The cocksure lead singer, as Joe Satriani reminds us, is a relatively new invention.
“It’s just the medium today,” sighs the guitar ace. “I mean, for thousands of years, it was more instrumental. We have this great history of 400 years of classical, but once people started to see music coming at them on the television, suddenly it changed what they needed to get out of it. Now, I don’t care if it’s Taylor Swift, or Kanye West, or whatever… it’s just them, looking at the camera, almost 99 per cent of the time.”
By contrast, from 1987’s breakout Surfing With The Alien to 2022's The Elephants of Mars, Satriani’s solo career has flourished largely without the services of a human voicebox, and as a master of the form, he’s brimming with contenders for the greatest instrumental tracks ever.
“It’s so hard to choose,” he admits. “I think the only way to do this is off the top of my head…"
Santo & Johnny - Sleep Walk
“A perfect melody. It’s actually played on a lap steel, but it inspired guitar players like crazy. Sleep Walk is the sound of my childhood. I have memories of being in some big 50s car, driving through the countryside with my family as a little kid in the back seat, hearing that song come through our mono radio. It captures an era so beautifully well. And no-one has ever done it better. I’ve tried, and I’ve heard other people play it, but Santo & Johnny laid down the definitive version.”
Link Wray - Rumble
“Rumble was just the antithesis of Sleep Walk. It was about Link Wray being a dangerous, dirty rock’n’roller, and in a way, it’s one of the original heavy rock songs, with the sound of his distorted guitar. There’s a fantastic scene in [2009 guitar documentary] It Might Get Loud when Jimmy Page plays air guitar to Rumble. That was priceless."
Jimi Hendrix - Third Stone From The Sun
“Hendrix created a sort of grimoire for electric guitar players, and everybody just kinda works off that. There’s very little innovation that came after Jimi. This track is mind-blowing. I’d listen to it when I was a kid and it’d just make me sweat, put me through some strange cathartic process.
"It’s more than just a song, it’s an event of modern recording. Hendrix is innovating every other bar. I played that song on the Experience Hendrix tour two years ago with Living Colour as my backup band. You can’t really reproduce it, because there are tape loops and a lot of funny things… so we did a freakier version.”
Jeff Beck - Where Were You
“I mean, wow! When Jeff Beck came out with this, everybody was like, ‘What the fuck is that’? It’s a beautiful melody, and then you go, ‘Oh my God, this guy did it on a Stratocaster.’ It’s inhuman – I’ve watched him play it live before, but it’s like standing next to Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen: it doesn’t matter how close you get to them, you still can’t figure it out, because it comes from inside of them. Even though they’ve got 10 fingers, like the rest of us, they get those 10 fingers to do something entirely different.”
Mason Williams - Classical Gas
“It’s done on a classical guitar, but it had a full orchestra behind it, and it had that late-60s pop kinda thing. I remember thinking, ‘Man, you can do that with a guitar too’. It was one of those songs that would have come on the AM radio in our house, and it absolutely takes me back to my childhood: the people you were with, what you were doing at the time. That’s part of the magic of music. These songs are all the building blocks.”
Metallica - Orion
“Playing-wise, I don’t think there’s anything in this that’s as groundbreaking as Third Stone From The Sun, but the way they arranged it and the sound… it’s so intense. I think Cliff Burton was just getting started. It’s really tragic that they lost a good friend. I didn’t know Cliff personally, but I was teaching Kirk during that whole period, so we had to deal with that. I figured that when Kirk comes to lessons, we’re not gonna talk about it, because I knew they were suffering, and in a way, guitar lessons were like an oasis.”
The Chantays - Pipeline
“I was the youngest of five kids, so my older siblings were always trying to impress me with the new crazy music they were listening to, and through hand-me-downs, I acquired all of their old records. Pipeline was a very big song. It had an unusual guitar sound as well; people using clean guitars and reverb, and staccato picking, which was eventually gonna be picked up by metal bands 20 years later, but at the time it was totally different. It was the ultimate surf track.”
Jimi Hendrix - Midnight
“I’m not too keen on this endless parade of Hendrix outtakes, but a few of them were amazing. Midnight came out on a posthumous record called War Heroes, and it’s so raw. Just three guys in the studio, no special ambience, but it’s Jimi taking the lightest amount of information and creating an entire musical world with it. It’s not one of his signature tunes, but it’s got a lot of devotees. When Steve Vai went on the Experience Hendrix tour, this was one of his songs.”
Steve Vai - The Attitude Song
“It’s hard to pick just one from Steve, but The Attitude Song… I think that beforehand, people would have taken a song like this and written 10 songs with it. But Steve put all 10 ideas into one song. This spawned a lot of guitar players. It’s like Hendrix doing Machine Gun: it creates players for the next few decades, because they can just base their entire technique off what he did. When Steve is off the stage, he’s wonderfully introverted, which helps him concentrate and create these incredibly rich and dense instrumentals.”
John Petrucci - Glasgow Kiss
“I was trying to think of a recent instrumental that has been an elevation, and I have to say that John Petrucci’s Glasgow Kiss is fabulous. I got to see it played over and over on the G3 tour. It’s got heart and life, and of course, the guitar playing is just spectacular. John really puts his soul into everything, which is so important to make instrumentals work. It’s not just about notes and technique. There has to be special love put into the message. I’m telling a story with every song.”
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 184, in June 2013. Joe Satriani is currently on tour in Europe.