Orianthi: Lady Plays the Voodoo Blues

By Caroline Paone

Guitar sensation Orianthi cranks it up on her third studio album Heaven In This Hell, but worldwide audiences first noticed the blonde axe slinger as part of Michael Jackson’s This Is It rehearsals. Today, the Australian-born performer calls L.A. home and is guitar royalty around town, having jammed with everyone from Carlos Santana to Steven Tyler. 

Whether she’s wielding a blood-splattered guitar on stage with Alice Cooper or playing alongside Carrie Underwood, Orianthi brings her own style to every situation. Although she’ll tell you her first love is the blues, her music embodies pop-rock, instrumental interludes and guitar-driven crunch.  

At age six she strummed her first guitar, at 11 plugged in an electric, and never looked back…

CP: Your Dad is guitar player, too. What were your early experiences with music?

Orianthi: My Dad had a large collection of videos and records, and he’d be watching different videos of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. I would go into the living room and always read his Guitar Player magazines. [Then] I was taking the guitar magazines to school and reading them under the desk [laughs] I wasn’t doing any work. At six, he taught me how to strum, initially, and then took me to one of his friends for lessons. My Dad was in a Greek band (I’m half Greek) he used to play at weddings and Christenings and stuff. I would go see him play and occasionally I would go up and jam with him. My Dad loves playing guitar, when I go home he’s playing away and he loves it. He’s a great guitar player. So I learned from him and then I learned off Santana. 

When I was 11 I went with my Dad to see one of his shows. [At the time] I was studying classical, I learned how to sight read and a bit of theory. Then, I saw Santana and I was like “I don’t want to play classical guitar anymore because it’s just boring.” It was good though to learn the basics, but when you play the blues all that stuff sort of goes out the window; you don’t want to think too much. Obviously, I really respect a lot of people that know that and everything, but Santana, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, these players are just very free with their playing, and that’s what I wanted to do. I left school when I was 15 to be in cover bands until I was like 20. Then I moved to America. I kept coming over here to go to NAMM shows and then I got a record deal.

CP: Did you first come to L.A. with your Dad?

Orianthi: Actually my Mom came over first and I would go back and forth doing the NAMM show every year. Then I recorded a CD at home in my studio and brought it over with me and that was in 2005 or 2006, signed a deal and moved. It’s been a long process and a big journey, ups and downs, you gotta find yourself and stick with it, jamming with people and working with people and just being a guitar player. I really enjoy being an artist and having my own band, too.  

CP: You’re out promoting your third studio release, Heaven In This Hell, how’s everything going?

Orianthi: Good! I’m in L.A. and I’m looking forward to my album coming out very soon. We issued the single “Frozen” on iTunes today. I’m excited, I haven’t put anything out for an album in about three years. 

CP: That song “Frozen” has had an evolution of sorts, it’s really heavy…I love it.

Orianthi: Thank you. I wrote that song with Kevin Griffin a while ago. It was a very acoustic sort of track with a rapper on it. I just felt like that song, something about the lyrics were pretty heavy “soul vampire” and everything, listening to it more, the lightness of the track I thought it should have been a bit heavier. I had this riff, it sort of fit the vocal line and put an octave with a pedal on it and made it sound pretty aggressive. It’s got a bit of a Hendrix vibe to it, because the record kind of does, with Heaven In This Hell and Filthy Blues, it’s definitely got a bit of that voodoo-rock blues thing going on.  

CP: What else can fans expect from the recording? 

Orianthi: “Heaven In This Hell,” is a song which is pretty heavy. We played it live a ton of times. It’s definitely got that delta blues guitar and [turned] into this heavy sort of riffed-based rock song. With this record we really envisioned all the songs live, so “what would it sound like with a three piece? What would it sound like with a big band?” And we wanted a chorus that the audience could sing along to. It’s definitely riff-based and I’ve definitely gone back to my blues roots with this album. 

CP: How was it working with Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) as a producer?

Orianthi: I love working with Dave, he is like one of the easiest people to work with because he’s just so full of ideas and has great input. He really just said “go with your gut, and do what you do, and don’t try to be anything else.” He’s a great person to work with, and a really great songwriter and guitar player. It was a lot of fun making this album. 

CP: Do you have any special approach to the songwriting process?

Orianthi: Songwriting changes, the whole process is always different in collaborating with somebody. Sometimes I’ll bring in an idea, like a riff I’ll have, and I’ll play it for Dave and he’ll be like that’s cool. Then go back to the lyrics and the chorus. Some of the songs were written on piano: “How You Think” and “You’re Here With Me” as well.  

Others were written outside on acoustic guitar, some written in studio, I plugged into an amp and played really loud. It’s all different, and I think that’s the thing, you never know when an idea is going to come to you. It’s just what I live for: it’s playing and creating, jamming and listening to music. I love going to see bands as well and getting inspired again. It’s like “yeah, I want to play too I want to write a song.” It never changes because from when I was 11 to now, if I see a big show I want to pick up my guitar when I get home. 

CP: You’ve played with some legendary musicians, how do you adapt to each style from Alice Cooper to Steve Vai and Michael Jackson?

Orianthi: I just play the way that I play. Obviously, if I’m learning Alice Cooper songs there are so many different parts to it and you really have to get into his world. Initially, it was pretty daunting because I had a lot of songs to learn, and there are so many parts to his songs. I was a fan before, but I’m the biggest fan now because you really appreciate what goes into the whole recording process of each song and writing pieces as well because there’s just so many guitar parts. It’s funny but it’s a learning process for me. It’s like throwing yourself into the ocean each time.  

When you’re working alongside Alice you learn different things as you go along and then you feel more comfortable. The first few shows with Alice I was sort of making sure I didn’t run into Frankenstein or get stabbed [laughs]. Then the music, you know, the crazy parts and songs like “Halo of Flies” is like 11-minutes long, you just learn different things. Alice Cooper is such a great entertainer too, so I love being part of the whole crazy show.  

Steve Vai is such an amazing guitar player but such a great songwriter, too, the way that he constructs his songs. That was an amazing experience being in a room [with him] and I just wanted to watch him play guitar. [laughs] I didn’t want to play, you know, because when you’re around someone like that, it’s like, [you’re] sort of  “not worthy,” he’s so great. I’ve known him since I was 14, and that was my first support with Steve Vai. I was nervous, it being my first show, but when you’re opening for like the best guitar player, I mean incredible, incredible, he came on stage and he’s like shredding away and playing a beautiful melody, and he’s just a great entertainer as well. 

And working with Michael Jackson, too, that was really different as well; played lots of funky different rhythm parts to rock guitar solos--it’s all crazy.  

CP: You worked with Michael Jackson rehearsing for what would have been his “This Is It Tour.” What did you learn from him…I can only imagine how that experience was?

Orianthi: You know, it was just like this crazy dream, which I’ll never forget. Obviously, I am very honored to have been chosen by Michael and getting to work with these incredible musicians and dancers and everybody. It was set to be the biggest show, ever. I learned a lot just watching him, the way that he was with everybody. I mean he was such an incredible entertainer, but he knew every part of his songs, and he wanted to make sure the fans would be happy. He was “oh maybe that guitar song can be changed a bit, or this part, and I want you to be over here” just little things that definitely made a big difference. It’s like he had it all stamped in his head [laughs] he kind of knew every part and sound and everything; incredible, incredible person, too.  

CP: He sounds very professional and intense?

Orianthi: Really professional, very intense but very personable. He treated everyone the same, very sweet, not completely different to what I though he was going to be, but there was just so much crazy media stuff about that. When I met him (we were with him for three months) but like wow he was very dedicated, very sweet and very childlike. 

CP: Was he really as soft spoken like everyone says?

Orianthi: Eh, he had a lot of fun, too, you know, he was very soft spoken but he was like a child at heart, he would be joking around and cussing a lot, and he was really looking forward to putting on the show. So, very sad. I’m very happy that I had the chance to work with him, you know, that was just incredible.  

CP: You’ve been touring with Alice Cooper, how did you first cross paths with him? 

Orianthi: I played on “Schools Out” which was actually years ago on American Idol, and then we’ve been touring for about a year and a bit, so yeah he’s awesome. He’s just so sweet. You know, big musical family, love the band, and everyone’s just really wonderful; love being part of the show.    

CP: What’s it like touring with Alice Cooper? Do you have a favorite part of the show?

Orianthi: I love playing “Halo of Flies” because it’s an 11-minute song, and crazy thing, it has this whole sort choreographed part, as well as the guitars--a lot of fun. We change it up all time. I just toured not too long ago and the whole set list has changed. So, it’s a lot of fun.  

CP: What a great show. Also he seems like such a nice family guy?

Orianthi: Oh Yeah, his whole family is just so sweet they come out on the tour--really cool people.   

CP: Were you inspired by any other women musically along the way? Or do you remember seeing any women playing that stood out to you?

Orianthi: Yeah definitely, Bonnie Raitt. I love Bonnie Raitt. Great singer, Jennifer Batten, of course. I listened to all of the country singers. You know I don’t know, honestly, mostly guys though. [ha ] That’s the thing, there weren’t that many female guitar players around--Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Batten, kind of it.

CP: It sounds like you’re an example of all that changing?

Orianthi: Well it’s difficult to see when I am at the NAMM show or on Twitter and I get the messages from girls who are like “I am sticking it out and thank you for inspiring me, I’ve been playing for a few years now.” That’s typical, so whether it’s guitar or drums, or anything that sort of mostly guys do. You know or “you inspired me to play music or write songs or sing,” because music is such a powerful thing and I love to write it, but I also love to listen to it, music has helped me through different times in my life so when people say “your music has helped me” that means a lot, it really does. 

CP: Do you enjoy writing lyrics?

Orianthi: Yeah, I like going on long walks, and I bring my phone with me and I am usually typing things, like different lyrics come to me if I’m walking around. I like doing that and putting melody to it and guitar riffs. I enjoy writing lyrics, sometimes they don’t come easy to me because I feel if I force myself to write a song it usually comes out pretty crappy [laughs]. If inspiration comes and the moment is there, you want to take advantage of that, and have your recorder going and go with it. The worst thing is when you get interrupted when you’re in that creative zone and you get that phone call, and you’re like ugh, “really, right now?” You know, “look I’m trying to write this song here.” That’s probably the most frustrating thing, but other than that, I love the whole process of writing. 

CP: Tell me about your new signature PRS guitar…Have you been playing Paul Reed Smith guitars for a while?

Orianthi: This guitar is pretty much based on my favorite PRS, which I used for about ten years. It’s a custom 24 with like a wide thin neck. It’s an SE my model, and I wanted to make it obviously affordable for kids. Some of, well all of the PRS are very pricey. This one is a really good quality guitar, it looks super cool I’m a big fan of sparkles, and it was actually all contoured, the body is scarlet red, it’s beautiful. It’s got a three-way blade switch, and HFS pickups, which are high-gain. What I usually do is roll off the volume, have it cranking through the amps, so I kind of control it with the volume, I can turn it down and have that sweet distortion tone, and then crank it up to like 10 and just solo away. Those pickups are great for that. Paul did an awesome job and I just love these guitars. I am a fan of his work, they’re all pieces of art.

CP: Your guitar parts are really diverse. You have an extended solo of sorts called “Lights of Manos” (first studio album Violet Journey). I really like it.

Orianthi: Oh thank you.

CP: Can you tell me a little more about it. Is that something you play at every show?

Orianthi: That song I wrote at home in Adelaide (Australia). I recorded the album myself I produced it and played everything on it. Literally that song came to me really late one night, it was like 2AM or something, and I just had this idea for it. I just wanted a song, I even might make a record like this in the future where it’s just guitar, and maybe a church organ or something, because you just kind of want to make that sort of music where there is no sort of just really free, it’s so instrumental, you can put it on and it’s like meditation. Makes you feel sort of centered. “Lights of Manos” is a song I used to open up the show with that all the time, now I’ve changed it somewhat. I’ll definitely put it back into the set, but yeah maybe in the future I’ll do a whole record kind of like “Lights of Manos.” 

CP: A compilation of instrumental pieces?

Orianthi: Yeah, just a whole instrumental album. I was thinking about it the other day and I would like to do something like that in the next few years, or even sooner, that’d be cool. 

CP: You’ve performed on a lot of popular TV shows. Is that type of experience different as apposed to your own show? Is it stressful? 

Orianthi: Yeah definitely live TV, the most nervous I’ve been actually a couple of times I played the GRAMMYS with Carrie Underwood and when I did American Idol a few times. That’s always nerve-racking because so many people watch it live, you don’t want anything to go wrong. Little things go through your mind like “what if my guitar strap breaks?” Or “what if I go over my heels?” or just stupid things because you don’t have a chance to do it again, and it’s like one song you know? In a show you can make it up if something disastrous happens [laughs]. It’s always nerve racking, but I kind of dig the adrenaline, it’s kind of addictive after a while.  

CP: You’ve played with so many incredible artists already, can you envision anyone else you’d still like to perform with?

Orianthi: Um, Eric Clapton, I want to do something with him. I think he’s great, amazing. I would love to do a song with B.B. King or Buddy Guy. Also on the more commercial side of things, I’m a big fan of Pink and her voice. So I would love to do something with her.  

CP: She’s got that raspy edgy voice…

Orianthi: Yeah, she’s so bluesy. Yeah just do a blues track with her, like I’m playing guitar and she’s singing. Sort of [just] guitar and vocals would be really cool. 

CP: As far as your solo work, do you have a specific band, or do you play with session musicians?

Orianthi: My band is kind of changing because I’ve been on tour with Alice for quite some time. When I come back into town the band I had before are off doing other things, they’re out of town and whatnot, so whoever is in town at the time. We always have a blast jamming. For “Frozen” we recently played on Fox11 with Brian Chiusano, and Tommy Henriksen from Alice Cooper, and then I had Robin (Goodbridge) from the band Bush, he came in on drums. It’s always changing up. Whoever’s around and wants to tour with me. Glen Sobel (drummer from Alice Cooper) played on the track “Frozen.” Shannon Forrest, a Nashville-based player, played on another track, Michael Rhodes, Dan Dugmore, just great players. John McBride mixed it (John McBride’s Blackbird Studio in Nashville) he’s awesome and a great guy, and just great energy in the studio. Really great band and session players.  

CP: Does that create a new dynamic working with various performers? Do you enjoy working with different players?

Orianthi: Yeah I do. If I’ve jammed with them before and we get along and sort of have that connection yeah. I just generally text them and say “hey you gonna be in town?” Whoever sort of is able to do it. It’s always great because sometimes when you mix and match different musicians they play differently together. I like it. It’s pretty cool.  

CP: Do you live exclusively in L.A. now?

Orianthi: I do. I’ve been living here for quite some time now--definitely my home.  

CP: Do you ever get back to Australia?

Orianthi: Once a year at Christmas time, that’s it, unless I tour [there]. You know it’s cool with Alice Cooper our first tour was Australia. Saw the family, then went back for Christmas. I saw my family twice. I just toured with Michael Bolton in Australia. That was great. 

CP: I bet you have a big family back in Australia?

Orianthi: I do, yeah. I do because I’m half Greek.  

CP: I get it, Greek/Italian, it’s similar?

Orianthi: [laughs] Yeah, the same thing right? Big family, lots of food,  definitely. 

CP: What are your plans next, touring, etc? 

Orianthi: I have the Grammy Music release party on the 11th of March, (at The GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles). That’s going to be really fun; doing promo around that. Hopefully going to Japan to do a mini tour, and then playing some shows out here in L.A., after promoting this album, I start up again with Alice Cooper. 

CP: Even with all the experiences you’ve had already, it seems the whole world is in front of you right now?

Orianthi: You never want to stop creating and there are so many possibilities, so many different things you can do with music, and always changing, always evolving and doing things for yourself, because I don’t want to make the same record twice. You know [laughs], you always want to change it up. My iPod is so eclectic, I listen to all different music, so I don’t want to fit into any mold or anything. 

Ori's Goddess Gear:

Signature Axe 
SE Orianthi Model
Signature PRS 2012 beveled SE carve 
Bridge   PRS Designed Tremolo
Tuners  PRS Designed Tuners
Treble Pickup     PRS Designe SE HFS Treble
Pickup Switching          
Volume and Tone Control with 3-Way Toggle Pickup Selector.
Push/pull tone control with 3-way blade switch (previously a 3-way toggle with no coil tapping).

PRS Guitars

Dean Markley strings
TC Electronic effects
EVH amps (by Fender)