John Jorgenson is a multi-talented musician who specializes in guitar. He is also prolific on other instruments like pedal steel, mandolin, keyboards, and others. Although John had early success with the Alt/Country Desert Rose band, he is well versed in different genres such as: bluegrass, rock and roll, gypsy jazz, and more. During his tenure with Desert Rose band, Elton John would occasionally catch their performance. John became an acquaintance of Elton and his guitarist/bandleader Davey Johnston. Sir Elton John passed a complementary comment one night back stage about John's virtuoso guitar playing. Some years later, as John was working with the band Hellecasters, Elton called him out of the blue and asked John if he would like to go out on a world tour with him. This led to a long fruitful six year association of working with Elton John. In October of 2015, John released a 3CD set called "Divertuoso". Each CD showcased a different genre of music... bluegrass, gypsy jazz, and instrumental rock and roll. I recently chatted with John about his new 3 CD set and his career.
R.V.B. - Hello John... Rob von Bernewitz from New York, how are you today?
J.J. - I'm good... how are you?
R.V.B. - Are you on the east coast?
J.J. - I'm actually in New jersey.
R.V.B. - Where do you hang your hat these days?
J.J. - I'm living in Ventura California. I'm in town here for the Roy Buchannan show we did last night.
R.V.B. - I gather you broke out your telecaster.
J.J. - (haha) yes, I broke out a 53 telecaster... in honor of Roy.
R.V.B. - What was that celebration about? How many performers were there?
J.J. - It was Jim Weider, G.E. Smith, Johnny Hiland, and myself.
R.V.B. - That's a loaded lineup. It's a shame that Roy left us so early.
J.J. - No kidding. We all played together and led individual songs. We had a conga rhythm section at The City Winery. It was very nice... really fun.
R.V.B. - Very nice... did you play anything off "Loading Zone?"
J.J. - I played "Down by the River", "Treat Her Right" and "My Soul Went Down Last Friday". Johnny played "Cajun", "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Big Boss Man". We ended with "Messiah Will Come Again"...
R.V.B. - Didn't he do a version of "Hey Joe"?
J.J. - Yeah, but we didn't do that one. Jim did "Sweet Dreams", "Hot Cha", and "I'm a Ram". G.E. did an instrumental version of "The Last Time", and I think "Dark as the Night??
R.V.B. - The City Winery is an excellent venue.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your new 3 disc CD set that you have recently released. I listened to all 3 discs and my jaw just dropped. Your guitar playing is phenomenal and there is a lot of diversity throughout the music. Why did you decide to to release 3 different style albums at one time?
J.J. - (hahaha) I know it's crazy right? I guess even though they started at different times, they all ended up being finished around the same time. If I put them out separately they would kind of compete with each other. Together, they showcase more of my musical life in a way... as opposed to 3 separate parts of it.
R.V.B. - The musicianship was great. Let's start with "Gifts From the Flood"... apparently you lost a bunch of guitars.
J.J. - Well the flood in Nashville in 2010 was really huge, and basically the whole town was under water. It was more rare if something wasn't flooded there. The basement of my house, where I kept most of my vintage amps, and my storage locker, where I kept all of my session guitars and all of my road gear that I used with Elton John, was under water for a week. I lost a lot of instruments, but I was really lucky to get a lot of them repaired too. It was amazing, what could be done... with a skilled repairman like Joe Glazier. Somebody who really knows what he's doing. Each brand of guitar had some different problem. Gibson pickups didn't have a problem but Fender pickups did. The plate on the bottom got soaked in the water and would break the coils. The Gibson's had a metal plate, so they were fine. The Gibson's had more holes in the body so more water got into the wood, and swelled the neck... and all kinds of other issues. To make a long story short, I was able to get a lot of things repaired... and as each guitar, or amp, or pedal, came back to life as it were... they would give me songs. I was so happy to be able to play them, and use them again. Each guitar would give me a number of songs and I had a body of instrumental melodies pretty quick. That's why they are "Gifts From the Flood". I probably wouldn't have paid that much attention to the guitars and appreciated them as much if it wasn't for the flood.
R.V.B. - As a guitar player, I could hear the different sounding guitars and I found it interesting that you named the songs after the guitar itself.
J.J. - I did that at first just to catalog what they were. I had planned to give them a name but everybody just said "No, just leave it with the name of the guitar". I said "Ok, it'll be a thing for guitar players".
R.V.B. - Did you live by the river?
J.J. - No! It rained so hard that the water table came up from under the house. At the place where my storage locker was... and 200 other storage lockers... Peter Frampton's, Brad Paisley's, and Vince Gills... that place was kind of near the river. It was just inundated... you had to take a jet ski to get to the building.
R.V.B. - I heard the Gibson factory was underwater also.
J.J. - Oh yeah... Like I said, it was rare that something wasn't. People were passing their children over the freeway divider. Whole houses were floating. The reason it didn't get as much news as other disasters was because it was the same time as a big gulf oil spill and another terrorist attempt. I have to say that I was really one of the more lucky ones. Some people lost their homes. I still have a couple of instruments in repair actually. There's a John Monteleone mandolin that he built for me in the 80's. He's working on that as we speak. The acoustic instruments really fared badly. The electric instruments were more salvageable... as well as the amps and the pedals. So some of the songs... for example, there's a track that Brad Paisley is on "Sunburst Tele No.2"... the guitar wasn't under water but the amp was. The reason I invited Brad on that is because it's the setup up that I used on a Desert Rose Band recording called "Hello Trouble", which Brad said it was his favorite solo of all time. So I said "Let me see if I can re-create that tone." He loved the tone so I used the same setup. This melody was kind of busy and intricate so it would be nice to have somebody else's take on a solo. I think it's the first time I asked someone else to come in on one of my recordings to play a guitar solo.
R.V.B. - It's a very good song and it's very well written. Do you have a favorite guitar?
J.J. - Well, I guess I do love that sunburst Tele. The opening track "61 SGLP" is my first good guitar. I've had that one since I was 15, so that one is kind of special too.
J.J. - I usually take a telecaster on the road. Fender made me a signature telecaster back in 1998. For 4 or 5 years they had a John Jorgensen model. If I can only take one guitar, that's usually what I take.
R.V.B. - I see. The first disc that I listened to was the gypsy jazz disc "Returning". I didn't read the promo sheet before I listened to the disc and the first thing that came to my mind was "Boy, this sounds as good as Django Reinhardt".
J.J. - (hahaha) Thank you.
R.V.B. - My wife and I were listening to this and I was like "Listen to this stuff... it's fantastic". Did you study him a lot?
J.J. - Oh yeah... a lot! I had already played a number of years before I ever came across him. When I first heard Django, I kind of lost my mind. I not only loved how he played, but his tone and the overall feeling of that music. I grew up in California and that's a long way from France. Nobody in California was playing that kind of music... to even figure out what kind of guitar he was playing, and the different fingering patterns that he would do as a two fingered guitarist... it was a little bit like an archeology project. It was really fun, and I did study him quite a bit to the point of... I actually played him in a film... with his two fingered technique. I have to attribute studying his style to really expanding my knowledge of the fingerboard of the guitar. He couldn't play in a box like most guitarists, that play one spot on the neck... with four fingers. He had to move up and down the neck a lot. So playing in that style really helps you learn how to get around on the fingerboard.
R.V.B. - I circled a bunch of songs that I liked... I liked the whole disc, but some of them really that stood out to me... one was "Black Swan". I loved the introduction with the harmonics and the buildup of the song. Is there any story behind that song?
J.J. - I grew up playing classical music, and one of the first records that I listened to when I was 3 or 4 years old was the soundtrack to Fantasia. Tchaikovski's "Nutcracker Suite" is on there and I was really drawn to those melodies. I remember just playing those over and over when I was a kid. I thought I'd try it on the guitar and see how it worked. I was playing it live one day and I thought "Let me try an introduction and see if I can do this melody in harmonics". It was one of those things that progressed, "Oh I can do that one, oh I can do that one". I discovered that I could find them all, and the harmonic intro developed from there. You probably noticed when you listened to it, I play the beautiful melody very straight and simple a couple of times and I think that's the mark of an amazing composition. You can just play melodies very, very simply and straight and it can still be beautiful. That's the melodies I like to play.
R.V.B. - It is a beautiful song. Another one that I circled was "San Sebastian". It seemed to have guitar doubling with the violin.
J.J. - Yes... I use that a lot in my quintet. The guitar and violin will twin each other or do a harmony.
R.V.B. - I gather all of the players in the quintet are different than the bluegrass band.
J.J. - Every once in a while, if one guy is not available, they might cross. The bass player for the bluegrass band, filled in for the quintet. I really want people that are really experts in each style.
R.V.B. - I guess if you have those two distinctly different styles, you can get a lot more work. (haha)
J.J. - Yeah, that's true. I've kind have always done that in my life. Like I said, I grew up in a house of classical music, but I love rock music. I studied classical music and played in rock bands at the same time. Even when I was young, I would play the bassoon or the clarinet in a local orchestra. When that was done, I would take my guitar and go play at a frat party, and play Creedence and Stones songs. It is good to be able to do different work. You know how trends go in music. There was a time when, because of the movie "Urban Cowboy", where country music was huge... so I had a lot of work playing that. When it waned, something else came along. Versatility is good for my ability to work. it is also good for me as a musician, my musical curiosity and my musical soul. I get to express different parts of myself. With the bluegrass, I can sing harmony... play the mandolin. The Gypsy jazz has the European and improvisational element to it. The electric guitars has the different tone colors. There's techniques that you can do on an electric that you can't do on an acoustic.
R.V.B. - I see. Did you come from a musical family? Did other people in your house play also?
J.J. - Yeah... my father was a conductor and my mother was a piano player. My sister is an elementary music teacher... she plays flute and piano. My brother was a professional orchestral French horn for quite a number of years. Everyone else has sang in choir. It was normal to play music in our house.
R.V.B. - How young were you when you started?
J.J. - Around 4, I started messing with the piano.
R.V.B. - Did your parents make you take piano lessons?
J.J. - They didn't make me... I wanted to. My mom was teaching piano out of the house, so every day I saw kids come in and play the piano. As a kid, when you see other kids play, you say "I can do that". I did it because everybody else did it... and I wanted to do it. If there was a theme from a TV show that I liked, I would try to figure out how to play it on the piano. I started playing by ear, pretty early.
R.V.B. - When did you pick up the guitar?
J.J. - When I was around 10, and by that time, I was already playing the clarinet. When I got interested in the guitar my parents thought "No... he's already playing 2 instruments. No kid can practice that much every day". They didn't want to get me a guitar. I begged and borrowed and by the time I was 12, I got my own guitar. It was a very cheap electric guitar... made in Japan. I didn't care... it was a guitar. (hahaha) I practiced it.
R.V.B. - It probably took a lot of strength to press the strings down.
J.J. - Oh yeah.
R.V.B. - I see the creative name J2 B2, for the bluegrass CD. It took me a while but I finally got it.
J.J. - (hahaha)
J.J. - Exactly... and her studio is above a horse barn. It's a beautiful building and you feel like you are in this isolated creative space... which is just fantastic. I'm so grateful to her for that.
R.V.B. - You did that album relatively quick from what I understand.
J.J. - Yeah, that one was the fastest out of all of these. Most of it was live in the studio... even some of the lead vocals are live tracks. There was very little overdubbing. It's pretty much what went down as we recorded it live. We did some of the harmony vocals at the same time and some of them later. It was the easiest of the three to do, because on "Gifts of the Flood" for example, I not only played on the guitar but also on the keyboards and the bass... everything except the drums. That just takes a lot longer.
R.V.B. - When you broke out as a professional, I gather it was with either the Hellecasters or the Desert Rose Band?
J.J. - The Desert Rose Band was the first national recording act that I was in. Before that I worked as a professional musician, but just locally... around southern California. Working with the Desert Rose Band, is the first time I got to tour and have records on the radio and appear on television.
J.J. - All over the country... this was in the 80's. We played everywhere from The Bottom Line... here in New York... to Washington... to Texas... Nashville... I toured with that band for 6 years. We did probably every television show that there was at the time. We had 5 number one singles and a dozen in the top 10 in country at the time. That kind of started my session career. The producers of the Desert Rose Band hired me to play on sessions for other artists. I ended up playing with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris...
R.V.B. - Pavarotti...
J.J. - Yeah, Luciano Pavarotti (haha)
R.V.B. - That's pretty diverse.
J.J. - He was doing a duet with Elton John. I actually played pedal steel on that.
R.V.B. - How did you get the call from Elton?
J.J. - Elton came to see the Desert Rose Band. He was a fan of the band. After our gig, he came up to our dressing room and said (english accent) "Brilliant guitar, brilliant". I kind of got to know him a little bit... I went to a couple of his shows. I became friends with his band leader/guitar player Davey Johnstone. 6 years later, he called me out of the blue and said, he and Davey were looking for a guitar player that could do a lot of harmony vocals. The album that they had just done had a lot more guitars on it than usual... "Would I come out for an 18 month world tour?" That ended up lasting 6 years... recording, television and touring.
R.V.B. - That must have been an exciting time for you.
J.J. - It was fantastic. I was actually really happy with the life that I had right at that time. The Hellecasters 2nd album was about to come out. I was living in Los Angeles. Every day was different... I'd work in the movies one day... television the next day, and flying to Nashville to record the next day. It was not a rough decision to go with Elton but it was a rough decision to leave everything else behind. In this business, as you probably know... if you're not there to play, they'll have to get someone else. They don't necessarily give it back when you come back after 6 years. But yeah, it was a great time to tour all around the world... first class like that.
R.V.B. - Do you have any memorable shows that you played, that really stick out?
J.J. - Madison Square Garden was a great place to play. It's big, but you can still feel the energy of the audience. The Hollywood Bowl was exciting for me because I grew up in southern California. That particular show, I think George Michael came and sat in, and he was fantastic. The monitor engineer didn't have a monitor for him, and he just went out there and sang perfect... without monitors.
R.V.B. - Was it "Don't Let the Sun Come Down on Me"?
J.J. - Yeah, exactly. That's what he sang.
R.V.B. - Where have your world travels taken you?
J.J. - All over Europe, Russia, Japan, South America, Canada, Brunai... it was great. There wasn't a lot of touring in eastern Europe in those days. It's a little more open now. I got to see some parts of the world that I had never seen before. Through that, I got to play with a lot of other people like Billy Joel, Sting, Little Richard, Don Henley... it seemed like there was always a great musical guest playing with us.
R.V.B. - A who's who in rock and roll royalty.
J.J. - Yeah. (haha)
R.V.B. - So you settled back in California... did everybody let you play when you got back?
J.J. - (hahaha) Yeah, kinda (haha) I was in Nashville for 12 years and I moved back to California 3 years ago. I'm very happy to be out there because I'm closer to my friends and family. But a lot of the things I used to do out there... either the people have retired or moved on to different things. It's completely different, but now I tour with these three different bands of my own. As I mentioned, last night I did the Roy Buchanan tribute show. The night before that I was in Nashville doing a Les Paul tribute show with Duane Eddy... so it stays interesting. The quintet is going to do a performance with ballet in Chicago. We'll be on stage with the dancers, and it's choreographed to our music. I'm really excited about that.
R.V.B. - Lot's of happening things going on. Do you have local places that you play at where you live?
J.J. - No, not really. There's a couple of places that I could where there is low key jams that happen every week, but I'm gone from home so much that when I get home, I like to just stay at home. If a friend is playing somewhere, I'll certainly go and see him.
R.V.B. - When you were in Nashville, did you ever play Tootsie's or the Bluebird?
J.J. - The Bluebird definitely, but not Tootsie's. That whole lower Broadway area is kind of touristy. The Bluebird has always been associated with great songwriters and musicians. I've enjoyed playing there a number of times over the years.
R.V.B. - Well, congratulations on your new release "Divertuoso". It has great guitar work and a nice variety of songs. Good luck with it, and hopefully the next time that you're in New York I'll have a heads up, and go to see you.
J.J. - Thank you... I enjoyed talking to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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