On paper, Chickenfoot
seemed like an interesting idea. Bring together a virtuoso guitar player like Joe Satriani
with a veteran rock singer like Sammy Hagar
and create a rhythm section composed of ex-Van Halen bassist Mike Anthony
and current Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith
. The talent and chops were there but would the chemistry be there? The quartet laid that question to rest on their debut album back in 2009. Chickenfoot was full of big rock stompers and if some the songs were a little bit on the less adventurous side"Oh Yeah
," "Soap On a Rope
" and "Sexy Little Thing
," the three singles were workmanlike tracksthere was a sense of things to come.
The foursome still cranks it up on their second album, Chickenfoot III
[the title suggests the group's humorous side] but they've dug deeper to reveal they're more than just a very capable rock band. On songs like "Different Devil
" and "Something's Going Wrong
," they've brought in acoustic guitars, piano and even banjo to create darker textures. Producer Mike Fraser
has excelled at bringing a live feel to the tracks and taking the quartet from a simple rock and roll band to an ensemble that truly understands the importance of great songs and subtle performances.
UG: Is the guitarist on Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards the same guitar player who walked in the studio to record Chickenfoot III?
Well, yeah. I think to the listener who doesn't hear me 24 hours a day, it sounds like a different Joe or a different shade of Joe. Maybe I'm revealing things to them with each new Chickenfoot song that they weren't aware I was capable of. But of course to me it just sounds really natural. It's more like I've always been doing these things but never had a band or a record to showcase them. And so that's kinda like what it is when I get together with the guys. I'm thinking, Chad can do this and Mike can do that and Sammy can do that. What can I do to maximize that? What kind of songs can I write to bring those things out?
So you are consciously trying to write different kinds of songs that you would do as a solo artist?
Any musician put in a position like that when you're not playing with those people then of course your audience doesn't hear you write in that direction. In this case the audience is hearing me write for these amazing guys that I'm playing with. And so, yeah, it's gonna come out different than what they've just heard on Black Swans.
Are you challenged as much playing with Chickenfoot as you are doing your solo records?
Yeah, I think so because from my point of view it doesn't matter whether I'm writing a piece of music in a scale that's got an unpronounceable name or it's something that everybody hears everyday on Top 40 radio. Once you learn all the things there are to learn about the theory of music, you realize that everything's equal: Nothing is more important than the next thing. No chords are more important than each other and all scales are equal. Because it's how you accomplish telling the story and how you move people. So if you've done it with a three-note scale or a 12-note scale, what's the difference? From a musician's point of view it's almost like a carpenterare different screwdrivers better than others? Not really if we're talking about different shapes; it's all about the appropriate tool.
Chickenfoot's music is simpler than what you do as a solo artist but it can still bring you to new places as a guitarist?
"Once you learn all the things there are to learn about the theory of music, you realize that everything's equal."
You mentioned before about am I challenging myself when I'm working on a solo or something for a Chickenfoot thing, for me when I go in the challenge is to play a really good solo and that never changes. Whether I'm trying to weave in and out of a melody that Sam has created or I'm trying to take advantage of the ensemble sound that Mike and Chad are giving, all that's fresh and new, so I'm just trying to make the solo elevate the music. I'm not really thinkin' about making it complicated [laughs].
Lighten Up is one of the less complicated songs on the album and has a distinct Humble Pie feel to it. It really makes you appreciate how inventive Humble Pie were at taking simple chord changes and making them sound to great.
Yes. I think they were so in the moment whether they knew it or not. They were just so in the movement and that period of musicmaybe because they didn't realize they were creating something that was gonna be called classic rockthey were just throwing in all their influences and everybody seemed to smile every time someone would bring in some new influence into the band. Humble Pie is a great example with three guitar playersFrampton, Clem [Clemson] and Marriott together. It's just interesting and I guess it is what I hear is this enthusiasm for bringing in American roots music along with their tradition and with the Humble Pie guys we're talking about classic British players and their take on American blues. As you said, it was incredible what they came up with and sometimes decades go by and people forget how inventive and how unique it was. And how successful an approach it was for that kind of period and we tend to forget. All music becomes formulaic eventually, it really does, but some I think remains inspired where others just falls apart.
A song like Lighten Up has a Humble Pie feel and Different Devil has a distinct Rolling Stones sound to it. Would you ever actually try to channel Steve Marriott or Keith Richards and think, What would they play here?
Oh, yeah. When we were doing the song Different Devil, when I brought it in it was a quirky little acoustic song and then Chad wrote a chorus and I went in and had to sort of edit the whole thing and it was such an odd way to write a song. I was thinking as the song was going through all these changes and I started to see what a cool song it was, I was thinking, Well, you could add a heavy guitar or you could add more acoustics. And I'm looking around the studio and there's a banjo over there and a mandolin and all sorts of stuff you can do. But I have to say I do have a '59 Fender Twin amp, the kind that Keith uses, and I've got Telecasters laying around so his inspiration got me to plug in the Telly and to go into the Fender Twin and say, What would Keith do? How would he create a driving rhythm?
The key to achieving that Stones-type sound was the Telecaster and the Twin?
Yeah, I came up with these two rock and roll rhythm-type guitars that are actually in there as part of the ensemble playing a little bit against type. In other words, I guess those two guitar parts that I put down don't really go with the two primary acoustic guitars, which are more major scale and a more modern sort of pop way of playing a rhythm part for a song like that. And then these other guitars come in and they kind of challenge that a little bit. Basically what Keith did is he made-believe he was Chuck Berry all the time [laughs] and I'm sure he was thinking, What would Chuck play? So here I am one generation removed thinking, What would Keith play? And it sort of added a kick to it so then when the guys came back on that track and Mike and Chad replayed their drums and bass, they had these little rock and roll guitars to play along with as well.
Do you feel comfortable picking up an acoustic?
Absolutely, yeah. Maybe 10 years ago, I made a point to play acoustic guitar an hour a day if I could. I got down to doing things I'd never done before like I never really practice Travis picking and I thought, This is ridiculous. I'm a grown man and there are these things that are like gaping holes in my technique. So I would just sit down and I would play. I remember a couple of times ZZ [Satriani's son] would walk by my room and he'd say, Are you playing country music? Because I'd be in there for an hour playing [imitates country picking licks]. But I just had to prove myself that I could do these things so from there came just a lot more technique I knew I had in me but I just never played it before.
Something Going Wrong is a terrific example of your acoustic playing.
That was done so quickly. I think I had 10 minutes to find a guitar and to sort of mentally put together very quickly how I would record live this 12-string acoustic part so that we could get a take down before Mike and Chad flew home. You can't do that if you never play acoustic. So we found this acoustic upstairs in Sam's storage and Mike Fraser [producer] somehow got it in tune and we sat down and we just did that. I just had to think, C'mon, you've got to take the last 10 years of practicing acoustic and you've got to make it work right now.
You knew there would be acoustics on Something Going Wrong?
Yeah, the last four demos I made for the guys were all on acoustic; just me leaning into my laptop and recording on QuickTime. I didn't know where they were gonna go. One of them was Different Devil and the other one was this particular song and I forget what my working title was. But for some reason that morning they all said, We really like this, Joe. Let's do it. As I said I didn't really have it scoped out in my mind like, Was it gonna be an electric song or was it gonna have six guitars on it or just one? I had to pick an instrument that I could track with so I thought, Let's use a 12-string. I actually had a new Ibanez JSA 12-string there but the pickup configuration hadn't been finished so it wasn't working. That's when I asked Sam if he had a 12-string laying around and I was just thinkin' about 12-string because of the way Sam was beginning to sing. I thought, Well, I just need something that's bigger than a six-string. It sounds silly but I figured I had to make a lot of sound.
What type of 12-string did you use?
"It's more like I've always been doing these things but never had a band or a record to showcase them."
He had this Ovation that had been put up in his storage somewhere in the late 70s. I mean the thing was rusty and Mike Fraser had to very quickly tune it. But the action was pretty even up the neck so I could play all the parts and I just sort of took the rhythm and the melody and I just sort of played it and Sam sang on top of it. And, boy, I think in about an hour we had a perfect take and that was the end of that.
Something Going Wrong is a little outside of what people expect from a Chickenfoot record, which are the big rockers. It's a song like this that really shows your musicality.
Great, well I'm happy to hear you say that. I was listening the other day, preparing for rehearsals that start today and I was just thinking that Something Going Wrong, as unlikely as it was that the guys liked it and we went ahead and recorded it that day, I feel the same way. I don't think I've ever recorded myself playing that way before and so much of it was all about not preparing.
Which is interesting because you're always super-prepared when you record your solo albums.
It's very interesting. The whole story I told you about the basic track and then I added a banjo to, which was just really strange. We just tried one pass and we kept it and the guitar solo was with a JS prototype that's got three single-coil pickups in it.
There's also a mandolin on Something Going Wrong?
No, we never got to that. I added a regular six-string acoustic; I added the JSA we had there and then added my Deering banjo. The vocals hadn't been done yet and I didn't really know where Sam was gonna sing exactly but Mike Fraser turned to me and he said, How about you play like little melody guitars right from the beginning of the song all the way to the end? So I thought, Oh, OK, sure. And I went lookin' for a guitar and I had already put down the solo and I had all these guitars so I pulled out a vintage '59 335. I just did one long pass where I kind of played some blues stuff in and around what I thought the melody was gonna sound like. I figured Mike would just pick a couple of parts but he wound up keeping the whole performance for the whole song.
Your outro riffs were amazing.
And the sound of the guitar of course was pretty classic so it turned into a very rich-sounding piece of music. Those background vocals are amazing.
The Last Temptation opens the record. As the intro song, did you think it would be representative of what Chickenfoot fans would hear on this second album?
No, that's funny. When we finished and we realized that we had these 10 songs that we all agreed would be on the record, everybody came up with a completely different sequence. It's a funny thing because everybody has their own view of it. I think Sam was really all about the lyrics and he kept thinking, Aw, I don't want to start the album talking about this or talking about that and of course I'm thinking key signatures and melodies and riffs and tempos. Everybody had some different idea about it and management is thinking, Put the best song first and that kinda thing and, Where does the radio song go? So we just threw these setlists to each other for about a week or two until we came up with what we felt was not a compromise but maybe a consensus where everybody understood what the other guy was goin' for. For fun, I put Up Next first; I don't know why I did but I thought that one opened the record better. I think Sam wanted The Last Temptation first. But I think it was a combination of all four of us putting our setlist ideas together and then it sort of became like the one that everyone said, Oh, this is great; this is better than mine because now I understand what Sam wants, what Chad wants and what Mike wants.
You play a beautiful classic-sounding intro riff on The Last Temptation and it does sound like the opening of an album.
There's that melody guitar and it's like I never planned it that way but there it is.
You mentioned Up Next, which is one of the bigger rock songs on the album. That guitar riff has a lot of personality and could become one of those licks that guitarists will want to play.
I think all guitar players can relate to that: They know when a riff is so solid that they can play it in a couple of places [on the neck] and the way that your picking hand just falls right into the groove. It's just one of those riffs. I think there have been so many of those over the years and there are guitar players out there who know all the greatest riffs and like me have played in a million cover bands when we were younger. You can relate to that because you'll play a song with a great riff and you'll marvel at it every night you play it and you'll say, How did Jimmy Page come up with that? It's like it's so perfectly matched to the guitar player and the singers love it and the drummers love and once people hear it, it becomes identifiable as that song. That's the riff for that song and it's like a badge that the guitar player wears who invented it. You know?
Certainly you had a sense of playing those riffs back in the day with Deep Purple?
"I think Tony Iommi also showed you could make these huge riffs but if you leave the drummer and the bass player in the dust then it actually becomes kind of small."
Yeah, yeah. You play that stuff and more on this record than any other, I was constantly thinking about Hendrix and Jimmy Page; I mean the two Jimmy's and for me combining it. You look at The Last Temptation, the solo is very Hendrixy but the rest of the song is arranged just like the way you would have imagined Page would have done it. I was thinking a lot about that because one of the cool things about Jimmy Page is how he becomes part of the ensemble so well.
That's a terrific observation because though Page was a great soloist, it was how he blended in as part of Zeppelin's overall sound that was his greatest strength.
You go back to some of those songs and in our memory, the guitar parts are huge but when you go back and listen to them they're not that big. Musically they're huge but he was clever enough when he was recording these things to never overpower the sound of the band. So he's actually in the band so to speak and not the guitar hero being the loudest guy in the band.
That did happen later.
That was an unfortunate turn of events, I think, decades later when people played with a little bit more gain and guitar players asserted themselves as being the primary focus of the riff. And that I think is what changed [the direction]. It's not a bad thing it's just that it wasn't really rock; it was something else. It was not even like metal because you go back to the early metal guys and even they were integrated into the band. Even Tony Iommi or Ritchie Blackmore were part of a band and you always heard Jon Lord doing the riff as well. I think Tony Iommi also showed you could make these huge riffs but if you leave the drummer and the bass player in the dust then it actually becomes kind of small.
You were subconsciously thinking about how the guitars sounded on Deep Purple and Black Sabbath records when you were working on Chickenfoot III?
That's kinda like what I was thinking while I was trackingjust to make sure that I'm never covering up Chad and Mike and that they have to be part of the force. You know what I mean?
Chad Smith had to take a hiatus to work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What has it been like playing with Kenny Aronoff?
Oh, fantastic. We spent two days playing with him a couple weeks ago while we were making the Big Foot video and he proved himself to be just as crazy as Chad when he's not sitting down. Of course his playing is incredible. It was really kind of funny that he's a great musician and he came in so totally prepared and had everything memorized from both records. After a while we said, Well that sounds really amazing but relax and play what you want. You don't have to copy the parts. And then of course he unleashed his fury on us and that was just amazing because he's got so much the band in terms of his intense energy and that's kind of like the way we operate.
Intense energy is a big part of Chickenfoot's chemistry?
Everybody is out there trying to get off on their part in the band and that's what kind of creates the cool vibe of playing with the guys live.
Interview by Steven Rosen