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Six Strings Under

Eighties rock guitar gods such as (from left) Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker and Billy Sheehan get much love in the Orient.

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.

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.

Vai's ninth solo record, The Ultra Zone, hit No. 1 on Japan's international rock chart almost as soon as it was released in August 1999.

Blackmore's first effort with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Stranger in Us All, sold 100,000 copies in its first week of release in Japan in 1995. Subsequent Blackmore works, especially Shadow of the Moon, a collaboration between Blackmore and then-Rainbow vocalist and lyricist Candice Night, have also been Land of the Rising Sun hits. Shadow of the Moon, a collection of highly styled acoustic reveries, debuted at No. 14 on the Japanese album charts in 1997.

Sheehan's huge following is evident in -- where else? -- Japanese magazines. Over the past dozen or so years, he has been named best bassist an unprecedented 11 times in Player Magazine's readers' poll and five times in Burrn Magazine's.

And Schenker, who has just released his 18th solo record, an all-instrumental departure titled Adventures of the Imagination (though Schenker's "Captain Nemo," circa 1983, is one of the best rock instrumentals of all time), has also experienced huge success in Japan on his own and with UFO, one of the best, yet least respected, metal acts of all time. (A UFO reunion is in the works.)

The only remaining guitar gods with any substantial pull in the U.S. market are Eddie V., who has shelved his trademark red overalls for seersucker suits and has allowed his bad hip to keep him from bouncing off walls of Ampeg amps, andŠ Satch.

Nearly all of Satriani's albums have reflected the tastes, technological innovations and fads of the day. Satch released his first solo work in 1986 at the height of rock guitar godhood's popularity. Not of This Earth naturally reflects its pop-metal surroundings. Bowing to grunge in the early 1990s, Satch may have saved himself from following frequent fliers Schenker, Sheehan, Blackmore, Vai and Malmsteen to Tokyo. In any case, grunge attitude and its unrehearsed, raw barre-chord power is all over The Extremist (1993).

This time Satriani takes his cue from drum 'n' bass, and its cousins jungle and techno, fashioning an appeal to X'd-out, brain-dead ravers for their dancing feet. Assorted rhythms, from hip-hop to blues shuffle to marching band, give Satriani's wailings danceability. Again, as on most of his recordings, Satriani is auteur, playing guitar and bass and sequencing beats.

Making the guitar sound like something other than a guitar has always been the modus operandi of the gods. Malmsteen made his instrument ejaculate slurred arpeggios like a well-played baby grand; Vai made his whistle like a horny construction worker; and Blackmore made his spit notes like a machine gun. On Engines, Satriani achieves similar feats of sonic illusion.

At one point or another, Moog synthesizers, sitars, pennywhistles, and Kraftwerkian bleeps and bloops are all summoned forth from Satch's Ibanez. Inserted as tasteful accents or riffs, the noises show how Satriani wonderfully balances guitar wonkery with good tunesmithery. He shreds and emotes sans effects at his leisure, of course, but he always plays within the context (e.g., blues riffs for bluesy songs, jazz riffs for jazzy numbers). And as has historically been the case with Satch, he nearly always conjures up incredible melodies and moods.

It may be his songwriter's heart, as healthy as any folk rocker's or country superstar's, that keeps Satriani working mainly on the mainland. This image, that of a songwriter who sings through his guitar, may also be what keeps U.S. fans interested. Since Satriani never bothered to build up an "image," as other rock guitar gods have, he can easily jump from one persona to the next. His latest is of a songster who happened to stumble across some software. Will ravers be dancing to Engines anytime soon? Probably not. But will rock guitar gods, including Satch, breathe a little easier knowing that well-rounded, guitar-centric work like Engines can be accomplished? Yes, even as they stand in line for tickets to Tokyo.

E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@houstonpress.com.


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