Orianthi: “Michael Jackson taught me to do what’s best for the song. It’s not about crowding it with guitars“

(Image credit: Patrick Rivera)

Australian guitarist Orianthi has already had a storied career, performing with the likes of Alice Cooper and Steve Vai, as well as landing the coveted lead guitar slot with Michael Jackson.

As she releases new album, O, we quizzed her on the highlights – and lowlights – from her career so far, as well as her new Gibson signature acoustic, and how she ended up jamming with Carlos Santana when she was just 18…

Create the music that you love

“Before making my new record O, I was working with hip-hop producers, experimenting with beats. Then I met up with producer Marti Frederiksen (Aerosmith, The Struts, Ozzy). I was like, ‘That’s the kind of record I wanna make, something raw and rough’. We did the whole record in 28 days. I was really happy with the way everything sounds really inspired. It makes you wanna hear it live. That’s the whole vibe of the album.”

Make the ultimate guitar by crossbreeding your favourite designs

“When Gibson approached me about doing a signature acoustic, I was blown away. I wanted to work on a J-200 because it’s such a classic. It’s Elvis and Johnny Cash. I just find the neck a little bit like a boat. It’s hard to get around, so I asked them to put an ES-345 neck on a J-200 body. 

“It is one of the most comfortable, amazing sounding guitars. I worked with LR Baggs on the pickup. Sometimes pickups sound thin with acoustics, but this really has the gravity of the body.”

Play for the song

“Michael Jackson definitely taught me to do what’s best for the song. It’s not about crowding it with guitars and instruments that don’t make sense. It’s about surrounding the music and the melody with something that makes you feel something. 

I used to put guitar in between everything. It sometimes doesn’t call for that

“You don’t want to get in the way of the lyrics. I used to put guitar in between everything. It sometimes doesn’t call for that. As a guitar player, I want guitar in everything. But being a pop music fan and a music fan in general, I listen with different ears.”

Use the gear that inspires you

“The guitar I’d save in a fire is my first PRS that I got when I was 11; a brown Custom 24. I use PRS guitars because they’re just so versatile, and Paul Reed Smith is a great artist. On this album, I used an Orange Rockerverb Mk III, which is just a beast of an amp. 

“I don’t like using too many pedals. I like the connection between the guitar and the amplifier. I keep coming back to my custom Cry Baby wah. It’s on a slant, so you don’t have to rock your foot so far. It’s got more throw and bite.”

Always soundcheck your own gear

“The worst show I ever played was the Roseland Ballroom in New York. My single was taking off and they had me booked up with interviews until showtime, so there was no soundcheck. The other acts were all Justin Bieber, Kesha, Jason Derulo. We were the only band. 

“They plugged me into this amplifier on the clean channel. They just turned up the treble. People were in pain. I was in pain. I was playing According To You so I was tapping with a clean tone. Never let people tell you that things are okay without you checking it.”

Develop your own style, and people will hire you for it

“Alice Cooper really hired me as an artist. He didn’t give me a particular brief. He just said, ‘I want you to go to town and play the way you play.’ I guess he dug the way that I phrased things. When I got the Michael Jackson gig, I wasn’t into studying Eddie Van Halen and shredding. I’m more of a blues-based rock player. 

“You can’t try to walk in there and fill Eddie Van Halen or Jennifer Batten’s shoes. Some people were like, ‘Oh you didn’t play the Beat It solo just like it was on the record.’ I played it the way that I would play it, and I guess Michael liked it. I just do what I do. I can’t try to be anybody else. That’s the way I look at it.”

The best tone comes from dangerously loud amps

“Bob Rock told me about Fender Champs. The guitar tone on Blues Won’t Leave Me Alone was a Champ, and I drove it to 10. You wanna drive those little amps to breaking point, and they sound amazing. It was so terribly loud, to the point where I nearly got tinnitus from that session, but I was really happy with the tone. 

When I was 18, I got to jam with Santana backstage... I knew every song in his set.

“Santana does that, too. I did it with my Orange Rockerverb on this last record. Sometimes you just gotta play loud, and find the right microphone that’s not gonna overload and really capture it.”

Sometimes you should meet your heroes

“My father took me to a Santana show when I was 11. I was sitting in the nosebleed section, and when he went into Europa, I knew I wanted to play guitar. My first demo was mostly Santana covers. I sent it to his management office and I got an email back from his brother saying they’d been playing it in their office.

“When I was 18, I got to jam with him backstage. He said, 'Would you join me onstage tonight?' I got up for 45 minutes, cos I knew every song in his set. He’d say, ‘Take the solo!’ It was crazy.”

Figure out who your real friends are and keep them close

“It’s hard to find really good people in this industry. When you do, keep them close because they keep you sane and centred. I’ve got a bunch of people I call on for advice. 

“When you first pick up guitar in your room, the joy that it brings, and the simple feeling that you get from creating a song, that’s what it’s all about. Everything else, the craziness, the music business can really do your head in if you’re not surrounded by the right people.”

  • Orianthi's new album, O, is out now via Frontiers Music

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