Legendary guitar master Joe Satriani discussed his newly appointed role in a band with Sammy Hagar, Jason Bonham, and Michael Anthony, where he’ll have to play a repertoire mostly filled with Van Halen songs.
Obviously, playing Eddie Van Halen’s parts is a huge challenge. But to make it really sound like Eddie, all with his feel, that’s an almost impossible thing to pull off. Even for Joe Satriani.
Speaking to Ultimate Guitar for their “On the Record” podcast, Joe addressed some of the things that he’ll have to practice the most for the “Best of All Worlds” tour that starts in July. As he said, there’ll be a few months of grueling practice routines. After all, he felt like he “messed up” Van Halen’s “Mean Street” at the group’s recent performance on “The Howard Stern Show.”
To paint this picture of how tricky it is to copy someone like Eddie, Satriani pondered what it would have been like if roles were reversed:
“If you gave a guitar to Eddie and you said, ‘Okay, Eddie, we want you to play ‘Summer Song’ note for note,’ he’d say, ‘I don’t play like that. I don’t do that. I just kind of do this.’ Of course we’d love it no matter how he did it. It would be fun. But it wouldn’t be exactly the same.”
And of course it wouldn’t. We could only imagine what kind of stuff Eddie would add there. These might be nuances, but they can mean a world of difference.
“If I go to play AC/DC,” Joe added, “there’s no way I can do Angus’ vibrato. He has his own vibrato. If you’re going to try to play someone like Jeff Beck – his playing is so personal. You can play the notes and remind people of this part he did but not gonna sound quite the same.”
Going into the matter of figuring out his angle and approach to tackling Eddie’s parts, Joe explained that there are a few important things that make Van Halen legend’s playing so unique:
“Number one, he plays so on the beat, and makes it feel like he’s pushing the beat, but he’s actually not. It’s really amazing how he does it.”
“I realized when I went back, and I listened to my stuff back-to-back. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me, sitting on the backbeat as much as I can, because I’m playing the melody.'”
“When you play the melody, you don’t want to be on top,” Satriani added. “Actually, you want the band to be pushing, and you’re sitting back here, like a singer. I like the way Robert Plant sings in ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You.’ He’s so behind – same with any hip hop song, the vocals are way in the pocket, on purpose.”
“That’s something I’ve worked on my whole life is to sit back, and all of a sudden, you go to play a song like, ‘I’m the One,’ and you have to be the guy way in front. That’s a difficult sensibility when every nerve ending in your body is saying, sit back. But to make the song work, you’ve got to sit forward. So that’s the first thing I noticed regarding the difference between Eddie’s sensibility in timing and mine.”
Although Joe added that his and Eddie’s vibratos “aren’t that different,” there’s one important distinction:
“He holds his pick [with his thumb and middle finger], so he’s always got [his index] finger for tapping, and I don’t. So I always have to do something different.”
And there’s also tapping, with Satch comparing his and Eddie’s approach:
“The second thing is the way that he would do the tapping — when he would use it totally opposite of the way that I forced myself to go with it.”
Apart from tapping, another important issue was the picking hand technique:
“One of the things that Eddie had was this super tight swing that was ultrafast with his right hand. That is something that I remember hearing for the first time and thinking, ‘Well, I’m gonna have to work on that.'”
And Satch already know that he’ll have to practice *A LOT* to figure this one out:
“That’s gonna take me, I bet, three months of 45 minutes a day, working with a metronome, to work that into my bag of tricks. Because that’s kind of like what it is.”
And there’s obviously the massive pressure that would come with playing guitar parts originally recorded by someone who sounds really unique. But the thing is, this isn’t the first time that Satriani is doing this.
“I’ve gotta say, I’m used to it,” he pointed out. “Because when I hit the national or the worldwide scene, I was playing with Mick Jagger and I was not the right guy for the gig. At least that’s what I thought.”
“Again, I had already disengaged from trying to copy those kinds of players. I love the Stones ever since I was a kid, but I purposely didn’t try to copy Keith Richards, or any of the guitar players that were featured in those songs.”
“All of a sudden, I’m in an arena and I’m standing next to Mick Jagger and I’m thinking, ‘Hey Mick, you want me to play the solo exactly like Keith did or like Ronnie did or Brian?’ And he’s like, ‘No, just do whatever you want. Just get into the song. Just be yourself. That’s the way we do it.’ So I thought that’s great. I’m getting the artistic license, from the man himself.”
And then, there was also Deep Purple in the 1990s, coming in to replace Ritchie Blackmore:
“I wasn’t planning on it, but there I was replacing Ritchie Blackmore, in Deep Purple and I had the same feeling. Because I was a fan and I heard Ritchie’s iconic sound and solos in my head and I wanted, to as a fan, represent him properly, but I don’t sound like him. I don’t play like him. So what do you do?”
“But again, the band said, ‘Joe, just be yourself, we invited you because we want you to be here doing your thing.’ It’s a mental game and if you don’t handle it right, you won’t play well. Let’s put it that way – you won’t copy the guy you’re trying to emulate properly, and you won’t be yourself.”