As far as guitar virtuosos go, few exceed the acclaim and name recognition of Joe Satriani, who celebrates 30 years with the “Surfing to Supernova” tour at Knight Theater on Tuesday. Satriani has released 15 albums and received 15 Grammy nominations (although he’s somewhat of a Susan Lucci, with no wins). He’s also revered by guitar geeks worldwide, and taught Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Primus’ Larry Lalonde and jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Satriani spoke to the Observer Monday about his unprecedented career as an instrumentalist and his signature characteristics.
Q. Few instrumentalists are at your level of touring and mainstream recognition. When you started out, did you think a solo instrumentalist could have a viable career option?
A. I never thought of it. It was really an accidental career. Friends came in when I was working in the studio and said, “Hey, you’re famous. One of your records was reviewed.” As “Surfing with the Alien” (his second album) started to go up the charts, the record company asked me to tour. I’d never toured before. Luckily that year, my test career was interrupted by tours with Mick Jagger (who tapped Satriani to play guitar). I was able to get perspective and figure out how I was going to run my career.
Q. Do the songs continue to evolve in that setting?
A. Touring gives you the chance to keep working on things they forced you to stop working on. You basically run out of money and time and someone says, “That’s enough.” You get a chance to expand upon the story (playing live). I approach it as a student of my own compositions. It’s a set of techniques. You don’t find them in a book. It’s not a mechanical thing. I tell these stories in my case with my guitar playing. It’s a lifelong quest.
Q. You mention story. Do you have a “picture” of what you’re writing that leads to the title?
A. Every song is about somebody, some event in my life or something I witnessed or read about, from subjects that are heartbreaking to just pure fun. Some are love songs or how fun it is to drive in a convertible. Others probe metaphysical questions of what we’re doing here. That’s what guides me. I get the inspiration for the song first and then come up with a title, then write (with that in mind).
Q. How does your approach differ with Chickenfoot (his band with Van Halen cast-offs Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith)?
A. My job is to inspire Sam and the band and leave enough undone so everybody feels there’s room for their influence. Instrumental music requires a lot more care because there are no lyrics. If Sam wants to write about a house catching fire all he has to say is, “A house is on fire.” It’s difficult with notes, harmony and rhythm to get someone to think about that.
Q. You’ve threaded sci-fi references through your work all along. Are you a fan of the genre?
A. I love science fiction. I don’t believe in aliens. Science fiction is a literary genre and the writer imagines the impossible and inspires us and real scientists to think outside their training. Teeny little green men with big heads abducting animals and people – that’s people being scared of life. If there’s life out there in our solar system or beyond, it probably can’t recognize us. Think (about) if there’s life in the ocean or a volcano that we’ve never seen and apply that to outer space. They don’t know we exist because they don’t see, hear, touch or taste. Think about that.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Tickets: $49.50-$65; VIP options range from $93-$300.
Details: 704-358-5897; www.livenation.com.