This column honors Jorma Kaukonen’s half century of contributions to acoustic music.
Renowned for his work in iconic bands like Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Kaukonen’s discography also boasts a dozen solo albums. And he runs his own guitar camp (Fur Peace Ranch), which hosts ace artist-instructors, such as Tommy Emmanuel and Tony Rice.
Schooled in the styles of Rev. Gary Davis and other country-blues pioneers, Kaukonen uses a thumbpick, along with fingerpicks on his middle and index fingers (“bare” fingerpicking will suffice for the following examples). Let’s delve into this living legend’s vast body of acoustic work.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1962, Kaukonen crossed paths with a bluesy vocal powerhouse named Janis Joplin; their first musical interaction is documented on a bootleg known as The Typewriter Tape (acoustic blues standards and one Joplin original, three years before her recording debut). A “roots” music purist, Kaukonen steered clear of rock and roll until a jam with college pal Paul Kantner’s band swayed him.
At the time, Kaukonen’s nickname was “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane,” a moniker later pared down to “Jefferson Airplane,” and, in 1965, appropriated to the band that would lead the Sixties psychedelic rock revolution. Jefferson Airplane’s breakthrough album, Surrealistic Pillow (“Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit”), was issued in 1967 and included Kaukonen’s drop-D-tuned gem, “Embryonic Journey,” similarly depicted in FIGURE 1. Pick the sixth and fourth strings with alternating thumb strokes, reserving the index and middle fingers to play the melodic line on upper strings.
By 1972, Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady (whom Jorma had recruited into Jefferson Airplane in 1965) opted to prioritize their side project, Hot Tuna, and left Jefferson Airplane (prompting the “Jefferson Starship“ name change). Hot