Ahhh, the ever controversial question among musicians, “Is vibe more important than amazing chops?” This California born pro guitarist, and former Buckcherry, Wallflowers and Fuel member, has a very strong opinion on the subject: Yogi Lonich. Why do we accept his opinion like it comes straight from the musician’s almanac, you ask? Because his performance resume comes fully loaded with the heavy hitters, like Cat Stevens, Chris Cornell, Kid Rock, Sarah Mclachlan, Filter, DJ ZEDD, and Shakira. Yogi has been nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Hard Rock Performance” category and he won a LA Music Award for “Independent Pop Artist of the Year”. With a plate completely full with touring and recording, he somehow finds the time to also write and produce his own material. That’s My Gig was lucky enough to catch Yogi with a few minutes to spare, so we could find out exactly how he continues to turn a quintessential “vibe” into magic.
By: Deanna Passarella
TMG: Yogi, thank you for taking the time to chat with That’s My Gig. We are very excited to hear your story! So, how did music first become a part of your life?
YOGI: I began playing guitar around 11 years old. My older sister, Plavka (vocalist and songwriter), was my biggest influence. She turned me on to everything that was cool in the 80’s. Plavka and I had bands growing up. My early guitar influences were Angus Young, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix. I was primarily into guitar, but had an affinity for practicing drums since my high school years. My aspirations to be a solo artist did not arise until my later college years.
TMG: In order to hone in on your musical craft, did you spend every waking hour practicing?
YOGI: I was never practice crazy: at the peak I played 5 to 7 hours a day, but not every day. I seldom practice these days. A couple of times a month I will get inspired and work on a concept. The deeper I get into music, the more I realize that what is considered “musically pleasing and desirable” by the listening public and music producers has nothing to do with guitar skill, but rather vibe, musicality, and instinct. Too much musical skill can be a detriment unless of course you’re soloing over “Giant Steps” (Jazz tune by J. Coltrane) or playing a Paganini caprice.
TMG: Very true. It is good to have the knowledge of the language but also be able to “fly by the seat of your pants” and play what comes naturally in order to fit the vibe/emotion of the song. So, what practice methods do you find to be most efficient and effective?
YOGI: I encourage practicing/jamming with real musicians, preferably cats better than you. Work with a metronome, tap your foot, sing your notes, and get your body involved in the music. It’s not just your hand muscles creating the music. Early on it’s good to put consistent hours in, everyday. Be committed to your art and listen to a lot of music. I find that singing and inviting my entire body to participate with the music does drastically improve my playing. Too often we are lead to believe that it’s our hands that do all the work. They very well may be the least important part of playing music… but that’s a whole other article, haha.
TMG: Do you feel that growing up in LA impacted your interest in music as well as your playing and what about living here has impacted you the most?
YOGI: When I moved to LA at the age of 16, I was blown away by the talent around me. I instantly put my rock heroes on the back burner to study jazz, blues, and improvisation. I got into cats like Robben Ford, Wes Montgomery, John Scofield, and Scott Henderson. The largest impact that LA has had on me is the high level players that I have access to on any given day. I can find world class musicians to play gigs, that musicians abroad (or in the US) would kill to play with.
TMG: My experience moving from Nashville to LA was very similar. It definitely opened up my playing and exposed me to cats that I don’t think I would have gotten into otherwise. Improv. is huge out here, and I’ve noticed a clear improvement in my playing just by being involved in this scene. When you started pursuing music as a profession, did you have to take a “day job” while looking for full time music gigs?
YOGI: I got fired from a couple jobs during high school, and found a decent part-time job working for a video production company while I was earning my Bachelors of Music at CSUN. By the time I graduated from university, I was a full-time musician and got my first record deal as an artist.
TMG: Nice! What type of artists did you first play out with and how did you get those gigs?
YOGI: I first played shows with the original bands I had with my sister, Plavka. We played county fairgrounds, up and down the Sunset Strip; The Whiskey, The Roxy, Madame Wongs, Gazzari’s, The Anti Club, to name a few. My sister was great at handling the business and booked all the shows.
TMG: You’ve had quite a bit of experience as both a touring musician, as well as a studio musician. How do the two differ as far as how you prepare yourself musically? What are the different challenges for each role?
YOGI: I seem to excel in the live format, although the studio can be fun as well. As a live artist, the skill set is more about “vibing” with an artist and duplicating recorded parts and tones from a recording. My forte is improvisation, so more often than not I tend to be called to do my own thing. That is creating my own solos and textures while staying true to the vibe of the song. A very big part of getting a touring gig is being a “good hang”. When you’re on a 6 week run with a band on a bus, living in close quarters, mellow and cool people are much preferred. You might be the best player for the gig, but if your vibe is not right, they will most definitely hire the guy who is a “good hang” even if he or she doesn’t play as well. Studio playing is almost 90% confidence: I’ve seen it time and time again. I see great players really “vibing” and grooving hard while they’re tracking, and their body language is infectious. The producer and artist feel the authenticity and confidence in the session player, and they immediately dig whatever they are playing. Of course these players are great, but if they are not high energy or into it, the same performance would not garner the same praise. It’s a lesson in human psychology. I find the studio to be much more challenging as it’s your responsibility to create the hooks and parts. Guitarists and keyboardists are the musicians who end up hanging around for extra hours, doing overdubs. Depending on the producer, a session can be creative and open. Or conversely, you may work for a producer who wants to record bar to bar, or phrase by phrase, and beat detect everything… not my fave.
I think lately, there has been a swing towards capturing more raw performances with less doctoring of tracks (auto tune, beat detective). In either realm, the bottom line is that you need to play great and be on your game.
TMG: Great advice. How did you go about landing some of the major gigs you’ve played on such as Buckcherry, Chris Cornell, Wallflowers, Fuel, and many more. Was there an audition process or did you get the gigs from knowing the right people?
YOGI: Most of the gigs I’ve been on, I had to earn by going through an audition process as the gigs were band member positions. On some pop gigs that feature a solo artist, you may never even meet the artist until the first show. There have been a few gigs where I got a call and was offered the gig. I dig that!
TMG: You’ve shared the stage with some pretty iconic artists. Are there any moments that stand out the most? Any imposing wisdom you’ve gained from being able to tour with acts like Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Booker T Jones, etc.?
YOGI: While playing gigs in New York, recently, I was fortunate enough to rub elbows with the brilliant actor/director Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) at an after show party. When chatting about the film “Little Miss Sunshine”, he iterated to always ‘attach your cart to a strong horse’. ‘Sunshine’ was one of those projects: a low budget film that he simply fell in love with. He knew that film was quality, and signed on just to be part of something that he believed in. Sure enough, it paid off for him. If music is something that you have to do, then you will do it at any cost. It’s the art itself that is the reward, not the payday.
TMG: I think that is very important to remember. There is a burning impulse inside most musicians that drives us to play. Sometimes money can skew our view and we forget why we began to play in the first place. You’re playing is extremely diverse and you have amazing control over the fretboard. What advice would you give younger players aiming to achieve that level of discipline over their instrument? Does having a deep understanding of music theory (scales/modes/technique) seem to contribute the most, or does it have more to do with using your ear and emotions to feel what you might want to add to the music?
YOGI: Thanks for thinking I have control of the fretboard. Haha! Learning to express music is a combination of all of the above. During one’s formative years, having a mentor or private teacher(s) who inspires you is key. Some guys become brilliant without the theory or schooling part, but you absolutely and without question need to develop your ears, feel, and rhythm, to be great. Often, I imagine what it would be like to trade musical brains with Miles Davis or J.S. Bach for a day. I might be able to perceive 75% more harmony, rhythms, melodies, subtleties… How cool would that be? Or perhaps trade brains with one of my students… I might feel limited and restrained. Ultimately, it’s going to be more fun and easier to express yourself if one innately feels and perceives music at a high level.
TMG: You have some of your own music out, a recently released single entitled “Sitting On Top of The World”, a solo album entitled “Metta”, followed by your sophomore release, “Hesitant Poet” and “Break The Silence” by your power trio, Run Through The Desert. How and why did you start writing your own music?
YOGI: I began tinkering with writing songs early on while in high school. I was mostly inspired by the promise of love or some infatuation at that time. At a certain point I had written and recorded a small catalog of tunes, some produced and others half finished. I started getting TV and film licensing opportunities that made me consider embarking on a solo career. For the Run Through The Desert album, it was more about big riffs, loud instruments, and rock n’ roll energy. The lyrics were fun and more of a stream of consciousness process. I was lucky to have incredible musicians around for recording. Drummers; Toss Panos, Aaron Sterling, Jason Sutter, Blair Sinta, Matt Chamberlain, Gary Novak, Ryland Steen, Rob Ladd. Keyboardists; Rami Jaffee, Kris Pooley. Bassists; Dan Rothchild, Sean Hurley, Wes Wehmiller, Chris Chaney. So I started my label.
TMG: What are some of the difficulties of leading a band both as the vocalist and lead guitarist? Did you have to spend some time practicing on the ability to do both at the same time, or did it develop naturally?
YOGI: I definitely had to practice singing and playing riffs at the same time. After you get over that initial difficulty, the shows are fun. It’s great working in a trio as there is more room for extending sections and trying new things live that may be impossible with larger ensembles.
TMG: What advice do you have for the musicians reading this that would like to become a studio musician/session player?
YOGI: Become advanced in all styles, be a good and humble person, have confidence, own great sounding and reliable equipment, have a driver’s license/car, be passport ready, develop a sense of vibe/image/artistry, respect others and yourself enough to pass on a gig for whatever reason.
TMG: Some people believe that just touring for an “A” list artist is making it to the top. It is the peak of success as a musician. What drove you to push for more?
YOGI: What do you mean? I totally have hit the top! I just count my money these days! Ha-ha! Good question. Music is a “rabbit hole” that is never ending. One’s understanding and aural perception gets deeper with time. In some ways, musical frustrations become heavier as you begin realizing the vast nature of music and the truth that one will never learn everything. At the same token, that’s what keeps us inspired and fresh. Really, music has nothing to do with success, gigs, royalties, fame, etc. Playing live music is all about experiencing a moment in time: communicating in a language that we are blessed to be privy to. We can touch hearts and minds of the weary and sooth the saddened. It’s a privilege to be part of this community.
TMG: I love that perspective. Music really is a gift, and the ability to use it to communicate with, and to, others is a blessing. It’s hard to not let the details get in the way of that pure truth. What’s your worst gig story or most embarrassing moment on a gig?
YOGI: Hmm… I got it! I was playing with Meredith Brooks as direct support for the Rolling Stones on a South American run. Here we were backstage, amped for the show. A stadium of 80,000 fans awaited us. As we hit the stage, we were littered with coins and pebbles by the Argentinean audience, who wanted nothing more than to see The Stones. It was tough. I still had an amazing tour and got to hang with Mick Jagger a bit.
TMG: That doesn’t sound too painful, haha! Speaking of painful, what is your “starving artist” moment?
YOGI: I did have a job, delivering pizzas when I was in high school. I owned a 1977 Datsun B210. It was a real piece of crap, but it got me around. After 3 hours of delivering pizzas on my first night of employment, the alternator failed and I could not jump start my car. I had to quit the job right then and there. At that time, I was also at a crossroads as to whether I should pursue college or not. A great friend, mentor, and bassist, Tommy Terry convinced me to enroll in college and declare music as my major. There was no “fall back plan” for a degree in business or science. That was some of the best advice I ever got. Not only did I get to study with guys like Grant Geissman, Phil Upchurch, and the late Ted Greene, to name a few, but I also got to meet and play with some fellow students who are today’s top producers, record execs, session players, music supervisors, etc. I highly recommend enrolling in a music program in a big music city (LA, NY, Nashville, Miami, North Texas, Boston) that will inspire and make you contacts for a lifetime in music.
TMG: Any last words of advice for the hungry musician, dreaming of filling your shoes someday?
YOGI: Play music because you have to, and can’t live without it. If you have a green thumb, then become a gardener. It’s of paramount importance to follow you passion. When you have inauthentic motives, such as fame or fortune, then misery will find you.
TMG: Do you have a specific gear setup, that you are really into right now? New pedals? Does your sound change as you develop and change or do you have a go-to sound that you stick to?
YOGI: Honestly, I’ve been really into plugging straight into amps, no pedals, in the past couple of years. I find that the colorations are only necessary if you’re playing an artist’s gig that requires it. I use many different amps, and am subjected to various backline options when playing “one-offs”, so I’ve learned to be pretty easy going about the gear I play through. It’s in the hands, not so much the gear. Tracking in the studio is another animal completely. My go-to pedals are: Jimi Hendrix Experience Fuzz by Prescription Electronics, MXR bass D.I. for bass, Torpedo Live by Two Notes for my load box speaker simulator, Red Snapper (OD) by Menatone, EP Booster by Xotic, volume pedal by Ernie Ball. Moollon wah wah pedal, and the compressor by Carl Martin, to name a few.