Joe Satriani tells Michael Wood how the death of Jimi Hendrix made him give up his love of American football and embark on a musical career.
Guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani is a bit of a skateboarding enthusiast.
On his previous visits to Birmingham and the Black Country, you may well have spotted him and his son, ZZ (Zachariah Zane), practising ollies and pop shove-its on the street.
“I’m sure we got reprimanded by quite a few locals,” he chuckles.
ZZ (pronounced Zee Zee) is now 20 and Satriani has also hung up his skateboard, to the relief, no doubt, of everyone involved with his tours.
“I started to take it easy,” the 56-year-old admits. “It is quite a crazy idea to skate when you are a guitarist.”
It was another kind of sport – American football – that had featured, many years before, in a major turning point in his life.
He was on his way to football practice – “with all my gear on” – on September 18, 1970, when a friend told him of his idol Jimi Hendrix’s untimely death.
“I was a young kid of 14 years old,” the guitarist recalls. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I told the coach I was giving up football and was going to become a guitar player.”
American football’s loss is music’s gain.
Considered by his peers as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, guitarist of his generation, he has composed 14 studio albums, won 15 Grammy Award nominations, and toured the world many times, both as a solo artist and with other guitar greats.
His latest tour, to promote his new album, Unstoppable Momentum, brings him to Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall on June 13. He says he never tires of performing.
“It’s fun,” he enthuses. “Getting to play live is probably the most exciting thing you could ever do.”
So what can we expect at the Civic Hall?
“We play every song from the new album and we mix it up with the fans’ favourites from the catalogue, going back to the first full-length album, Not Of This Earth, in 1986,” he says. “Most of the songs are voted for by the fans on satriani.com. We then put in a couple of surprises that we haven’t done before.”
The new album’s 11 instrumental tracks took, he says, “a very prolific and cathartic two months”’ to write. So does he sometimes find the process easier than at others?
“Yes,” he agrees. “I’m not quite sure why. It’s kind of mysterious. Sometimes the water is flowing and it’s all you can do to keep track of all that’s coming out creatively. Then sometimes you are focused on one song for days.”
While it could be argued that he might have troubled the charts more if he had written lyrics, his loyal legion of fans clearly believe that the emotional lyricism of his playing on tracks such as Surfing With The Alien, Always With Me, Always With You, Satch Boogie and from his latest album, Can’t Go Back, A Door Into Summer and Shine On American Dreamer, makes mere words redundant.
When not performing solo, Satriani tours the world with his peers, as part of his G3 project – which sees, quite simply, three great guitarists on tour together.
The idea first came to him back in 1995.
“Because of my success as a solo artist, I felt I had been kept away from being around my guitar friends. We were all too busy. Then we got the idea of organising it so that we could play together.
“We sort of brainstormed for a few hours and came up with the idea of the G3 concept and I started making calls. It took us about a year to get the first tour together.”
That first tour featured Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. He has since toured with a who’s who of guitar greats, including Steve Lukather, of Toto, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, John Petrucci, of Dream Theater, Michael Schenker and Deep Purple’s Steve Morse.
He is also lead guitarist with the supergroup Chickenfoot, made up of former Van Halen frontman and bassist Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith. He describes it as “like a kick in the funny bone to be playing with such talented people”.
“They are extroverts – very great performers. We celebrate our rock ’n’ roll roots,” he says.
“We have other things that we do that are our primary jobs. Because of that the pressure’s off and there’s more an atmosphere of fun. It always feels a bit lighter, if we play every song and it’s not about me and my experiences in life.
“It’s more like I’m a guitar player in a rock ’n’ roll band.”
• Joe Satriani plays Wolverhampton Civic Hall on June 13 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £33 and £36. Tel: 0870 320 7000. www.wolvescivic.co.uk .