Orianthi Panagaris is only 24, but she’s already done things that might make musicians twice her age green with envy. In addition to playing support for Steve Vai at 15, the Australian-born guitarist has jammed with Carlos Santana and Prince, toured with Carrie Underwood and was personally chosen by Michael Jackson to play guitar on his ill-fated “This Is It” dates at London’s O2 Arena.
As a matter of fact, it was her performance during Jackson’s memorial service that got the world buzzing, catapulting the attractive blonde guitarist, who can easily hold her own with the best male players, into the spotlight.
It may seem like a case of overnight success, but Orianthi’s journey began long ago. She started playing the acoustic guitar at the age of 6. Then, when she was 11, Carlos Santana visited her hometown of Adelaide and properly ignited her passion.
“I actually picked up the electric guitar after seeing Carlos,” Orianthi told Pollstar. “I really took it seriously after that. I was strumming, but after seeing him I decided I wanted to learn to play leads.”
The guitarist was so taken with Santana she even insisted on using the same brand of instrument he favors.
“I begged my parents for a Paul Reed Smith,” she explained. “I was obsessed with his music and the way that he plays. He puts so much soul into his playing.”
Eventually her obsession paid off. When she was 18, she got to meet Santana at a sound check and was invited to join him during his show, which she modestly says was “really cool.”
That affirmation from the guitar great earned the budding musician the respect and attention of other famous axe men, including Prince.
“Getting to jam with Prince was pretty surreal,” she said. “That was awesome. He’s such an amazing musician. He played bass, I played guitar and Sheila E. played drums. It was a very cool jam session.”
In 2008, Orianthi caught the attention of one of the biggest names in the music game, Simon Fuller.
19 Entertainment’s Stirling McIlwaine, who manages the guitarist, told Pollstar she came to his attention via Howard Benson, who was working with her on her album.
At first McIlwaine wasn’t sure he wanted to take on a new client. Then he heard her play.
“He sent me some stuff and I was like, ‘Howard, I don’t know if we really want to take on another new artist. It’s so tough out there right now.’” McIlwaine explained. “Then I listened to the music and I called him up and asked him if it was really her playing. He said, ‘Yeah, she’s playing lead on all of those recordings.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to have a meeting.’”
Orianthi visited McIlwaine’s office and sealed the deal.
“She came in and brought her acoustic guitar,” McIlwaine said. “She played some stuff and was bending strings like I’d never seen anyone bend strings before and hitting notes I’d never heard anyone hit – and on an acoustic, which is even tougher.”
The visit further convinced him he’d found the real deal. He brought her to Fuller, who was so impressed he decided to make Orianthi his first priority outside the “American Idol” franchise.
One way the pair devised to expose their client to the American public was to get her a gig playing guitar for Underwood, who’s also managed by 19, at the Grammy Awards. The singer was “excited about the opportunity to collaborate with someone that nobody really knew of yet” and jumped at the chance.
“Carrie completely supported Orianthi,” McIlwaine explained. “And onstage, she made sure that she was performing close to her so that people would see Orianthi and recognize her talent and who she was.”
The appearance led to a spot in Underwood’s touring band and, eventually, to a summons from the King of Pop himself.
“I got an e-mail through MySpace,” Orianthi explained. “I didn’t think it was real.”
She passed the e-mail on to McIlwaine, who checked it out and discovered it was genuine. After contacting Jackson’s reps, she was asked to learn three songs – “Beat It,” “Dirty Diana” and “Wanna Be Starting Something” – for the audition.
“I went in there and tried to not think about the other guitar players who’ve played for him,” the guitarist said. “Because that’s pretty daunting. I just went in there and did my own thing.”
Needless to say, she was hired on the spot and soon began rehearsals for the “This Is It” dates. Then everything crashed to a halt when Jackson suddenly died in June.
Rather than bemoan lost chances, Orianthi decided to go back to her debut album, Believe, and finish it.
“I’m really proud of the record,” she explained. “I’ve been working on it for a long time. I’m super-excited about getting it out there and playing some shows. It was nearly completed at the beginning of 2009, so I just added a few extra songs.”
With her album finally released in October, the plan is to tour across the globe, as well as play high profile gigs like a Miami Dolphins tailgate party – where she quickly won over male fans usually skeptical of a female guitarist.
And when it comes to the time lost from her own career to join Jackson on a tour that never was, Orianthi has absolutely no regrets.
“People say to me, ‘You didn’t get your chance to go out there and play with him.’ But I did. I got to play with him at all the rehearsals. It was a dream come true.”