Have you ever wondered what separates "Not of This Earth" from "Surfing With the Alien"? I think the question is relevant, since Satch's debut has a very similar style to his follow-up, yet in terms of popularity and accessibility "NotE" doesn't even seem to come close to "Surfing." That is not to say either album is bad - it just seems striking how much of a difference in reception the two albums have received. Maybe we can learn something from there when we compare the two. Let's go.
So first of all, I think the difference dos not lie in the quality of the shred, or the shred in general. On both albums Satriani seems to employ what people might refer to as his style - the legato lines, some tapping, "Satch-shred" in short. So for this article I'm gonna ignore that part. As I've layed out elsewhere, I'm also not a fan of the "It's All Only Feelz"-approach with out looking at mechanics and technique, so to me the whole "it was just more inspiration" thing also goes out the window. So what does that leave us with? Let's take a look at the first tracks of both albums (since let's face it, first impressions don't do nothing).
And here I think we find the "deciding" differences - "NotE" starts off with somewhat "jazzy" complicated chords, takes quite a while to bring in some rhythm (which also isn't the easiest to get into, certainly not something you're used to coming blindly I'd say) and it doesn't have a long flowing melodic theme (that part only comes up later in the solo). Surfing on the other hand (after the short non-musical intro) starts off with a rocking rhythm, barely any harmonic information (both of which I'd argue make it instantly accessible and easy to "feel along") and then comes a nice long melodic theme. And just this little difference in set-up, the difference in the presented sequence you hear (and react to) I say makes the huge difference in reception of the two albums.
Interestingly enough, the aspects I laid out there can also be found on the other tracks of each album - more "complicated" setups with little melody (save for shred) on "NotE," directly "attacking" easier feel-good rhythms and a lot of melodic themes on "Surfing." Does Satriani "think" that way? I'm not sure - however it seems obvious that he stuck with that "Surfing"-approach after "Surfing" - not everywhere, but it seems to be predominant among his more popular songs. Regardless of that however, what can we take away from this?
First, I think it's interesting to think about that a shredmeister like Satriani is dependent on good accessible arrangements - the shred on "NotE" did far less for him than the shred on "Surfing," which brings us to the conclusion that it's probably not really the main selling point (or at least certainly not the only one). More importantly rather, Satriani has learned to present his shred in more popular and accessible formats - which, if you look into his history, makes complete sense. According to him, he has an extensive history with performing pop, rock and even disco before venturing into shred-territory, meaning he had and has the experience and knowledge to pull that kind of stuff off. Secondly, if you want a lot of people to listen to your music, you better know how to write for a lot of people - "popular" does imply accessibility by a lot of people after all.
ConclusionWhen we look at Satriani's "Two Debuts," we see how his move towards more accessible song formats made him more popular - without compromising on his shredding skills. So the lesson we can take away from that is probably that uber-mega-skills best work when presented in the contrast of "accessible" formats that make it easier to get into.
So if you like your shred, maybe consider learning to arrange music like a pop-song - if you are interested in accessibility. If my overtly populist views here disgust you and your artistic feelings - by all means, don't do it and downvote this concept. #MadIntegrityFTW
About the Author: David Sertl is a composer and guitarist based in Vienna, Austria. He also runs David's Music Guild, the YouTube channel telling you everything you (n)ever wanted to know about music. For more information you can visit his website.