Jorma Kaukonen's Unhurried Embryonic Hi-Res Journey

To modify a phrase, fingerpicking guitar maestro Jorma Kaukonen just keeps on innovatin’. For over a half-century, Kaukonen has followed his own path and applied his folk roots to variations on psychedelia with Jefferson Airplane and free-form blues with Hot Tuna, not to mention his own solo rock and unplugged outings. On his acoustic-driven new disc, Ain’t In No Hurry (Red House), Kaukonen continues to push forward on tasty, intense tracks like the hopeful timelessness of “In My Dreams,” the traditional riches-to-rags lament of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and the down-home grit of “The Terrible Operation.” Observes Kaukonen, “One of the cool things about the way the album is mixed is that there’s this magnificent, transparent presence of all the instruments, no matter who’s playing and where they are. You can hear them all; they’re there.”

Kaukonen, 74, and I got on the phone recently to discuss his recording techniques, his mastery of Drop D tuning on an iconic song, and the hi-fi gear that’s served to enhance listening experiences all throughout his life. The man may not be in a hurry, but he sure is getting somewhere.

Mike Mettler: I really like the sound quality of this recording. Did you guys cut everything together in the same room, with everybody interacting and looking at each other while you played?

Jorma Kaukonen: We did. We recorded this on the Fur Piece stage, at my theater at the Fur Peace Ranch [in Meigs County, Ohio]. And I got Justin Guip to engineer and mix it, and Larry Campbell to produce it. They also play on it. Larry’s partnership with Justin, who is also our drummer in Hot Tuna and the drummer on Hurry, is something, and so are Justin’s Americana sensibilities — he just knows how to make stuff sound great. He did all those Levon [Helm] records too.

[Guip played drums in the Levon Helm Band from 2004–2012, was production manager for Helm’s Midnight Rambles, and served as senior recording/mix engineer at Levon Helm’s Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York. Campbell was the musical director of the Midnight Rambles, and he and Guip continue to work together as a formidable Grammy Award-winning production team. Helm, who passed away in 2012, appeared on Kaukonen’s 2009 release, River of Time.]

Mettler: You made some interesting choices in terms of stereo separation on certain tracks where [mandolin player] Barry Mitterhoff is in the left channel, and you’re in the right one.

Kaukonen: You know, it’s funny. I listened to my CD on my tube stereo yesterday, and yeah, Barry and I are left and right on “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” One of the things I noticed — and I was stringing guitars when I was doing this, not like I’d be listening in the old days where you just shut everybody up and did nothing but listen — but one of the cool things about the way Justin mixed this album is that there’s this magnificent, transparent presence of all the instruments, no matter who’s playing and where they are. You can hear them all; they’re there. I would never have deigned to want to mix one of my own records because I just don’t have those kind of sensibilities, but when I listen to this stuff, it just sounds live to me, which is cool.

I’ve got a 17-year-old son, and I don’t know if he’s ever going to get his own stereo. He just listens to mine or he listens to stuff on headphones that aren’t ultra hi-fi, though I did give him some studio headphones recently. At the risk of sounding like the old guy that I am, many of the kids just don’t listen to the recordings like the way we did when we were younger, when you just bathed yourself in that stuff.

Mettler: I know. I call it appointment listening, which is what I do when I go down to my listening room with no phone, no texting, and no distractions. It’s all about the listening.

Kaukonen: I like that — appointment listening. I’m going to write that down. I’m going to do that; no messing around.

Mettler: And no charge for using the phrase. Tell me more about your stereo gear.

Kaukonen: Ok, well, you’re going to love this. I have a couple of turntables — a Thorens and a Denon, plus one that you use to digitize records. I’ve got a 20-year-old high-performance Sony CD player that plays CDs the way it was meant to be. My amps — now we’re talking. I’ve got a Marantz preamp, and I have an Michaelson & Austin valve tube amp. The last time I put new tubes in it 20 years ago, it cost me about a thousand dollars. I’m using Polk Audio speakers I got from my dad, but when I feel like listening to rock and roll the old way, I put on the JBL 4312s [studio monitors].

Mettler: I approve! That’s totally the way to go.

Kaukonen: It really is. I’ve got a turntable, but how often do I listen to it? Honestly, not that often, because CDs are so convenient. But I never got rid of my vinyl collection, and when I do want to listen to it, I’m ready to go.

You obviously will be able to relate to this. When you sit down for your, what did you call it, appointment listening — there’s one place you can do that in the room, the sweet spot. I listen to stuff with my wife, who isn’t as obsessively tuned into it as we are, and having our two chairs next to each other is not good. They have to be lined up front to back.

Mettler: Yeah, that’s the way it’s gotta be done. Some of your live recordings are available in 24-bit on HDtracks — you must like that, considering the subtleties and detail related to how you fingerpick.

Kaukonen: Anything at 24-bit is happening. I don’t download, because I live in an area that has moderate download speeds. But my guys, like Jason, are totally into this stuff; you’d love having a conversation with them. They tell me we have to do this because guys like us will love it, so I go, “Rock on.”

Mettler: I think the style you have as a player comes across better in hi-res because you get more of the feel and that sense of interactivity between the players. We can hear what you’re doing together on that Fur Peace Ranch stage. Like on “The Terrible Operation,” it sounds like you guys are switched, in that Barry was in the right channel and the solo in the left was you.

Kaukonen: Right. Actually, in “The Terrible Operation,” Barry is not playing on that one; Larry is. You know, I’ve never discussed it with the guys, but everything is thought out, as you know. Things don’t just happen by accident, just so that it is quite possible guys like you will notice. (both laugh)

Mettler: What type of equipment did you use to record Ain’t in No Hurry?

Kaukonen: It’s Justin’s stuff. He just built a studio up in his house in Red Hook, [New York], on the Hudson River, but he brought all his stuff here to the Ranch — it was like a studio in a van. He has a huge collection of great microphones —which is where it all starts, as you know. And then he’s obviously using Pro Tools. He had a small Neve board [a Melboune Console], and he also had a lot of plug-ins. He had vintage equipment like Pultech compressors [EQH2]. I guess the most important thing he had besides his ears and his mike placement is the mikes themselves. Whenever we listen to playback in the studio, I always say, “Boy, I wish the record would sound like that” — but of course it never does.

Mettler: That’s the thing about 96/24 — that’s what it sounds like in that form, the best representation of what you intended when you were playing.

Kaukonen: I do recall back in 2002 when I did that recording for Columbia, Blue Country Heart, we did that on SACD. I still have an SACD player and I thought that SACD sounded great, but it’s a lost format.

Mettler: I have an Oppo universal player [BDP-105], and I still play SACDs on it. Songs on Blue Country Heart like “Blue Railroad Train” and “Tomcat Blues” sound great on SACD.

Kaukonen: I also have Steve Earle’s Guitar Town on SACD, and that sounds fantastic.

Mettler: I love that one too. In terms of microphone placement, did you tell Justin and Larry where you want things placed, or…?

Kaukonen: No, what I talk with them about is, “How do you want me to approach this? How do you want me to hold my guitar?” I’ve been playing long enough, so I can hold a guitar pretty much in any way necessary. And I realized when we worked with Al Schmitt back in the day [as producer on various Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna albums] — and unfortunately I wasn’t intellectually tuned into this at the time, but now I am — Al is a master of microphone placement. As it’s been explained to me, I guess the demon in getting sounds not just for recording but also by ear is phase cancellation and phasing problems. What I see is his talent in being able to place microphones where there is none of that, or it’s minimized.

Mettler: He’s a master of figuring out the different fields in a recording too — when there’s something in the front, the middle, or the back. Al’s done some great surround mixing himself.

Kaukonen: Also what I’m aware of is the creation of a sonic landscape where you have various and sundry instruments in whatever range they occupy. Al’s able to put them together in an ensemble so everything can be together.

Mettler: The surround mixes that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the entire recording — that’s what you want as a listener.

Kaukonen: Absolutely.

Mettler: You opened up a whole generation to Drop D tuning with “Embryonic Journey” [from Jefferson Airplane's February 1967 album, Surrealistic Pillow]. Did you ever think it was going to be that impactful?

Kaukonen: Of course, you never think about that stuff, but that Drop D tuning was so significant for me. My first Drop D song was “Good Shepherd.” I learned it from this guy Roger Perkins. It was ’62 or ’63, and he was playing in San Jose. He showed me the song and the Drop D tuning, and I flipped out. It changed my life in a lot of ways. [Drop D tuning, also known as DADGBE, is an alternate form of guitar tuning in which the lowest (sixth) string is tuned down from the usual, standard E tuning by one whole step, two frets, to D.]

With the advent of the Internet, I tried to track him down a few years ago, and found out he’d passed away [on January 11, 2009, in Claremont, California]. I was working up in Northern California somewhere, and his brother [Bill Perkins] coincidentally came to see me, and I got to tell him, “You know, your brother changed my life when he turned me on to Drop D tuning.”

Mettler: That’s nice. In the middle of psychedelia, just to get a track like that — it gave people more things to discover.

Kaukonen: Yes, it gave people more to discover from me.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,

Tommylee99's picture

Thanks for talking to Jorma, Mike!
Terific interview. He's such a smart, outgoing guy...and one of the all-time great guitarists. Go hear him if you get the chance.