Joe Satriani on the intricacies of amplification and producer Mike Fraser’s “perfect set of ears”

By Steve Newton

When Joe Satriani phones from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, he apologizes right away for being a few minutes late with the scheduled call. He explains that he was playing his guitar, composing a song, and lost track of time. That’s when it’s my turn to feel regretful, because what if I just dragged the pioneering guitar wizard away from creating his next masterpiece?

“I had one of my new chrome [Ibanez] guitars that I was plugging into two very old Fenders,” notes Satch, who plays Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on Friday (June 1). “One a 1960 Fender Deluxe, which has got quite a growl to it, even when you just set it on, like, 4. And then I moved into a ’63 Fender Princeton amp, which is a little cleaner, with a bit more bottomy sound, a little less midrange. And I was just writing something that was sort of classic-rock-sounding. I was getting lost there, but I’ve got a job to do, so I’m back on the phone.”

Sitting in his home studio, the acclaimed picker starts counting off the amplifiers he’s got at his disposal. “I have about 20 amps just within about 20 feet of me right here,” he declares, “and boy, if somebody said, ‘Hey, you’ve got nothing to do today,’ I’d just be down here playing all of them and making mental notes, like ‘This is good for this’ and ‘This is good for that.’ ”

While Satriani’s in the mood to chat about gear, I wonder aloud which prized amp was the one used to help concoct the killer sound on his latest album, What Happens Next, a thoroughly rocking tour de force featuring drummer Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chickenfoot) and bassist Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Country Communion).

“Oh, we had quite a few,” he replies. “You know, each song is like a funny story about what amp wound up being the one that was, like, the melody amp or the main-riff amp or the solo amp. And it’s always a bit of a discovery, because you don’t know what’s gonna be the ultimate complement until you have the bass and the drums really sounding the way you like. And then you go, ‘Oh, okay, that 1970 Marshall is, like, the right amp for the riff.’ Or you take an amp out that you haven’t played in 10 years and it’s the perfect thing for the solo.”

Satriani was not alone when choosing which equipment to use for his latest batch of mind-boggling instrumentals. He got a lot of help on What Happens Next from Langley studio ace Mike Fraser. “Fraze” has worked with him in various capacities since 1998’s Crystal Planet, but on the new disc he earned credits for recording, engineering, mixing, and producing.

“Mike is really amazing,” raves Satriani. “I don’t think there’s anyone quite like him in the world. He has the perfect set of ears, and a real creative temperament. He has that incredible technical background and facility, but I think one of his best traits is that he can handle a room of crazy musicians, you know what I mean?

“He can handle a group, and then he can sit with you in a room for hours and, in a reassuring way, get the best performance out of you. Mike’s got that ability because he’s just a really cool guy, and he never stands in the way of something good happening—even if it’s completely unplanned. And I have to say, he gets the job done.”

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