Just Friends Blowin’

24 March 2012 | 10:14 am | Michael Smith

It seemed like a good idea – tour the world with a couple of your guitar-playing buddies between album projects. When you're working at the level Joe Satriani is, there's every reason for the idea to have pretty big legs, especially when you can call on players like Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci and Michael Schenker, just to name a few. Thus G3 was born back in 1996 and isn't likely to stop any time soon. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it all, considering the heavyweight talent on show, is the fact that the whole G3 things rolls along without the least evidence of ego getting in the way. In fact it's very much a mutual admiration society. And why not? After all, they all started out learning how to play from each other more or less.

“Gee, I was twelve-years-old when I started taking guitar lessons from him, can you imagine that?” Steve Vai, calling from LA, is reminding us of just how far back he a Joe Satriani go back, some 40 years now. “They were very formative years and very impressionable years and Joe was like a god because he could play – he could play really well. He had a great touch, you know; everything he played sounded musical. But by the same token, I was also listening to Jimmy Page and Hendrix, Brian May and one of the things I knew I didn't want to do was sound like anybody else, which was easy because I wasn't good [laughs].

“I had a terrible tone and, you know, thinking about playing like Joe was just an inaccessible dream in a way to a twelve-year-old who didn't even know how to put strings on his guitar, this guy that could actually play the solo to [Led Zeppelin's] Heartbreaker. It was amazing, but I'll tell you what I got most from Joe was that every time he played, every time he put his fingers on the guitar, it sounded like music came out, as opposed to, like, noise, you know? And there were certain things that I got that still stick with me – you can't shake 'em; they're just there. He was so brilliant in the that, even at a young age like that – sixteen, seventeen – he had such great ears, you know? He could hear anything and play it back – he was exceptional, even then – and I thought, well, that's how you've gotta be. If you wanna be a musician and a guitar player, you've gotta be at least as good as this, so it was a great inspiration. And I never thought anything would come of it – I just knew I wanted my own sound, my own voice.”

Among Satriani's other students in those early years were Metallica's Kirk Hammett and Counting Crowes' David Bryson. Satriani himself, aged 14, was inspired to play guitar on hearing of the passing of Jimi Hendrix and began studying with jazz guitarist Billy Bauer and jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, the latter apparently particularly stringent in his demands on the aspiring guitarist and therefore himself a major influence on his technique. Born in New York, Satriani moved to Berkeley, California in 1978, which is where Vai met him.

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Meanwhile there was another aspiring guitarist growing up in California just over a year younger than Satriani who makes up the third in this latest touring edition of G3. Best known for his work with Toto, fellow Californian Steve Lukather began his career as a session player, quickly becoming the local go-to guy – his first session was with Boz Scaggs – and estimates suggest he's played on more than 1500 records, from Miles Davis to Paul McCartney, and has eight solo albums to his credit.

“Steve, yeah – we go way back as friends,” Vai admits. “He's a phenomenal guitar player and musician. I mean, look at his achievements. I remember when I first moved out to Los Angeles, Steve was the hottest guy in town. There was a tape that was circulating at the time – a cassette of a gig that he did at The Baked Potato, which was this cool funky jazz kind of club – and he did these solos in these songs and they was such structure to them – they were very extended, you know – and he would start really slow and he'd build it up 'til at the end they would be going crazy. I'd never heard anything like that, because all the stuff that I was listening to were song structure and solo for eight or sixteen bars. All of a sudden I heard these tapes and they were just these wide open, fearless jams and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is so great.' Steve introduced me to that.”

And how did Steve Vai come to be in G3? “Well, I was sitting in my kitchen one day and Joe called and asked if I'd be interested and I said yes,” he laughs. “But really, it's turned into its own living, breathing, travelling youth gang, you know. It's a beautiful experience for everybody I think because, as an audience goer you can get to see these very accomplished guitar players playing beautiful music, cool music, as opposed to what some people might think we're doing, which is just kind of showing off chops and stuff – it's difficult for me to talk about that stuff because… I'm in it [laughs]. But we know it's not just about chops – there's music going on and it's a lovely kind of a music because people that love the guitar are really getting a dose of it and it's deeply satisfying I believe.

“From our perspective it's fantastic – we get to travel and go to cool places – but from a performer's standpoint, it's always been a real warm place for me, you know, because I'm surrounded by a family that I've known for years and incredible musicians.”