Surrealistic Pillow Talk, Jorma Kaukonen’s Wide World of Music

Tristram Lozaw

Though Jorma Kaukonen’s incendiary work in the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna marks him as one of rock’s all-time great electric guitarists, his first love was country-blues finger picking — Delta to Piedmont, ragtime to folk and gospel. Kaukonen began his music career in the early ’60s, playing small solo gigs and backup for Janis Joplin in San Francisco clubs before joining psychedelic-pop greats Jefferson Airplane in 1965. As a member of Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen made groundbreaking rock for turbulent times. His inventive mix of rootsy finger picking with edgy solos and sustained feedback pulled from his semi-hollowbody Gibsons became a signature of the band. In 1969, he and Airplane bassist Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna as a “side project” that continues to record and tour today.

Kaukonen’s affinity for teaching guitar led to a series of instructional videos and eventually he and his wife started the Fur Peace Ranch ( guitar camp in the foothills of southeastern Ohio. The camp’s workshops for guitar styles, percussion and keyboards are taught by a long list of instructors including Casady, Hot Tuna’s Michael Falzarano and Pete Sears, Roy Book Binder and lots of special guests. Kaukonen’s nearly 30 albums include his most recent CD, Too Many Years, recorded with the Jorma Kaukonen Trio — Kaukonen plus Falzarano on guitar and mandolin and Sears on keys. Since your father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, you lived abroad for much of your childhood. Do you think living in Pakistan influenced your guitar style?

Kaukonen: I believe that what you hear influences you later on. And I think some of that music, like Pakistani slide guitar, was absorbed into my head. When the Airplane got together, I had never really played electric guitar before. I was looking for lead guitar sounds and I think I drew on that in some way. But I can’t say I looked to the masters. What guitarists and styles did you emulate while you were learning guitar?

Kaukonen: I started out pretty much as a strummer and a singer. It wasn’t a question of being a guitarist. I just liked singing songs. I’d learn accompaniments and I really loved the fingerstyle guitar players. And while I was going to Antioch College I had an opportunity to learn how to fingerpick from my teacher, Ian Buchanan. So I probably emulated Ian more than anybody. People like Rev. Gary Davis also influenced me a lot. I also listened to Brownie McGhee, Blind Blake, Pink Anderson, and Scrapper Blackwell, a fingerstyle blues guitarist who basically played lead in guitar-piano duets. Was there ever anyone that blew you away the first time you heard them?

Kaukonen: There was a guy I met, in 1963 named Steve Mann, from L.A. He played the 12-string guitar on Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” worked with Mac Rebennack [Dr. John], and did a lot of sort of silly pop stuff. But he was a really brilliant fingerstyle guitarist. He would do really complex versions of Ray Charles songs like “Drown In My Own Tears” with all the big band changes, cool stuff. What elements of your original finger picking style have carried over to your current playing, and what has changed?

Kaukonen: I was very fortunate that my inability to focus as much as some of my contemporaries kept me from becoming [only] a Rev. Gary Davis-style player. For example, the Rev. plays with two fingers on his right hand, I play with three so my syncopations are different. He uses all these odd chords because he was blind and didn’t know how odd they were, and I used the ones that all the white boys learned when we take our first guitar lessons. I think what happened is, a lot of the spirit of the music set me on fire and keeps me that way today. But because I really didn’t dissect it as much as other guys did, that allowed me to develop my own style. The spirit is continuous, and my style, well, you can always tell when it’s me. You were hesitant to join the Jefferson Airplane and play electric.

Kaukonen: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a pop band. I was going to move to Europe and be a blues musician. But rock ‘n’ roll is very seductive. I started playing with the guys, it was a lot of fun, there were gadgets to play with, people danced. And I thought, “This is not bad.” Part of your resistance to playing rock was that you were into more traditional styles. Now that style of rock — which you helped to establish — is considered classic.

Kaukonen: John Hartford was at the Fur Peace Ranch and said that the rock of my era, the ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, will be considered old-timey music before long. I said, “Yeah, that’s great.” The Jefferson Airplane’s music was, in many ways, a reaction to the country’s social climate. Do you still look at music in those ways?

Kaukonen: I’m [almost] 60 years old, so I have a different perspective. My life is a lot more peaceful than it was in my 20s, so I don’t have as many issues that have to be dealt with. The nature of musical artistry is to reflect the time, and I’m sure younger musicians are probably doing that. I’m not a scholar of what’s going on today. I lead an isolated, rustic life much of the time, which is great, by the way. How has the music business changed since the ’60s?

Kaukonen: I know there was a while when my pals and I thought we’d change the music business, but history has proven us wrong. I think a lot of things are the same, we just have more of everything — more guitars, more foot pedals, more bands. But I think the music business is pretty much the same. Are you a fan of modern technology like digital recording and MP3s?

Kaukonen: I personally love digital recordings. With decent A-to-D (analog to digital) converters everything sounds great. I’ve got two DA-88s and I just built this new hard disk system. It makes it possible for us to make quality recordings at home. Michael Falzarano and I did both our Christmas album and Too Many Years at the Ranch. I think technology can be a creativity inhibitor, but this is an area it helps musicians. For instance, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was recorded on a three-track recorder. There were three knobs. And there was no Dolby so you could only overdub once before it started to hiss. Back then, it seemed like the job of the engineer and the crew was to mystify the musicians. “You can’t do this.” And they were right, it was too complicated. Now you read a manual, start playing, and before you know it you’re making music. Let’s talk about your Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp. You’ve taught guitar for a long time.

Kaukonen: I started teaching guitar early in my career. It was an easier way to make money than getting jobs because people always want to learn but not everyone wants to pay to hear you play. The first year I was in the Airplane, I made more money teaching than from our shows. I started making videos in the late ’80s. And when my wife and I bought this farm in southeastern Ohio, we thought it would be nice to have this guitar camp. We’re in our third year now, and I really like being able to pass on the music that was so freely given to me. And I’ve noticed over the last three years that it’s really improved my playing. Because I don’t practice anymore, and you really have to if you want to stay sharp. With the Ranch, I’m putting in five or six hours a day of doing things really slowly, the kind of stuff that practice is all about. I get to teach people, I get paid for doing it, and I get to practice at the same time. How important is theory and traditional music instruction for guitarists?

Kaukonen: When I started playing guitar, I worked more from songs than actual theory. But there’s nothing wrong with knowledge — it certainly makes it easier to explain what you do if you understand the language. On the other hand, there are completely “uneducated” musicians who are brilliant. My teaching style is extremely anecdotal, I pretty much teach from songs, using songs as archetypes. You’ve often pointed out the importance of rhythm guitarists.

Kaukonen: A great rhythm guitar player can make a mediocre guitar player sound great. A mediocre rhythm section can make the best lead guitarist sound mediocre. To me, my style of playing is 90 percent attitude. And what makes it happen is what the rhythm section does. You can’t minimize how important the rhythm guitar is in ensemble playing. You seem pretty happy with the new CD, Too Many Years.

Kaukonen: My friend Roy Book Binder, a fine fingerstyle blues player, has always been extremely critical of my work. He’s extremely traditionally minded. He always wants it to sound like 1936. He listened to Too Many Years from start to finish and said, “Boy, you finally sound like you’ve always wanted to sound.” I think next time we’ll add a rhythm section — it will be the Jorma Kaukonen Trio “and friends.” Do you approach the Trio differently from Hot Tuna?

Kaukonen: Even though we have three-fifths of Hot Tuna here, there’s a large difference. Hot Tuna revolves around the interaction between Jack [Casady] and myself and that thing that we’ve been doing since about 1957. In the Trio, the songs are more in the foreground than the interplay. Jack played again with the Airplane in 1995 but you didn’t…

Kaukonen: Starship. Hey!… Why give myself the grief of dealing with a bunch of rock and rollers? I really don’t mean that in a bad way, but the stuff that we do together now is so low key. We don’t have band meetings. And the only time we bitch is when someone belches in the car. I’ve got such a full plate in my life right now and I’m so happy with all the things I’m doing that there’s just no room for anything else, really.