John Jorgenson - Instrument Savant

All it took was a two-week stint as an instrument sales clerk, and John Jorgenson knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life -- make a living playing music. And in the process, he's become one of the most respected and well-rounded guitarists in contemporary pop.

The son of Benny Goodman's bandleader, Jorgenson began traditional piano studies at a young age before picking up the guitar in his teens. And Jorgensons skills aren't limited to guitar and keyboards. Over the years, hes achieved proficiency on more than 15 instruments which scored him a job playing at Disneyland, and eventually earned him a position in Elton Johns band, alongside guitarist Davey Johnstone.

When he's not playing acoustic, electric, pedal steel, or sax with Elton, you might see Jorgenson playing boogie blues on his screaming Fender Signature Model Strat with the Hellecasters, or even performing a little two-fingered steel-string gypsy jazz as a solo act. He recently recorded his first solo album, Emotional Savant, a heartfelt effort that showcases his musical, songwriting, and production skills. In an interview to promote the record, Jorgenson spoke to about playing with Elton, writing in the studio and jamming with Mickey, Donald and Goofy. How many instruments were you playing at Disneyland?

John Jorgenson: In a day, usually I would play mandolin in the bluegrass band, clarinet in the Dixieland band, and guitar in the Hot Club band. Were you also doing a lot of sessions?

Jorgenson: I wasn't doing a ton of them. My session career really got started after the Desert Rose Band had a couple of hit singles, and the producers for that band then started using me on their other projects. It kind of blossomed from there. And it was funny because it was never a thing that I'd really tried to do -- it just kind of happened. People ask me, "Well how can I break into the session scene?" And I have no idea! I was lucky because I was raised playing classical music, so I could read mostly anything, and by the time I started doing sessions I'd played a lot of different styles of music and I felt like I knew them. You have a reputation for chops, but on all of your recordings you're a real team player.

Jorgenson: My whole concept of guitar playing -- nothing against these guys -- but I was never listening to Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton when I was growing up. I just wanted to be in a band. I would listen to the Stones, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Mountain and Led Zeppelin and how the guitar worked in a band context. So I was never that interested in chops-oriented music. What kind of players inspired songs like "Jig in D," from Emotional Savant?

Jorgenson: That probably comes from fiddle music, and when I was first learning the mandolin. The best way to learn it is to learn fiddle tunes because they go all over the instrument, and they're kind of scale- and arpeggio-based melodies. I really enjoyed playing that kind of stuff on the mandolin -- jigs, horn pipes -- and later I transferred it over to the guitar. I'd say probably the biggest influences for the flat-picking acoustic melodic kind of stuff were Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice. It also comes from mandolin stuff with Bobby Osborne, and Sam Bush is an amazingly great mandolin player, probably the best that there is. I was really into the early David Grisman stuff. I like the idea of playing acoustic melodies on acoustic instruments. I really just wanted to include my bluegrass, and Celtic, and acoustic roots in with the rest of the album. How many instruments do you play on Elton's gig?

Jorgenson: I play soprano sax, tenor sax, guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, percussion, and I sing. Was Davey Johnstone a big influence before you got in the band?

Jorgenson: When he joined Elton's band and really started to rock out a little bit, I paid more attention to Elton's music, cause I was a young guitar player at that time and as great as Elton John was as a piano player, and singer and songwriter, I was interested in guitar. So I wanted to listen to music that had electric guitar in it. And when that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album came out, that was a lot more interesting to me, because of Davey's presence. I have to say he's really fun to play with. He's one of the main reasons why I accepted that gig. I had met him over the years, and we really got along good, and I thought, If I'm going to be out on the road with a bunch of people I don't know, I need to know that there's somebody I can hang out with. It seems to translate well on stage -- there's a chemistry there.

Jorgenson: He's been so generous. He's the voice of guitar in Elton's music, and he just shares that with me. It's really nice.
: How much did your work with Elton impact the songwriting on Emotional Savant?

Jorgenson: Indirectly, I think he has influenced it a lot. After touring with him for a year and a half, I just saw how the melodic and piano-based songs affected the audience so much. Previous to that, I think I'd been really fed up with [being called a] country musician, and I wanted to blatantly show that I was a rock musician, or just a musician in general. You've done so many things on this album -- arranged, produced, wrote, recorded and performed all the instruments. How do you tackle so much and still main cohesive?

Jorgenson: One of my goals in doing this record [was] to be free of formats. A lot of people told me I should put together a country super-group. Well, I didn't want to do that. I'd kinda had my fill of trying to be creative within a strict country format. Other people thought I should do an instrumental guitar album, but I was doing instrumental guitar music with the Hellecasters. I didn't feel a need to do that on my own. So the whole idea for this record was just to be able to do the songs however I wanted to do them. What do you think is your greatest contribution to the music scene?

Jorgenson: To bring together disparate elements from different styles of music in an accessible way, bridging bluegrass, Gypsy swing music, rockabilly, rock-n-roll. What are some of your favorite techniques?

Jorgenson: The right-hand techniques of Gypsy guitar players are just phenomenal to me. There's a lot of down strokes, it's a really heavy pick. The hand is really strong, and it's fairly close to the bridge. There's a lot of what we may call sweep picking, down strokes, arpeggios. Sweep picking is usually done in a light way. In the Gypsy jazz way it's real measured and staccato with lots of 16th notes. I love the way the right hand in that style is so powerful and so precise, and lyrical at the same time. Did most of the Gypsy players use steel-stringed acoustics?

Jorgenson: Yes, they're the silver plated, copper-wound strings. Fairly light gauge with a hefty action. What is the best guitar trick you're ever learned, and from whom?

Jorgenson: What I've gotten a lot of mileage of is using open strings in unusual ways and unusual patterns. Don't you use an open-string harp technique with the Hellecasters albums?

Jorgenson: It's sort of a melodic banjo technique, in a way. I kinda try to take that further and use it in combination with tapping for big, wider intervals. How would you say you've improved as a player over the years?

Jorgenson: Probably playing five to six days a week at Disneyland. Learning how to play bluegrass and swing music, because the speed and technique is phenomenal. What tips would you have for other aspiring guitarists?

Jorgenson: Listen to as much different music as you can -- don't get stuck with one player. Listen to everybody. Listen to other instruments: Try to play the trumpet on the guitar. Try to play the piano on the guitar. And try to learn some fingerstyle too. Even if you never do it, it opens up new voicings that you wouldn't find otherwise.

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