Michael Jackson’s guitarist makes her way to center stage



When pop legend Michael Jackson passed away last June, the media was saturated with images from rehearsals for his planned comeback show—offering many fans their first glimpse at his new guitarist, a striking 23-year-old from Adelaide, Australia, named Orianthi. The recent film This Is It, which further documented those rehearsals, showcased her virtuoso six-string skills on classics like “Beat It” and “Black or White.” Now Orianthi makes her American debut as a singer on her new solo album, Believe.

Far from a quick cash-in on her newfound notoriety, the album has been in the works for more than three years. Her big break in the United States came when she was invited by PRS Guitars—which will release an Orianthi custom model this year—to play at the NAMM show, where she jammed with idol Carlos Santana and caught the ear of Geffen Records. “Someone in the audience forwarded my MP3s to [Geffen chairman] Ron Fair, who flew me from Adelaide to audition for him,” she recalls. “A year after that I got signed by Geffen.” She earned the job with Jackson after playing alongside country singer Carrie Underwood at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

For those who only know her as a guitar heroine, Believe will come as a surprise: It’s a mainstream pop-rock record featuring her vocals as much as her playing, not a guitar clinic for six-string obsessives. “I set out to make a super-commercial record with Believe,” she says. “I wanted to get the songs on the radio and write empowering lyrics and inspire more kids to pick up the guitar.” We caught up with the woman born Orianthi Panagaris to talk about her unpredictable path to stardom.

When did you first start playing?

I picked up an acoustic when I was 6. It was Dad’s big Finn 125 acoustic. I studied classical when I was 10, and then I picked up electric at 11 after seeing Carlos Santana perform. I was just blown away by the way he played. It really affected me. I went to Dad and I begged him for a PRS electric guitar. I got one, and just never put it down.

So was it in those teen years that you realized this would be your destiny?

No, I knew this would be my life when I was 6. (laughs) I know that sounds weird. But as soon as I picked up the acoustic guitar and started strumming along with Elvis and Beatles and Roy Orbison records, I got it.

How did that go over at school?

It wasn’t great, being a female player and going to the same auditions as guys. It wasn’t an easy time. Kind of like being a male ballerina in a way. The popular girls didn’t get it, especially when I went to school wearing Hendrix T-shirts, reading guitar magazines and whatnot. And the guys didn’t get it either, because they thought, “You’re a girl, you shouldn’t be playing guitar.” They would call me a freak. And then they saw that I was taking it seriously. I would be recording, making demos at home, and I’d do support gigs. I got on the radio in Adelaide, and started playing out in pubs as well. I’d get up there for a bit and jam out and then have to go as soon as someone found out that I was underage: “Out! Out!” Music was my life, and everything took a back seat to that. It’s putting in a lot of hours. When I was younger I used to practice for five hours a day. I’d get home from school and not do schoolwork and just play guitar. I guess kids didn’t understand that I was that driven. Kids can be mean, so you just have to shut that out and focus.

Who were your role models as a guitarist?

Carlos Santana is my idol. I finally got to jam with him in front of 15,000 people when I was 18. Well, one of my idols—there’s also Steve Vai. I got introduced to Steve when I was 15, and opening for him was my first-ever support gig in Adelaide. Steve kept in contact with me, and I would send him demos. Getting an email from him when I was 15 or 16 would make my week. He’s like an uncle to me. We had so much fun at this video shoot the other day, shooting “Highly Strung” [a guitar-duel instrumental they perform on Believe], and hopefully kids will see it and want to pick up guitar. Or if they’re already playing it, keep at it. Because dreams do come true.

How long have you been in America?

I’ve been over here for about three and a half years making the record—I was writing it the first year, then we’ve been recording off and on for about two years.

How did you approach the guitar work on Believe?

We wanted to do what’s best for the song. I wanted the songs to be played on the radio. Playing guitar really comes first, then songwriting, and singing comes last. But I enjoy doing it, and you definitely connect with a lot more people adding lyrics to music.

We wanted to have enough guitar playing for the guitar heads—like me—but I love pop songs too. It’s about trying to find that balance. If the guitar solos on the record are too short for some people, we have “Highly Strung,” which is completely instrumental. So I guess that kind of makes up for it in a way. But I have diverse tastes. “According to You” [the single] is probably the poppiest song on the record. There’s also “Untogether,” which is bluesier, and “Think Like a Man,” which has an AC/DC feel to it. If someone found my iPod they would think I was mad, because I have everything from Rascal Flatts to Michelle Branch to Usher.

Is there one style you gravitate toward?

Yeah, blues. I grew up listening to Stevie Ray, and then Steve Vai, so I gravitate toward playing those sort of riffs. Learning the Eddie Van Halen solos for “Beat It” for the Michael Jackson thing, that was pretty new to me—all the tapping stuff. I think he’s an incredible player, but I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of Van Halen. I think I played “Jump” once in a cover band.

What do you recall about the experience of rehearsing the This Is It show?

I learned so much from Michael and the band. I was probably the youngest in the band, so I looked up to all the guys. It was  like family. It was just such an amazing time in my life. I just wish he was still with us. That would be awesome.

–Chris Willman

Jan/Feb 2010 Issue of M Music & Musicians

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