From his embryonic beginnings as a folk-blues guitar purist to his electric and psychedelic innovations with the Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen has remained an ardent student and devotee of the six-string. With
Every day there is something that requires that I listen to myself very carefully. I have standards that I aspire to and it’s a work in progress. More importantly, I listen to a lot of other people. My mind is open to different musical genres and instruments. Obviously the guitar is my first love, but I listen to all kinds of stuff.
What’s the first thing you notice when you hear a recording of yourself from five or 10 years ago?
The funny thing is, I don’t really listen to myself. But occasionally you hear something from five, 10 or 40 years ago, and my first thought is wow! I wasn’t bad! When I listen to recordings I did with Janis Joplin in ‘62 and ‘63, I thought it wasn’t too bad. Compared to what a lot of people do today in terms of flash and technique, it’s not in that realm. But it does what it needs to do.
Have you added new gear that has changed your sound or style?
Most of the gear I use these days, especially with the acoustic guitar, is to try and make it sound as much like itself. For a number of years I’ve been using Fishman’s Matrix pick-ups. I use their 60-watt loud box on stage as a monitor for myself. For electric, back in the day, volume made a lot of stuff happen that we don’t need today. I’ve been using Alfonso Hermida Zendrive pedals and they’re controllable and sound as much like overdriving a real amp as anything I’ve ever used. You can get nice sounds without annihilating the front row of the audience or your band mates. Louie Rosano, of Louis Electric out of New Jersey, can build great amps and modifications for me in the blink of an eye.
How would you say (or with what techniques) you best expressed a psychedelic electric guitar style in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
The Airplane started out as a folk-rock group. Paul (Kantner) was playing a 12-string and I had a Rickenbacker on the first album. As things evolved we became more of a rock & roll band. I was playing a Gibson 345 Stereo, with each pick-up having its own channel. My lead tone was designed to be heard over the rest of the guys in the band.
How has running a guitar school improved or affected you?
I never really learned how to practice constructively. I need to either be playing or teaching, where I do stuff slowly and articulately. And so when I’m teaching people stuff, I’m actually realizing what it is they’re doing—almost like a tai chi thing—and I’m practicing all the moves really slowly and meticulously.