A Penny From Heaven…

By Paul Rigg

Orianthi Penny Panagaris (22 January 1985), normally known as Orianthi, is an Australian guitarist, singer and songwriter who performed for several years with Alice Cooper, and was slated to be Michael Jackson’s lead guitarist on his final This Is It tour.  

Orianthi’s 2009 single According to You broke into the top 10 in Australia and Japan and reached number 17 in the US, and she was awarded "Breakthrough Guitarist of the Year" in 2010 by Guitar International magazine.

It is a warm but cloudy morning in early April 2019 as Guitars Exchange catches up with Orianthi at her home in LA, where she has just got back from writing songs in Nashville. She has guitars all over her walls and a red custom 24 PRS by her bed, which she has already picked up and played this morning. Despite having caught a minor bug on the plane, Orianthi is keen to talk about how she came to have ‘Penny’ as a middle name, her most valuable crystal-encrusted guitar, and the buzz around her latest record…


GE: I understand that you may have a single, ‘Love Bomb’, released soon; can you tell us about that please?

O:  I am working on a full EP or record right now - I am not sure at the moment what it is going to be - but the first track I wrote for this series of tracks is called Love Bomb. I did it with Paul Dawson, who has done stuff with Rihanna, and it is pretty experimental, with a good beat, guitars, and with choruses. It is very different from what I have done before. I am a big fan of pop music, and I liked the idea of bringing in a new producer and working with different writers, as it is interesting and cool.

I am excited to see how this record will all come together. As an artist you are never satisfied, so I am going to keep working on this to make sure it is perfect before I put anything out.  

GE: Do you think this represents a new direction for you in the future?

O: I have done a lot of pop in the past, my first single was pop, but I am a big fan of many genres of music so I don’t think this is a direction I am going to stay in, because I am always changing and evolving. I have been playing some heavier stuff too, and that’s also been fun.  

GE: Do you have any planned release date yet?

O: I am going to put out a single pretty soon, in the next couple of months, with a video and then follow it up with a full EP or album. We are going over things right now; the first song could be Love Bomb, but there are a few other contenders as well. 

GE: Going back to your childhood, where does your middle name ‘Penny’ come from?

O: [Laughs] It comes from my grandma; my first name comes from my other grandma. I am half-Greek, so I am named after both. 

GE: Have you ever been to Greece?

O: No, I haven’t yet been there.  

GE: Have you ever listened to traditional Greek music?

O: Yes I have, because my dad used to play Greek christenings, and I used to join him sometimes. He was in a Greek band until I was about 14; so I learned about that music and all the different instruments they use; it was definitely a great experience growing up in that environment.  

GE: Does Greek music touch you?

O: It definitely brings back childhood memories because when I hear it I always remember going to those christenings or to a wedding with my parents.  

GE: What was your first guitar brand?  

O: I don’t think it had a brand because it was just an old acoustic; I think it had nylon strings on it. My dad just had it around as a ‘jam guitar’ in the corner so I used to pick it up. It was left-handed because my dad is left-handed, but he told me ‘you want to learn right-handed, because you’ll have more choices in the stores’, so I changed within two weeks.  

I then studied classical from the age of nine, at Tafe in Adelaide. I was pretty young to be accepted; I did sight reading and theory and got to Level 2 I believe, then I was playing at home.  

My first electric was a Fender Strat and then I got a second-hand PRS a few months after that. I begged like a brat to have one when I was 11 years old, because I had seen the Carlos Santana tour in Adelaide, and it was a life-changing moment for me because the way he plays is amazing. I was studying classical at the time and seeing Carlos was the moment I realised ‘that is what I want to do’ and I changed to electric. It was so beautiful.

I then basically locked myself away with my 1980s PRS guitar; I still have it and I love it. I would play for five or six hours a day learning all the Santana records, BB King, the blues, Stevie Ray, Jimi Hendrix…    

GE: How and when did you meet your great supporter,
Steve Vai?

O: I was 14 and Steve Vai was playing in Adelaide. I knew the owner of the club so I reached out and gave him my record that I made at home. Steve Vai’s management and he then heard it, and he invited me to open for him. That was very daunting, very scary; but I played about five songs. Steve was watching from the side of the stage and he came on with like a miner’s light on, and lasers on his fingers, and he was shredding; it was just crazy. He is a friend and has been such a huge support since that night; you always remember those first moments.  

GE: You’ve played with many of the leading guitarists of our time: is there anyone else who you would like to play with?   

O: Yes definitely, Gary Clark jr. I saw him play Coachella and I was just blown away. He plays like Buddy Guy, he has got a great voice and the right groove; I just really dig him. I would love to jam with him.

GE: Also, you have
played many different styles and musical genres… which do you feel most comfortable with?

O: Blues is the first thing I got into into, but I love rock, country and pop; so that is quite a hard question! I was playing with the Alice Cooper Band for three or four years and that was amazing because they went from rock to hard rock, and then I played with Michael Jackson with the pop and the funk thing; that was so much fun. And now I do my own thing with pop, rock and blues; I like to do it all! [Laughs]

GE: What is your strongest memory about working with Michael Jackson?

O: The first time I met him; when I walked in to play Beat It for him. He called me the day before as he had been watching my Youtube videos, and he saw me perform with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy awards, and he said ‘come in and play some songs because I am putting together a tour’ and I thought ‘Oh my God!’ So the strongest memory I have was when I met him, when he walked into the room and sat down on the couch, the band went into Beat It, and I played the solo like he wanted it. He was smiling and was on a high all that evening; in that moment everyone was just so happy.  

It was interesting seeing him put everything together for the tour and his dedication as an artist. He did everything: the singing, dance choreography, and the auditions, until everything was perfect. He was very professional and had a strong work ethic; he was truly one of the greats.  

GE: Your videos have huge numbers of views and they are very diverse; do you have a favourite?

O: It was a lot of fun to make Highly Strung with Steve Vai, I had a blast doing that. And also Heaven In This Hell - I love the director Paul Boyd, who worked on that - that was fun because I got the Alice Cooper Band involved. And probably Voodoo Child at Summer Sonic; that whole performance was just a blast for us because that was the end of our tour. And to see 100,000 people singing your songs…   

GE: I understand you have been a PRS artist from the very beginning…but you can always fall in love with a new guitar; do you have a very large guitar collection?

O:  I do. When I tour, I go into guitar stores a lot. The last time I was in Ireland I went into a store and got a Gibson, I think from their anniversary collection; so I use different guitars in the studio, but PRS is my favourite. I have vintage Teles and vintage Strats, I’ve got a Parlor guitar from 1800. I have a lot of guitars that I pick up and play for different textures, but I generally get enough diversity out of the PRS.

GE: What is your most valuable piece?

O: Probably the guitar that I had for the MJ tour that is covered in Swarovski crystals, which was made for the tour by Michael Jackson and his clothes designer. They got my guitar, a custom 24 PRS, and they put a design on it and we used it for the last few nights of rehearsals with Michael, and that was going to be the main guitar on the tour.  

GE: Turning to effects - we have seen your brand new signature pedals at NAMM - when did you start working with Nexi?

O: Five or six months ago; it has been a process going back and forth as they send me different mock ups. It is pretty fast; they are just incredible pedal makers. I am not really big on pedals, I just use Orange amps these days, but these Nexis are analogue sounding, they are handmade and this one in particular, with the 70s Overdrive. Also the Octavia fuzz has that kind of monstrous sound to it, because you’ve got the fuzz and the Octavia at the same time; I’ve used that tone a lot on my records, because it is different and it is cool.  

GE: Will you use a complete Nexi pedalboard?

O: Actually I have got one here and I really dig it, it has got delays and everything so maybe, yes.  

hich female artists inspire you?

O: Bonnie Raitt, who is amazing, and Jennifer Batten, of course. I like what St Vincent is doing, she’s really cool, incorporating guitar and that electronic vibe; and then H.E.R., who plays R&B, and also shreds away.

GE: Do you have any particular message for young female guitarists who are perhaps struggling at the start of their career? It can be demoralising carrying your heavy amp home at one in the morning, for example, when no-one has come to see you…

O: [Laughs] You know I still carry my own amp sometimes… you just have to keep in there, you just have to battle through it. They say 40% of guitar purchases are now from women; it is becoming more of the norm, so I say just keep at it! It is not easy, this industry isn’t easy, even once you have success. Sometimes you just have to reinvent yourself and start over again. Be humble; don’t have an ego; and just try to better yourself.  

GE: What are your plans for 2019?

O: To continue writing, get this record finished as soon as possible, and then start touring and playing festivals; that’s my plan!    

At this point Taylor Bloss from Orianthi’s management company, CTK, cuts in and says that Orianthi has “her whole sales team and her rep from PRS waiting for her”, so Guitars Exchange thanks Orianthi for her time and wishes her the best of luck with her latest recordings. ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate it,’ she replies.