive to creativity. Moving to his sister’s place out west, Joe took on some sixty students at Second Hand Guitars and saved money to rent his own place in the Bary area. It was here that Joe (barely 20) schooled some of today’s best players, including Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Alex Skolnick (Testament), and Larry Lalonde (Primus).
Further inspiration arrived courtesy Vai, who sent Joe his own “weird” home recordings. Bankrolled by a side gig with Greg Kihn (“Jeopardy,” “The Breakup Song”), Joe teamed with engineer Jeff Holt in Oakland to track his own first solo effort, the eponymous Joe Satriani EP.
John Cuniberti—who’d often mixed sound for The Squares in concert—loved Joe’s eccentric little vanity EP (which the guitarist sold out of the trunk of his guitar) and facilitated a deal with Relativity Records. Satriani’s first proper full-length, Not of This Earth, showcased his prowess in a hard rock context and called Campitelli to add some live percussion to the mostly-synthetic drum sounds. Even this early in the game many of Joe’s signature tools and techniques were on display: Shifting modes, pitch axis theory, pedal tones, string-tapping, etc. Joe explains these in fascinating detail, and it doesn’t matter much if one can’t quite wrap his head around the concepts. It’s fun reading how Satriani maxed out his first credit card to pay for the sessions, and how Cuniberti rifled through trash cans for extra tape, piecing the strands together with bloody fingers; the little misadventures “humanize” our heroes with “Hey, that’s something I’d do” recognition.
Returning to Hyde Street Studio (and Alpha-Omega Recording), Joe and John then set out to create what would become Satch’s benchmark recording, Surfing With The Alien. The album was a logical step beyond Not of This Earth, yet the songs allowed Joe to pay homage to various musical styles made famous by his own heroes. Electronic percussion prevailed again, but “Bongo” Bob Smith helped Campitelli decorate the spectrum with just the right amount of Latin and Indian drum flavor: Who doesn’t love the shakers on “Always With Me, Always With You?”
Joe’s first major solo tour (with Jonathan Mover on drums and Stu Hamm on bass) resulted in the EP Dreaming #11 (which also included two tracks from a popular Guitar Player Magazine “soundpage”) and generated huge buzz for the guitarist, who never expected Surfing to be a hit.
Satriani walks us through the makings of each and every subsequent record, meticulously laying out notes on studios he frequented, gear he used, and the musicians who participated. While his song discussions never fail to fascinate, the book’s best bits come when Joe draws on visceral sense memories or incidents that made specific recordings stand out. For example, on Flying in a Blue Dream, Satriani had to overcome dental braces to sing and play harmonica on “Can’t Slow Down.” “One Big Rush” was written for a John Cusack film, and “Into the Light” was dedicated to Joe’s father, who passed away that year.
We visit ground zero for 1998’s Crystal Planet, hole up in Eric Caudieux’ home studio for the techno-influenced Engines of Creation (2000), regroup with John Cuniberti for Strange Beautiful Music (2004) at The Plant and Studio 21 in San Francisco, and learn why Satch alternated between producers Cuniberti and Mike Fraser on Is There Love In Space? (2004), Super Colossal (2006), and Professor Satchifunkilus and The Musterion of Rock (2008).
Mike Kenneally comes on board for Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards (2010) and Unstoppable Momentum (2013), gracing tracks like “Premonition,” “Pyrrhic Victoria,” and “Can’t Go Back” with his inimitable keyboard skills. Also joining Joe in the latter-day lineup were bassist Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction) and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Chick Corea), who added just the right grooves and percussive punch to “Jumpin’ In / Jumpin’ Out,” “Door Into Summer,” and “Shine On, American Dreamer.”
Satriani also talks about gigging with Deep Purple and Mick Jagger, escorts readers through every “G3” incarnation—the all-guitar concert spectacles teaming him with Vai and other renowned shredders (Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, etc)—and brings us inside sessions for both Chickenfoot albums. Band mates Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Chad Smith, and Kenny Aronoff contribute funny sidebars on their stints with Joe, and it’s interesting how playing in a band context affected Joe’s writing: Suddenly his riffs had to accommodate a bona fide singer (Hagar), who often wouldn’t track his vocals until the eleventh hour.
Strange Beautiful Music wraps with a newly-added chapter about his latest disc, Shockwave Supernova. Then there’s a comprehensive discography and run-down of all the guitars and assorted gear Joe used on each album. Nobody’s ever going to learn how to nail the over-hand arpeggio from “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” just by reading about it, but at least the book divulges the tools and techniques The Master employed when recording such “stunts.” And while Joe’s picture has graced hundreds of magazines over the years, the book offers a batch of rare, never-before-published images of the young prodigy from family archives.
You might’ve thought you were getting to know “St. Joe” and learn his Jedi-like guitar abilities while reading all those profiles in Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician. But this musical tour guide puts readers in Satriani’s confidence; one can almost imagine that Satch is expounding upon his life’s work while seated on the davenport across from you, occasionally gesturing at the miscellany notes and photos strewn across the coffee table in between. The passages read as if spoken by Joe himself to someone in his inner circle, and it’s precisely that kind of “voice” that connects most effectively with readers, giving the impression they’re being made privy to something special.