Joe Satriani Recalls Important Lesson About Improvisation, Names One Thing That Drove Him ’Crazy’ About Teaching Guitar

Known for his extensive experience both as a guitar teacher and an artist, Joe Satriani reflected on an important thing he learned about improvisation, as well as some specific things about his teaching.

While speaking to his fellow musician Devin Townsend in a recent interview, Satriani said that he, “just by accident,” ended up taking a few lessons from legendary jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. “I wound up taking a few lessons from this guy,” he recalled. However, it was on one occasion that Tristano cleared things up about the challenges of improvisation. Joe said (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“One of the biggest lessons he taught me was this whole thing about the subjunctive. He went on a rant one day because I used the word ‘should’ or ‘could’ in my explanation of my improv.”

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Of course, this wasn’t your conventional, straightforward lesson but more of a life lesson applied to music and improvisation. Joe continued:

“And he really went off on me, and he said, ‘The kids from the suburbs have a disease called the subjunctive disease, which is: they always worry about what they ‘should’ have played, what they ‘would’ have played, what they ‘could’ have played, and they never play what they ‘want’ to play. So f***ing play what you want to play.’ [Laughs]”

For young Satch, this felt like a game-changer. However, it was also a great challenge — how does one go about doing that?

“And I was a 17, 18-year-old kid,” the guitarist recalled, “and I was like, ‘Whoa, how do you do that?'”

“And he says, ‘Well, the way you do that is you learn, dammit, learn it. Learn every note, learn every scale, learn every chord, and don’t judge yourself while you’re playing. That’s the only way to do it — it is to learn everything completely. And then just be the music, just be there and don’t think about it.'”

That’s easier said than done. But Tristano’s point still stands. And Joe swears by it.

“That’s like a Zen lesson, you never stop working on that,” he continued. “Every time you walk on stage, you’re going to be thinking about how your shoes look, and are your strings in tune, and whatever. Are you holding your special pick? [Laughs] All kinds of stuff go through your head.”

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In fact, as Joe added, he bears this in mind every time he goes out to play in any capacity. He continued:

“But that lesson I take to heart every single time I play — just don’t be judgmental, just let it happen. It’s so hard. I’m not even close to getting to where Lenny had suggested, but that’s the thing. As you described, as soon as you start listening to yourself and being judgmental, then forget it — the game is lost.”

On the other hand, Joe admits that he doesn’t really like giving advice about improvisation. And it’s not because he doesn’t want to, it’s just that the whole thing is so subjective. Devin asked him: “How do you get past to be an effective improviser?” Are there any tips that he’d be willing to share?

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“No, I don’t like giving advice because I always think advice is inherently skewered,” Joe said. “It’s inherently wrong.”

“Because someone has to think about it, organize it, and once they start doing that, then it’s calculated to make them look good — the advice giver — it’s not really heart-to-heart. It’s actions [that] are the thing. The whole self-help thing, to me, it just doesn’t ring true. I’m just a skeptic, of course. That’s my problem. [Laughs]”

When asked to describe this skepticism, Satriani replied by sharing a more detailed explanation:

“Well, I don’t believe anything that people tell me. I suppose that’s what it is. I could immediately go, ‘Oh, let me think about that for a second.’ I got in trouble when I was in Catholic school and I had to get sent to a public school because I just caused too much trouble. But it led me along that way where I questioned everything — authority and everything else — and I’ve learned to dial it back so that I could stay out of prison [laughs] and trouble.”

“But my embracing of contrarian thought, I suppose, is not always enjoyed by other people. But I noticed that as soon as people start giving advice, it just rubs me the wrong way, and I feel bad if it’s coming out of my mouth —  if I tell people, ‘What you should do is blah, blah, blah’ because history does not prove that out. And I’m not talking about ‘don’t smoke’, ‘don’t drink’ — these are the obvious things — ‘eat well’, ‘get plenty of sleep’, all that kind of stuff.”

When it comes to teaching guitar, things aren’t ever that simple. As he added:

“We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about these other subjects. It’s like when a student comes in, and what they’re saying is, ‘I want to become famous, rich, and popular — solve my problem.'”

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“That was one of the things that used to drive me crazy about teaching,” Satriani pointed out. “I love the idea of getting musicians to their best possible place. What I found very draining was the emotional hit I would take being in a room with someone who had all these issues, and all these hopes and desires that I couldn’t possibly solve for them, but they were looking to me to do that.”

“And I still get that. People say, ‘How can I succeed? I want to succeed, I want to do what you do’, or something like that. And the only thing I can say to them that doesn’t make me cringe is — I would say that — ‘I want to hear your story.”

“And I think everybody else does because I’m just like everybody else. I don’t want to tell an artist what to do, or what to write, but I want to be surprised. And I want to be surprised about the truth and the honesty in it.”

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“I want it to stop me in my tracks and make me think when I hear this music. So whatever it is that you’re doing, if you’re not doing that, then I won’t be interested.’ So that’s my advice. It’s very impractical because what they really want to know is, ‘Should I use this pick? [Laughs] What string should I use to become popular?'”

Photo: Joe Satriani/ Eduardo Peña Dolhun

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.