Six Strings Under

Unlike many of his rock guitar god peers, Joe Satriani has yet to flee to audiences overseas

Their egos were as big as their talents.

One once attacked a cameraman while on stage at a concert. Ritchie Blackmore, who first played with Deep Purple, then Rainbow, claimed the guy was in the way of the fans.

Talk about raging testosterone.

Eighties rock guitar gods such as (from left) Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker and Billy Sheehan get much love in the Orient.
Eighties rock guitar gods such as (from left) Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker and Billy Sheehan get much love in the Orient.
It may be his songwriter's heart, as healthy as any folk rocker's or country superstar's, that keeps Joe Satriani working mainly on the mainland.
Danny Clinch
It may be his songwriter's heart, as healthy as any folk rocker's or country superstar's, that keeps Joe Satriani working mainly on the mainland.

Another once said tremolo bars were for weenies. Michael Schenker of the Scorpions, then UFO, then the Michael Schenker Group, has refused to use one to this day for fear of succumbing to a gimmick.

Talk about ego.

And another became a celebrity rag coverboy by marrying '70s sitcom heartthrob Valerie Bertinelli. Eddie (now Edward) Van Halen allegedly began cheating on his new wife like it was his job, then chalked up the infidelities to his unwavering fidelity to the rock and roll lifestyle.

Talk about cheesy chauvinism.

In any sense, these three guitar gods and their studly peers -- Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, ¨ber-bassist Billy Sheehan and myriad other megalomaniacs from a time not so long ago -- have vanished from North America's pop landscape like boweevils from the prairie. The extinction of the non-blues rock guitar god has been slow and gradual and may finally come to a conclusion soon, as Joe Satriani, possibly the last of a dying breed, begins touring to promote his recent album, Engines of Creation (Epic). If this onetime guitar instructor/sideman and his CD, an instrumental urban-techno challenge to the modern guitar's sonic boundaries, fail to renew interest in rock godhood, no one and nothing can. He, like his aforementioned contemporaries, may have to flee to a place where his kind still flourishes, the other side of the world, Asia.

Long Island-born Satriani's cool quotient is no help. The coolness of other, relatively digable axmen has not inspired anyone to scrawl "_______ Rules!" on study-hall desks. Not Tom Morello, who with Rage Against the Machine is revolutionizing the instrument's audio abilities à la Eddie V. Not Kirk Hammett, a student of Satriani's who has frat boys playing air guitar to Metallica songs across the globe. And not Vai, another Satch pupil whose New Age beliefs and Frank Zappa heritage lend him immediate intellectual cred.

At least Morello and Hammett understand that hipness will always give way to the larger good: music. People want solid songs, not études, not self-indulgent rants. Most listen to RATM not to analyze Morello's technique or emulate his image, but to enjoy his band's music. If Satch's new songs are received as background filler for sports highlights or, worse, finger exercises, the idea of a rock guitar god -- almost as old as rock itself -- is certainly dead.

Jimi Hendrix, by virtue of his otherworldly skills and stage presence, was arguably the first six-string deity. Until Hendrix gained fame and started torching guitars in the late 1960s, his exceptional contemporaries -- most from across the pond, such as Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton with Cream and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds -- were about as flamboyant as the bass players in their respective bands. Through his attitude, Hendrix symbolically let other guitarists know it was okay for them to shine.

Throughout the '70s, Clapton, Beck and Page dominated young players' dreams of stardom. Then as the decadent '70s gave way to the greed-is-good '80s, hair metal came along, and a new generation of superstars, wearing spandex shorts, playing seven-strings and dating Playboy bunnies, commandeered the founding fathers' spotlight.

By the mid-'80s or thereabouts, rock guitar as a religion reached its apex. Schenker was touring the States with MSG. Blackmore was all over MTV with his pop-oriented outfit, Rainbow. Eddie V., making great use of his keyboard chops, was tops on the U.S. Billboard charts. Sheehan and Vai were taking neon pastels and hammer-on riffs to new extremes with David Lee Roth's larger-than-life solo outfit. (In 1989 Sheehan and whirlwind virtuoso Paul Gilbert's pop group, Mr. Big, went to No. 1 on the Billboard single charts with "To Be with You" and to date have sold more than six million albums.) Newcomer Malmsteen, who introduced the jazz technique of sweep picking into the rock idiom, sped up and down his fretboard in what were hair-metal versions of classical Bach-inspired pieces. And Satriani put away his instructor's hat and stepped into the ring as a solo performer.

The beginning of the end of the rock guitar god aired on MTV in 1990. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" almost single-handedly chased off pop-metal and its garish six-string slingers, replacing metal's fantastic and grandiose imagery with realism, self-deprecation and irony. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was postmodernism personified.

In the aftermath, guitar heroes of the day were still breathing and playing. They were just breathing and playing overseas.

Japan, as it had for decades with jazz artists, welcomed many ostracized metal guitar gods, including the biggest: Schenker, Sheehan, Blackmore, Vai and Malmsteen.

After suffering a series of setbacks, one life-threatening, in the early 1990s, Malmsteen kept on digging away at a career and eventually found one. In 1992 Fire and Ice, his seventh album, debuted in the No. 1 position on Japan's Billboard charts. His successive albums, while not as artistically brilliant as Fire and Ice, have also been big hits in Japan, Asia and parts of Europe.

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