We’re in the past. I’m about 15 years old. I’m sitting on my bed trying to nail that incredible solo from Joe Satriani’s Crushing Day. I’m getting pissed off. This is hard. Try it again. Argh! Hit a clanger about a quarter of the way in. Start again. Frig. Only got two bars in that time and hit a bad harmonic. Argh. Aaaarrgh! Argh.
My dad walks in.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I’m trying to learn this Joe Satriani solo but it’s impossible!”
“…How many hands does this Joe Satriani guy have?”
“How many do you have?”
“How many fingers does he have?”
“Eight, two thumbs.”
“Eight, two thumbs.”
“So you’ve both got hands, fingers and thumbs. There’s no reason you can’t play what he’s playing, if you put in enough work.”
We’re in the present (well, April 13, 2013). I’m standing on stage with a guitar strapped on. Joe Satriani’s standing a few feet away. There’s a crowd of guitarists watching. And I feel like I can do this. Whoa.
When the folks from Thump Music invited me to jump up on stage and jam with Joe during his recent Australian clinic tour, I was excited. But I was also able to draw on a bit of past history. I’ve jammed onstage with Steve Vai, and in a group lesson environment with Paul Gilbert. And I’ve played a bunch of gigs with various bands, and at jam nights. Even an open-air festival to about 3,000 dance music fans, and at the Jemfest guitar festival. So although I don’t think this stuff will ever not be a thrill, it gets a little easier to prepare every time. I guess a big part of it is because I read this book, The Inner Game of Music, many years ago. It goes into the ways our emotions and thoughts can sabotage our playing, and it helps you to develop tools to quiet those voices that say “You can’t” and to boost the ones that say “You can. You do.” I’m not into self-help books or anything like that, but there’s plenty of practical advice in that book and you should check it out.
So. The jam. In the car on the way to the venue I crank up Surfing With The Alien, and when I get to that solo in Crushing Day I think back to that day when I was trying to figure out the solo, and when I learned that important lesson. I made sure I had a few picks in my pocket (mostly Jim Dunlop Jazz III, but I try to always keep a few different kinds of pick within reach just so I never get too stuck on one and can’t play with any others).
Joe’s clinic was great. He talked about the importance of phrasing, of making compositional choices based on the defining notes of the scales you’re working with, and of going with the moment and being open to whatever little events unfold while you’re playing. It was all really good stuff and I was careful to absorb as much of this info as I could while also being aware that soon I’d be up there on stage.
When it was time to get up there and jam, there were a few things that could have worked against we, the jammers. It was an unfamiliar guitar (an Ibanez JS2400, which played like a dream but still, we guitarists are a superstitious lot and we’d probably all prefer to use our own axe). It was an unfamiliar amp (a Hughes & Kettner TriAmp – a killer amp but there was no time to tweak it to our preference). The strap was quite high – and I probably could have lengthened it but I decided to ‘Petrucci’ it and just get on with playing. I figured I could let these things derail me or I could choose to take the positive aspects of them: great-sounding and great-playing guitar; killer amp rig even if I personally go for more mids and less highs than it was dialled in for; and hey, when the strap’s that high you can control the guitar better than if it’s dangling around your knees. I guess the flip side would have been if I let myself think “Argh! Unfamiliar guitar! Unfamiliar amp! The guitar’s too high! EEEEK!” but then, back to that Inner Game of Music stuff, none of those negative thoughts could help to bring out a good performance in the way that the positive thoughts could.
So. Time to jam. I had a riff in mind – actually something that I’d written in the style of Chickenfoot for a bass pickup review a few years ago. I played the riff, Joe took it and played it back with a few twists, and we were off. At first I tried to hang back and get a feel for the guitar, the amp, the stage, the groove. So I went for some easy blues licks and I focused on phrasing. Well, as much as I could with no warm-up and a little bit of stage jitters. Joe answered with some bluesy licks when it was his turn. By then I felt a little more relaxed so I threw in some whammy bar stuff, and Joe did the same.
Then I had an “Okay, I guess I’m warmed up now” moment and launched into some speedy picking. Joe seemed to dig it. The crowd seemed to dig it. After my bars I went back to rhythm but Joe said “Do some more!” and I went for it. I’m sure I hit a few bum notes along the way – at one point I reached for a sweep picking lick that was a bit ambitious for that high on the neck – but it all seemed to work out pretty well. I didn’t make an idiot out of myself in front of Joe or the crowd, and it felt fun rather than intimidating.
And then it was over. In the car on the way home, I decided to drive the long way, and to not listen to any music. I just took that time, all alone in silence apart from the sounds of the traffic, to wordlessly think over what had just happened – to reflect on it, relive it and own it. Because aside from making a musical connection with one of my heroes, I guess the most important thing I took away from this experience is the connection it gave me back to that 15-year-old me, a lonely kid who felt like he didn’t fit in and who found solace in his guitar and in playing along with the music of artists that meant something to him. I wish I could go back in time and tell that kid that everything would work out, and that it was okay to spend hours and hours each day playing guitar, learning about how to set goals, achieve them, set higher goals and reach outside your comfort zone. The thought of jamming with Joe Satriani or of making a living writing about guitar seemed absolutely unreachable and unthinkable in those days, but I always loved the guitar and I knew it’d be with me all my life.
Photos by Jon Carruthers. Huge thanks to Thump Music for the opportunity, and to Julien for the video.