Jorma Kaukonen was a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna, both with bassist Jack Casady. A Grammy nominee who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Kaukonen has left an indelible mark on rock music and was rated among Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Rock Guitarists, and he’s also well respected for his mastery of acoustic fingerstyle guitar. In the midst of an active performance schedule, Jorma operates Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp with his wife out of Pomeroy, Ohio. He is, for obvious reasons, the most requested instructor there.
Kaukonen performs as part of Hot Tuna Acoustic at the Straz Center in Tampa, but I had the pleasure of chatting with him by phone in April before Hot Tuna’s electric performance at Wanee. Check out some highlights from our conversation below.
CL: Looking at your tour schedule made me exhausted! I know you take a lot of pride in never “phoning in” a performance, but how do you keep it fresh night after night after night?
Jorma Kaukonen: One of the things that’s kind of funny is I’ve got a 5-year-old daughter, and when I’m home and I’m taking her to school and picking her up from school, I talk to the parents and they go, “Oh, I can’t believe that you do all this touring.” And I go, “Look, I’ve been doing this all my life. This is my going to the office. I can’t believe you go to an office from 9 to 5 every day.” That’s just what we do. And the good news is, I really love doing it.
Congratulations on Hot Tuna’s newest album, Steady As She Goes. “A Little Faster” is a particular standout.
I’ve got this buddy who works for us at the ranch, John Irwin, who wrote the song a number of years ago. When we were looking for songs, I was talking with my wife, and it just felt like it had the flavor of that sort of psychedelic acid era. So when we went in, in a way, it was like recording a Jefferson Airplane song. Different from the kind of stuff I normally do, so it was really exciting to do overdubs. A lot of times when you’re overdubbing your own material, you kind of know what’s going to go on. It’s hard to build that excitement. But with that thing, it was a flashback for me, let me tell you.
You recorded with Janis Joplin on the so-called Typewriter Tapes. What was your impression of her before fame came her way?
When you say “you recorded with,” that sort of sounds like we did projects together. I was very fortunate because I met Janis in the fall of ’62. I went to a Hootenanny in San Jose, she was there, and she played music I was familiar with. So when she’d come down the peninsula, because I lived in Santa Clara, I would be there if she needed somebody to back her up.
There was a benefit at the Coffee Gallery, now a defunct folk place in North Beach, and Janis and I were supposed to play there. We weren’t even headlining the show, we were just two of many. And she came down to Santa Clara so we could rehearse a couple songs, and I was one of the few guys back in those days that bought a tape recorder and I just used to tape everything. So the good news is that it’s taped. But like I said, I don’t think of it as “recording with.”
I only knew Janis in that folk period, I didn’t really know her in the rock and roll period because her world was changed by then. So my memory of Janis is the blues singing folkie. What you see in movies, her talking and performing, what you see is what you get. There was no bullshit with Janis. That’s who she was.
As a member of Jefferson Airplane, you played some iconic 1960s events like Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Does it all seem a bit surreal looking back at it now?
Oh sure, absolutely. When you think that... I mean, you never know how stuff's going to play out when you're young. You go places, you do things, you're excited about everything, you know? But in retrospect when you think that we were at Monterey Pop — we were also at Monterey Jazz before that, too — but Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont, it's kind of like the trifecta of festivals back then.
Speaking of Altamont, in the brilliant documentary, Gimme Shelter, there's a scene where the Airplane is playing, a fight breaks out in the crowd, it spills onto the stage and Marty jumps into the crowd. What's your recollection of that day?
It was heavy stuff. Once again, this was a long time ago, but you'll notice when you see that footage that until we got pushed over on the drum set, Jack and I never stopped. Oh, God. Well, what else were we going to do, you know? I'm not going to pick a fight with a Hell's Angel.
Yeah, I think that was a good call ... The Fur Peace Ranch just celebrated 15 years. You’ve described it as ‘a ranch that grows guitars.’ Can you tell them just a little bit about it?
We have so many great teachers that come and teach, and everybody’s approach is a little bit different, but basically our goal is to make it accessible, affordable, and un-intimidating. Our weekends are from Friday morning to Monday morning, and in that span of time, all we do is play music, talk about music, and on the more geeky side of things, talk about guitars and gear.
Your fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eric Clapton calls Ohio home now, too.
Yeah, he has a house in Columbus. Actually, that's one of my bucket list items, is to get Eric to come down to the Ranch. It's probably not going to happen, but you never know.
I'm a big Clapton fan. I read in one of your interviews that he was a major influence on you?
He was a big influence in what he did with Cream. It's funny, because I've met Eric a couple of times, we don't really know each other, but back in the '60s when we talked, I got the impression that aspect of his music, that power trio thing, wasn't really who he thought he was. I remember when The Band's Music from Big Pink came out, he said that's the kind of music he wanted to play, and in a way, that's the kind of music he plays today.
But to look at what him and the guys did with Cream, I think that as an electric band, they're the most successful people to have taken traditional blues and put it into the contemporary sound of that time, capturing signature licks and all that stuff. If you listen to Disraeli Gears, so many of those songs were off Yazoo collections. They took these songs, like "Outside Woman Blues," and did absolutely, in my opinion, eternal versions of these songs without losing the flavor of the original.
I mean, our technique is really different. But I think what he influenced me with was the sound that he got from his guitars and the way that he approached jamming around those traditional forums.
You and Jack Casady, your longtime comrade-in-arms from the Airplane and Hot Tuna, have known each other basically forever.
We’ve been playing together since 1958. We’ve known each other longer than that.
He teaches at the Fur Peach Ranch?
He does. If you look at our teaching styles, it says a lot about both of us. My teaching style is very anecdotal, and the style of music that I teach, it’s sort of an approach more than specifics. As a bass player, bass players don’t get the full round like us guitar players do. If you go to a music store you might see a book that says “101 Fun Strums on a Guitar,” you will never see “101 Fun Strums on a Bass.”
What’s Jack like? I get the idea he’s maybe a little more cerebral as far as music goes?
In some respects, yes. Perhaps a little more cerebral and a lot more anal. He is such an anal guy. We really are the odd couple of rock ’n’ roll.