It’s been nearly four decades since Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien made him the first guitarist since Jeff Beck to have a hit instrumental rock album. He released his 15th album, Shockwave Supernova, last year, but now he’s undertaking a retrospective tour, coming to The Pearl at Palms on March 4. He performs songs spanning the breadth of his career, which began in earnest after former pupils Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett began paying homage to him in interviews. A swell of respectful notoriety grew into a wave the master teacher and virtuoso musician has been riding ever since. Satriani recently spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.

I read an interview in which you actually talked about being interviewed, and you mentioned how sometimes you can make it interesting for yourself, maybe have a little self-discovery through talking with somebody about your career. That’s a pretty positive, healthy outlook on the process.

Yeah, I think there’s always an opportunity to learn something, to inspire. If the journalist is actually on top of their game and they kind of are fully familiar either with what you do or they fully understand the artistic lifestyle, let’s say, they understand what a composer or someone who’s dedicated to getting on a virtuoso level on their instrument, what they go through. You can actually wind up having a great time and learning something about yourself.

When you find that in and get someone engaged it can be and enlightening and illuminating interview on both parts. I’ve just never read someone articulate that before. Just as a prefaceI was an 18-year old working at a record store and learning songs from Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine when Surfing with the Alien came out. We played it every day. Now you’re having a career retrospective concert tour, which basically brings it all back home for fans with you from the very beginning.

What’s interesting that people don’t know about touring, that I point out quite a bit, is when an artist puts out a record they kind of have to abandon working on it because of time and budget. At some point, someone says, “Stop. You can’t fix that. You can’t redo it.” The record goes out. The fan relates to that record as the main document, the version that is the main version of everything, and they just assume that’s what the artist wanted to put out. The artist sort of reluctantly has to walk away from it, and then on tour the artist, every night, gets a chance to work on it some more. Some of the songs become sort of these living projects that they keep working on all the time. I know this, because I’m a music fan and I get stuck on records just like any other fan. The definitive version is the definitive version (laughs), but as a performer I understand I’m taking songs such as “Not of This Earth” or “Surfing with the Alien” and continually trying to get them better, trying to figure out what I did wrong, too many notes or too few notes, whatever—all the little subtleties that I’m continually working on. This kind of a tour really is a fantastic period of self discovery for me because I get to really go back and, instead of concentrating, let’s say, on the new campaign or if we’re doing a G3 (three-guitarist tour) where the set list is quite short, this particular tour I feel like I’ve got a lot of room and all the time I need to walk onstage and really explore playing these things better than they were done on the record. That’s the thing that makes me feel satisfied as a player, as an artist.

I don’t know if fans realize how long you’ve been living with that material by the time they get to hear it.

Yes (laughs). It’s interesting that there were some songs on every record that maybe have a long history of being written and rewritten. There’s a song called “Time” that wound up on Crystal Planet, and that was released in ’98. I had written it and tried to record it for the Surfing with the Alien record. The melody and the solo, the guitar chords, quite a lot of information that was on the final version was actually recorded back then, in really ’87, but we could just not figure out how to finish the song. Or more specifically, I couldn’t. That song came up for being on every record before that one (on Crystal Planet) came about. Finally, with the help of a whole cast of characters, that song finally got to the point where I felt it was finished. Or course, it’s a song that just arrives in the fans’ hands in 1998, and they think, “He dreamed this up. He walked to the studio and he recorded it.” (Laughs) They don’t know about the 10-year history of it struggling to see the light of day. On that same record, there were songs that were written a week before we recorded them. You really can’t tell. As a fan, I really don’t want to know about this stuff when I go to listen to a record. Years later, it’s fun to read about behind-the-scenes stories and stuff like that, but actually I just want to get slammed in the face with the music. I want to enjoy it and I’m not going to discriminate whether it took the artist 20 years or 20 minutes to pull it together.

At the same time, Shockwave Supernova is your 15th album. Your output’s been prolific, which is pretty clear in the wake of the 2013 Complete Studio Recordings box set. You don’t want to suppress anything because it could be a step toward the next song or the next idea.

I think thinking too much about what you’re doing can be dangerous, and what you need to do sometimes is just go with that impulse. If you wake up in the morning and feel like playing a blues kind of thing, then you just go with it and don’t be judgmental about it. It’s a feeling you have, an inspiration. Play it and go record it, and move on. Put it out there, and maybe someone will love it. You just never know about these things. It shouldn’t be about you trying to guess what people are going to like. You should just do what you like and put it out there, and whether they like it or not you just keep moving on and do something different. You just keep moving forward with it. It goes back to what you asked me earlier in the conversation. When you’re doing a retrospective tour, you kind of come face-to-face with, in my case, the old Joe, 1985 Joe. Wow, this is what he was thinking. It was radical and cool. An,d of course, we’re mixing those songs up with songs that just came out less than a year ago. You’re in a unique position when you do a tour like this because you have to embody this material five minutes at a time. You’re going, “Wow, this is a brand new song. This is the modern version of where I think I am musically,” and then five minutes later you’re playing something that’s 30 years old. That’s a cathartic process right there, and it happens over and over again during the course of the concert. As I talk to you about this, I get very excited. I can’t wait to get the tour started.

How are you spending the time leading up to the tour?

Getting gear together. It’s amazing how long it takes to get gear together to be absolutely perfect. I’ve got maybe about 20 guitars and I’ve got to whittle it down to maybe six or eight. There’s amps that are getting serviced because they did a long, nightly tour of Europe and then traveled back here, so there’s some maintenance that has to be done. There’s all sorts of other gear that all of us in the band have to keep going over to make sure that it’s right for this particular set list. I’ve got a new keyboard, so there’s programming that for Mike Keneally, working the Axe-FX effects system into my effects system and then dealing with the light show. Our LD (lighting director) Alastair Watson, he’s come up with some great ideas to solve some issues that we had about how to get onstage and get the show going. We show this sort of edited pilot version of an animated sci-fi show that I’ve been working on for a few years, so we’ve got a new idea borne from Alastair’s mind about how to get people to see that and transition to the live show. So these things, it’s meetings and phone calls and emails. In the meantime I’m picking up the guitar and I’m practicing, believe it or not (laughs).

You’re practicing now?

All day long in between the interviews. I’m doing about two hours of interviews every morning, and then I walk into the studio and keep practicing. I keep going over the songs and I keep staring at my fingers wondering if I’m doing stuff the right way, if there’s an easier way to do it. When recording in the studio, I’m just never thinking analytically about stuff I’m playing. I’m trying to catch myself being off the cuff, just being inspired and playing without thinking, but when you go to play something live you really have to deal with what you’ve done. Again, like we said earlier, it might be something really quirky that you did once and you never repeated it, because it was awkward, but if you’re going to do it every night in front of an audience, you have to figure out how to make it not awkward, and maybe there’s a way to improve it somehow. When I practice through the set, I’m always thinking mechanically like a guitar player. Is there a better way to do this that puts less strain, so I can do it while walking around the stage engaging the audience, being present with the rest of the band members? Very often when you record, let’s say, a three-minute solo in the studio by yourself, you’re in a room, maybe there’s an engineer there, and you’re doing it for two and three hours trying all sorts of different things. There’s no interaction. There’s no audience, no band around you. You’re just overdubbing, and it’s quite different when you’re standing up with stage clothes on, and there’s lights in your face and people are screaming, the band kind of wants to move the song in a different direction. You have to be so together with it. You have to know every angle of it, you have to be very flexible so that you can play it slower or faster, or with a slightly different rhythmical push or pull. You have to be confident in playing enough that you can receive energy from the audience to see how, second-by-second, they’re reacting to it, so that you can sort of react back to it. It’s like a give and take. This might be more information than you need, but that’s the kind of way I look at it so I like to prepare myself as much as possible so that I feel that the whole show is second nature. Not like autopilot, but like I’m sort of ready to dance with the audience. Because I know the stuff so well I’m ready for their input and they can help shape the evening.

It’s a very spiritual approach to guitar playing, without being spiritual, if that makes sense.

I guess so, because it’s both. I mean, it is mechanical, right? My hands are doing it. It’s a guitar, it’s string on wood. There’s pickups and everything. So there’s that. You’ve got to get that together. It is a meeting of people. You’re standing in front of people. You’re trying to reach them. They’re trying to reach you. You want to acknowledge each other and you want to create a shared experience, so that is a bit of a spiritual thing, and it’s my job to have my shit together, you know what I mean?

As the artist, it’s more awareness. You’ve cleared away a lot of ego but I think a lot of people are interested in how you approach practice. I’ve got to be completely focused. Are there juxtapositions or dichotomies in different ways you might decide to practice on a given day.

The first thing I try to do is sort of really understand how I’m feeling that day. I have to be very in touch with the physicality that I’ve got that day, like if I’m tight, if something hurts, if I’m feeling like I could play anything. I have to make sure that I don’t run into any repetitive stress problems, like anybody who does anything with their hands. Whether you’re sitting down drawing or sewing, working on a computer, whatever it might be, you have to constantly be monitoring yourself to make sure that you keep yourself in good shape. That’s actually part of what I’m thinking every day when I start practicing because I make sure I warm up for a long time and if I notice something’s bothering me, I check the height of my strap. Are my strings OK? Is this the right guitar for that song? Maybe I should stop and stretch and come back two hours from now. I’m thinking about that, and like I said before, I’m observing myself very closely and I’m thinking: Maybe I should put my thumb like a half an inch over here and that would make me feel much more comfortable playing in this particular passage. A lot of practice has to do with that. I know songs, and I know what the songs are about and I know when the show starts, I’m going to be very emotional about it and I’m going to be connecting with each song’s story as we go through the set. But this period leading up to the tour, I have to really think of myself more on the physical side. Am I prepared? One of the things that happens when you’re on tour is you don’t get any sleep, and you’re generally eating more pizza than anybody should ever eat, minimum.

Yeah, I was wondering how you handled that because you have a holistic approach to playing. I understand you limit your guitar playing to the actual concerts while on tour in order to stay fresh.

I think there are two things that happen that are really quite interesting. No. 1, as I’ve said before, it’s hard physically to put up with the stresses of touring. We’re an instrumental act largely, so we can play six or seven shows in a row. We travel a lot. We go out maybe two months at a time. Even though we’re road warriors and have been doing this for a long time, it’s still tough to keep moving when you’re not getting eight hours of sleep.

You’re playing a show practically every night during this (initial) two-month period, in some stretches.

Yeah, and there’s a lot of work into being the star of the show. I’m at the venue early. I’m doing a meet-and-greet. It kind of never stops really. The good part about it, though, is all other aspects of your life suddenly go away. It’s not like being at home where you have to deal with everything: the community, your city, your residence, all the domestic issues that you have to deal with. Even thinking about breakfast, lunch and dinner—all those things go away when you’re on tour because there are people that do everything for you and you get a piece of paper that explains what you’re doing tomorrow. Suddenly your life becomes very focused and simplified, although physically it’s very challenging. The practice I’m doing now is to get ready for the unique stresses that are going to pop up. I’m probably going to be fed poorly and I’m not going to get enough sleep, and I’m going to meet too many people—more than I would naturally want to hang out with. But that’s part of the job. The payoff is I get to do the most fun thing ever, which is to play rock ’n’ roll music onstage. I’d put up with everything if I got to do that every night.

Your latest album, Shockwave Supernova, loosely revolves around the concept of a rock star trying to resolve both sides of his personality—the extroverted performer and the introverted and “real,” or creative, personality. Obviously this originates from your own perspective, but in interviews you’ve empathized with Jimi Hendrix self-destructing due to not being able to resolve these two sides of his personality. It’s like full-circle to when got you started on guitar after he died and resolved to not self-destruct. It’s almost like in a way your devotion has been redemption for Hendrix.

That’s very interesting. That’s a very cool way of looking at it. I think I was as surprised as anybody that this concept crept into my consciousness over the course of touring behind the Unstoppable Momentum tour. The cathartic process of doing The Chrome Dome, which was the massive remastering of our catalog up to that point, was also a very cathartic process as I had to listen to every single thing I’ve ever recorded. And then it’s like more than torture.

“I would have done this, I would have done that.”

Of course. “Can I please do it again?” That’s when you realize that you have no business as the artist going back. You do it, you move on. If people like it you feel good. If they don’t you learn to take lumps. It’s only music. It’s only art. I think it was growing inside me. It was, in fact, this little humorous moment where I was convinced I could stop myself from playing with my teeth, which I noticed was creeping into the set more and more.

Yeah, that’s bad.

It was the last show of the tour and we were in Singapore. I just remember thinking I had relatives out in the audience because my wife is Singaporean. I remember thinking, “Don’t get down on your knees and start playing with your teeth. That’s not going to go over well with the relatives anyway, and besides your dentist asked you to please stop playing with your teeth.” But it only lasted about 20 minutes, and there I was doing all the stuff that guitar players do. After the show, we spent about a week just hanging out vacationing in Singapore, and I had a lot of time to think about what had just transpired, the whole last album and the tour, and the funny thing with the teeth. And I started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it were truly a psychotic struggle like I could not stop this alter ego that wanted to be the over-the-top rock guitar performer. And like that movie How to Get Ahead in Advertising, it slowly grows and takes over the dominant personality, the real one. I don’t know if you’re ever seen that movie.

I’ve seen that movie and I know what you’re talking about.

It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed, and I was drawing on that as a basis: What if that really happened but it was all mental? We’ve all had friends go through personality changes. You wonder like, “What’s going on with that guy or women? They’re changing right in front of us.” I just sort of built a little fantasy around it, and though it would be sort of a foundation to create this inspiration to write different kinds of material. … Then I was thinking this guy would need a name. He’d need a name that was the stupidest ever that someone so egotistical would come up with. I thought “Shockwave Supernova” is really funny, that somebody would call themselves that.

With Bowie recently dying it’s easy to make a connection between that and Ziggy Stardust.

Yeah, boy, Bowie dying. That’s a heavy one. I played a lot of David Bowie when I was young, and actually did a few shows with David. He was such a nice guy—such a genius, such a great artist.

And you played with Robert Fripp. His work on “Heroes” … it’s not directly related to your guitar playing, but the soundscaping and innovation is.

Oh, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of touring with Robert. Robert’s a great friend, but before then, he was just an artist that I thought came out of nowhere. He’s so unique ... He’s actually been over to the house and recorded on another record of mine. We’ve had a lot of wonderful times together, but I’m still fascinated by his musicianship, his dedication to being original and to the instrument. He’s such a unique personality, such a strong creative force. He’s part of my foundation without a doubt.

Many of the people you’ve played with and taught are fairly well known, but some of the lesser-known ones I find interesting. Charlie Hunter is one of my favorite guitarists.

Oh, yeah. Charlie’s amazing!

It seemed like what separated you from neo-classical shredders at the dawn of your career was your phrasing. It was about phrasing like a vocalist. I read that Lenny Tristano made you sing as part of your lessons.

Lenny’s lessons were so fascinating. Part of the lesson was I’d have to bring in a record and scat-sing the melody and the solo exactly. He was adamant about that—you had to learn phrasing. His idea was if you get the music inside your body, it will come out the right way on your instrument. He wasn’t keen on the idea that you would simply learn to play it. He wanted you to sing it. It had to be like a visceral and intellectual thing. If you go past that part it would be a spiritual thing, part of your soul, so that when you went to play, you could improvise with it. That was the hallmark of his music—you should be 100 percent prepared so that you could improvise 100 percent.

It seemed like what separated you from neo-classical shredders at the dawn of your career was your phrasing. It was about phrasing like a vocalist. I read that Lenny Tristano made you sing as part of your lessons.

Lenny’s lessons were so fascinating. Part of the lesson was I’d have to bring in a record and scat-sing the melody and the solo exactly. He was adamant about that—you had to learn phrasing. His idea was if you get the music inside your body, it will come out the right way on your instrument. He wasn’t keen on the idea that you would simply learn to play it. He wanted you to sing it. It had to be like a visceral and intellectual thing. If you go past that part it would be a spiritual thing, part of your soul, so that when you went to play, you could improvise with it. That was the hallmark of his music—you should be 100 percent prepared so that you could improvise 100 percent.