- Joseph Cultice
Joe Satriani is known for his extraterrestrial guitar playing—not necessarily his pre-fame power-pop trio, The Squares. The band still occasionally comes up in interviews, even when he's promoting his G3 2018 tour, giving us three times the reasons to keep it about guitar. But that doesn't mean the tour can't reveal interesting layers to "Satch" and his tour mates John Petrucci and Phil Collen.
I learned of The Squares from Satriani himself several years ago in an interview for Guitar World. Nothing came of the band's 1979-1984 run, not even a full album. "We were extremely unsuccessful," Satch says in a recent phone interview. "But they were exciting times."
Another little known Satch fact is that, after The Squares fell apart, he joined another power-pop outfit, the Greg Kihn Band ("The Breakup Song," "Jeopardy"). Both groups focused on short, punchy tunes, so most of the world didn't experience Satriani's otherworldly six-string shredding abilities until his self-titled solo EP in 1984. By the time Not of this Earth (1986) and Surfing with the Alien (1987, both on Relativity) came out, his playing relegated The Squares to a trivia answer. The songs still exist on YouTube, and Satriani and his friend/soundman/producer/archivist John Cuniberti painstakingly slow-baked the tapes and digitized them for release someday. Satch feels that releasing them for their own sake is a career non-sequitur—he's a guitar player now.
Not that he isn't open to showing fans that side of himself. He just doesn't want to confuse the shred fans who have supported him throughout the past 33 years—especially when he's still fully stocked with shred juice. "[The Squares' recordings] may wait for a time when there's some larger musical biopic of what I've done—I guess I'm just too prolific," he says.
The guitar virtuoso now has 16 solo albums to his credit, including What Happens Next (Sony). It comes out four days before the fifth stop—Salt Lake City—on G3 2018, the 17th iteration of the tour that debuted in 1996 with Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson as the original axe-god trinity. Immensely popular among fans of instrumental guitar music, G3 celebrates musicianship with a night of mind-scrambling fretboard firepower featuring solo sets by each headliner and a finale that inserts all three players onstage at once.
This version finds Satch joined by one alumnus and one new guy. Petrucci, familiar to fans of progressive rock juggernaut Dream Theater, is making his fifth appearance. Collen is on his first run with the tour. His story is the flipside of Satriani's, given that Collen has spent most of his career in a song-oriented band (Def Leppard) and has never done a shred album. Consequently, he might seem like an odd fit.
G3, however, hasn't always been an on-the-nose production with obvious heavy metal shred kings as headliners. Past tours have seen bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd, acoustic/electric fingerstylist Adrian Legg and prog/jazz/ambient/art rock legend Robert Fripp. But anyone who's seen Lep live knows that Collen (and his bandmate Vivian Campbell) can play.
"There are great, great shredders—fabulous musicians—that are in bands that either feel uncomfortable stepping out of the bands or don't really have a solo show," Satch says.
Collen's involvement started earlier this year when Satriani invited him to participate in a G4 Experience, a multi-day full-immersion clinic and offshoot of G3. Although Satch hadn't met Collen, he knew from Def Leppard's records that he "held a fantastic musical ability." But he says Collen's real test was getting onstage in the first place. "Anybody that joins G3 has got to be very confident, because you're gonna be standing next to players that are the best players in the world, and there's no room for delicate flowers." Collen, despite his British tendency toward holding back, blew everyone away: "He lights up a room, lights up a stage," Satch enthuses.
The confluence of three unique styles always makes G3 interesting. But Collen's inclusion on G3 2018 makes a thrilling combo, with Petrucci's more exotic and mysterious prog vibe between Satriani's beaches-in-space sound and Collen's balance of English reservation and Cali sun. "When I look at players, I look for similarities and differences," Satriani says. The similarities are what help things go smoothly, they assure that individuals feel comfortable with each other and the working situation. "But it's the differences that really add that special mojo every night."