Four years ago, Richie Sambora was vacationing in Hawaii and was asked by his old pal Alice Cooper to join him onstage at his annual charity concert for the Maui Food Bank.
The former Bon Jovi guitarist had no idea his life was about to change. “Before the show, I’m sitting in the audience with Alice while the main band is soundchecking, and I see this beautiful girl onstage with a guitar,” says Sambora. “I said to Alice, ‘Wow, who’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s Orianthi. She’s in my band. She’s played with Michael Jackson—she’s really great.’ ”
While Sambora might have been first attracted to Orianthi’s looks, it was love at first shred the second he heard her play. “I was blown away, and so I was even more intrigued,” he says. “I was like, ‘All right, that’s somebody I wanna jam with!’ ”
For her part, the 32-year-old Orianthi knew full well who Sambora was. As a budding guitarist growing up in Australia, she had seen him hundreds of times in Bon Jovi videos. “ ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’—those are iconic songs,” she says. “I knew Richie was an amazing player, but I wasn’t expecting us to connect so quickly during the charity concert. We did ‘Voodoo Child’ and then with Sammy Hagar we played ‘Rock Candy.’ Our styles mixed so well—I was really pleasantly surprised.”
A month later, Sambora invited Orianthi to join him for a tour of Europe and her native Australia, and sparks started flying both onstage and off. “There was no hesitation with anything,” Sambora says. “We dove right in and became a couple right away. We didn’t really think, ‘Oh, we should keep the musical and personal things separate.’ ” Adds Orianthi, “I think what really helped is the fact that we’re both guitarists. We share a language, and we have so much respect for each other. That makes everything easier.”
Once Orianthi fulfilled her touring commitments to Alice Cooper, she moved in with the 58-year-old Sambora in Los Angeles, where the two made firm plans for their musical collaboration. For a time, they struggled to find a suitable band name before finally deciding on their initials, RSO. “It’s better than Samborianthi,” Sambora jokes. “And Ori-Bora, that definitely wasn’t happening.”
They set up a musical compound in their home—recording gear in the kitchen, amps in the dining room, and a drum room in the home theater area. “It seems crazy, but it works,” Sambora stresses. “My good friend Bob Rock [producer of Bon Jovi and Metallica, among others] helped us put it all together, and he did a great job. We get some killer sounds right in the kitchen.”
With Rock in tow as producer and occasional bassist, the happy couple recorded a healthy batch of the nearly 70 songs they had written over a two-year period. While Sambora and Orianthi handled vocal, guitar and some bass duties, they welcomed a host of guest players, such as keyboardist John Webster and Paul McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.
“We had a blast the entire time,” Orianthi says. “Richie and Bob have a great chemistry from all their years together. I’d met Bob at some of the Maui jams Alice has thrown, so it was cool for me to finally work with him.”
RSO’s first release comes in the form of a five-song EP called Rise, which features a compelling snapshot of both guitarists’ musical strengths. “Masterpiece” is a poignant piece of mainstream pop capped by Orianthi’s fiery soloing, while “Truth” is a gorgeous piano-driven ballad complete with backward acoustic guitar flourishes. Their two voices mesh beautifully on the country-laced “Good Times,” and they lock axes forcefully on the anthemic, Hendrixy title cut.
“We love to play guitar together, but we didn’t want it to be a ‘guitar noodlefest record’ per se,” Sambora points out. “But trust me—that stuff is coming. This EP is just the tip of the iceberg.”
As for how the two have influenced each other, Orianthi says she’s sharpened her compositional skills from Sambora. “He writes ‘songs within songs’ when he solos,” she notes. “But what he does is really raw and pure.” Sambora, on the other hand, credits Orianthi with awakening his love of music in general.
“I don’t want to come off like some old dude,” he says, “but when you play with someone like her, the reasons why you do this come flooding back. She’s got a lot of soul for someone so young.”