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When Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady wrap this fall’s tour, Hot Tuna’s plugged-in performances will be a thing of the past.
Few groups that formed in 1969 are still going strong with their founding members intact. Hot Tuna are an exception. Aside from a hiatus from 1978 to 1985, the band has been an ongoing collaboration between guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. Through all that time, they’ve been a hybrid act of sorts, performing in both electric and unplugged formats for their devoted fan base.
But this fall’s 14-date tour will be the group’s last time on the road playing electric. Beginning next year, the band’s shows will be acoustic only. While no one is coming right out and saying it, those quieter, seated unplugged appearances are likely more to Kaukonen and Casady’s liking, now that they are, respectively, 82 and 79. For that matter, Hot Tuna’s electric days are already nearly a thing of the past, as is Kaukonen’s regular use of electric guitars.
“Hot Tuna doesn’t do that many electric shows, so I’m not as emotionally invested in guitars as I used to be,” he tells Guitar Player when we catch up with him before a July 20 performance at Great South Bay Festival in Patchogue, New York, in the heart of Long Island. “And I’m not being dismissive of the electric guitars that will be used, because I love them dearly. But I don’t handle them every day, as I do acoustic guitars.”
It’s been a long haul for the group, which Kaukonen and Casady formed while still members of Jefferson Airplane, during that band’s heyday. As the story goes, Airplane singer Grace Slick was recuperating from vocal cord surgery, and her bandmates — Kaukonen, Casady, guitarist Paul Kantner and drummer Joey Covington — were feeling restless. While Hot Tuna has had a fluid lineup over its history, Kaukonen and Casady have been its steady center, playing blues rock and Americana. In doing so, they’ve helped keep alive the music of country and blues artists such as Reverend Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Blind Blake, introducing their timeless music to new generations of fans.
Affectionally known as the Captain, Kaukonen has been performing for over 58 years, during which time he’s been a prolific collaborator and solo artist. A Grammy-winning American guitar player and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, he has a celebrated fingerstyle method rooted in blues, folk and Americana, and his career as an American rock legend has made him an influential figure and in-demand instructor. He operates his own guitar camp called Fur Peace Ranch, a 119-acre music and guitar camp in the hills of southeast Ohio, north of Pomeroy, complete with a 32-track studio.
Kaukonen was at the center of the new music scene that was starting to develop in San Francisco in the early 1960s, playing backup for Janis Joplin in local clubs before forming Jefferson Airplane in 1965. Amid the gradual breakup of Jefferson Airplane from 1971 to 1973, he and Casady went heavy electric with Hot Tuna, with ex-Airplane member Papa John Creach on violin joining them for a pair of celebrated albums: 1971’s First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, and 1972’s Burgers, which featured the FM radio hit Ja Da (Keep on Truckin’).
Following Hot Tuna’s breakup in 1978, Casady formed the new-wave band SVT, while Kaukonen went solo. Since reforming in 1986, Hot Tuna have toured continually with electric and acoustic performances, playing more than 100 shows annually for the past 20 years.
Kaukonen is known for using a number of electric guitars over the years, including a Gibson ES-345 with Jefferson Airplane, an Epiphone Riviera (the company issued his signature model Riviera in 2002), a Gibson Firebird V and a Chet Atkins SST acoustic-electric. He presently endorses Martin Guitars, which released the Martin M-30 Jorma Kaukonen Custom Artist Edition in 2010, and he plays Flammang Acoustic Guitars, built in Iowa by David Flammang. In addition, he uses and endorses the Fishman Loudbox acoustic amplifier.
What guitars will you be taking out for this tour?
As this will be our last electric Hot Tuna tour, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gear, and my guitar choices will change depending on what setlist we’re doing. When Hot Tuna did our reprisal of the Burgers album at Carnegie Hall last year [the band commemorated the album’s 50th anniversary at the venue on April 22, 2022], I used my favorite Gibson 345 most of the time, because that’s what I used as an electric guitar back in those days. It’s not a guitar I would use all the time today, because it’s stereo and I don’t need all that stuff like I did in the Airplane. So on tour I’ll be using a Gibson Firebird from the early ’90s. It’s got Lindy pickups and custom caps and pots. That’s the only thing I changed. Other than that, it’s stock.
That’s probably going be my main guitar, but I also have a special Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul called Beano. Susan Tedeschi has one. [Tedeschi’s belongs to her husband and bandmate, Derek Trucks, and was gifted to him by Eric Clapton, who also owns one.] She let me play it, and I liked the guitar so much that I got one myself — and it wasn’t cheap! That’s going be waiting in the wings for when I need something special.
I also use an Atkins SST for the fingerpicking Hot Tuna stuff. I’ve got a couple of them, but my favorite is a 1993 from the Custom Shop. It’s just a really, really good guitar. And for the electric sets, I use a ’67 Marshall “Plexi” that I’ve been using for a while. For the Firebird, I’ve been using a Louis Electric custom amp. He’s a builder from Northern New Jersey. I love all this stuff. Also, for the fingerpicking stuff, I’ll be using a blackface Fender Pro that Jack gave me, with a single 15-inch speaker. It’s an awesome old amp and completely stock.
For pedals, I have an original Zendrive overdrive on the Atkins SST and the Gibson Firebird. I’ve also got a 1965 Thomas Organ Company [wah] pedal, the one I used with the Airplane.
I always put the overdrive before the wah-wah pedal. That’s important to me. Most of the time I don’t really need any pedals, but sometimes it’s just fun to make noises. I also have an Eventide Blackhole. It’s a really neat reverb pedal. It’s very complex, but it’s got a lot of depth. Sometimes I’ll throw that in the chain, just for texture, because most of the time I don’t need anything at all.
Original Zendrive overdrive pedals are going for over $1,000.
Robben Ford turned me on to those back in the mid 2000s, and I was very fortunate that I was able to get four or five of them direct from [Zendrive designer] Alfonso Hermida back in the days. They weren’t cheap back then, but they were nothing like they are today. They’re not vintage for me. They’re just old because I bought them new.
Have you ever played with some of the newer digital modelers, like the Kemper or Fractal?
No, I have not. I find that stuff interesting, but I really don’t have any interest in modeling. And if I need to read a manual for something, that’s going to turn me off to a piece of gear immediately. I’m very fortunate because I’ve got a couple of really good amps, and I’m not a collector. If I had to fly by myself and sound like me at different venues without carrying a bunch of gear around, I would definitely be into it. But, lately, for Hot Tuna, we drive everywhere, so it’s easier to carry our original gear to gigs.
Has the Fur Peace Ranch gone virtual since the pandemic?
Yeah. I’m not calling the blues here, but the pandemic changed everything for us, and we stopped doing in-person things. The cost of everything is going up, too, so we’re doing some in-person things at the Ranch and some on the road. We did a couple weeks in Martha’s Vineyard. We’re going do it next year as well. You can check out our website at furpeaceranch.com.
Looking back over such an awesome distance, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
I guess the real highlight of my career has been to turn a lot of people on to the music that the masters performed — you know, like Reverend Gary Davis and all that kind of stuff. Thanks to the internet, people can find that stuff without me holding their hand. But in the beginning, I was able to do that. And people went, “Oh, wow! Yeah, I love that song. You wrote Hesitation Blues?” “No, I didn’t write that song. Reverend Davis did, and you need to check him out.” So being able to turn people on to the music that I love is part of it.
I’ve got a 17-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old son, and I’ve been able to open a lot of doors for them, and they’ve had a lot of options to listen to stuff that they may or may not have had without me. And the flip side is they turned me on to a lot of music too.
Aside from this final electric tour, do you have anything else coming up with Hot Tuna or other projects?
My buddy John [Hurlbut] and I have a project called Another Lifetime on Culture Factory, and it’ll be out in the fall. I’m just performing on it as a lead guitarist. It takes such a burden off me, and it brings me back to what I was able to do with the Airplane, which is just serve the song. So I’m pretty excited about that project.
Who inspires you personally and musically?
Wow! I guess there’s so many people that continue to inspire me over the years, and I could talk about my buddy Jack [Casady] or Reverend Davis forever. But I guess if I’m just thinking about today, you know, just because of all the stuff that’s been going on, I guess one of my great inspirations today is [multi-instrumentalist] Larry Campbell. Outside of the fact that he’s a dear friend, it’s his ability — I mean, he’s such a multi-talented guy, and he has a three-dimensional vision of music that most people, including myself, don’t have. But he has this ability to always honestly serve the song and to work well with other people, and to just basically be a good human being. So I’ll put Larry right up at the top of the list.
And I’m always excited about going out with Jack. You know, I just talked to him this morning. We’re bringing back some old electric stuff we haven’t played in a long time… Oh, I don’t know, half a lifetime! And I don’t want to spoil the surprise by letting the cat out of the bag now.
Hot Tuna play three more electric dates in December. For venues, see their website