A Fiery Guitar for a Fiery Artist: in Conversation with Orianthi

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As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 16
Summer 2021 – Acoustic Amplified!

Australian-born guitarist Orianthi Panagaris has been making impressive moves in her industry for more than a decade, having worked with Michael Jackson, Alice Cooper, and Carrie Underwood, among others. As if that weren’t already a staggering list of accomplishments, Orianthi recently collaborated with Gibson Guitars on a new signature acoustic, called the Orianthi SJ-200 – Cherry and aptly described on Gibson’s website as a fiery guitar for a fiery artist.

“I had thought about doing an acoustic,” Orianthi tells Guitar Girl,  “so when [Gibson] approached me about it, I was over the moon.” She was promptly flown to Montana for a tour of Gibson’s guitar factory, where she got to see exactly what goes into making their high-quality guitars.

Orianthi picked the J-200 model as the base for her guitar fairly quickly, citing that “the sound of it is so full—it’s like a grand piano—it really accompanies you. I wanted a big sound, but one that plays fast.”

The next choice was color. Originally, the guitar was set to be white, but all it took was one look at a splendid red guitar in Gibson’s factory for Orianthi to say hell no, we are going with red!

I’m really excited because it is the best acoustic guitar I have ever played—it really is.”

Of course, there’s so much more to building a custom guitar than a base model and color. Some of these choices were things that Orianthi already had ideas for, including the detailing on the neck. “I wanted my model to have crystal light for good energy with the lotus flower on the neck—just the whole presentation.”

However, what shape to give the neck was a different question entirely. After checking out the necks from Les Pauls and other guitars, nothing felt right. It wasn’t until Orianthi was back in Gibson’s Los Angeles showroom that she found what she wanted, in the ES-345 that was used in 2018’s A Star is Born. “I loved the neck, so I asked, ‘Can we just stick this neck on the J-200 body?’”—a first-of-its-kind request that Gibson was more than happy to fulfill.

After that, details slowly fell into place, and the Orianthi SJ-200 – Cherry was born. The Cherry nitrocellulose lacquer finish, excellent J-200 base model, and fantastic neck are far from the only things this guitar boasts, also showing off a AAA Sitka spruce top with a flamed maple back. The headstock features the Orianthi O symbol in mother of pearl. Those gorgeous lotus flower elements can be seen in the ebony neck inlays and on the pickguard. When it comes to electronics, LR Baggs™ came through with their custom Orianthi Pickup System, with controls mounted on the bottom of the soundhole.

About her guitar, Orianthi says, “This guitar really represents everything positive and has a beautiful energy about it. I’m really excited because it is the best acoustic guitar I have ever played—it really is.”

On her experience working with Gibson, Orianthi couldn’t say enough kind things about them. “Gibson has done an incredible job; the whole Gibson team, they’re all top-notch. It was such a dream to work with these people—it’s like a beautiful family.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Orianthi has been keeping in touch with her friends and family via FaceTime as well as working on her music. “It’s been an interesting time, also spiritually, spending time by yourself a lot more—having the time to chill out, relax, and think about things and how I could have done them differently. I think that shows in some of the new songs that I have been writing. There’s been a lot of uncertainty and also a lot of peace as well. I think it’s a mixture of things where a door is opening to a new world in a positive way. I’m really excited about the next phase of my career with music and these new songs that I have written. I expected, like most people, that 2020 just fell away, but I had the chance to write with different people, and I wrote so many songs.”

Outside of making guitars, Orianthi is hoping to get back in the studio soon, with her close friend (and producer) Marti Frederiksen. Her last album, O, was released in December of 2020. Orianthi says of its release, “O has been out for a minute now since December. So I can’t believe I’m going to make a new record already, but O was kind of in the works almost two years ago now—we met in 2019 and started working on it, and then COVID happened. We released it during isolation, which was a little weird. It was a really insane time for many people. I gotta tell ya, that you get excited about making an album, and you wanna get out and play shows. So it was kind of a bummer not to be able to do that.”

Gibson has done an incredible job; the whole Gibson team, they’re all top-notch. It was such a dream to work with these people—it’s like a beautiful family.”

She also has plans to get that concert-like feel back into her music, despite pandemic limitations. “We are going to be performing O live at a giant geosphere, which is going to be a worldwide livestream in Hollywood on June 19 via sanrestreaming.com. The video effects are going to be insane. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a top-notch production, and it’s going to be every song. I think it’s something most people have never seen before—we’ve put together a show that is visually and, of course, musically, really entertaining and advanced. I can’t wait to share that experience with everybody and play live. It’s all really exciting. We also have a tour to announce too before the year is over, so it’s all exciting stuff.”

When asked what techniques she’s been using with regard to guitar practice, Orianthi had something of a surprising answer for us. “I gotta be honest with you; I really don’t practice as much as I write songs. I was a songwriter before I was a guitar player. Practicing for me is usually learning a song.” She lists off artists whose songs have recently inspired her to practice, including John McLaughlin and Django Reinhardt, before going on to detail the immersive experience that practicing the guitar this way gives her. “Practicing for me is putting on a record and trying to learn a song or a phrase—it’s a different way of playing. It’s not sitting down and learning a specific technique; I learn the techniques by actually playing.”

These techniques are often not simple ones either. “I go through phases. At one point, I was obsessed with country music and chicken pickin’. I wanted to be a really good chicken picker, and then I got over that. Then, I moved on to jazz and listened to Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Sometimes I just have different concerts playing on my TV when I’m around the house, and I hear something and say, hey, I want to learn that.

As for what artists got her into playing the electric guitar, Orianthi has a long and impressive list: “Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, B.B King, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan.” To her, the inspiration these players provide is a vital part of music-making. “For me, it’s a fire and passion of expressing yourself through playing every night. Inspiration is important, especially when I feel lost musically because there are too many people in my ear.”

Having too many people in your ear can be one of the more unfortunate consequences of living somewhere like Los Angeles, where music is thriving and ever changing. “Being in LA, there are a lot of people around you saying, this is the way you should write; this is the way you should play; I think this would be great. They bring in a zillion outfits to put on me, and then I’m like, NO, NO. For me, it becomes a battle in my head because of all these different people—it drives me insane.”

One remedy to this never-ending battle for her attention, Orianthi finds, is some solid alone time, where she can differentiate what she wants from what other people want to see. “Being left alone is sometimes better for me anyway. I’ve been down a few rabbit holes when I sit down to make a record. I really sit and meditate about it, and sometimes it doesn’t feel right. I think that it doesn’t really resonate with my soul; it resonates for other people.”

Photo by Gibson Brands

We asked her if she thought these challenges that she faces in the industry—like being pressured to bend to what other people want—are also faced by her male counterparts. “Yeah. I do. The industry is really brutal on any young artist—it’s not for the faint. When I started off as a kid, my escape was music. It was something of a safe haven for me. Looking at it now from the music business side, it can be brutal, awful, crazy, and insane. You just don’t know. You need to find friends and people you like—people and family who have your back and who you want to hang out with. I’ve been through a lot of different situations because I didn’t feel comfortable. They weren’t bad people; it just wasn’t the right fit. You need to learn about everything, know where the money is going, and keep your eyes open. I think things have changed, but at the same time, they haven’t. It has been a challenge for me, absolutely. I’m not gonna say it hasn’t.”

However, doing what she knows she likes doesn’t stop her from trying new things. “I think as an artist, it’s important to do that, especially now that I’ve gotten older. When I was younger, I’d be like, yeah, that sounds great. I am pretty impulsive. If the enthusiasm comes out of me, I’m like, yeah, let’s try it. I’m not opposed to trying anything really. I’m down to experiment musically. As an artist, you want to grow. I don’t want to look back when I’m 100 and see that I made the same record 20 or 30 times.”

Orianthi says she owes her growth and progression as an artist to this impulsivity and excitement about new or out-of-the-box ideas. “I just stay with things that keep me excited. I think enthusiasm sparks the fire. If I’m excited about an idea, I like to move on it pretty fast, which I think is the most important thing. That has really helped me in getting out of situations or dark times. Losing momentum, procrastinating, overthinking, and fear need to go away for me to be the best at what I can be at that time—and that is different all the time. The business can go from zero to one hundred. There are highs and lows, in-betweens, and upside-downs. This industry is all over the place, and as an artist trying to be creative and keep your head open, there are other stressors going on.”

Orianthi SJ-200 – Cherry

Another thing that gets her excited is collaborating with other artists, especially outside of her usual genre. “When people approach me to be on their records or collaborate, and it’s different musical worlds, that excites me. I’m like, that would be cool. Like my collaboration with A.R. Rahman in India for Rockstar for the hit song, “Sadda Haq.” It was really fun; it was really cool. I’m working with Japanese artists as well, and there are more in the works. It’s been really fun and different. I just love it. I love working with different artists in different genres, and I think I’ll continue to do that.”

When asked whom she’d like to collaborate with in the future, Orianthi says she would love to work with Ed Sheeran, and mentioned that she’s started something with Gary Clark Jr., before noting her appreciation for Miley Cyrus’s newest work. “I love the edge and everything that Miley Cyrus is coming out with right now too. Her new record is good, and she is a very talented singer. I think doing something with her would be awesome. I’ve met her a few times, and she was lovely, and I actually met her dad a few times too, so that would be cool.”

As a final question, we asked Orianthi what advice she has for up-and-coming artists in the industry. “Learn as much as you can, especially from people who you really admire. When they give you advice, take it. If you don’t know the answer, ask questions. Ask as many questions as possible. Know about the business; know about where your money is going. As an artist, stay true to yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If it really makes you excited, go for it! If it doesn’t make you excited, but you’re told you have to do it, don’t do it. I have done that before, many times.”

Her last piece of advice ties together with her own musical process and experience in the industry. “Don’t try to please too many people. I try not to be the person who worries about someone speaking badly of me because I said no, or not liking me. I used to do that all the time, not because of low self-esteem, but just being in this business. At the end of the day, if you say no to something, it’s not because you hate the person, it’s because it doesn’t resonate with you at that moment; it doesn’t mean you can’t eventually do it. I would say yes to things and agree with things or go into situations because I wanted to be that people-pleaser. At the end of the day, if you aren’t making yourself happy as an artist and focusing on yourself, no one is going to have your back more than you.”

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Born and Raised in Miami, FL, Vanessa started playing music at a young age. Progressing through high school, Vanessa was playing and performing on multiple instruments including guitar, piano and trumpet. She was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. During her time there, she studied the guitar playing of such influences as Pat Martino, Slash, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Eric Johnson and many others. After graduating with a degree in Music Business, she went on to work with such artists as Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. After years in the business end of the industry, she decided to pursue her own performing career and moved to Atlanta, GA. Once in Atlanta, she was playing with several groups, and doing recording sessions.  A year later, she was chosen as a finalist by Beyonce to audition for her all-girl backup band. Vanessa has traveled the world playing guitar, visiting countries such as France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Japan, South America and the Caribbean. She has performed on the bill with such renown artists as Darius Rucker, LA Sno, KISS, Skid Row and Paramore. She is currently recording and performing as the front woman for rock trio, BAST. www.vanessaizabella.com