Guitar god extraordinaire, Joe Satriani, is gearing up for a monumental task: tackling Eddie Van Halen's iconic riffs during the "Best of All Worlds" tour. But can anyone truly replicate Eddie's magic? This isn't your typical tribute – Satriani will have to delve into the intricate dance between homage and individuality, revealing the hidden challenges of channeling Eddie's spirit.
In a recent interview with Ultimate Guitar, Satriani confesses that mimicking Eddie's timing is the first hurdle. The Van Halen maestro possessed this uncanny ability to ride the beat, pushing it forward yet staying perfectly on it. Satriani, conversely, has spent years crafting his signature style, trying just be himself, and often leaning behind the beat. It's like rewiring your musical instincts; imagine a drummer suddenly switching from driving the rhythm to following it.
"I think the main thing is that for the last five decades, I've tried so hard to be myself and not copy anybody. I've been lucky to have a solo career since the late '80s. So I really had a job that forced me to be myself as much as possible. I made a point not to play like anybody," Satriani explained. "But it happens eventually when you're having fun. You're at a party and someone says, 'Oh, can you play this song' and you realize… I have no idea how to play that song. I love that song. I've listened to it a million times. I don't know what the guy's doing. Then you've got to learn it."
"You go, 'Wow, that's really weird.' It feels so awkward for me to be like this. It's not the parts because I can hear the chords and I know what everything is when I hear it. It's just the sensibility of timing. If you're so deep into your own thing, it's really hard to get out of it and try to properly emulate somebody else. If you gave a guitar to Eddie and you said, 'Okay, Eddie, we want you to play 'Summer Song' note for note.' He'd say, 'I don't play like that. I don't do that. I just kind of do this.' Of course we'd love it no matter how he did it. It would be fun. But it wouldn't be exactly the same." Satriani added.
"When you play the melody, you don't want to be on top. Actually, you want the band to be pushing, and you're sitting back here, like a singer. I like the way Robert Plant sings in 'Since I've Been Loving You.' He's so behind – same with any hip hop song, the vocals are way in the pocket, on purpose."
"That's something I've worked on my whole life is to sit back, and all of a sudden, you go to play a song like, 'I'm the One,' and you have to be the guy way in front. That's a difficult sensibility when every nerve ending in your body is saying, sit back, but to make the song work, you've got to sit forward. So that's the first thing I noticed regarding the difference between Eddie's sensibility in timing and mine."
Eddie's unique pick grip, with his thumb and middle finger, grants him instant access to tapping with his index finger. Satriani, a pioneer of tapping himself, developed his own approach, using the pick for hammer-ons. It's not just about mimicking the notes; it's about understanding the intention behind each technique, the musical story each choice unfolds.
"Our vibratos aren't that different. But he holds his pick with his thumb and middle finger, so he's always got his index finger for tapping, and I don't. So I always have to do something different. What I started to do early on was to use my pick for a lot of hammer-ons because I just wanted to be different, and I thought I'd get a better sound, I'd be able to do some different things that other players weren't doing. I saw guys using their fingers back in the early '70s, back when Eddie was a young teenager. So there were other guys doing tapping for decades before."
While Eddie explored the full spectrum of tapping, from flashy effects to intricate melodies, some players treat it as a mere party trick. Satriani's admiration for Eddie's breadth shines through. He recalls Van Halen's evolution, from the simplicity of "Eruption" to the progressive complexities of the Sammy Hagar era. "Midnight," Satriani's own all-tapping classical piece, stands as a testament to this appreciation.
"As my generation started to figure out how to do tapping, I saw that there was a split. There's people tapping for effect, tapping for riff, and then there's tapping to create an entire musical piece. Eddie did all of it. Some players just would do it for an effect here and there for like a trick or something. But Eddie did all of it. I was really impressed with how broad it became. It started out pretty simple, with 'Eruption,' but then it started to get really broad, and he got more and more progressive with it when Sammy joined the band."
"I did that piece 'Midnight' because I kept thinking, 'What has Eddie not done, and all the other guitar players who were doing two-handed tapping?' So I came up with a classical piece where the whole thing is tapping. A song like 'New Blues,' where the rhythm guitar was all tapping and it was in the background and was not featured."
"So I tried to go into these different avenues and, oddly enough, it separated me even more from the way that Eddie would tap. So that would be the second thing I would say. Timing is the first. The second thing is the way that he would do the tapping — when he would use it totally opposite of the way that I forced myself to go with it."
And then there's the swing. Eddie's right hand, a whirlwind of precision and speed, is a skill Satriani readily admits he needs to polish: "The third thing is… Again, we're talking about someone who's just an incredible virtuoso in several areas. One of the things that Eddie had was this super tight swing that was ultrafast with his right hand. That is something that I remember hearing for the first time and thinking, 'Well, I'm gonna have to work on that.' That's gonna take me, I bet, three months of 45 minutes a day, working with a metronome, to work that into my bag of tricks. Because that's kind of like what it is."
"I think when you're getting ready for a tour, and you're going to play a song that you haven't played in 20 years, you remember it, but you go, 'I don't do that anymore,' and it physically feels odd. So you say, 'Okay, I've got six weeks before the tour, I'm gonna play this thing ten times a day. I'm just gonna keep working, and start slow and figure out all the different ways of doing it so that when I hit the stage, I can relax and play it the way it should be played.' So I was looking at songs like 'I'm The One' and 'Ice Cream Man,' and I was thinking, these have some of that fast swing picking that is not currently in my lexicon."
So, can Satriani truly be Eddie? No. But that's not the point. This is a celebration of Eddie's legacy, a chance to honor his spirit through another master's lens. Satriani isn't trying to carbon-copy Eddie, he's adding his own brushstrokes to the portrait, offering a fresh perspective on a musical titan.