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John Jorgenson: From The Hellecasters to Elton John, an Eclectic Master…



Bob Bakert, editor:  Superlatives abound when trying to describe John Jorgenson.  

John masters every genre he addresses.  Instead of morphing and blending styles together and calling it something new, he seeks to perfect and advance the styles of guitar to new heights.  JGT is proud to have him on our cover this month.  He is not only a great musician but one of the nicest people you will ever talk to.  Quiet confidence and strong musical voice, John Jorgenson

JGT:  Of all the styles you play, which one is closest to your heart?  And has that changed over the years?

The way it works with me is that any style that I don’t get to play I start to miss…Each one has its own challenges if I stay away too long-gypsy jazz playing is quite physical and difficult to do if I’m not “in shape”, bluegrass and rock are both more vocal oriented so if my voice is not “in shape” that’s a challenge. So really the most difficult part is to stay sharp on all aspects of each musical style in a performance aspect. Recording is more forgiving, as I can revisit or sculpt parts as needed. 

JGT:  I watched you in the Hellecasters there was  a definite rock vibe to your tone and approach.  Your tone then is still as good as anything being done today.  How has your “rock rig” changed over the years and what will you be using on the upcoming Elton John dates?

Thanks very much, I’ve always been very attentive to my tone. After many years of experimenting with amps, speakers, pedals, etc I found what works for me in terms of a rock setup. 

The amp is usually some sort of Vox style amp, either AC30, AC15, hybrid Vox 730 or even transistor models like the Royal Guardsman. These will drive an Alnico speaker (or 2 or 4!) either in a combo or separate cabinet. Sometimes I’ll use a vintage Marshall head with a 4×12 for larger or outdoor stages. 

For the Elton John upcoming tour I’ve asked Pierangelo Mezzabarba to customize one of his channel-switching models, the MZero. He will add a clean channel driven by an EF86 tube similar to an early Vox or Matchless to compliment the drive and distortion channels already part of the amp. I like his distortion channel a lot, unusual for me. This amp will drive a Mezzabarba 4×12 cabinet loaded with Celestion’s new Ruby Alnicos. 

My pedals will always incorporate a tuner, then TS5 Tube Screamer, TS808 Tube Screamer, Boss DC2 Dimension C, Boss DD2 Delay, and Boss RV2 Reverb. 

John onstage at Guitar Town 2007

JGT:  You have had a pretty extensive musical education and play many instruments.  What advice can you give to aspiring professionals with regard to the skills and knowledge they need to survive and flourish as a pro guitarist/musician?

Attitude is key, you need to be a team player who can contribute to the whole in such a way that everyone in the band or artist’s team will want you back. It always helps to have additional skills, especially vocals. The ability to learn and sing a harmony part well is invaluable in most styles of music. 

JGT:  What skills can you point to that have served you the most, the kind of thing that you go “I’m glad my mom drilled that into my head”? 

My Mom taught me how to accept a compliment gracefully, which is surprisingly a rare skill. Probably the ability to assess the overall situation and come to the gig with the right gear, vibe, stage clothes, performance style and most of all “on time or early” so that again you’ll be a bonus as opposed to a liability. 

JGT:  I know you read music, how important is that to you?  Beyond “Real Book” charts, what is your recommendation as to the level you should be able to read to be a Pro today?

Reading music has been very helpful to me over the years, especially when collaborating in a larger scale ensemble like an orchestra or big band. It’s absolutely necessary if you’re going to do any sorts of sessions for film or TV, or obviously scoring. It’s just  another skill, and the more skills a musician has the less they’ll be painted into a corner. 

J2B2 (John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band) rehearsing in Sheryl Crow’s recording studio.

JGT:  Other than your parents and your experience at Disney, what  or who has been the most or largest influence?

Of course Django and his playing are a huge influence to me, technically, emotionally, and overall vibe-wise. In rock the power of The Who always inspired me, in bluegrass the singing and playing of Tony Rice, the songwriting of Leonard Cohen, the compositions of Ralph Vaughn-Williams…the harmony vocals of The Beach Boys…it’s pretty all over the map really…

JGT:  Can you tell us about how you got so interested in “Gypsy Jazz”? 

I was already playing guitar, and also playing traditional jazz and Dixieland on the clarinet. When I heard the passion, excitement, unique tone and fire of Django’s style it was a revelation that someone could make that much excitement and expression with only an acoustic guitar! 

JGT:  An interesting quality that you have is that regardless of genre you play each as if it is your only genre.  You don’t sound like a “rocker” playing Gypsy when you play Gypsy or a Gypsy player playing rock when you play Rock.  Is that deliberate or is that just the way it turned out?

Thank you, that’s very deliberate indeed. If I love a style of music enough to learn it, I want to be able to honor the stylistic elements, language and techniques encompassed within. That appeals to me as a listener too. Music that comes from a stylistic “well” so to speak is what I will gravitate to, much more than mash-ups or fusions of genres. 

BONUS John Jorgenson Video Lesson – Compliments of TrueFire

JGT:  Who are/were your biggest musical influences?  I guess that Django is there, and I know that the Beatles to Buffalo Springfield but what else did you listen to when forming your musical palette and what are you listening to today.  

As a youngster I listened to Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff, then found pop radio and loved the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, anything with harmonies attracted my ears. Then the heavier rock of Hendrix, Zeppelin, Humble Pie, and the Symphonic Rock of Yes. 

Meanwhile, I was still playing in classical ensembles, so Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Debussy. I played funk in the 70s and loved Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and early Steely Dan. When I found bluegrass it was through mandolinist David Grisman that I first discovered Dave Apollon, then Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne and Bill Monroe. Clarence White and Tony Rice were big influences on flat top guitar.

For rockabilly Eddie Cochrane and Scotty Moore, country Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland and James Burton, jazz Charlie Christian, Dick McDonough and Barney Kessel, of course the Telemasters Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan, and UK rockers Peter Greene, Gary Moore and Jeff Beck. 

I also love world music, Fanfare Ciocarlia is a Balkan brass band that I love, also the pop-flamenco of the Gypsy Kings is a favorite. You’ll even find ABBA on my playlist for their incredible pop production and vocals…

John with the late Tom Petty – at Tom’s clubhouse recording studio Jan 2018

JGT:  Are there any young artist you would like to mention?

“New” artists….well not so many new ones…perhaps “newer” ones would be Bruno Mars, Franz Ferdinand, Brandi Carlisle…

JGT:  What Gypsy guitar are you playing today onstage… 

I’m playing either my Gitane DG300 signature model prototype or the “Tuxedo Model” which is a Gitane DG330 signature model in black. 

JGT:   What pickup system and amp do you use for the Gypsy thing?  The reason I ask is for example Pat Metheny has a signature Ibanez but onstage he often plays a custom Daniel Slaman with a Charlie Christian pick up?

I use a piezo saddle imbedded in the bridge to drive a Tonedexter which takes an piezo pickup and transforms the tone into a microphone tone with some very complex technology. You create a setting with your own guitar, mic, placement, etc then store that and use the mic tone onstage without the feedback problems inherent in a live mic. 

Playing a Dano Doubleneck 12 str and 6 str bass for a Desert Rose Band reunion show in 2014. 

JGT:  What are your current recording projects and tours (besides Elton) that people should be watching for?

Two main ones are a collection of rock songs (some classic covers and self-penned) recorded with Dennis Diken on drums and Mike Mesaros on bass who comprise the rhythm section of the Smithereens. I’d always been a big fan and was so happy to have the opportunity to record with them, at Sweetwater Studios in Ft Wayne, IN. Mostly vocals (with lots of guitar!), this will be released in late Spring.  The other is an instrumental album with Joe Bonamossa. It’s really his album, but I played on most of the cuts and helped with some of the arrangements so I’m taking a bit of ownership too! Joe choose all covers from Jimmy Bryant and Link Wray to film and TV show themes. It’s very eclectic and fun, with a bit of a campy element thrown in. His road band of Michael Rhodes on bass, Anton Fig on drums and Reese Wynans on keys were a joy to work with. 

JGT:  Is there anything you would like to add or a question you would like to be asked that no one has ever asked…  

Nobody ever asks about the pedal steel…I do play that also, but the main thing about pedal steel is that hearing the amazing Tom Brumley play it with Ricky Nelson early on turned me on to country music,  and inspired me down the road to form the Desert Rose Band. 

John with Peter Frampton – showing off his Epiphone signature model

JGT:  Is there some more you would like to mention about the pedal steel… particular recordings, performances, gigs, etc.?  

Well Elton is the only person I played live with on the pedal steel, and for a long time he was the only one I recorded with too, on his album “Peachtree Road”.  I also played it on a Rick Springfield album a few years ago, and for a country band called Savannah Jack. Since I had been in bands with some of the best steel players of all time (Sneaky Pete, Jay Dee Maness, Red Rhodes, Al Perkins) and recroded with the likes of Paul Franklin I normally shied away from playing steel, but Elton likes the way I play it so that’s good enough for me! 

JGT:  Is there something you would like  to have particular emphasis?

The eclectic nature a versatility kind of speaks for itself I guess…my 3 CD boxed set called “Divertuoso” speaks pretty well for  me…

John Jorgenson – Divertuoso

The Sidebar:  

Bob Bakert, editor:  Besides our love of guitar we have something else in common.  We both owned as our first “guitars/bass” an instrument made by AUDITION.  I have never known anyone else who had one… Mine came from a Radio Shack style store and it was a four pickup strat-style with rocker switches. My dad bought it for me maybe $25.00  

Right!! Mine came from a department/grocery store on a rack with Teiscos and tiny amps….$50 for a “sort of” violin bass with a strange shaped cutaway on the treble side…super cheap!! I paid $30 for a set of Vox tape wound bass strings after seeing the Let It Be movie…and the bridge and frets on the bass tore up the windings in a few days!!! 

BONUS John Jorgenson Video Lesson – Compliments of TrueFire

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