You hear Richie Sambora before you see him. Part foul-mouthed Jersey street dog, part Hollywood showbiz sparkle, his voice booms through the corridors of Sydney’s Sheraton On The Park Hotel with the confidence of a man who’s spent the past 30 years playing the world’s biggest stages as a founding member of Bon Jovi. That journey came to an end last year, however, when the 54-year-old declined to rejoin the band’s word tour promoting their 2013 album, What About Now, citing a desire to stay at home with his daughter, Ava. The guitarist hasn’t completely abandoned life on the road, though, as evidenced by his appearance on this year’s Soundwave tour in support of his 2012 solo album, Aftermath Of The Lowdown.
The newest addition to his solo band is 29-year-old Australian-born, Los Angeles-based guitarist Orianthi. Despite having solo success in her own right – her third solo LP, Heaven In This Hell, came out last year, while her 2009 album Believe yielded the hit single “According To You” – she’s perhaps best known as Michael Jackson’s guitarist on the ill-fated This Is It extravaganza. Currently a member of Alice Cooper’s band, she and Sambora first performed together at a charity gig in Maui last New Year’s Eve. A few weeks later, Orianthi invited Sambora to her show at the Troubadour in LA, where they jammed on a cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”. What followed was, Sambora later tweeted, “The best 10 minutes of soulful guitar communication in my life.”
Fast forward a month, and the two are sitting together in a meeting room in the Sheraton, with yesterday’s appearance at the Sydney leg of Soundwave marking their third full gig together. Orianthi, whose sunglasses remain firmly on her head for the duration of the interview, has spent the day jogging (“I did four miles”), while Sambora has used his time in Australia catching up with old friends, such as Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau.
Richie, let’s go back to that night in Maui. What struck you about Orianthi’s playing?
Richie Sambora: Soul. First of all, I think we can easily say she’s the best female guitar player on the planet. [There’s] Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, but there’s nobody [this] f***in’ good. I can honestly say she’s a more proficient technician than I am.
Orianthi, growing up how familiar were you with Richie’s playing?
Orianthi: I quit school when I was 15 and used to play in a covers band, so I’d be playing “Livin’ On A Prayer” and “Bad Medicine” three nights a week around Adelaide. His solos are mini songs within songs, so well structured.
RS: That comes from The Beatles.
O: It’s so memorable, and that’s what I love about his playing.
Richie, after playing “Voodoo Chile” with Orianthi, you tweeted that it was “the best 10 minutes of soulful communication in my life”. That’s a big call.
RS: It’s true. Last time people actually played like that was the late ’60s. I grew up in the renaissance of music where everything was accepted, and then all of a sudden it got very genre oriented. When I was a kid everything was accepted. You could go see a show and it would be f***in’ Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix and f***ing Led Zeppelin at the Filmore, that’s how old I am. But the fabric of what was happening between us felt like that kind of communication again. And it was serious. F***in’ dead f***in’ serious.
Where do you think this will lead?
O: We’ve been writing songs, we wrote a ton of songs, so we’ll make a record.
All this within two months of meeting…
RS: We started the conversation. Songwriting is a conversation. And we’re just getting to know each other, and discussing the parallels in our lives, the similarities in our lives, what our influences are…
O: The background of having a lot of blues influences. We’re into similar music too. [We’ve just been] playing a lot of music and listening and just getting inspired.
Hypothetical question: say all your gear is stolen on the morning of a show. What’s the most basic set-up you need to get onstage?
RS: End of the day, we’re all bluesmen – what’s there, you play. Plug it the f*** in, and play. I walked into the Ventura Theatre one night and Kenny Wayne Shepherd called me up onstage, I don’t think he had any idea I had any blues chops. They put me into a Fender Princeton with no pedal and just handed me a Strat, and I f***in’ burnt that shit down! [Laughs]. That’s the mentality you have to take.
So simple is better sometimes?
O: Sometimes having [too] many effects interferes. I went crazy three years ago. TC gave me every effect under the sun, so I wanted to use them all. There was so much stuff going on that you could hardly hear the guitar. You lose the connection between the guitar and the amplifier, there’s too much interference, everything gets squashed. It’s like using a pack as opposed to plugging in. I hate using a pack.
O: I have to with Alice cos it’s a huge-arse stage and I’m running away from him with the knives and whatever. But other than that, just give me a really long cable. Doesn’t matter what pack, I tried them all and I hate them all. You hit the note and you can’t get the tone out of it.
RS: I did the same thing in the late ’80s with the racks and all that stuff, it was very popular. Then I went to see Jeff Beck play, and literally he just had a brand new Marshall head that he took out of a cardboard box that they delivered to him, Cry Baby Wah Wah, overdrive pedal and some other thing I don’t remember, plugged right into the f***ing amp and it was f***ing stupid! From that point I just went right into the amp. I have a couple of pedals.
What does your pedal board look like?
O: I just have a wah pedal, and a tuner.
RS: I use a wah, I use a POG Octaver, and a Klon overdrive ‘cos it keeps the integrity of the amplifier and also what guitar you’re using. If somebody gives me a pedal to try I’ll try it, but basically
Richie, Orianthi is a young player you obviously admire. But is there anything about modern players you don’t like?
RS: Nobody’s playing solos. Why? It’s like, let’s not have sex. It’s weird. In the ’80s everyone’s taking pictures of me and I’m making all these f*** faces, and so I tried not to make them – couldn’t do it. My whole body had to get into it. The whole f***ing purpose is that you have to lose yourself, you want to become transparent and let it all out, and not even think.
O: You want to be in that zone, almost another realm. And the only way to take people away is to lose yourself, and be free onstage when we play.
RS: In the early days, before Bon Jovi and the band got so stringent in this… I don’t know, whatever the f*** we ended up at, but I was able to let go. I would stand at the edge of the stage and just f***ing lose it and I would open up my eyes and I had everyone right here. Because I lost it.
Did that ability in Bon Jovi diminish?
RS: Yeah, it got too…. yes and no. 30 years
is a good damned run, it just gets to a place where it gets a little stale and you’ve got to
take a little break.
As songwriters, how hard is it to write something that will connect with an audience, while also stretching your chops?
RS: Listening is one of the most important things about playing. You have to listen to a lyric and interpret the song and play what’s appropriate, like George Harrison in “Something”. There’s not a lot of technical shit going on there, but it’s the right shit for the right song. And then you go, “All right, let’s write something that we can do some shredding on, something that gives us a house and a foundation that we can take this part of our knowledge and life experience and technique and just flush it through that.” That’s also important. But songwriting is the main objective, man. You can be the best f***ing guitar technician you can f***ing find on the planet, and if you ain’t got a song to play to you’re just another piece of shit.
What are your go-to guitars when you head out on the road?
O: I love my PRS guitars, and I do have a go-to PRS which I use a lot on tour. It’s like a Custom 22 and I’ve had it about ten years. And I have Pepper, which is my favourite PRS. I name all my guitars. That’s the one I used to audition for Michael Jackson, and it’s a Custom 24 PRS. I walked in to play the “Beat It” solo with that guitar, he was watching me from the couch. I didn’t know if I was going to get it, but the fact I got to meet him [was enough]. ‘Cos you can’t go in there thinking, “I’m going to fill Eddie Van Halen’s shoes”, so I went in there and played the solo in a blues way, I added my own spin to it.
Richie, how about you? How many guitars have you got on the road in Australia?
RS: About ten, I guess. I always take one of my ’59s out, I have a ’53 Tele that Keith [Richards] signed for me, and that’s one of my favourites. I have a ’59 Blonde Dot Neck… 335… ’61 Strat. I just mix and match, I like playing everything. I got one of almost everything anybody would want. ’58 V, ’58 Explorer, couple of Broadcasters, I a got Stratocaster Number 13.
Are any too precious to leave your home?
RS: No. They’re f***ing meant to be played. I like them dirty. The more beat up they are, I think somebody loved them.
O: They all have different personalities and that inspires you to play them differently. They’re all pieces of art.
RS: It’s American art.
Are you closely involved in the creation of your Custom models?
RS: Absolutely. Gotta be.
O: I’ve created a couple of models with Paul [Reed Smith]. The second is modelled on Pepper, my favourite PRS. Custom 24. When I created it with Paul he said, “I want you to be really involved making this, ‘cos this is your model.” It took a bit of time, but I’m happy with it. It’s got a five-way selector switch, HFS pick-ups, it’s a comfortable guitar to play.
RS: I started out with Kramer, and I started making double necks with [Kramer co-founder]
Dennison Berardi and doing crazy shit with him. Then he introduced me to Les Paul and Les gave me a bunch of his guitars. We were such good friends. Played with him all the time and he just used to bust my balls. And then I was with Fender for about 12 years. I made a lot of great guitars with those guys. Then I started working with random luthiers making my own shit, and obviously I had the double neck Ovation, and then the double neck Taylor. The way I did the deal with Ovation was really funny. There were so many girls coming to see our band at that point, it was almost f***ing embarrassing. I thought, “I’ve gotta write a song and do something f***ing cool”, so “Wanted Dead Or Alive” came out [and I had] the cowboy hat and I wanted a double-neck acoustic. So I went over to [Ovation founder] Charlie Kaman and said, “Hey Charlie, I need you to make me a double-neck, and if you don’t make me one I’ve got a couple other companies that will.” I had nobody. [Laughs]. He goes, “Sure, man”, and he killed it. And that guitar is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame right now. I’m working with a company called Rockbridge now that I think is phenomenal. Two guys, they just make guitars one at a time. And they’re wonderful.
You’ve both been in positions where your careers have exploded. What’s the trick to staying focused during the madness?
RS: I always continued to play sessions for people, I always continued to write for other people, I always went out and played blues gigs with my cats that I love to play with, my solo albums. I never lost touch about that. [Bon Jovi] really wasn’t enough for me as a player. The opportunity as a musician to be in a band of that magnitude and the fact I was part of the main engine as a writer, and doing all that kind of stuff, you can’t shun that whatsoever. You just have to augment. I was f***ing playing Bon Jovi shit but I was listening to Muddy Waters and Albert King and I was doing gigs with BB [King] and Buddy [Guy]. So a lot of it was listening, man, just sitting in your room and f***ing playing. That’s how I kept my sanity.