Recently, guitarist Joe Satriani came to play in Raleigh at the Ritz. I took advantage of the opportunity to witness Joe work his fretboard magic. I was particularly interested to see for myself what exactly sets him apart from the majority of guitarists. There are dozens of guitar players releasing instrumental records, yet none seem to satisfy as much as Joe's.
What I saw was an extremely talented guitar player who has the whole package: agile fingers, a wonderful understanding of dynamics, an ear for the unusual, originality, creativity, and tons o' soul. In comparison, many other guitarists exhibit several of these characteristics in quantity, but are lacking quite noticeably in some of the other areas. I felt after watching Satriani play that if a guitarist has too much speed, for example, but uses his speed playing stock licks or scales, the overall effect is diminished. Let's take a look at the characteristics that Satriani possesses to see where you might be able to find areas for improvement in your own playing, song writing, and recording.
A euphemism for speed or dexterity. Joe has got chops, no doubt about it. However, you never get the feeling he is just running through a scale. We've all heard guitarists who can play three octave scales ascending and descending at the speed of light. In fact, they will do it on song after song on each album they release. After a while it's, "OK, we know that you know the A harmonic minor in three octaves. You've obviously mastered it. Now how about something with a melody." It's true that almost anyone can play any scale or set of scales at a very high speed with practice, but one thing doesn't change. It's still a scale. Here's an idea: once you learn a scale and can play it at a high speed, try never, ever to play that scale straight through again. Mix those notes up, or better yet, slow down and listen to what you are playing. Chances are if it sounds boring slow, it will get boring fast, even at hyperspeed.
Remember dynamics? Fast versus slow. Loud versus soft. Legato versus staccato. Loose versus clean. Hammered versus picked. Heavy effects versus no effects. Listen to any of Joe Satriani's albums and you will hear a man that is well aware of dynamics in his compositions and in his solos. Dynamics are the essential spices you need when your cookin' up a groove. Let's take the example again of the guy that plays every solo at hyperspeed. What if he were to slow down and breathe (musically speaking) in sections of his solo? What if his solo started fast, slowed down, sped up for a bit, and finished with a completely unique melodic burst? Wouldn't he have a much better solo? Use those volume knobs on your guitar for something. Remember that a pedal doesn't have to be just on or off the entire solo or song. Cut the flanger on for a small section of the solo and see what happens. Lighten up your picking for a bit, then really dig in at the end. The guitar is one of the most expressive instruments ever created, yet in the hands of some who ignore dynamics, becomes a flat, static instrument resembling an old children's organ. Hit any key as hard as you want; you get the same note out of it. Don't treat a guitar that way.
Here's a wake up call for a lot of guitar players out there, "You do not have to always play notes that fit a memorized scale!" Many players consciously avoid those 'bad' or 'blue' notes, simply because they remind them of when they were first learning to play. When they hit those notes then, it was a purely a mistake. The feedback they got from anyone who was listening was either a rolling of the eyes or hands over the ears or worse. With practice, all guitar players learn to avoid those 'bad' notes. Now along comes Satriani or some other creative player who starts playing with those 'bad' notes and making them sound cool! Arrrgggh! Ironically, a bad note, played with some conviction and authority, becomes a good note. You may have heard the expression that applies to improvising, "If you hit a bad note, the best thing to do is repeat it." Repeating it lends authority. It makes it seem intentional. In the studio, guitarists like Satriani and others purposely look for notes to add color and interest to the line or solo they are recording. Most often, the most interesting notes are 'outside' the scale. Some 'outside' notes sound better than others though, so try different combinations of notes both in and outside of a scale until you hit something that sounds good. Then record it.
Two sides of the same coin really. Joe Satriani has gone to great lengths to sound different and set himself apart from the pack. He has encouraged his most famous students to do the same (Skolnick, Vai, Hammett, Doppler, etc.) Joe has found the way to tap into the creative well that we all can drink from. He demands that his compositions and solos have elements in them that he has not heard before. This really boils down to listening carefully to what you are playing to see if you are repeating yourself or ripping out Zeppelin licks you learned in high school. By the way, you may have to slow down, way down, to hear what is coming out of your amp in order to evaluate the originality of something you just played. It's a great idea to record yourself, especially when jamming, because later you can listen and catch yourself doing things that do not come from a creative place. They might simply be the same licks you learned from your guitar teacher last week. This is especially true for your rhythm guitar work; the same power chords over and over do tend to get old. Use every note possible on the fretboard, in strange combinations, for your rhythm guitar parts and I guarantee you will not sound like your neighbor.
Soul (or feeling) is the most elusive attribute for many guitar players to obtain because it is hard to be sure whether you have it or not. Generally speaking, it sure seems easy to listen to someone other than yourself and decide if they have it. Soul is one of those things that you know it when you hear it, but it can be quite subjective. I'm sure you've heard this line before, "Well, I can't play fast or clean, but it's OK, because I play with soul (or feeling)." Hey, it may be true. But a common myth is that if you are playing slow and bending a lot of notes, then you are a soulful player. I'm afraid that ain't the case. Soul is generally exhibited by guitar players that listen to themselves and the music around them, and really let themselves go and get inside the music. They are not thinking consciously about the key they are in or how they will get from fret 5 to fret 15. They are able to give control to and trust their own musical impulses to carry them through the song or solo. In the case of Satriani, he may be playing fast, slow, hard or soft, but he is listening and he has turned over his mind to the music one-hundred percent. What you hear, is soul.
Here's something for you to do. Tape three or four of your songs (or jams) along with several of Joe Satriani's songs. Mix them up on the tape. Play them for someone who, ideally, has not heard your material and who is relatively unfamiliar with Joe Satriani. Write down the five categories we have covered and explain to your 'reviewer' what each category means. Ask them to rate each song in the five areas from one to ten. 'One' meaning no soul at all, for example, and 'ten' meaning Aretha Franklin could pick up a few things from the song. After you have gotten over your bruised ego, you will have an idea of the areas that you can concentrate on when you are rehearsing or writing. Every one of the five areas can be improved, probably for the rest of your life. Focus on strengthening your weak areas first, and soon you will be like 'Satch'.
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
Send comments or questions to: