INTERVIEW: Joe Satriani on Chickenfoot III
Chickenfoot III. You know the joke by now: the band feels so comfortable in what they’re doing that they feel like they stepped over the difficult second album and went straight to the third. The band – Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith – are indeed in fine form on the newly-released album. It still sounds like the Chickenfoot who whipped up such a frenzy with their 2009 debut, but it’s at once more relaxed and more intense, heavier and more detailed. CLICK HERE to buy it from Amazon.com)
The first thing that really struck me about this album was that there’s a really identifiable Chickenfoot sound. It doesn’t sound like a Joe Satriani album, it doesn’t sound like a Sammy Hagar album.
That’s great, I’m so happy to hear you say that. That’s something that I’ve always felt that we were very lucky to naturally stumble upon. But we didn’t want to overthink it or intellectualise it. Just do it naturally and let it happen.
This album is almost like an essay on the right hand of Joe Satriani – there’s a lot of great rhythm stuff going on.
As I was writing the demos for this record I was once again conscious of trying to not hold back and to use as much as I had to flesh out a lot of the songs. It’s a funny thing, because when we’re away, we’ll maybe be taking a flight somewhere and we’ll be talking about what kind of songs we like as a band, and that’s one thing, but when we get together to play there’s really no time for discussion or any of that stuff. We basically have to record very quickly, and everybody has to bring all their stuff to the table and just do it. And so I hate to talk about it and give the wrong impression and that we thought about it, because we didn’t, but I all I can tell you is that I prepared for the experience by making sure that everything I knew how to do was fresh on my fingers and ready to be exploited at a moment’s notice. So I like to say that I’ve taken all the good stuff that I’ve ever heard from any guitar player and I’ve tried to learn it and to use it and to understand it. So a lot of my roots come out when I’m making a Chickenfoot record.
I really like the solo in “Up Next” – there’s a real art to those kind of solos where you play against a delay pedal where if you play the wrong note it can all go off the rails.
That was a spontaneous solo. That was a song that started with a demo of mine. I came up with about ten or twelve songs in August and sent them to the guys before I went out and toured for my last record, and I think something like that was on that demo, so when we finally got together to start tracking in February, I just sort of played something like that and everybody was like, “That’s really cool. We should just do that.” So every time we got to that section, Chad and Mike just really hunkered down to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the delay. That’s part of it: I’m being complemented by those guys not being so busy. Then when we go back to the rest of the song they expand their part. But you’re very right. You have to be careful with stuff stacking on top of each other, notes that don’t belong. But I thought it was a good idea to have something that was sort of crazy-sounding when it comes in, because the rest of the song is very down on the beat, you know what I mean? It’s got a stomping kind of quality. So the last thing you expect is some sort of ping-ponging, odd-sounding solo with noises and whatnot. It’s funny, I didn’t hear the lyrics until all that stuff was recorded, and then after I heard the lyrics I thought, “Wow, the solo actually makes sense with the story that Sam’s telling.” It was a total coincidence.
Another one of my favourite guitar moments on the album is that really haunting melody in the chorus of “Come Closer.”
Oh that’s so cool, I’m glad you picked up on that. That’s a song I wrote on a piano one morning when I was looking over some lyrics that Sam had sent me. We don’t usually write that way but as an experiment he wrote a song first without any music and said “Whatever you come up with, let’s surprise ourselves.” So I came up with this moody piece on the piano, and when I showed it to the rest of the guys they had to create a rhythm around it. So once Mike and Chad had created a groove behind it I realised I had to somehow figure out how to get this piano part onto the guitar. It turned into that sort of secondary melody and it worked out really good. I was very happy that Sam liked singing around it.
Your phrasing is very restrained in that melody.
I try not to think and I just try to react, that’s what it is. The recordings that we make, we don’t start with click tracks or sequences. It’s basically three guys and a singer playing live, and we try to get the basic components just from that live recording, and then we start doing overdubs on top of that. So you can’t be on autopilot because you can’t depend on what anybody might play. Everyone’s feeling their way through it and they’re improvising. It’s part of what I think makes the recordings very live-sounding: that there’s no automation going on. So when you play, I keep reminding myself to not think about it, just react to what you’re going to hear, because every measure you’re going to hear something different.
It must be such a contrast to your solo stuff, playing so much rhythm guitar and getting to look out at the audience.
It is! It’s so different. There’s a special thrill to kick back and just connect with the drums and the bass, to play those heavy riffs and sit on the backbeat. When you’re doing the solo stuff you’re floating on top because you’re playing the melody and you’re acting like the singer. You’re in the groove with everybody but you really want to project more of a feeling of freedom, so you’re kind of floating around, you’re taking liberties with timing to try to make your melody and solo more evocative. But when you’re playing those heavy riffs and you’re playing the rhythm guitar you really do have to lock and find the proper pocket for the track. That is – boy, when you feel yourself being a part of a power trio like that, it’s really exciting.
Another thing that I think is really cool is the start of “Lighten Up.” What on earth is going on there? It sounds like a guitar that sounds like an organ.
Yeah! Going back to the Super Colossal album, I ordered an ElectroHarmonix POG online and it arrived in FedEx and I opened that box up, plugged my guitar into it and within a minute I had written “Super Colossal.” It was just so inspiring. And this is real guitar nerd stuff here, but sometimes a guitar footpedal is really more than a footpedal. It’s like a sort of a door into a new way of playing. And that pedal I have used quite extensively with Chickenfoot and with my solo stuff. And that’s what you’re hearing. You’re hearing me playing these chords through the POG pedal. And the reason why I did that is that the song itself was this little three-chord thing that Sammy had showed me a few months prior, and he said “I just want to be able to express myself being kinda pissed off,” and he had these three chords, A, G and E, and it was extremely simple. And I’m thinking, wow, I have to write a song around such a simple nugget… so I constructed this thing, and I thought what we needed was something totally different that starts the song and that we can return to in the end. Something that’s got a lot of tension to it and a little bit more drama. So I came up with this chord pattern and I wound up keeping it in with an A bass for the beginning, but at the end we wind up inverting it and putting it into the key of E. We use that for the long extended outro. Couldn’t have done it without the POG pedal.
On the topic of guitar nerd questions, what did you use this time around?
This is the first time I think I’ve ever almost exclusively used the Ibanez JS2400 for most of the guitar parts. I went through this period where I was going from a 22 fret JS to a 24 fret JS and I didn’t think it was going to be that traumatic, but having those two extra frets was really funny, to have to get over it and remind myself of all the cool things that it afforded me. So I made it a point to do all of the tracking with that guitar. And I have two white ones, I had an orange prototype, I had another orange one with a white racing stripe, so I had some different versions of it with different pickups. ICLICK HERE to buy the Ibanez JS2400 from Musician’s Friend)Then I used just a couple of vintage guitars: a 1959 Gibson ES-335, a 1958 Fender Esquire, I used my JSA acoustic on a couple of tracks, I borrowed Sammy’s old Ovation 12-string for the last number, “Something Going Wrong,” and I had my 6-string Deering banjo on that track as well. A Rickenbacker 12-string, believe it or not. Every time you say that it sounds like a line from Spinal Tap or something. Every once in a while you need that 12-string, you know? So that found its way into one song. And I don’t think there was anything else, except I’ve got an Ibanez JS prototype that’s got three single coils in it, so it’s like a Strat, but they’re DiMarzio Choppers. And that thing to me sounds more like a Strat than the best Strat I’ve ever owned. It’s a pretty unique guitar. That’s on maybe two or three songs and it’s got a very distinctive style.
I remember when you first used that guitar on the Experience Hendrix tour…
…and the internet went nuts!
I love that guitar! I hope Ibanez decides to release it because it really is a winner. It’s really hard to compete against the legacy of the Fender Stratocaster. That thing is tried and true since the early ’50s, but I think we hit upon the right pickups with this, the right wood, the right neck. And on that tour it really stood up to every Fender guitar that was on stage. Most people told me it was the best-sounding Strat every night!
Cool! And amps: are you still using Marshall?
Yes! As a matter of fact, on this record we use 99% of the time my new JVM410 prototype that’s going to be a signature model for Marshall. I’m actually looking at three prototypes right now in my studio and I believe we are finished, which means we will go into production and we will be ready for the NAMM show in January. This thing, you know, it’s got four channels and three modes per channel, and we just kinda set the thing up in the control room when we were doing overdubs and we just went from channel to channel, and I think the only time we used a different amp was when we plugged in a ’59 Fender Twin amp to add a little somethin’ to a ballad. Everything else was done through that amp. And I had a cabinet with 25 watt speakers in it and a cabinet with 75 watt speakers in it. We also had a Wizard cabinet that had something strange in it, and we would just sort of blend, lean on one cabinet or another depending on the part. But man, that amp just did the trick! And even during the tracking when we had the speakers out in the other part of the warehouse in Sammy’s studio, it made all the difference. It just felt so comfortable recording all those tracks live. I never felt like I wasn’t punching enough or I never had enough gain or I wasn’t clean enough. It’s really an outstanding amp.
There’s something about that Marshall attack that you just can’t get anywhere else.
It’s true. And engineer Mike Fraser, the guy is amazing. You know what it’s like when you stand in front of your speaker cabinet and you play something, and you tell the engineer ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to sound on the recording’? It’s very hard for them to translate that, but Mike never fails. he’s just amazing at capturing the tone and energy and the feeling of the air pressure.