Speed, technicality and smooth flowing guitar solos are some of the immediate characterizations that come to mind when considering Joe Satriani’s playing style. It’s perhaps the most obvious and interesting to watch of all his musical abilities. Satriani is entertaining by that token alone, and people will go to his shows and listen to his material just to see his technical display of talent, hence a high portion of his fan base is made up of other guitar players and musicians.
Though what has prevented Satriani from being just another face lost in a sea of quick guitar players is his auditory understand of modes and his ability to craft interesting and purposeful melodies. Melody is the central piece to any song, and at times guitar driven music can certainly lack in this area.
What sets Satriani apart is that he has an innate ability to create quality guitar riffs and solos based on a strong pointed melody and not just heavy rhythm. While rhythmic groove is certainly a big part of his song structure, he’s able to incorporate melody in such a way that it garners the attention of the listener, and provides a very musical experience in addition to being amazing by the speed.
You can go to almost any of Satriani’s tracks for examples of this. Some of his most exemplary modal and melodic showcases are “Flying in a Blue Dream” and “Always with Me Always with you”. These songs have moments of speed to be sure, but more importantly they just sound very musical and don’t rely on the speed and technicality of Satriani’s playing to be interesting. Add the fact that there are no vocals involved and the poetic level his music reaches is even more impressive and noteworthy.
Not Relying on Speed
Speed can be a tremendous crutch to a lot of guitarists, especially in their younger years of playing. Being able to play fast does take talent, but it really doesn’t require any kind of musical quality or creativity. Soloing patterns are canned and repackaged on a regular basis, with little or no effort put into any real innovation or musical implementation. Most of the time that means you’re dealing with a basic pentatonic scale and little or nothing else than your chord progression. If all you need to be impressive is speed, than why bother?
Satriani has long been a student of not only the guitar, but of music in general, particularly in the area of jazz. As a result he’s learned to use and understand not just the patterns, but the sounds of a wealth of different scales from several broader categories of music. In other words, he doesn’t find a comfortable base and rest there. Rather he has expanded his base and broadened his knowledge when it comes to sounds and scales.
Having that body of knowledge has enabled him to write songs with high levels of musical quality and appeal, thus causing his speed to take a supporting role instead of a lead role. When you’re playing guitar and you have your technical ability taking a back seat to your music, you’re doing an excellent job of understanding the big picture.
Thus a large part of Satriani’s success can be attributed to his ability to prioritize a broad knowledge of music and an understanding of melody in conjunction with a strong familiarity to his instrument of choice. He’s taken a more balanced approach than most players in his niche, and it has really paid off for him in the long run. People now listen to him not just to watch him (though that’s a big component of it), but also to hear him which is the more important relational element of the two.
Even as a guitarist, your priority is still music and melody. Its how you connect with people and its how you relate to your prospective listeners. As much a concert pianist or violinist in an orchestra is concerned about the melody and music they are producing, so should a guitar player be concerned with the melody and music he or she is producing. Satriani makes it looks easy, but even if he’s worlds ahead of us in skill, we can still take a page out of his book.
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