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Interview: Joe Satriani on mafia scams and the perils of the rock’n’roll lifestyle

Joe Satriani onstage
(Image credit: Richard Bolwell)

When guitar legend Joe Satriani released Shapeshifting back in April 2020, he didn't envisage it being two years before he could play the new album for his fans. But you know how it goes in the abnormal new normal: his UK tour that month was bounced to 2021, and less than year later it shifted again, to April 2022.

Such is the lot of the international touring musician these days: Delays, cancellations, postponements, uncertainty. But Satriani's been around for long enough to take it in his stride, and below he reveals what he's learned from a lifetime in rock. 

Tickets to Joe Satriani's 2022 UK tour are on sale now.   

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Choose your friends carefully

I started playing in bars around New York when I was 16 years-old, and I signed up with a local booking agent when I was 18. He and his friends were straight out of mafia movie typecasting, and if it hadn’t been so scary it was kinda comical. It was the underbelly of the music business and you didn’t ask questions. 

We rehearsed at a club in Long Island which no-one ever came to, but at the end of every night we’d hear the sound of hundreds of bottles of booze being smashed, and I realised that we were the house band for a money laundering scam. My agent eventually went to jail and I started thinking, “I need to find a new gig!”


Drugs and alcohol are best avoided

I consider myself extremely lucky that alcohol or drugs never agreed with me. People have laughed at me for being so straight, but from early on, the ‘rock ’n’ roll’ lifestyle that I saw promoted looked like a path to an early grave. I’ve been around so many people who thought that getting wasted was the coolest thing ever… and now most of them aren’t with us anymore. 

If you try something and your body likes it, you’re kinda screwed. I remember asking a guy once if he’d ever tried heroin and he said, “No, because I’m afraid I might like it too much… and I’m afraid it might like me.” That made so much sense to me. 


Music is not a competition

When you first pick up a guitar it’s easy to be daunted by the incredible musicians who’ve come before you. To this day, when I listen to Jimi Hendrix, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of his playing, and wonder why I even bother. But that’s not how music works. 

At the same time that I was teaching guitar to [Testament guitarist] Alex Skolnick, who can play anything, I had students who had nowhere near the same level of technique, but who wanted to focus on songwriting rather than shredding, and they went on to have great careers writing songs. Accept your limitations, find your own path, and have fun with it. 


There is no reward for good behaviour

When I used to teach guitar clinics, I would start off by telling the room, there is no reward for good behaviour. I’d let that sink in for a minute, and then I’d repeat it. That might sound like a very negative thing to say to a student, but what it means is that you might be the best student ever, but it still might lead nowhere. 

And so you shouldn’t do music unless you really love it, because there’s no guarantee that it’ll make you rich and famous. No-one knows how the world will treat you in the future, so you need to play music for the right reasons, and then, if you’re lucky, something good will come from it on the business side. 


Be prepared for good luck

This is the follow-up to what I just said. Because if you haven’t prepared yourself for the one moment when you’re given a break, and opportunity knocks, you’ve blown it. And how do you prepare for good luck? You practise, you learn about your instrument, you read up about the music business, you keep pushing yourself. Because when that life-changing phone call comes, or that person who can make you a star walks into the club, you better be ready to shine. 


There is no God

I was brought up as a Catholic, and I went to a Catholic school for the first five years of my schooling, but I didn’t stay affiliated. I was considered a troublemaker in Catholic school, because I questioned every single thing that they tried to teach us, and eventually I had to be taken out of the school, because they’d had enough of me. 

I believe in science, and it’s so obvious to me that we’re on a spinning ball, part of the solar system in space, and every other version of existence seems like a complete fabrication. The notion of putting your faith in the idea of a guy floating in the sky controlling everything is completely ridiculous to me.