By: Jesse James Mazzoccoli
From the six-year old dreamer, to the lead guitarist for the King of Pop, to her red-hot solo career, guitar virtuoso Orianthi has a story to tell.
A story that stars the young Aussie as she dreams of becoming a guitar master and recording artist, both of which would come to fruition with the crucial role of supportive parents who were behind her all the way.
Recalling the trials and tribulations she experienced while studying music in her native Australia, Orianthi tells us what it was like being a woman in the male-dominated realm of guitar players.
How she overcame being ridiculed by many male guitarists, and even teachers, for being an incredible “girl” guitarist.
She’s played with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards, with her childhood heroes Steve Vai and Carlos Santana, and was discovered through a set of YouTube videos that sparked her role as Michael Jackson’s lead guitarist. Not an easy challenge, but one that the young guitarist was fully prepared to meet head on.
Since Jackson’s passing, Orianthi has branched out and made a name for herself in the pop-rock world. Bringing with her incredible musicianship and pop sensibilities, which are proving to be a lethal combination as her albums and singles climb the charts.
Currently Orianthi is touring the U. S., opening for Adam Lambert on the Glam Nation Tour, and is working on her next album. If her past is any indication, the future is wide open for the talented guitarist.
Jesse Mazzoccoli: Let’s start back in Australia. When and why did you leave Mercedes College?
Orianthi: I’m not sure exactly when it was. I think I was in grade ten actually. I went to Mercedes College and I went to Cabra. I probably went to seven schools in total. I kinda got bored and wanted to move on. I left school when I was fifteen.
I just wanted to play the guitar all day, and being a female guitarist wasn’t easy by any means. I did some home schooling and I was playing in a couple of bands two or three times a week until I was twenty-one. So yeah, I decided to leave school at a young age, but I knew what I wanted to do, and my parents backed me the whole way.
I don’t recommend leaving school at fifteen. I think it’s important to have an education, and that’s why I did the home schooling. But I kinda felt that music has been my calling since I was six.
It was everything that I was doing at school, and then I’d get home and lock myself in my room for five hours playing the guitar. [Laughs]
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Jesse: Well, it certainly paid off.
Orianthi: Thank you. I love playing.
Jesse: Where do you call home now?
Jesse: How do you like living in L.A. compared to Australia?
Orianthi: It’s cool. I’ve got a great bunch of friends out here. I get along with everybody. I love it. It’s my second home, really. I call it my home now because I’m living there, but Australia will always be my first home.
Jesse: Can you tell us about Manos and Pepper?
Orianthi: Yeah, my PRS Custom 22 is Manos, and my Custom 24 is Pepper, and I actually have backups now. The backup for Manos is Messiah, and the backup to Pepper is Mr. Burple, which I’m using now.
Manos and Pepper I’ve used for quite a while and I love those guitars. Bringing them out on the road is pretty crazy. I don’t want anything to happen to those guitars since they hold so many memories for me. I’ve used them in the studio a lot, and so I’m not going to retire those guitars.
I’ll use them in the studio and in special performances, but on the road I’m probably gonna use the backups, Messiah and Burple.
Jesse: So you use the same guitars in the studio and in your performances?
Orianthi: I do, yeah. They have my tone, and I feel very comfortable playing them. That’s really important to me. If you feel like you’re holding something that is foreign to you, then it’d be weird. You can’t just let the music flow through.
To have that kind of connection from my brain to my hands is really important. I can’t let anything get in between that. I want my guitars to be very comfortable so I can just play.
Jesse: Where did you get the name for Mr. Burple?
Orianthi: My guitar tech came up with the name because it’s purple. It’s like a purple burp, Mr. Burple. [Chuckles]
Jesse: How did your endorsement deal for Paul Reed Smith come about?
Orianthi: When I was fourteen I sent a demo out to Paul, and he heard the record Under the Influence, where I played my Custom 24. It was a second hand guitar, I guess you could say. I begged my dad for it when I was eleven.
I was studying classical guitar at the time, and I begged him for a PRS. So I got one, and the action was pretty high, and the strings were really heavy. But it was a great guitar to learn on. It was a 24 and a brown color, tortoise shell, I think.
I sent the demo to Paul and he really liked it. He reached out to me and invited me up to play the NAMM show. That was kinda trippy, he mentioned an endorsement back then, but I was like eighteen or twenty when I finally went over to play NAMM at the PRS booth.
Paul supported me, which is awesome, and I just love his guitars. In my opinion, he’s the best guitar maker around. The way they look is a bonus. He puts so much effort into making them. They’re the best.
Jesse: Have you ever been to operations in Maryland or checked out any PRS shows?
Orianthi: Yeah, I love it. I’ve been to the factory, but I haven’t been to the new factory. It was really cool. I slept in a sleeping bag in the corner, just watching as the guitars were made. [Laughs] It’s so interesting and cool.
Jesse: When you met Michael Jackson for the first time, did you have any expectations as to what he’d be like? What were your thoughts when you got to know him better?
Orianthi: Well, with all the press that’s out there, I didn’t know what it was gonna be like. When I met him, he was the sweetest person. When he walked into the room, well I was such a big fan of his that I was so nervous, but he was so sweet. He came over and hugged me.
He said he saw my YouTube videos, and said he wanted me to play for him. When I heard that, I started screaming I think. Mike Bearden, Michael’s music director, saw the video of me playing at the Grammys with Carrie Underwood and he showed them to Michael.
Mike Bearden called me and said, Michael just watched your videos and he wants you to play for him, and said he was looking for a young female guitar player. I didn’t think it was real when I got the emails from everyone. It was pretty crazy going in there and playing and thinking about all of the other guitar players that have played for him in the past, just incredible players.
People really look up to them, so it was daunting, going in there and thinking, “OK, now I really have to play my ass off, and hope that Michael dug my vibe.” Approaching the “Beat It” solo, I just put my own finale to it, hoping he would like it.
I didn’t wanna go in and copy Eddie or Jennifer Batten or anyone else that’s played for him. I did my own thing using the whammy bar on the PRS and got a different sound out of it.
He really loved it and grabbed my arm afterwards and asked, “Would you play that solo while walking with me at a really fast pace?”, I said yeah, and he hired me that night. It was an amazing moment and something I’ll never forget.
Jesse: You mention names like Eddie Van Halen and Jennifer Batten, and it’s like you don’t realized that you’re among those ranks. Congrats.
Orianthi: Thank you. It’s pretty crazy. Jennifer actually emailed me after the Grammy Awards, when I got up there with Carrie, and said it’s cool to see a female guitar player playing leads and everything. That meant so much because there aren’t too many female guitar players to look up to. There’s Jennifer Batten, Bonnie Raitt, and so I think she’s incredible.
I wish there were more female guitarist out there, because there are so many more male players. My idols were Steve Vai, Santana, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They’re the three that I grew up with listening to and they’re my three main idols. I wish there were more female players out there, so hopefully, more come out.
Jesse: Could you run us through your collaboration with Michael? Was he specific as to what he wanted you to do, or did he give you flexibility to do your own thing, or both?
Orianthi: He gave me a lot of moments, and he wanted me to solo out in the audience. He wanted me to come up with an ending to “Black or White,” which was actually called “Aftermath,” and he asked me to put something together. It’s really guitar-based and it’s all about me and Michael’s other guitar player.
At the end of “Black or White” I would just solo with the spotlight on me. I would come through the rubble. There’s gonna be rubble all over the ground with explosions and pyro and stuff. I’d be soloing in the audience, then I’d invite Tommy to come over and play with me and do this trade off thing which you can see on This is It.
I’m running to one side and Tommy’s running to the other and then we run up together on the ramp, and that was super cool. I came up with that and Michael said he really loved it, and he instructed me as to where he wanted me to run and where he wanted Tommy to be.
Michael was very involved in every aspect of the show when it came to the music and choreographing us and our sound. I remember I went through ten different amps because I wanted to make sure the sound was right. I remember playing “Black or White” for him, and three of the four speakers in my cabinet were blown.
You can imagine going into “Black or White” with this horrible, tinny sound like it’s coming through a radio speaker, and he said, “It’s a little thin-sounding today.” I told him my speakers were blown, it was really funny.
The other day was really hard for me because it’s been a year since he’s passed. I was just remembering the amazing moments that we all had, and how wonderful he was to work with. We had really good times.
Jesse: You mentioned earlier that you were taking classical guitar lessons. How long did you do that?
Orianthi: I did it for about a year, I was about nine or ten, and switched to electric guitar at about age eleven. I went to a university and I studied, I passed right through in theory and classical studies.
I could’ve gone to grade two, but I was kinda bored with it. I wanted to get on the electric, but I learned all of the basics. I learned to sight read and basic theory and the chords and everything.
I think it was good that I did that because a lot of players don’t know how to read music. I think it’s a cool thing to learn that. I just wanted to move on to electric when I was eleven.
Jesse: Did the classical training help you with your shredding?
Orianthi: I always sort of go back to classical music. When I’m writing my riffs, they sound pretty classical. I think having that training, even in the short time that I did, helps me come up with different melodies and harmonizing parts.
My other guitar player, Brian, harmonizes my guitar parts, and when we start our show it’s all really dramatic and all instrumental. I think that training really helped with that.
Jesse: Besides shedding, what other styles do you find beauty in? Flamenco? Jazz?
Orianthi: Yeah, I love country. I love country music.
Jesse: Oh, my.
Orianthi: I love Keith Urban, he an amazing player. Brad Paisley.
Jesse: Of course.
Orianthi: Toby, also Albert Lee, and Rascal Flats. I love jazz, like Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and John McLaughlin, different players that have their own passion and unique style. I listen to all different types of players.
Read GI’s Interview with John McLaughlin
I like players that play outside the box, like Jeff Beck or Steve Vai, who’s from another world or something, the way they solo and their melodies. It’s like, where does that come from? I love those kinds of players.
Jesse: Earlier you mentioned difficulties while growing up as a female guitar player. What kind of difficulties?
Orianthi: I hope I can inspire a lot more girls to keep at it or pick it up. If they’re going through what I went through at school, they can do what I’ve done and get past that. I’m doing what I love. This is my career.
I feel blessed to be able to play shows every night and have a great band and make records. That’s something I dreamt about doing since I was six years old, so I never take anything for granted.
A lot of people think when you get a record deal you don’t have to do a lot of work, but it is a lot of work. You gotta play as many shows as you can and just get people to come to your shows. But it’s really cool when you look out into the audience and you see all of these people singing along and playing air guitar to the track. That’s super cool.
Jesse: What kind of specific things did you have to endure as a female guitar player at school?
Orianthi: I would line up to do the same auditions as the guys, so standing in line to get into the school band with guys was tough. They would say things. One teacher actually said to me, “You should play the harp because it’s a more feminine instrument.”
The guys use to call me freak all of the time. They’d say, “You shouldn’t be playing the guitar, you’re a girl.” They’d tell me that I wasn’t gonna get this audition and that I should just walk away now, and I got it and that irritated them even more.
Orianthi: Yeah, so going to class after I got it wouldn’t be fun. This was just a thing that happened at most schools, and it wasn’t fun for me, by any means. I hope that other girls, and even guys going through that, can get past it. Just do what you love.
Jesse: What are you doing now and what does the future hold for you?
Orianthi: Right now I’m touring the U.S. with the Glam Nation Tour, opening for Adam Lambert, and it’s been a real blast. I’m having so much fun. I’m gonna be going over to Japan, and then Germany to release the record over there.
Then, I’m coming back to the U.S. we’ll be touring, and I’m actually planning my third record, so that’s in the works. The next record is gonna sound completely different from the last one.