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This article was originally published in issue #21
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Debuting with Santana at 18, playing with Steve Vai, Michael Jackson, Prince and Alice Cooper, playing Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival, having her own signature PRS model - Australian guitar goddess Orianthi has achieved more in a handful of years than most players do in a lifetime. Stuart Bull meets the guitarist who is finally convincing even the die-hards that girls really can play Rock guitar. Tim Slater adds the profile.
When Michael Jackson died suddenly in June 2009 it was a devastating blow, not only for the singer’s family and friends but also for the band that Jackson had assembled for a series of farewell concerts entitled ‘This Is It’ that were scheduled to take place at the London 02 Arena later that summer.
The DVD of the rehearsals for the doomed shows demonstrates that when it came to choosing the right musicians for the job, Michael Jackson’s instincts rarely failed him. During one brief sequence, Jackson plucks the slightly built blonde female lead guitarist from among his band and guides her into the spotlight. Prior to instructing the band to kick in with the riff to ‘Beat It’ Jackson softly intones to the youngster “This is your chance to shine!” before stepping out of the limelight and leaving his guitarist to do her stuff, an invitation that she more than takes in her stride.
Eddie Van Halen allegedly laid down the original ‘Beat It’ guitar solo in two takes when he guested on Michael Jackson’s seminal ‘Thriller’ LP in 1982 and it still ranks as one of the most exciting and challenging guitar solos ever recorded. This tour de force of tapping, dive-bombing whammy bar swoops and ultra-fast picking sets the bar pretty high and Orianthi Panagaris numbers among the few who can get their heads (let alone their fingers) convincingly around it.
Jackson’s death robbed thousands of people of the opportunity to witness Orianthi’s talents at first hand but the 28 year old from Adelaide in South Australia battled through the shock and disappointment to become one of the most high profile female Rock guitarists since her illustrious predecessor in Jackson’s band, Jennifer Batten.
Orianthi’s prolific workload has seen the charismatic young guitarist enjoying hit singles both in the US, Japan and her native Australia, joining the house band on American Idol and even making the inevitable appearance on Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock!
Since her all too brief tenure with Michael Jackson Orianthi has divided her time between her solo career, releasing her debut major label LP ‘Violet Journey’ in 2007 and it’s follow up ‘Believe’ in 2009 (which features Steve Vai on the track Highly Strung)) and developing her impressive CV as a seasoned session player.
Her ability to attract the attention of flamboyant stage performers clearly hasn’t diminished and in 2011 Orianthi was invited to join Alice Cooper’s touring band, the first time that such an honour was bestowed on a female musician.
Coming from a musical family, Orianthi was inspired by listening to her guitarist father and enjoyed raiding dad’s record collection to study the guitar work of her idols Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. As fate would eventually decree, Santana would play a fairly substantial role in Orianthi’s journey from practicing in her bedroom at home to bestriding the world’s stadia. Attending a Santana concert in Adelaide in 1997, Orianthi was struck by the guitarist’s soulful musicality and warm tone immediately ditched her classical guitar studies to focus her attention almost exclusively to the electric.
Paying careful attention to Santana’s tone - and most notably his amps and guitars - Orianthi pestered her parents into helping her save up to buy her first PRS, the brand that she continues to play and endorse to this day.
When Santana returned to Australia a few years later Orianthi was invited onstage after the Santana organization checked out a demo that she had recorded a few years earlier, quite an honour for an unknown 18 year old, who had already quit school at 15 to pursue her dream of being a professional musician and to escape the unwelcome attention of school bullies!
Toughened by her experiences playing in the rowdy Aussie pub scene and shrugging off the jealous rivalry of some of the older and more experienced male guitarists on the local scene who didn’t take kindly to being upstaged by a young girl, Orianthi pressed on, supporting Steve Vai in Adelaide and eventually relocating to Los Angeles in 2006, where her career really took off in earnest.
Her striking looks, friendly personality and ability to quickly learn complex parts has led her to get the call from the likes of AOR legend Michael Bolton and legendary British producer/composer (and no mean guitarist himself) Dave Stewart, who produced her most recent album, Heaven In This Hell, and her list of collaborations grows ever longer including the likes of Steve Vai, Mary J. Blige, John Mayer and Kid Rock.
The existing PRS connection was officially cemented when Paul Reed Smith signed Orianthi on as an official endorser in 2005, with the Custom 22 and Custom 24 models becoming her favoured weapons of choice. PRS's policy of signing unique artists to its endorser program made Orianthi more or less a shoe-in for the role and her PRS SE Orianthi signature model is now in its second incarnation. Following the classic PRS double cutaway blueprint, Orianthi’s latest signature model features a new Scarlet Red finish and a three-way blade pickup selector switch with no coil tapping. Her favoured amps currently alternate between a Peavey 5150 and Mesa Boogie, although she did flirt briefly with ENGL amps during the ill-fated This Is It rehearsals. In common with many pro players, TC Electronics and Dunlop effects form a hefty amount of Orianthi’s effects setup; the TC G-System and Nova Delay have long been favourites alongside the TC Corona Chorus and Vortex Flanger stomp boxes and the inevitable Dunlop Crybaby Wah.
The gadgets largely seem to take a back seat to Orianthi’s tone, which is a strident modern Rock guitar sound whose singing, mid-range heavy voice obviously owes a lot to her mentor Carlos Santana.
Orianthi likes a fat, high-gain overdrive, sweetened up with subtle smudges of phaser, chorus and delay and her playing is very grounded on a solid Blues/Rock foundation; those early years studying Hendrix are clearly deeply ingrained!
Her recent tour with Alice Cooper demonstrates her abilities as a sympathetic, accurate and supportive sideman(girl?) - the Cooper canon is a demanding gig but Orianthi gleefully sets aside her girl-next-door image and does a convincing turn as an axe toting she-devil foil to Alice Cooper’s shock-rock theatricals.
Where next? Who knows? But as Stuart Bull finds out in our interview - impressive as it is, the Orianthi saga has barely begun.