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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
[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.
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.
Totally. I have girl’s hands—that’s my
excuse. I actually get blisters on my fingers
if I play too hard.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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].
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
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.
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.
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
It was pretty crazy. I was jamming with
Carrie Underwood at the Grammys ,
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
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.
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.
Awesome. He was all about guitar playing.
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.
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
[Laughs.] Oh, no—it’s different!
No, no, no. I just feel encouragement
from them. They have a really encouraging
energy that just makes me want to be a better
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!
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.
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.
“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.”
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
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
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
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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