Joe Satriani, one of the world’s most renowned guitar virtuosos, has been rocking audiences for three decades, yet when he speaks via phone from a tour stop in Florida, there is a surprising, yet unmistakable, tone of excitement in his voice, as though a lot of this is still somehow new to him. Perhaps even more unexpected is the fact that when asked how he manages to avoid going on auto-pilot after all these years, his reply is straightforward rather than overly profound or philosophical.
“I love it,” he says. “That’s the simplest explanation. I wake up every day wanting to write something new, to see if I can play something better or differently, to see if I can get inspired by something. So it never gets routine for me.”
Music is the language he speaks most fluently, and the man who taught Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett — among others — how to play the guitar is a proud, lifelong student who is always looking to increase his mastery of it.
“Ever since I was a kid, it’s really been the way that I relate to the world,” he says with a chuckle, “so it’s just about everything to me.”
The fact that he loves rock music helps explain why he seems to find inspiration for melodies and song titles in unlikely places. “The Golden Room,” a crunchy, Indian music-inspired rocker off his latest album, Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards, is one such example.
“I had been introduced to this phrase, ‘The Golden Room,’ which some psychic had said is a way you protect yourself against negative influence from other people,” Satriani explains. “I just thought it was a strange concept, to imagine yourself in a golden room and that would protect you from getting influenced or attacked, let’s say, by bad vibes, you know? Just the whole concept I thought was rather interesting.”
The struggle between light and darkness stuck with him as well, and he uses this dynamic to create a tension that permeates every aspect of the song.
“There’s kind of a light and dark aspect to the melody,” he says. “The melodies are dark and tense and the improvisations are very light. And so I liked that idea of the two separate forces bouncing back and forth in the song.”
The variety of tunes found on this album — blitzing rock songs, lonely ballads, bluesy numbers and even a semi-jazzy tune are among the entries — may be a surprise to some listeners; the eclectic results even surprise Satriani himself.
“I’m usually surprised by the direction my albums take,” he says. “I’m writing without thinking about direction, but then I’m gradually sort of presented with the unintentional direction and I just let it happen. So if I’m going in a heavy rock direction or a lighter direction, if I’ve got more ballads or more fast songs, I just let it be natural.”
That willingness to let the album create itself is a big reason why Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards is one of Satriani’s most original albums yet. Plus it never hurts to have an eye for details, especially when it comes to titling songs that have no words.
“The title usually comes along at the moment of inspiration, so it winds up being a guidepost for me,” Satriani says. “It follows that specific song’s story, so in that way the title is really like a signpost. It keeps me from wandering, musically, because I think instrumentals can get all-purpose-sounding if you don’t really have a theme or a story behind the music that you would if you were writing a song with lyrics. Having a title or a story as you start out writing the instrumental is a great way to go about it because it really keeps you focused. It makes you play specific to that story.”
But in spite of his desire to use these signposts to guide him along the way, there is always the sense that the scenery surrounding these landmarks is never going to be the same thing twice, thus allowing the songs to be unique every time.
“They’re all still works in progress for me,” he says.
“I love having the opportunity to play the song every night so I can get deeper into it, figure out how to play it better, maybe stretch it a little and see how far I can take the idea. So it’s sort of a challenge to play all of them every night.”
On the Bill
Joe Satriani plays the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 21. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $40. 1621 Glenarm Pl., Denver, 303-623-0106.