LEFT: Jack Casady thunders out the groove onstage with his signature Epiphone hollowbody bass. RIGHT: Jorma Kaukonen onstage with an LP-295 goldtop Les Paul outfitted with a Bigsby vibrato and a flower-motif pickguard.

“Jack and I have never had a band meeting—how about that?” says Jorma Kaukonen of his decades-long partnership with bassist Jack Casady in the legendary rock bands Jefferson Airplane and, later, Hot Tuna. “We’ve never had to do anything but concentrate on the music.” In fact, the title of Hot Tuna’s new album,Steady As She Goes—their first studio record in 20 years—is a nautical tip of the cap to Kaukonen and Casady’s long relationship.

Just how long is “long”?

Kaukonen, who recently turned 70, says, “We’ve been playing together for 53 years now. We grew up together in Washington, D.C.”

Over that time, both have become giants in the music business. As player of an instrument that’s often valued for how well it disappears into a song’s underground, Casady is virtually unparalleled—and yet he has one of the most truly unique electric-bass voices in rock. Like any good bassist, he can melt into a supportive role. But when opportunity knocks, he bursts forth with creative lines—both simple and ornate—that are unlike any you’ve heard. (Few bass lines are more recognizable than his ominous, exotic-sounding intro to Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit.”)

Kaukonen and Casady onstage, the former with his Les Paul and the latter with his Epiphone signature hollowbody bass.
Photo by Barry Berenson
But Casady also has an important place in the development of the electric bass itself. Like most players of his era, he began on a solidbody Fender (he played a Jazz bass onSurrealistic Pillow), but found himself longing for an instrument with more dynamic response. And along with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and others in the San Francisco scene, Casady became a test pilot for the revolutionary work being done by Alembic. Electronics whiz Ron Wickersham and woodworker extraordinaire Rick Turner first heavily modified Casady’s hollowbody Guild Starfire basses (check out 1970’sWoodstockfilm) with low-impedance pickups and preamps. But before long, Casady moved over to what is arguably the first boutique bass ever—an Alembic with the serial number 72-01.

As for Kaukonen, though he and Casady are best known for high-volume psychedelic rock, his roots run deep in acoustic blues and gospel music. When he came on the scene, he was an avid fingerstyle player in a world of rockers launching into inner-space on solidbody electrics. But Kaukonen chose a Gibson ES-345 throughout the Airplane’s ride from the ’60s San Francisco scene into the Top 40.

While the Airplane eventually mutated into other lineups, Kaukonen and Casady formed Hot Tuna and continued exploring the possibilities of blues, rock, and improvisation. In 1996, Casady, Kaukonen, and the rest of the Airplane were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the dynamic guitar-and-bass duo is clearly far from done. And for theSteady As She Goesrelease, the band headed to the Barn—a studio in Woodstock, New York, that’s owned by Levon Helm (drummer/vocalist for the Band)—and put producer Larry Campbell at the controls.

We talked and listened as both of these icons in spoke in depth about their respective crafts, songwriting, collaborating, and the gear that helps them create their eclectic, singular rock sound. We begin first with our Kaukonen Q&A, followed by our interview with Casady later in this article.