Legendary Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen on the Value of Making Mistakes

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Jorma Kaukonen helped shape the sound of early West Coast psychedelic rock with his innovative guitar work. As a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, he brought a delicacy of feeling to the music that gave the songwriting greater depth.

But he didn’t start out very confident in his abilities. “When I got into the Airplane, I had no experience playing in bands,” he says. “Then, as I fit in, it was frustrating, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But that was good, because I came up with stuff that was a little different. The Airplane, God bless them, we rehearsed relentlessly. So I had a lot of chances to experiment, and nobody ever told me, ‘That sucks. Why can’t you play like Paul Revere and The Raiders or something like that?”

He’s still a firm believer in the power of experimentation and accidents. “I always tell my students that I really believe that the truly original things we come up with are direct functions of our inadequacies rather than our geniuses,” he says.
When the Airplane split in 1972, Kaukonen formed the more blues-rock-oriented Hot Tuna with his childhood friend (and former Airplane bandmate) Jack Casady. The two have been collaborating ever since. In 2015, Kaukonen released his latest solo record, the clean but lush and affecting Ain’t in No Hurry. The liner notes include a short piece on the importance of his friendships, a theme that informs the album’s selection of songs.

“The ’60s mentality to me that was the most productive was before all this rock-and-roll stuff started happening and before the Summer of Love, because San Francisco was a small community,” says Kaukonen. “Everyone was so supportive of each other and whatever was going on. There wasn’t a lot of that career-driven egotism that happened later on. And we all supported each other, whether it was graphic arts, letters or music of all different sorts.

“When bands in San Francisco began to be commercially viable and getting on labels, I think the sort of head space bled over into it, where we all — whether it was Big Brother, the Dead or the Airplane, or any of the other bands that were lucky enough to record — really fought against and refused to be molded by the record companies who wanted to mold us into what they wanted or what they thought we should be. There’s a lot of great non-mainstream music out there today, and to me it has a direct lineage of sorts to what bands like Jefferson Airplane did in breaking out of an underground situation that became mainstream.”  

Jorma Kaukonen, with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, 7 p.m. Sunday, February 22, Swallow Hill Music Hall, $40-$42, 303-777-1003.

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