When Mick Jagger needed a guitarist back in 1988 who could effortlessly play parts originated by Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Mick Taylor, he called up Joe Satriani. Five years later, when Deep Purple needed to airlift in a guitarist at the last second after Ritchie Blackmore quit the band, they also went with Satriani. And when Alex Van Halen wanted someone that could somehow stand in for his brother Eddie Van Halen on a possible 2022 tribute tour with David Lee Roth, he too reached out to Satch.
The Van Halen drummer’s proposal to honor Eddie, who died in 2020, never got past the idea stage, but Satriani nonetheless finds himself furiously learning the songs of VH. That’s because Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony — who previously worked with Satriani in Chickenfoot — recruited him, along with drummer Jason Bonham, for the next summer’s Best of All Worlds Tour. The concept is to give fans a super-serving of Van Halen classics from all eras, along with a smattering of tunes from Hagar’s first band Montrose, his solo career, Chickenfoot, and Satriani’s own extensive catalog of work.
We hopped on a Zoom with Satriani to talk about the genesis of the tour, his history with Van Halen, how he’ll approach Eddie’s playing, and his upcoming G3 reunion tour with fellow shredders Steve Vai and Eric Johnson.
Tell me your first memory of ever hearing Van Halen’s music.
I was in my apartment in Berkeley. I had my guitar on, and I was doing an early morning practice. Usually what I do is I turn on the radio, have my coffee, and I just play along with anything that comes on. And all of a sudden, without any introduction, “Eruption” comes on. I was shocked, transfixed, overjoyed.
I was so happy that somebody decided to really do it. I heard all these elements that were part of my upbringing as a guitar player. At the same time, I was feeling like guitar playing was under siege. People were always saying, “Play less, turn down, clean that up.” And here comes this guy who pushed all those comments aside. He said, “No, I’m just going to do what I want to do, and I’m going to put it all in there.”
I remember getting the [first Van Halen] record, bringing it to rehearsal, bringing it to friends’ houses, saying, “You got to hear this. This guy is really doing it.” And back then, people either loved it or they hated it. If they were listening to Talking Heads, they didn’t want to listen to Van Halen. But I looked past the whole thing that they were doing culturally or stylistically. I was just transfixed with Eddie’s playing. I just thought, “This guy’s a genius, what he’s doing with six strings is incredible.”
Before we get more into Van Halen, I want to talk about the year you have coming up. I’m looking at your schedule right now and it’s just an insane number of dates.
It’s going to be great. It’s so varied, so mixed up. I’ve never done a cruise before, and I’m going on the Monsters of Rock cruise. And then spending that much time with Steve [Vai] is going to be great. We’re going to have a lot of fun on our own tour.
Before the co-headlining tour with Steve, you’re doing the G3 tour with him and Eric Johnson. What made you want to get back to the original trio from the 1996 tour?
Somebody reminded me that the anniversary was coming up in a couple of years, and I thought it would be fun to recreate that. And then my son ZZ called me and said that he wanted to make a film about starting his touring life at four years old, which coincided with the first G3. I thought, “Well, I have to get the reunion happening so that we can get the film and the tour and integrate everything together at once.” It just gained momentum from there.
I was just watching a jam of the three of you playing “Red House” back on that first G3 tour. Any idea what jams you’ll play on this one?
It’s interesting. Steve’s not a blues player, but he loves trying. He loves putting himself in there and subverting the genre with his bizarre take on it. Eric’s a real traditional blues player. I’m in the middle. And so there are things like that where we have to come to grips with our differences. When we started, I said, “The jam songs are not going to be our songs. They’re going to be songs from our past that everybody knows, but they are going to be shocked to see us playing them because they only know us from the songs that have made us popular.”
I want to go back to the Mick Jagger tour you did in 1988, since that’s the first time you did anything like this Sammy Hagar tour coming up. What did you learn from that experience?
It was totally out of left field that I got that gig. I thought, “Oh, I don’t play like Brian Jones and Keith Richards and all these great players that have been part of the Rolling Stones.” And I just put it to Mick one day in rehearsal, “I don’t play like any of these guys. What do you want me to do? How close do you want me to get?” And he went, “Oh, just forget about that. Just get into the song and do your thing. That’s all you got to do.” And he was not looking for me to replace anything unless he thought I was really feeling it.
When you play “Sympathy for the Devil,” I can’t get that great Keith Richards solo out of my head. But you play around it. I think what I found way back in ’88 was that if you quote the most important moments, then you trigger something in the audience, and they become very receptive to your approach to playing it.
Did you ever meet Eddie Van Halen?
I only met him once. Sad to say, I never got to know him. He walked into the studio around 11 in the morning. I was working on [1992’s] The Extremist album with [producer] Andy Johns, who had been working with Van Halen at the time. And unfortunately, we were working on a song at that moment that was not working. I eventually left it off the record. But Eddie walked in with a cigarette, a beer, the whole thing.
I was just deep into this track, and then all of a sudden, one of my heroes walks in. We just sat there and listened to this song for five minutes. He made a couple of cool comments, and then Andy came in the room and called him out, and they went and they got in some trouble. And I never saw Andy for the rest of the day. That’s the only time I ever met Eddie.
When you formed Chickenfoot in 2008, with Chad Smith on drums, you never played even a single Van Halen song when you toured. Why was that?
When we first got together in Sam’s studio, we started fooling around just playing covers. That’s how the band got started. And I forget what happened, but at one moment, everyone looked at each other and said, “You know what? No Chili Peppers, no Van Halen, no Surfing With the Alien. We should just do what we did the other night in Vegas,” which is we played Zeppelin and Traffic and the weirdest group of cover songs. This was an opportunity where we could step out of our main gigs and connect because of our shared influences. That’s what it was. We made it a rule.
You’ve talked before about Alex Van Halen approaching you about possibly doing a tour with him and David Lee Roth. Did it go anywhere besides a few conversations on the phone?
Almost. When they first called me, I said, “Why me? I don’t play Eddie at all.” But I think I said yes before the rest of my brain informed me that it was a bad idea. I was thinking, “They’ve probably asked all the other proper candidates, and they had the good sense to say, ‘No way am I doing this.’”
I was just so enthusiastic about the idea of paying homage to Eddie, and the legacy of the band, and playing with Alex and Dave. I just thought, “Well, yeah, sure. If there’s time, I’ll be able to figure out parts and how Eddie played them.”
But to be honest, after about three or four weeks of really getting into the catalog, which I had avoided learning for decades because I didn’t want to rip Eddie off, I was like, “Wow, I really do not play like Eddie. This is going to take months.” I knew I could do it, but I also knew that it takes me time to completely change the direction of my technique.
I also had a record to finish, and a tour to do. And so I called them up and I said, “Hey guys, thanks, but I’m not your guy.” And then they talked me out of quitting. I think that happened twice. And I thought, “Okay, they had all sorts of good reasons why I had to do it, that I was the guy.” So I thought, “Okay, but…”
Little things popped up, like possibly playing at Central Park at one point, but they would fizzle for some reason or another. I just started to think, “Well, this will really never happen.” And I was so deep into finishing The Elephants of Mars and getting the tour off the ground.
Then when I saw Wolfgang play his father’s stuff with the guys in the Foo Fighters, I mean, besides getting a big lump in my throat, I just thought, “Oh, this is the way it should go. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Why even think that you’d invite somebody else, especially somebody like me, to pay tribute like that?” So I just figured it was over. And I could exhale and say, “I can just go back to being Joe.”
Just as a fan, are you hoping that Alex will eventually get back out there and do something?
Yeah. He is such an incredible drummer. It’s really sad to think that he wouldn’t come out again and give us another decade of absolutely amazing music, but that’s his decision. It’s a very difficult thing to get over losing a family member, and one that you made so much beautiful music with. And so I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. I hope it does. He is, without a doubt, invited to take part in what Sammy has put together.
How did Sammy approach you with this tour?
He called me and said that he had this great idea to go out and to cover all the material. He wanted to do the Hagar solo material work, Montrose, Chickenfoot, and Van Halen, maybe centering around the 1995 [Balance] tour. That tour was mostly his era, but it also dipped back into the David Lee Roth era. He said he wanted me to do a couple of my songs, and it was going to be Jason and Mike and him.
It was a wonderful invitation. I have great memories playing with Mike and Sammy, and it would just be really great to play with them again onstage. And I’ve known Jason since 1990 or something like that. We keep running into each other, and we always say, “We’re going to do something.” And then all of a sudden this presented itself.
You weren’t at all hesitant about agreeing?
No. I mean, once again, silly me. I’m just thinking about how much fun it would be, just from the audience standpoint. They get to hear these great songs, they get to see some of the OG members of Van Halen, and Jason and I would do our very best to make everybody feel great as we represent all these eras of music.
The sense I have is that the set will be about 75 percent Van Halen. Is that right?
I don’t know. Last time I checked, it’s still November 2023. [Laughs] You’re asking me about a set list that’s really going to get finalized in the middle of July. However, I think there are some obvious songs, and Sam’s got some favorites that he always thought they underplayed, “The Seventh Seal” or something like that. But then there are the ones that were the Number One hits, and we are going to play those.
I just think that when you put together a show, it can’t just be about songs. It’s got to flow, and the band has to be somehow represented enough so that they can really bring the audience in. So you can’t play everything. If you’re lucky enough to have a long career, you realize you have to practice triage with your set list all the time.
When Sammy toured with the Circle, and they did a Roth-era Van Halen song, Michael would sing it. Do you think that’ll happen again, or might Sammy sing a song like “Jump” like he did during his time in Van Halen?
I don’t know really what the plan is going to be that far in advance. I mean, I could see Sam and Mike trading night after night, who’s going to sing that stuff. My concern is they’ve been playing this stuff forever, right? I haven’t. The most I played any of this material was the other week for Howard Stern. And we played a lot of half songs.
I’m going to press them like you’re pressing me for a setlist. I’m going to be pressing them as soon as possible because even though I’ve got all these other tours to do, I’m going to have to mentally start reviewing all this stuff. There’s the fingering, there’s the picking, there’s the guitar choice, there’s the amplifier choice. Those things are all my responsibility, and I know I have to prepare for it.
Are you going to try and replicate Eddie’s guitar tone?
It’s really interesting. There’s an interesting period with Ed, which he starts with an old Marshall [amp] head and he moves forward into the late 1980s, getting more and more complicated with these Marshall heads. And then at some point it flips and he goes to a Soldano [amp] and he starts developing the 5150 with Peavey, and then he keeps moving forward. And then the new era of the [EVH] 5153 starts up.
For a guitar player, this is a remarkable set of changes that affords you different ways of pulling things off. And one doesn’t work for the other. Using one of the brand new amps to represent something from the first album, it’s very difficult. And it’s difficult playing later songs with the earlier setup. So in the last week, my idea is the setup he was using in 1986 on Live Without a Net. He was still using Marshalls, but it was really complicated.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of the rig, how he was using the amps, he wasn’t just plugging in and turning them up. They were going into Power Soaks. They were going into effects loops, and sophisticated effects processors, and then going into power amps. It was a complicated setup, but at the heart of it was his incredible touch. He just had a beautiful touch on the guitar. He played with such intensity. I don’t want to generalize and say that he made everything sound good, but he did. [Laughs] You notice that when you have one of his guitars and his setup or his model, he just can’t be replaced.
But in direct answer to your question, I’m going to try to get close to the sound of each of those eras. Primarily, it’ll be for me. It’ll help me get in the mood to play the parts the way he did. And he played them one way on the album, and then every night he played them live. As far as I can tell, he changed them every night. He just could not be contained. That was what was so beautiful about his enthusiasm about playing guitar and being a musician. He just kept reinventing the parts and the chords and how he would embellish it and how he would solo over it. If you’ve been tasked with the job of imitating him, it’s like, “Well, which moment?”
Do you think you’ll play “Eruption?”
I don’t think. I mean, this is not a Van Halen Tribute tour. If that’s what it was, it would be a totally different job for me. But I still have to play Chickenfoot, Montrose, Hagar, and Satriani stuff. And so I can’t get totally out of my head on those things. It would be like, “Would you go to see Eddie Van Halen play ‘Surfing With the Alien’ and ‘Rock Candy’ and all that?” It would be different.
For one night, it would be fun to really step out and interpret someone else’s material. But since this is a tour and we have to be consistently great, I think what I might do is I’ll try to put together a medley of solo bits that somehow can be integrated into the show.
The tour is a great chance to shine a spotlight on Michael Anthony. He’s so under-appreciated as a bassist, and as a singer.
Mike is an incredible musician. He’s got one of those talents where a huge part of his musicianship is in his brain. He can memorize everything. He doesn’t forget any part of any song. And I think because he played trumpet for a long time, he conceptualizes notes in his head. It’s not just a guy who looks at the fretboard and memorizes the pattern. The music is totally inside of him.
I’m always texting him. I’ll go, “I just saw this video clip from a couple of decades ago, and I’m thinking, ‘Mike, how did you sing, play bass like that, bend over, and have David Lee Roth do a double flip over your back and then keep playing?’” But that’s Mike Anthony. I mean, he’s amazing. He was great in the studio with Chickenfoot too.
And Sammy still sounds great, especially when you consider that he’s 76. He sounds decades younger.
Sam’s got the two most important things. He’s got a voice that’s as big as the Empire State Building. It’s a huge sounding, beautiful thing. And he can communicate to people. It’s not very often you get those two elements together in one person, incredible vocal chops, and the ability to reach every single person in the audience.
As unlikely as it sounds, are you hoping Roth might stop by at some point to sing a song or two?
I hope Dave comes. And I certainly hope Alex wants to visit. I think it’s really going to be an amazing tour. We just need to somehow figure out a way to actually rehearse the songs so we can figure out how they go, which I know we will. I’ve seen on the schedule that there’s weeks of rehearsal, so that’s good.
Those guys are going to have to get used to me. I mean, they’ve been playing with [The Circle guitarist] Vic Johnson, who’s amazing and has figured all this stuff out. He’s had to play all decades of this music over and over again.
How was the experience of playing on Howard Stern? I’m sure that was stressful.
It was. When Sam called, I was literally covered in paint, and I was trying to finish a bunch of canvases and guitars for the Wentworth Gallery. And I said, “Guys, I haven’t played guitar for a couple of weeks, and I’m not going to be able to practice until a week before. Maybe I’ll listen to some songs, so tell me what songs they are.”
Sam kept saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it. We’re just going to play 30 seconds of this song, 30 seconds of that song, and Howard’s going to ask you about your artwork and all this other stuff.” So of course, none of that happened because by the time we got there, it was all these other new songs. And I kept saying, “Guys, I don’t know these songs, so I’m going to be staring at you.” If you’ve seen the clips, I’m not facing front. I’m facing sideways because I’m looking for any cue.
I didn’t have much time, but it was purely a labor of love for me. I just thought, “I don’t care if I screwed this up. I’m just going to do it because Eddie’s playing was beautiful and people should know that. And if I can wake people up again about Eddie, that’d be great.”
If the tour goes well, might you take it to Europe, Australia, other markets?
I think that’s such a great idea. I’ve been touring the world for several decades. And one thing I know is that if you’re lucky enough to play music that has really had a big impact on society around the world, that really had a dent in culture, it’s an extra experience.
I learned that when I went out with Jagger and you play a Rolling Stone song that everybody knows. A couple of generations of people know the song. And the catalog under Sammy Hagar, which includes Van Halen and Sammy stuff, and Chickenfoot and Montrose, it’s really huge. And a lot of the hits have that quality. It has been the soundtrack of people’s lives. So it’s something I think that should go around the world.
It must be flattering that both Alex Van Halen and Sammy Hagar independently decided that you were the one man for this job.
I can’t explain that. It’s funny because I have friends like Phil X or Nuno Bettencourt who I think really do Eddie really great. And out there in YouTube land, there are people like Jean-Michel Sutcliffe who just blow me away with how close they get.
As people saw on Howard Stern, this is going to be really hard for me. I’m going to need some practice, but it’s always been hard. I’ve had some unique experiences, primarily through the G3 concert series, where I stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest guitar players out there, and we hang out backstage and we practice together with warm-ups. So there’s no secrets between us who can do what and who can’t do what.
Early on, one of my first students was Steve Vai, and I knew right away teaching this 12-year-old kid that he was going to be developing physical skills that were way beyond my capabilities. So I learned really early that not everybody can play everything.
Steve went through a little of what you’re about to go through when he was in the David Lee Roth Band.
I was talking to him about that just yesterday. And he said there was no way he was going to approach doing the solos note-for-note. He said, “We’re just totally different players. We don’t feel that way. And solos are supposed to be honest expressions of how you feel. So you do the parts of the song, but then in these other moments where Eddie would just let things fly, it’s like he’s telegraphing you a license saying, ‘Now it’s your turn to just express yourself.’”