Jorma Kaukonen, who will make his China debut on February 11 at Yugong Yishan, was a founding member of two legendary rock bands: Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna. When the former debuted in 1965, they were the first San Francisco psychedelic band to make an impact, a few years before their friends in the Grateful Dead. They were also the only band to play at the three major '60s rock festivals: Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont.
Eventually, the band split into two: the pop-rock Jefferson Airplane and the rootsy, blues-based Hot Tuna, featuring Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. The pair still tour in both electric and acoustic settings, while the guitarist also enjoys a thriving solo acoustic career. He is also a popular instructor at the Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar camp he founded 15 years ago on his Ohio property.
Writer Alan Paul caught up with Jorma on the phone as he prepared for his short Asian tour of Japan and China.
You have a multi-track career: solo shows, Hot Tuna electric, Hot Tuna acoustic. Will you be solo in Beijing?
I will be appearing with my buddy Barry Mitterhoff, who is a fabulous mandolin player. He usually brings a tenor guitar and some other cool fretted instruments. I don’t know what he’s bringing with him over there, though of course he’ll have his mandolin. If people like the sound of a plucked, fretted instrument, there’s a good chance they’ll be pleased because Barry is great. We play as a duet and it’s endlessly fun for me.
Do you approach all of the different formats you play very differently?
Well, it’s always me, so that’s the same, but my task as a member of these different setups is different. When I play completely solo I do a lot of finger picking, which is always challenging and fun. When I play with Barry, I tend to do a lot of rhythm, strummy things because the mandolin is essentially a lead instrument and Barry is a great soloist.
If Jack [Casady] is in the band in an acoustic format, I don’t have to worry about the bass lines, which frees me up. And the electric thing is … the electric thing. It’s totally different. I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world because I get to do all of these different things.
Given your different approaches, which instruments do you use?
I’ve gone through the guitar thing over the years and had some beauties, but now I try to keep it simple. Over the last couple of years I’ve been putting money in my daughter’s college fund instead of spending it on an endless array of instruments. I use a Martin M30 Jorma signature model. When I play electric in Hot Tuna, I use two guitars: a Chet Atkins SST with acoustic strings for finger picking and a Gibson Les Paul Standard for rock and roll. Back in the day, the 345 and then the 335 defined my electric sound, but I stumbled onto this Les Paul and I just fell in love with it. It sounds great and it’s nice and light. I’m getting old, what can I tell you?
Are you looking forward to performing in Beijing and Shanghai?
I’m really excited. This all came as a huge and pleasant surprise for me. I’ve been to Japan periodically, though not in about 15 years. When I was approached about coming to China on the heels of a Japan tour, I jumped on it. My wife and I adopted a little girl from Nanning, so she has been there but I have not. I am sure looking forward to it. My daughter is almost six years old and China obviously has a lot more meaning to us now. The day after the show in Beijing is a day off and I am hoping to get out there and see some things.
Your Fur Peace Ranch looks like heaven for us guitar geeks – people spend a weekend taking lessons from you and your fine-picking friends.
We’re into our 15th year, running Friday-Monday sessions March through November and it is a blast. I am there most of the time but not always. In the beginning, I was the big draw but the ranch has gained a life of its own so it’s no longer dependent on me being there.
You can’t put this in a brochure, but I think what makes it great for people is not just that we have so many great instructors, but even more a weekend of just being surrounded by like-minded souls. You see people light up and it lights me up, too. It reminds me of why I got into this game in the first place. I was sort of a shy kid and I became fully realized with a guitar in my hands. That’s the feeling I get being there with a whole ranch full of people who think the same way.
Alan Paul, whose blues band Woodie Alan performed in Beijing from 2007-2009, is the author of Big In China.
Photo: Jorma Kaukonen