Jefferson Airplane rocketed to superstardom in 1967 on
the strength of their hits "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit," making
them a cornerstone of San Francisco's burgeoning rock scene. Jack Casady's
groundbreaking basswork was a highlight of "Surrealistic Pillow", the Airplane's
1967 breakthrough album and was only the beginning of a career that would
establish him as one of the most influential bass players in rock and roll
history. Epi's Don Mitchell recently spoke with the legendary bass
When did you first become interested
JACK: Well my father was an audiophile when I was
a kid. He used to build what was known back then as Hi-Fidelity or Hi-Fi
equipment so we always had a nice system that we would play records on. He
loved music and was a member of The American Jazz Society so once a month
get records in the mail and I would listen to all of them. This was around
1956 when I was twelve years old and I was exposed to a lot of different
music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. It was also about that
time that I discovered my dad’s old acoustic guitar that was in our
Was that your first experience with
JACK: Yes. I was creeping off into the attic and
playing it thinking nobody knew, but of course in a household everybody knows
where their child is, so it was not the big secret I thought it was. Then
one day that guitar just disappeared. A short time later, at Christmas, my
gift was a letter pinned to the tree that told me I had been given twelve
guitar lessons and that the old acoustic had been taken to the shop to be
set up with steel strings.
Ha, you can’t fool mom and dad
JACK: Right! They knew I was interested and it
made a nice Christmas gift.
How did the lessons go?
JACK: My first teacher was a big band guitarist
named Harry Vorhees. Later on I took from a number of guitarists; one was
Bill Harris who was the guitarist for the Clovers. He had studied with a
guy who studied with Andres Segovia.
So you were kind of Grandfathered to
JACK: Well, I don’t know about that, in a
manner of speaking I guess, but I certainly saw him many times at Constitution
Did you move on to electric or stay
with the acoustic?
JACK: I had a newspaper route and delivered The
Washington Post and the Evening Star. Collectively, on Sunday I served about
400 papers and I also had a lawn mowing business so it didn’t take all
that long for me to buy my first electric which was a Student Model Gibson
175. It had the big f-hole body and a single pickup. Back in those days I
was playing Buddy Holly stuff, Gene Vincent stuff and I tried my best to
play Jim Burton stuff, who was playing with Ricky Nelson.
How did your musical journey progress
JACK: Charles, my older brother was a classmate
of a guy named Jorma Kaukonen. They went to Woodrow Wilson High School while
I was in Jr. High but Jorma and I ended up starting a band called the Triumphs.
It was Jorma playing rhythm on his Gibson J-50, incidentally the very same
guitar he used on Embryonic Journey a few years later when we were starting
out as Jefferson Airplane, and I played what was known then as lead
At what point did you switch over to
A good friend of mine, Danny Gatton called me up one day to fill in for
his bass player. This was around 1959 or 1960 and I loved it so much that
I went out and bought a bass. All of a sudden my work quota increased
dramatically because I played both bass and guitar.
It sounds like you were working steadily.
What prompted you to make the move from the East Coast to the West
JACK: A fateful phone call from Jorma in 1965.
I hadn’t seen him in about a year so we were just chatting and catching
up when he asked me to come to the West Coast and join
Jefferson Airplane. I dropped
out of college and went out to San Francisco and joined the band.
That was indeed a fateful call. Did
you have any idea at the time that you were part of a music scene that would
influence music forever?
JACK: None. You know how ten years ago nobody had
any idea how important the internet would be or how it would affect our lives?
Or back in 1989 when you carried a cell phone around that was the size of
a brick? You had no idea what was about to come. Back then it was kind of
rude to talk in public on a cell phone and now you can’t get anybody
to shut up next to you. You don’t realize how that kind of stuff works
Was the music scene out there much different
than your East Coast experiences?
JACK: Yes. When I came out to San Francisco, I
came from a background where you rehearsed with charts and all that. All
of a sudden I was with guys that came out of art school and doing things
their own way. They were just playing. Nobody thought they were going to
make a living at it. I always expected to make a living at it but a lot of
other people didn’t.
So were you intent on getting Jefferson
Airplane a record deal?
JACK: That was our only opportunity to get recorded.
Back then, nobody had their own studios like they do today and the only chance
to hear yourself back was to get a record contract and go into the studios
where the equipment was. And it was quite a bit different then. We recorded
our first album on a three track. There were two tracks for recording and
one track to bounce to. The next album, Surrealistic Pillow, the one that
really broke us out with Grace Slick, was recorded on a four track.
Did the move to the West Coast help
you develop your style?
JACK: It was an opportunity to play with some people
that had some
really wacky views of how music
should be made. It allowed me to try out a lot of different things where
on the East Coast I was primarily working in cover bands, where you had three
saxes, wore plaid tuxedos and did five sets a night for six nights in a row.
In San Francisco I had the opportunity to flesh out different ideas and create
my own music.
How did your connection with Jimi Hendrix
JACK: Back in those days we were playing the Fillmore
Auditorium a lot and since it was our hometown we got to meet a lot of the
acts that came through. I met Jimi there. Sometime later we were in New York
taping The Dick Cavett Show. That night we went to a local club to check
out Stevie Winwood and Traffic and Jimi happened to be there too. In those
days we carried our guitars around with us everywhere we went because there
was always a chance to play. We went over to the studio that would later
become Electric Ladyland Studio and hung out all night. At about 7:30 in
the morning Jimi asked me if I wanted to play a blues he was recording and
I said sure. We ran over it one time and he broke a string. Ran over it again
and then I think part of a third time and that was it. I was as surprised
as anybody that it ended up on the record.
In the midst of all this huge success
you decided to start another group with Jorma. What was the inspiration for
JACK: At the time I was listening to stuff like
Reverend Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker and a lot of the blues folk music that
was getting attention on the college campuses with artists like Bob Dylan
and Joan Baez. Jorma and I started the group to focus on that Americana style
of music. Jorma and I have been playing together for forty-seven years now
and most of those years we’ve had our band Hot Tuna. It still provides
us with that small combo interplay that we enjoy so much.
Tell me about your Epiphone Signature
JACK: When I first started playing, I ran across
a short scale semi-hollow bass. Despite lacking some low end, I really enjoyed
the semi-hollow nature of that bass and over the years tried to capture that
characteristic. In 1985 I was living in New York and happened to stop in
a music store one day and saw a goldtop, full scale semi-hollow Les Paul
bass. I loved the bass but found the pickup to be deficient. It had a tendency
to bleed out when too many other instruments were playing. I did a little
investigating and found out that only about 400 of the instruments were made
in 1972 and because it was kind of an odd duck, it didn’t catch on.
I approached Gibson and asked if they would be interested in reproducing
the bass with my input. Epiphone’s Jim Rosenberg was very interested
and allowed me to kind of re-make the instrument. I told Jim that I’d
like to develop a Jack Casady pickup for it and he hooked me up with the
R&D Department at Gibson. I went to work on the pickup and it took almost
two years to develop. I think they were getting pretty ancie by this time
but I wanted it right. I did a lot of homework and bench testing and finally
when it clicked in right, it was great. They blow the old Gibsons to smithereens,
even in the construction. As you know, the early 70’s weren’t good
for cars or guitars (Laughs) and the workmanship that’s coming in on
these instruments is just super. Every year I get two new instruments that
I take out on the road. No ringers. I have none that are set up a special
way or anything like that and they are great.
Your first solo project, “Dream
Factor” has been critically acclaimed. Any plans to do another solo
Jack Casady project?
JACK: Actually I have a few songs done already
for an instrumental album. On “Dream Factor” I tried not to make
it a bass specific record. I wanted it to be a song oriented record so I
wrote most of the stuff on guitar and then approached different
singer-songwriters to do the lyrics and sing the songs. I’ve never been
real ambitious about playing everything myself and all that kind of stuff
and I’d rather construct melodies than blow through jazz changes, but
this next album will be featuring the bass guitar more.
We at Epiphone and a generation of bass
players that you have influenced certainly look forward to that!
For more about Jack Casady visit