By Caroline Paone
The Swarovski crystals on his guitar flash before the packed audience in the outdoor amphitheater. His long, blonde hair flows into the summer sky as he leans slightly over the front row and delivers a ripping, spot-on solo.
Cover Photo Credit: Igor Vidyashev
Now stage left, he’s down on one knee, raises the guitar, and riffs some more – the crowd cheers! He springs up, then works the fretboard with pentatonic patterns and 16th-note triplets. Whitesnake’s Joel Hoekstra makes it all look effortlessly good – but his playing sounds even better.
The audience loves every note and every hair-flip like it’s 1987. Hoekstra’s giving the hardcore Whitesnake fans what they came for: classic hard rock/metal executed with a big stage show and fiery guitar work. And maybe some came to see him flash that big smile – the smile he won audiences within the Broadway musical Rock of Ages.
However, it’s not all about that rock image, he brings it down on occasion, too. On the 4th of July, he grabs an acoustic guitar and plays an off-the-cuff version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” augmented with a few Hoekstra nuances. He shares the video on his socials and calls it a “rough” take – it’s just him casually warming up in Whitesnake’s dressing room, wet hair, wearing a sports tank. You could take him for a guitar tech noodling around, but on Facebook, the post is at 16K views and rising.
Alternatively, on stage, he honors the axe tradition of those who served the snake before him, like Vandenberg and Vai; among others. Whether it’s the bluesy slide on “Slow an’ Easy” [Slide It In] or the rock masterpiece “Still of the Night” [Whitesnake] (originally written by British guitarist John Sykes and singer David Coverdale) Hoekstra lends distinction to the catalog. He shares Whitesnake’s guitar lineup with virtuoso Reb Beach; the two are a hit for their performances and dueling guitar solos.
Hoekstra’s guitars are pretty cool as well. He even commissioned several customs for the gig that have now become famous themselves: a pair of black and white Les Pauls and a duo of Strats. That Les Paul-inspired gem, by Atomic Guitar Works, shares the spotlight for his individual solo. It’s somewhat of a rock showpiece in the spirit of Vivian Campbell’s neon-green-outlined axe (from his Dio days) as well as Ace’s flashing guitar and Lita‘s red B.C. Rich.
For other performances, like backing the iconic singer/actress Cher, Hoekstra just focuses on the music and the band. “It’s more about working with her music director and the other musicians,” he says, “all of whom are supremely talented, witty people. I’m enjoying it.”
Originally from the Chicago-area, Hoekstra’s appreciation for music began with his classical musician parents, and some cello and piano lessons. Then he heard AC/DC’s Angus Young and was hooked on hard rock.
The Musicians Institute graduate and Guitar World columnist also tours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and has played with Jim Peterik (Ides of March/Survivor) and Night Ranger. For his side project, Joel Hoekstra’s 13, he gathered the foremost musicians in rock for the debut Dying to Live. It’s jammed with melodic, hard rock tunes produced, written and arranged by Hoekstra.
GGM magazine checked in with Hoekstra during the Juke Box Heroes summer tour featuring Whitesnake, Foreigner and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening. On a day off in Cincinnati, he took a break from working on a guest solo and phoned in for this interview.
So, you’re on the Juke Box heroes tour. How’s it going?
The bands get along really well and a lot of them are my friends so we’re having a really good time.
Playing in Whitesnake has got to be a guitar player’s dream? Plus, they’ve always been associated with a high level of performance and showmanship…
It’s a great catalog of songs to play. I get to work with great bandmates –
some of them are legends in the business – all great guys. Yeah, I just think it’s a really great opportunity for me. Every gig that you do has a different stage presence that sort of fits in with it, and I think with Whitesnake it’s just bigger and better.
Before you became a performer, what made you want to play guitar? Did you take lessons?
It really started with Angus Young from AC/DC. I kind of idolized him as a kid and that made me want to play. I had a great teacher at first who just taught me nothing but songs. After a year of learning my favorite songs, and a little bit of reading music, I was totally hooked. So that was a great, great way to begin.
Did you start on acoustic or go right to electric?
I took a few lessons on an acoustic guitar and I was not happy. At one point I said, ‘ah, I think I wanna quit, this isn’t what I want to do.’ I was taking lessons from an instructor who was teaching me out of the Alfred’s method book. I was learning the three notes on the high E string and I thought ‘this isn’t what I want.’ I wanted to play AC/DC songs!
Eventually, a friend of mine came over who knew how to play rock songs and I went, ‘wait, how’d you learn that!?’ He said I have this teacher…So, he turned me on to him and I started taking lessons from that teacher.
Since this interview is for GGM, I was curious to know if there were any female guitar players you admired back in the day; or any that you do now? Didn’t you play with Nancy Wilson before?
I had the opportunity to play with Nancy at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp not too long ago as one of the counselors. So that was fun. Yeah, I mean, honestly, I didn’t listen to a whole lot of Heart growing up.
Sharon Isbin [classical guitarist] is obviously amazing. I listened to her a little bit growing up. And Jennifer Batten was awesome and still is. I was inspired by her tapping and everything during my teenage years. And nowadays, I like Nita Strauss a lot, she’s a friend of mine, and not only is she a great player, but she’s awesome on stage – she’s a great performer.
You also have some history playing a female rock icon’s music in the stage play Love, Janis [a touring show about Janis Joplin with a live band]. I saw it in 2002 at The Village Theater in New York. Were you at that show?
Mm-hmm. That was me.
It was so long ago, I remember the band being amazing, but I couldn’t recall if it was you or not [I should have dug out my Playbill].
Yeah, most likely I was there. I did the entire run in New York and very rarely subbed out at that stage [of my career] so all in all I was there.
Was that a pivotal time in your career, doing this off-Broadway stage show and getting more gigs?
It was the first time I began only performing for a living and not having to supplement my income with teaching. Because up until that point I kind of did gigs and would teach guitar and that was the point where performing became the main thing.
And fast forward, now you’re in Cher’s band. How did you get that job?
I knew Whitesnake wasn’t going to tour in 2017 so I started texting and emailing a bunch of my colleagues in the business. I knew a guitarist on The Voice who recommended me to Dave Barry who also plays on The Voice. He had been playing with Cher for a long time and needed someone to fill in. As Dave got more and more busy with The Voice, I essentially became her main guitar player for now.
Did you audition for the Cher gig?
No, that was word of mouth. However, there were a couple rehearsals before the first show, so really those are auditions that you’re supposed to pass.
Not everyone is able to get these high-profile jobs. You’re a talented musician, but you’ve managed success in a tough business. And any advice for someone trying to work in the music business?
It’s more about hard work and dedication than it is luck. I’m really dedicated to making it a daily thing to just being more productive than everybody else; out-work everybody else and let those days add up – that’s when the results come. It’s a hard-fought, hard-earned way to make a living. You might not want to have a fall back plan because it’s easier to jump to that. So, I just kept going and things eventually worked out. You get back what you put into it.
Sounds like you’re a good businessman, too?
I don’t know, maybe. I tend to be the type of guy who just tries to remain easygoing when dealing with people. I don’t ask for raises all the time. [Laughs] I can’t complain, I kinda go, ‘I’m just glad to be here, man.’ Usually, I find people respect that in the long run. And that’s the best approach to take.
Well, it’s definitely paying off you work with Cher, Whitesnake, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, guest guitar gigs, you just keep going and going…
Yeah, exactly like it comes down to what I was talking about where every day I try and do something productive. So, tonight I’m off here in Cincinnati, but I’m also working on a solo for a song that I co-wrote. Tomorrow, I’m going to play on somebody else’s song. So, instead of it being two days off, it’s two things that I’m getting done. That’s just the way I try and approach every day. Even doing this interview is still being productive with my career and exposure. I try and let all these things add up and see what they become.
You were also productive in getting some new guitars when you joined Whitesnake. Were you involved in their designs?
Yeah. Correct. I wanted to have Les Paul’s with medallions set into their bodies. I had these medallions made at a mint with the classic Whitesnake emblem. Anthony Bass, from Gibson, came up with the snake stencil graphic on top of the guitars. It’s kind of abstract looking it almost looks like an Asian design at first glance, but it’s a snake. So, Gibson was cool enough to hook me up with those two.
And I reached out to Fender to put together the two Strats. It was during The Purple Tour so there was no telling how much I was going to use a Stratocaster at the time to play the Ritchie Blackmore stuff, etc. So, the two Strats also have medallions set behind the bridges.
And then there’s the purple “WS” guitar…
Atomic Guitar Works, a small company out of the Phoenix area, was ambitious enough to basically make a Les Paul-sounding guitar for me that’s covered in purple Swarovski crystals [all hand-laid one by one] – and a WS crystal inlay on the body as well. So that guitar looks amazing and sounds really great, too.
I was really pleased to get these five great guitars all customized for the gig.
They really are works of art.
Yeah, thank you.
What other gear do you use in Whitesnake?
I’m using the Friedman B100 amps. I just use a Fractal Axe-Fx II [guitar effects processor] for delay and reverb. Whitesnake isn’t a big effects gig, you don’t really use much beyond delay and reverb.
And I believe some of your guitars have Doug Aldrich pickups, too? [Doug Aldrich Humbucker pickups by Suhr].
Yeah, the Strats (in the bridge position). Those two and then the purple [guitar] have the Doug Aldrich pickups, too.
That’s appropriate since he was once in Whitesnake.
Doug and I are still on friendly terms. We text and things like that and I was like ‘hey man what’s up with your pickups?’ I figured he’d be a good guy to consult. They sound great.
You have a pretty long list of equipment companies at your website…I guess you play with so many different artists you mix it up a lot?
I mix it up a lot, but also, no one has come to me and said, ‘well we want to do a Joel Hoekstra model.’ [And that’s] fine with me. I kind of like it the way it is because I can work with multiple companies and play what I want and not have to feel weird if I want to play a certain guitar on a song and think ‘I better not’ because it might rub this company the wrong way. As it stands right now, I can do what I want and get support from multiple companies. So that’s fine.
What guitar do you play while touring with Cher?
I use a variety of guitars, about seven. The one that I use in the step-out moments with her is a Jackson PC-1.
I should also mention I play Taylor acoustic guitars; that’s always my go-to with acoustic.
You also do a lot of instructional work like your Guitar World column and videos. Are you still doing the instructional videos?
We have six more lessons that we taped that are going to begin running; hopefully soon. It’s been quite a wait. We’ll see, but I think there are six or seven more lessons that I taped.
Where do your lesson topics come from for your instructional column? Do fans ask you questions?
No, you just try and think of something. The difficult thing teaching lessons with Guitar World or any publication is you pretty much have to fit it into about 8 or 12 bars of music, you know, and it can be tricky. I actually like to teach more but there’s only so much room. So, you have to think about what’s going to fit on the page of the magazine and work that into your lesson.
So, what’s next as far as music…is Joel Hoekstra’s 13 an ongoing project?
I’m trying to work out doing a follow-up, but I haven’t been able to get a deal done with Frontiers [Music]. I have a few other projects in the works, but most likely the next recording people will hear from me is the new Whitesnake album early next year. But I have a bunch of stuff that I’m working on so hopefully, I can have multiple releases in 2019 and play a little bit of catch up. My life schedule has just been so busy between Whitesnake, Cher and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I spend the bulk of the year touring.
Well, a lot of people are enjoying your work. Your career seems like it’s at a high point. Do you feel that way?
I don’t know. I mean, I’m always just kind of trying to do the best job I can with all the scenarios that present themselves. On one hand, I feel very blessed to have achieved any of the stuff I have; on the other hand, I’m always very hungry. I want to do more. So, we’ll see where it all takes me.
You’re such an awesome player; we are so honored that you did this interview for us.
Aah, thank you. I just really appreciate your time.
Joel Hoekstra’s 13 musicians:
Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake) – guitars, backing vocals
Jeff Scott Soto (Journey/Yngwie Malmsteen) – lead vocals, backing vocals
Russell Allen (Adrenaline Mob/Symphony X) – lead vocals, backing vocals
Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath/Dio) – drums
Tony Franklin (The Firm/Blue Murder) – bass