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Orianthi: Guitar Love
By Scott Kahn




Photo: Dave Stewart

The Australian guitarist known simply by her first name, Orianthi, first came to our attention thanks to a cool YouTube video featuring her dueling with one of the men who helped break her worldwide: Steve Vai. It was through an association with Vai and Carlos Santana that gave her street cred as a formidable player, and their guitar duet, “Highly Strung,” also appeared on Orianthi’s 2009 pop/rock, international major label release, Believe.

That album spawned the pop hit and video, “According to You,” and while most of the music came across in a familiar style of catchy pop rock tunes with a female vocalist (Orianthi), it differed from the typical big label releases in that every song featured guitar solos and other assorted lead guitar riffing courtesy of this great player.

Orianthi was tapped by Michael Jackson to play on his This Is It tour, and you’ll see her in the documentary film about the tour that never came to fruition due to Jackson’s untimely passing.

Not content with the major label path, Orianthi released this year’s Heaven in This Hell on an indie label, and it shows a marked departure from the slick, polished production that was found on Believe. Hell delivers a collection of songs that span a variety of styles that do a much better job of showcasing her diverse talent than the previous recording.

Presently, Orianthi is playing guitar on her second world tour with hard rock legend, Alice Cooper, but she didn’t leave before having a chance to talk with us about the new record.

“If there's a guitar in the room, I'm going to pick it up. I love it.”

MPc:  There was a huge difference sonically between Believe and Heaven in this Hell. Believe was a very highly polished production, whereas Heaven in this Hell sounds extremely organic in nature. I'd love for you to tell me about what seems like a huge change in personality from the previous record to this one.

O:  Yeah, definitely. Well, I recorded in Nashville, at Blackbird Studios. And we got an amazing bunch of musicians together, studio musicians, in a room, and we just vibed off each other and I really wanted to capture a live sound. Dave Stewart produced it and wrote most of the songs on [Heaven in this Hell]—we just had a blast. We really wanted to capture a live performance, basically. And how the records were sort of made back in the 70s. Everyone's on the room together.

And so that's definitely… we didn't want to over-think this record or for it to be overdone. Just wanted to capture the performance.

MPc:  Did you switch labels between Believe and the new one?

O:  Yes, that's right. I'm no longer with Geffen Records. This record is being put out through Robo Records. It’s the kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted to do something different. I think it's important to evolve and change things up, not make the same record over again, you know?

MPc:  Yeah, and you definitely did not duplicate yourself. One of the things that is very different between the records is your guitar tone. Can you tell us a little bit about the differences in what you were playing through when you did Believe versus now?

O:  Yeah, the sound was  basically through old Fender amps at Blackbird Studios, they had there. And EVH, actually, which I use. So it was kind of a combination. And that's probably why [some songs] sound different. Some of the songs went through old Fenders, some of them were through the EVH. So, I kind of mixed them up. The other record was just completely EVH.

MPc: It's funny, because when I saw that you were playing EVH, that’s not the amp I would associate with the sound that I heard you deliver.

O: Those amps are pretty versatile—I use them for my own thing, which is more blues, and I also use them on the road with Alice Cooper. You know, with just different things, it's really versatile, you can pull different sounds out of it. I think it's a good matching with PRS.

MPc:  Yeah, and were there any changes to the PRS guitars you were using on this record ?

O:  Well, I actually used my own model. When I made the last record, I didn't have my own model out, so I used my SE for all of the solos, “How Does That Feel” solo, and through the others. And then the [PRS] Custom 22 and Custom 24, which I love.

MPc:  Do you tend to have a preference between the 22 and the 24?

O:  Yeah, well, the 22, I find, is a little rounder-sounding. It's a rounder tone to it. And I think that's just great for a lot of rhythm parts, as well. The 24 really cuts through, which I really love. And you have more frets for soloing. I dig it. [laughs]

MPc:  Listening to Heaven in this Hell, I noticed that in your playing from song to song, something that popped into my head was "a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll." You really have this interesting blend of country style playing and hard rock style playing.

O:  Yeah, I'm a big country fan and I love blues and rock, as well. Nashville's one of my favorite places to go to write and to record. It's just a good, creative space for everyone who's there, it’s just a musician’s town. I’m living in L.A., which is Entertainment Central, and different vibe here completely.

Orianthi at Blackbird StudiosPhoto: Dave Stewart

And it's different. I made the record here [in Los Angeles] the last time and I made, you know, this new one in Nashville. So it was more about just shouting out and, as I said, I really love country, so it kind of got maybe a different flavor to this record than the other record had.

MPc: I understand in the past you actually played with Carrie Underwood, speaking of country…

O:  That's right, yeah. I love Carrie. We actually played the Grammy Awards 2009. And then again at the Hollywood Bowl, we jammed out last time. And she's an amazing, amazing singer. She's a great person and her band is great, too. Had a good time.

MPc:  You’ve got Carrie Underwood on one hand, then we have your period with Michael Jackson. And now you're touring with Alice Cooper. How do you adapt to these drastically different roles as a guitar player?

O:  You know, I just do my thing. It's weird. It's like—because I grew up with a pretty eclectic collection of music thanks to my dad, and my mom's different taste in music, I'm a big fan no matter what genre it is. And I think that it's such a learning experience for me. It's really humbling to be on stage with these people. They're amazing. Alice is legend, and Michael Jackson… and Santana, who I love, and Steve Vai, these people that I'll completely be in awe of forever. It doesn't matter how many times I’ve jammed out with them. But you learn so much from being part of it and being up on the stage with them.

And also performance-wise, too, because they're such great performers. And so just being up there, just seeing the way that they do it every night. You know, 110% with Alice. Loves his fans, loves what he does. And he's a great, great person, so it's always really, really nice to be out there and be part of this crazy Rocky Horror show.

At first it was pretty scary, because I was dodging knives and Frankenstein and confetti cannons and whatnot. And there's also a lot of parts to his music, it's not like just jam away, there are a lot of guitar parts. So remembering them all—and dodging knives, definitely a challenge for me.

MPc:  It’s funny because in that regard, the Alice gig may be somewhat similar to Michael Jackson one that you're being called upon to play technical parts in a totally theatrical environment.

O:  For sure. I actually said that before. He's pretty similar to Michael, in a more rock & roll sort of way. And sort of horror, in a crazy way. [laughs] But, yeah, definitely, he's such a showman, such an entertainer. And every night's different. He's just unpredictable. I don’t know what he’s going to do. He always keeps it interesting, because a lot of his fans go to every show. So, we change up the set list [a lot] and I love it. It's really a blast.

But, you know, learning songs, especially when—I used to be in a cover band when I was like 15 till about 21, so I'd be learning a bunch of different songs to play. And now I'm actually playing with these people who've written the songs. I put more pressure on myself, which is a great thing to do. I was up in Maui playing with Michael McDonald and there's so many chord changes to his songs, which I loved, because when you're on stage with him, you have to make it sound right. It's not like you're just playing in a cover band gig or something.

So, being able to do this is a real honor and it's a great learning thing.

“When your idol is sitting down at a table and you're playing
in front of them, that's pretty daunting.”

MPc:  Do you make use of a lot of effects? Something I noticed, especially on Heaven in this Hell, your guitar tone and your lead tone in particular are pretty dry. A couple of places, I hear some tremolo, I hear a little bit of wah. But overall, you've got a pretty in-your-face guitar tone.

O:  Yeah, I wanted to keep it pretty simple, that's how I keep it when I'm playing live, and with the last tour I did, my band, I used a bunch of effects because we wanted to go for a different sort of vibe and we had this track called "Dr. Acula's Theme," which was like Dracula dining music. It was very dramatic, I should say. And so I used a lot of different effects with that. TC [Electronic] effects, which I love.

But for this I might be adding a few different things like that when we play live, but really I just like the connection between the guitar and the amp, you don't want to sort of crowd it. So, yeah, occasional effects, like definitely the wah pedal, I use the Flashback delay by TC, and also the maple [colored] Mojo pedal, by TC, once again. Just a few different things like that, but not really too much at all. Keeping it pretty basic, so you can just hear the tone.

MPc:  And talking about your tone, you definitely had a lot of a fuzz tones on the new record.

O:  Yeah. [laughs]

MPc: Was that from the EVH or do you have a fuzz pedal that you're enjoying?

O:  Yeah, we purchased a [Dunlop] Fuzz Face and a few other effects, I can't remember which we used. But I used an octave pedal, I remember that. Especially for “Heaven in this Hell.” And also "Frozen," that riff, which I love, you know, the fuzz [and] the octave pedal, it's just a cool, sort of trippy, monster sound.

MPc:  Who are some of the guitar players that you consider big influences on your style of playing?

O:  Well, the reason why I play electric guitar is Carlos Santana. He's so amazing. I jammed with him when I was about 18 and I picked up electric when I was 11 after seeing a concert with my dad, and he played "Europa." I was studying classical at the time and that really affected me from that moment on. So that song and his playing, everything.

Orianthi with Michael Jackson

I got to go up to Seattle recently, the Hendrix Museum, and he was being honored. I was playing some of the songs, like "Jungle Strut" and "Everybody's Everything," and a bunch of tracks that I grew up listening to. And he (Santana) was sitting in the audience. I was pretty nervous, you know? Because we've jammed a bunch of times, but when your idol is sitting down at a table and you're playing in front of them, that's pretty daunting.

I said to him, "I was so freakin' nervous doing that." And he's like, "Aww." It was like, you get up on stage and you say, “Aww.” You're still nervous, but you're not really, it's more like I'm in awe, I should say. But he's watching I'm playing the same solo that—or trying to, anyway—he recorded. And it's just kind of like, Wow. It was a moment. It was pretty crazy.

MPc:  It's always much scarier playing to a roomful of musicians than to just music fans, when you're standing there and you see all the arms folded as they're standing there, just watching your every move.

O:  Oh, yeah. Yeah, that was my first gig, actually, when I opened for Steve Vai and you had the whole crowd being guitar players. I was like 14 and they all were, like, what am I going to do? My first show, so I was nervous anyway, but I mean, hell, I was opening for Steve Vai. Like, crazy! That was crazy, pretty surreal moment.

And yeah, that's the thing. A lot of guitar players, I get this a lot, even just walking through NAMM: “Hey, I challenge you to a guitar dual.” I'm an artist and I feel that every guitar player should think of it that way. Unless you're in the Olympics, you know? It's like—it's not a race who can play the fastest, it's like—if you play like you mean it, then, and you can play a melody, you can write a song that people remember or … that's what you should really aim for. I think that, because everyone plays so different. All my guitar players that I love, all the ones I have on my iPod or go to shows, they're all so different. Santana, Steve Vai, BB King, Stevie Ray and Jimi Hendrix, they're all amazing, but so different.

MPc: Something I notice in a lot of your songs: you like to build up these different layers of different types of guitar parts. In a few songs I notice something you like to do in your choruses is play these very country-influenced melodies. I'm thinking of in the song, "Another You," and then the song "Rock," for example.

O:  Yeah.

MPc:  In the background, you're doing a very arpeggiated kind of country pattern. Then you throw down a powerful hard rock piece over it and then you put your lead down on top of that. What’s the process like for you when it comes to writing songs?

O:  It's always different. And it always changes, because some of the songs, I write on piano. “How Do You Sleep" was written on piano. "If You Were Here With Me"—piano. And sometimes it's the lyrics, sometimes it's a guitar riff. And sometimes it's acoustic guitar. You know, you're just strumming away and something comes to you.

But it's always really different. I just enjoy the whole creative process, because when I'm—I love collaborating with different writers and it's the energy that's in the room. And that's the thing, if I write a song by myself, it's going to go a certain way. But you have someone else in the room, their energy or—even with them not doing anything, it's there, for some reason, you play differently, you write differently. And I worked with some great songwriters in Nashville: Blair Daly and Bobby Huff and Marty Frederickson and a bunch of people, and they're all just great. Zac Maloy wrote "You Don't Want to Know."  And I love working with Dave Stewart, he's such a great songwriter. We just jam away.

“If you play it like you mean it and you're not just holding
it as an accessory, then it's all good.”

MPc:  So, now that we've looked back on Heaven in this Hell, what do you think are going to be some of your favorite songs from the new album to play live?

O:  We played the show not too long ago with Mike Campbell… "Heaven in this Hell" we've been playing for quite a bit and that's always fun to play. "Frozen," love playing that one live. And then "How Do You Sleep," we play. Also, I think one of the bonus tracks we've been playing, "Sex E Bizarre," which was a funny jam. It's really kind of like Lenny Kravitz on the Hendrix side, that one.

We play "Voodoo Child" a lot live, as well, mix it in there. "If You Were Here with Me" I just play acoustic. "You Don't Want to Know" is actually one of my favorites, as well.

Orianthi with Alice CooperMPc: Are you going to have time to tour in support of your own material this summer or are you going to be too busy with Alice Cooper?

O:  I'll be doing both. I’m actually just trying to set up a tour right now. But Alice dates come in and sort of—I love working with him, so we'll try to figure it out, if it works.


MPc:  Did you ever listen to a guitar player… or —have you heard other people make any comparisons between you and Jennifer Batten?

O:  Yeah, I guess because I played with Michael. Jennifer actually emailed me after the Grammy performance I played with Carrie Underwood. And she's really encouraging. It was just so great, being a fan of hers and Bonnie Raitt growing up, because there weren't too many female guitar players.

Jennifer is such a technical player. She's amazing, incredible. I'd say our styles are really different, but I think that she's just an incredible player.

MPc: There really are very few women in rock that have risen to the level above just strumming, singer-songwriter stuff. You mentioned Bonnie Raitt, another great female guitarist, but there’s been a relatively short list of women that are inspirational to female guitar players. Very few have the chops to really shred like you do.

O:  Thank you. You know, I get a lot of emails and tweets of YouTube videos, and my fans send these and they're, like, “You know, you inspired me to play guitar three years ago” and they play along to my songs. And also walking through NAMM, it was my ninth year going there this year and seeing more female players. It's really great.

It's definitely a guy’s thing, because I grew up listening to guy guitar players. But I think, yeah, if you play it like you mean it and you're not just holding it as an accessory, then it's all good. I've seen quite a few female bands and you go there and they're just… they're holding their guitars because they think they look nice or something. And they don't really even play the chords like they mean them. It's kind of like, okay. Then I've seen some that just kick back, did it great, and they're out there just doing their thing. The same thing goes for female drummers, too.  I've only heard a few that are really great.

MPc:  Yeah.

O:  And the thing is that you just have to live it, you know? It's like, I love to play music, I love to play the guitar, to write songs and everything. I love to write and to perform and everything. But it's definitely something that… if there's a guitar in the room, I'm going to pick it up. I love it. I still have the same enthusiasm as as I did when I was like, six.



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