Orianthi Finds Her Calling

May 1, 2010

It’s a great gift to the young that life allows them to dream untouched by the harsh sucker punches of reality. Children can swallow and regurgitate all the clichés of literature and pop films, that belief in one’s self and hard work and a little luck can lift you into a deliriously happy existence where your every wish comes true.

Of course, cynical adults call these musings “fairy tales.”

But, sometimes, all the worldly experience that prompts grown-ups to rage against Disney fantasies are blown to fairy dust, because, against all odds, a dream does come true, a quest is realized, and rays of hope shine brightly.

Because, every once in a while, there is an Orianthi.

The 25-year-old guitarist from Adelaide, Australia, endured all the crap that can befall girls who disrupt the musical boy’s club by daring to shred on guitar. Despite the bullying and shunning, her love for the instrument never waned. And then, seemingly impossible events occurred. Four years after picking up the electric guitar, she made the brave—some might say irresponsible— decision to quit school at 15 to focus entirely on being a musician. That same year, she opened for Steve Vai, and three years after that, she was jamming with Carlos Santana.

Orianthi was first brought to GP’s attention by Santana and Paul Reed Smith in late 2003—each calling us to report what an amazing player this young woman was. A few weeks later, Orianthi showed up at the Guitar Player redesign party during the 2004 NAMM show, where she quietly made the rounds meeting Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, Johnny A., George Lynch, and others. At the time, she sounded a bit too much like Santana to excite the GP staff enough to do a big article, but everyone recognized her passion and her chops, so we put her on the magazine’s informal “watch list.”

Who could have known back then that six years later she would be one of the most recognized guitarists in the world.

Orianthi returned to NAMM in 2005 to perform with Santana at the PRS 20th Anniversary party. She signed with Geffen Records the next year, although her debut CD, Violet Journey, was imported in 2007 by the label’s parent company, Universal. Orianthi played Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007, and then cruised relatively under the radar Stateside until 2009—a year filled with triumph and tragedy.

The fateful gig was in February 2009, when she played with Carrie Underwood at the Grammys. Michael Jackson’s musical director, Michael Bearden, was in the audience that night, and he was moved to seek out Orianthi on MySpace, and ask her to audition for the lead guitarist spot in Jackson’s band. Sadly, the first live Jackson gig Orianthi played was his memorial in July 2009. But the release of the documentary, This Is It, in October 2009—with its footage of the rehearsals for Jackson’s shows at the O2 arena in London—heartbreakingly revealed what could have been, and the film’s success swiftly transported Orianthi to pop stardom. That same month, her official Geffen release, Believe, exploded all over Top 40 radio with the single, “According to You.”

In January 2010, Orianthi put her pop side aside for a bit by releasing a video of her and Steve Vai performing their guitar instrumental, “Highly Strung.” Although the director filmed some obviously uncomfortable and dorky “dance moves” that are so not cool (actually, they’re rather hilarious), the duo’s call-and-response guitar lines are absolutely thrilling. The next month, Orianthi was one of the stars chosen to record We Are the World 25 for Haiti.

So you see, youthful dreams don’t always have to be truncheoned by gloomy pessimism. Orianthi’s passion for the guitar, and her fervent commitment to doing what it takes to learn more, play better, and spread the gospel of guitarcraft is proof that those who believe in themselves just might be able to do great things—even if you’re just a teenager, or a girl guitar player, or if you live a few continents away from Hollywood.

Well, you’ve certainly come a heck of a long way since being an unknown guitar hopeful hanging out at GP’s redesign bash in 2004—although both Carlos Santana and Paul Reed Smith had previously alerted us to you, and that doesn’t happen very often.

Thank you so much. Guitar Player is one of my favorite magazines. I’ve been reading it since I was really young. I love it, and it’s awesome to be a part of it. And, yes, it has been a crazy journey since coming to NAMM for the first time in 2004.

When we first heard you perform, you were so influenced by Carlos Santana that you actually sounded like him. So, here’s a two-tiered question: What was it about Santana’s playing that affected you so intensely, and how did you start to develop your own sound from the foundation of his influence?

I started playing electric guitar when I was 11, after seeing Santana perform in Australia. I was playing classical guitar at the time, and I said to my dad, “I don’t want to play classical anymore after hearing Carlos.” He just put everything into his playing, and that really affected me. I also loved his tone, and his choice of notes. So I got all of his records and videos—I wore out a VHS of Sacred Fire: Santana Live in South America because I played it so much—and I studied his playing. I wanted to copy his solos notefor- note, and I wanted to make sure I had a similar guitar and tone and everything. I wanted to be just like him.

But, to answer your second question, I also knew that it’s really important to find your own tone and style. I just needed a starting point, and as much as I look up to Carlos Santana and Steve Vai, I knew that I’d have to stop listening to guitar players for a while and incorporate all of my influences into a quest to find my own voice.

And yet, a lot of players do as much work assimilating, say, the style and tone of Jimmy Page or Stevie Ray Vaughan as you did with Santana, and some of those guitarists will always be Page or SRV clones. I thinkGPreaders would like to know if you reached an epiphany where you said, “Okay, it’s time to sound like me, and this is how I’m going to do it.”

For me, I guess it came from writing songs, working with other musicians, and playing guitar as much as I could without listening to records. I’d often put down some chords on a little cassette recorder, and then play solos over them—listening all the time to find things that sounded like me, instead of Santana, Vai, Stevie Ray, or B.B. King. It was a hard thing to do, because I’m a bluesbased player, and I instinctively gravitate to old blues riffs and what not. I mean, you always have your influences with you, but you have to try to step away from them, and just sit in a room playing guitar all by yourself until you discover some different approaches that incorporate more “you” than “them.”

Having gone through this process, then, what do you feel is the most uniquely “Orianthi” about how you play today?

[Laughs.] I don’t think there’s anything original about what I do, but my playing has developed into using a combination of pick and fingers. For example, on “Drive Away,” I use my fingers on the verse, and then switch to a pick for the chorus. I like to use my whammy bar a lot, as well. I guess it’s just a collection of little things—little approaches— that make up my style.

Dynamically speaking, do you tend to pick hard or light, or do you change it up?

I’m a pretty hard picker. I break a lot of strings—which is why it’s so important that I change strings before every performance. If I’m playing just a couple of songs, I’ll use a .010 set to get a fatter tone, but if I’m doing a full show, I’ll go with a .009-.042 set.

Is that because the .010 set gets a bit wearing over the course of an hour-plus show?

Totally. I have girl’s hands—that’s my excuse. I actually get blisters on my fingers if I play too hard.

Even after all the time you’ve been playing?

Yeah. It’s painful. They get really red, and if I pop them, then I have to wait for the skin to heal—which is agony, because I want to play guitar all the time. So having the .009s on there is a little nicer to my fingers.

If you don’t vary your pick attack much, then how do you achieve your dynamics?

It’s kind of funny. I actually like to set the amp to its lead channel and crank it up. Then, when I turn the guitar’s volume knob to 10, it’s a flat-out lead tone. For sweeter solos, I’ll turn the guitar volume down to 5. Rhythm tones might be a lower setting, depending upon how aggressive or clean I need to be. I’d rather get all the dynamics from the guitar. I don’t really like pedals. It kind of annoys me to have to walk over and hit a pedal for extra grit or sustain or whatever. When I use the guitar controls, I can stand anywhere I want onstage, and still get the tones I need.

What was your production concept for Believe?

I wanted to make a super-commercial record that had guitar solos on every track. I’m a big fan of pop songs and pop/rock songs, but I’m a big guitar head, too. I had talked with the album’s producer, Howard Benson, before we started recording, and I told him that I wanted strong songs with really catchy choruses. Then, we’d carefully add all the guitar parts, so that non-guitarists wouldn’t be turned off by hearing too much guitar, but there would be enough there for guitar players and guitar fans. And if someone felt there still wasn’t enough guitar on the album, I’d hope that “Highly Strung”— the instrumental duet with Steve Vai—would make up for it.

It is difficult being a technically gifted guitarist who makes an overtly pop album, because you’re probably going to get shot at from both sides.

Yeah. Totally. But I really want to inspire more kids to pick up the guitar—girls especially— and I think you have to reach them through pop music. I also happen to like the discipline of crafting good pop music. I didn’t just go in there and wing it—even though the pure guitar player in me wanted to play all over the whole record. I’d spend a lot of time thinking of guitar parts that complemented the vocals or the melody. It’s not about my guitar playing being in your face for the whole three minutes. I was always thinking about what would be best for the song. Having said that, there were times when I’d hold back, and then Howard or Ron [Fair, Geffen Records chairman] would say, “We need more guitar.”

What does “playing for the song” mean to you? So many artists use that phrase without being specific, that it has almost become one of those vague sound bites that appear to have substance, but ultimately mean little.

For me, it’s all about emotion. You play what you feel, and it sounds right when you do it, and it still sounds right when you hear it back. The mysterious part is that I’ll hear guitar melodies while I’m listening to the chord changes. It might take listening to the song quite a few times until I find what fits. I’ll sort of hum what I hear in my head, and then find the notes on the guitar. Sometimes, it just connects that way. If something isn’t right, it doesn’t settle. It’s almost unsettling to listen to it. That’s when you know you’re not playing for the song [laughs].

What are the elements of a perfect solo?

A great solo is like a mini song. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it never lags—some level of excitement is always there.

Do you hear the solos in your head before you play them?

Sometimes. I know where the notes are, and how they’re going to sound, so if there’s something in my head, I can just feel it out. But if it’s not working—if it doesn’t sound cool—then I’ll construct a solo piece-bypiece. There are definitely solos that demand a bit of time before I’m really happy with them. Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t drive yourself mad playing something over and over. If you lose the energy, you’re dead. That’s why we usually end up keeping the first two takes of any solo I play.

Are your favorite solos based on scales or pure melody?

I learned scales, but I hate thinking about them—I really do. I think scales get in the way, because it’s all about the notes—it’s not about a melody or playing what you feel.

How does your state of mind affect what you play?

It’s huge. Every day, my approach to the guitar is different. If I’ve had a lot of coffee, and I’m in a hyper mood, I’ll pick it up and play fast. If I’m tired, I might play bluesy. Basically, if it’s a good guitar day, my fingers can connect much faster with what I hear in my head. I also have days were I get frustrated because I’ll find myself playing the same things over and over. At that point, it’s best to leave the guitar alone for a few days. Don’t play at all, and listen to some different music than what you’re working on. When you come back to the guitar again, you should have some fresh ideas and renewed energy.

Okay, People magazine question alert. How did you score the gig with Michael Jackson?

It was pretty crazy. I was jamming with Carrie Underwood at the Grammys [2009], and Mike Bearden—who was the musical director for Michael Jackson’s band—was in the audience. He was looking for a guitar player, and he reached out to me through MySpace.

MySpace? That’s funny.

I thought it was a joke at first, but it was for real. He wanted me to come down and play “Dirty Diana,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” and the solo to “Beat It.” I learned the songs, but I was super nervous thinking about all the amazing guitar players Michael Jackson had worked with. I didn’t think I would get the gig, but I figured it would be great to meet him at least. Then, I found out Michael had watched my YouTube videos and said that he loved my playing. When I heard that, I was screaming around my apartment. I just thought it was insane. I played for Mike [Bearden] first, and then Michael came in later that night and sat on a couch looking right at me. I cranked up my guitar and went into “Beat It,” thinking, “I’ve got to get this right, but I’m not going to try to fill anyone’s shoes. I’m going to do the best I can and hope that he digs my vibe.” He hired me that night.

Can you detail a couple of things you did to bring your own vibe into parts originally performed by other guitarists?

On the “Beat It” solo, I’d use the whammy bar to get to some of the higher notes instead of actually fretting them. I just tried to bring my own personality into the parts somehow.

What was it like working with Jackson?

Awesome. He was all about guitar playing.

Did he ever suggest parts or tones?

Oh, yeah. Michael knew what he wanted to hear. We went through a bunch of amps, and I got real neurotic about it. Once, we were rehearsing “Black or White,” and one of my speakers blew out. The intro riff sounded so weak—nothing there. I was freaking out. So Michael says, “The tone needs to be fatter.” I said, “I’m sorry, my amp is kind of gone. I need to get another one.” He just said, “Okay, okay. Just make sure you get the right tone.” I think he thought that horrible sound was my tone [laughs]. I also had to step up as a rhythm player, because I’m more about the leads. But, with Michael, the parts and the timing and the tones always had to be right there. You just had to be “on” all the time. It was definitely like boot camp for the first couple of weeks. Michael definitely knew how to bring out the best in everybody on the bandstand.

Where do you find the confidence to step onstage with a Michael Jackson, or a Steve Vai, or a Carlos Santana, and know that you’re not going to blow it? I mean, those guys are heavy.

It might sound weird, but I don’t think about that stuff—I just get up there and play. Obviously, being in Steve’s or Carlos’ presence is immensely humbling. They’re awesome guys, and jamming with them is an honor, but I don’t really get nervous. I put all that judgment stuff out the window. I just want to play the right things and make them happy.

So, anxiety-wise, playing with Steve Vai causes no more nervous flutters than stepping onstage to play a number with a pub band back home in Australia?

[Laughs.] Oh, no—it’s different!

They’re not doing some old-school blues “cutting contest” with you, then? Like, “Okay, let’s see what she can do before I burn her?”

No, no, no. I just feel encouragement from them. They have a really encouraging energy that just makes me want to be a better player.

What was it like writing “Highly Strung” with Vai?

I went to his home studio, and he already had the drum beat and a guitar riff, as well as the concept that we’d do the call-andresponse thing. It all came together pretty fast. In fact, a lot of the demo guitars made the final version because they had so much energy and vibe. He’s a really melodic player, so I had to stay focused and make sure that my parts sounded good next to his parts. It was all about the melodies!

It’s interesting that you love your PRS Custom 22 and Custom 24 guitars, but went with a more affordable PRS SE model for your signature guitar.

As I said earlier, I want to inspire a lot of kids to play guitar, and Paul Reed Smiths can be quite expensive. So I wanted something that’s super affordable. But, you know, my guitar actually has a Custom 24 neck on an SE body, so you’re getting a very high-quality neck on a guitar that costs under $700.

And you also want to inspire more girls to play guitar, but, sadly, it’s still difficult here in 2010 for many male guitarists to give female players some respect.

Totally. Guitar is considered a guy thing, and I actually had to learn guitar by listening to all guy players—apart from Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Batten. When I was back in school, it wasn’t easy being a female guitar player and lining up the same auditions as the guys. They would say, “Why aren’t you playing the harp? It’s a more feminine instrument.” I mean, I was called a freak, but it’s so important to shut out negativity and destructive criticism when you’re a girl. Even now, guys will come to my shows and just stare at me with this “What are you doing?” kind of attitude. And I don’t even go on message boards anymore because someone is always saying I got a break just because I’m a girl. Well, no—I have a real deep passion for playing, and I’ve worked really hard to get here. Believe me, I’ve put in the hours. It’s a lot of hard work. So it’s like, “Hey, I love the guitar, so leave me alone. If you don’t like my playing, then go listen to someone else.” People can be very destructive, but you just have to follow your dreams and never give up.

Orianthi Reveals Her Gear Choices for Believe


“Guitars have different personalities,” says Orianthi. “You can pick one up, and it will fight you. But PRS guitars always feel just right to me, and you can pull out a lot of different tones from them. On Believe, I used my cherryburst PRS Custom 22 that I call ‘Manos’—my guardian angel. I love that guitar. I also used my scarlet-red PRS Custom 24, which is called ‘Pepper.’ It has a thinner tone than the 22—it cuts more. The 22 is more of a fat, bluesy-sounding guitar.”


“Most of the record was tracked using an Engl Steve Morse Signature 100 head through an Engl 4x12 cabinet—I love that amp’s built-in noise gate—although I used a Peavey 5150 or a Marshall JCM800 for some leads. For “Untogether,” I went with a Fender Twin Reverb for some warm and bluesy rhythm tones, as well as the clean arpeggio parts in the background.”


“I don’t like to use too many pedals—they break up that connection between the player and the tone. If you have a great amp and a great guitar, then you shouldn’t want to mask the sound too much. However, I did use a Boss Digital Delay, a Boss Digital Reverb, and a Morley Bad Horsie 2 Contour Wah.”


“I use Dean Markley Blue Steel strings, gauged .009-.042. My 1mm picks are either custom ones with my name on them or Dunlop.”

Facebook Debate!

I posted the following comment on GP’s Facebook page on February 6: “Interviewed Orianthi. Interesting creative dichotomy: She’s a kick-ass guitarist who can shred with Steve Vai, and she’s a total pop artist who plays calculated, American Idol-style “hit” productions. I’d like to hear your views on whether you believe today’s pop gloss can coexist with edgy, ballsy, and adventurous guitar playing.” Here are some of your responses…

Steven McDuffie Girls can’t play guitar!

Pat Scafuri She rocks the sh*t out of her guitar.

David Daw Why not have great solos in pop music? And that much better to see a hot girl playing!

Rick Clinton She needs to put out an all-instrumental album, and show the world she can play the hell out of her guitar.

Brendan Palangio Oh look, another shredder...boring.

Jake Martin Holy crap. If this girl breaks into the mainstream, it will be a victory of epic proportions for the guitar community.

Joel Merrylees I honestly can’t remember any guitarist who has the opportunity to truly walk both sides of the fence as she. The pop gloss will stay until the fan base is there, and then she will do whatever she wants. She is gonna be a force to reckon with for a long time!

Ritchie Hayden The tone she uses in the pop song on the radio is the most disgusting, rat-bastard tone out there right now—soulless, cold, and a total cheesefest.

Carlos Gabriel Castro From Elvis to Billy Idol to Michael Jackson, ripping guitar has existed in pop, should exist in pop, and can exist in pop.

Dave Jacoby I love shredders, but they’ve chased people away from the instrument. Dick Dale, the Ventures—people used to dance to instrumental rock-guitar music! More power to Orianthi.

Tim Rutter If the tunes suck, it won’t matter a bit how good the playing is.

Robert Green Is it better to toil away in obscurity, or to break into the public via more popular music forms, and then educate the masses as to what is really good? Popular music formats have allowed me to hear great players like Brian May, Mark Knopfler, and John Mayer.

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