Who: The leather-jacket-clad blonde shredding beside Michael Jackson in This Is It is the Australian guitarist and singer Orianthi Panagaris. The 24-year-old started getting buzz when footage from rehearsals leaked following Jackson’s death in June, but she got her first big break Down Under when she opened for Steve Vai in 2000.
Sounds Like: Orianthi’s Howard Benson-produced major-label debut Believe features Kelly Clarkson-style pop-rockers like first single “According to You” alongside riff-fests like her instrumental collaboration with Vai, “Highly Strung.” “We set out to make a record that had a guitar solo on every song,” she says, “but I don’t think it gets in the way of the songs.”
• Orianthi picked up the acoustic guitar at six, and switched from classical to electric at 11 after catching a Santana concert. “I was the only kid reading guitar magazines at the back of the classroom,” she says. When she eventually jammed onstage with Santana at 18, “I couldn’t feel my legs I was so nervous. I remember him telling me to play from my heart and other people will feel it, and to keep that childlike enthusiasm for playing.”
• When she was a teen, Orianthi assembled a cover band (their Top 40 set list included Michelle Branch, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue tunes) and began playing two nights a week at Aussie pubs. “I would put guitar solos in the songs, even though they weren’t there,” she explains. “At gigs, I would get up and jam, and someone would say ’16-year-old guitar player Orianthi!’ and the guy at the door would kick me out.”
• Orianthi was the youngest member of Michael Jackson’s This Is It band, and she says she was impressed by how MJ took a strong interest in all the guitar parts. “He would hear things he wanted to be added to the songs live, things that were in the record that weren’t turned up loud enough. He was super-encouraging and awesome.” A post-script to “Black or White” that fans never got to see was called “Aftermath,” she says, “That’s when they were going to have all these speakers falling and pyro going off and I would walk off amongst the rubble and start playing.”
Get It Now: Watch Orianthi demonstrate a few of her favorite riffs from Stevie Ray Vaughan, plus show off how she put together her “Highly Strung” with Vai in our exclusive video interview.