We often talk about blues guitar as though the songwriting, guitar tones and sounds remain preserved in amber, resisting evolution, but instrumental guitar genius Joe Satriani argues otherwise, crediting Billy Gibbons with reinventing blues songwriting with each passing ZZ Top album.
In a recent interview with Classic Rock, in which Satch was discussing his favourite blues albums and the players who had the greatest impact on him, he argued that Gibbons’ approach to the blues has remained revolutionary throughout the ZZ Top’s recording career – even going as far to rewrite the rules of blues guitar tone on record on the Texan trio’s 1996 album Rhythmeen.
“Billy Gibbons reinvents how to write a blues song every time ZZ Top puts out a new record,” said Satriani. “It’s remarkable. Sometimes people focus too much on the playing but it is the writing that presents the canvas for the playing.”
A onetime teacher of electric guitar greats such as Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett and Alex Skolnick, Satriani knows talent when he hears it, but he insists there is more to greatness than chops, or finding a new technique to showcase.
He says Gibbons blew his mind with the guitar tones on Rhythmeen, in particular the gated splutteriness of the reverend’s tone on Loaded, which sounds like a hardware malfunction of a similar fashion to Grady Martin’s guitar sound on the Marty Robbin hit Don’t Worry when fuzz guitar was all but invented on record.
“Billy plays Loaded with a broken guitar sound,” says Satriani. “It boggles the mind how he got to that point and he convinced everyone that that was the sound!”
Satriani also talks about his relationship with the blues. He might have been the six-string frontiersman player most responsible for the proliferation of high-concept instrumentalism, but Satriani admits that his phrasing on the guitar can be traced back to the blues. And if he was weaned on players such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, he was absorbing the works of electric blues pioneers like John Lee Hooker by osmosis.
In going back to discover the electric blues pioneers, Satriani says he learned a lot about feel and groove, and perhaps of not letting perfectionism become a hang-up. That, he says, is what Jimmy Reed taught him on songs such as Little Rain.
“Hearing that makes me never want to focus on perfection ever again,” said Satriani. “Chasing perfection can stop you achieving true magic. There are so many things on that song that are going wrong, like the tuning of the guitar, but it is priceless.”
You can check out the full interview over at Classic Rock, where Satriani reveals his favourite blues records of all time.