Interview with Rock Guitarist Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake and Joel Hoekstra’s 13


Joel Hoekstra is one of the iconic guitar players of our times. He has been playing with Whitesnake since 2014, and his career has a number of peaks: working with Night Ranger for a number of years, filling in for Mick Jones in Foreigner (2011), touring with TSO (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), working on Broadway (“Rock of Ages”), with Cher, and the list goes on.

12th February marks the release of the second album of his project called Joel Hoekstra’s 13, ‘Running Games’ (reviewed by us here). The album has been recorded with the help of top musicians: Russell Allen (lead vocals – Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob, TSO, Allen/Lande, Allen/Orson), Tony Franklin (bass – Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, The Firm), Vinny Appice (drums – Dio, Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell), Derek Sherinian (keyboards – Dream Theater, Sons of Apollo, Black Country Communion), and last but not least — Jeff Scott Soto (backing vocals – SOTO, Sons of Apollo, Talisman, TSO, Journey, Yngwie Malmsteen).

Angelina Pelova had the pleasure of talking to Joel two days before the album release day.

Photos by Mike Polito

Hello, good afternoon from the UK! To you, it is a good morning, yes?

Yes, just getting started here.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me from your busy schedule, I really appreciate it!

Oh my pleasure! Thank you so much for the nice review of mine!

Ah, you read it, did you?

Oh yeah, it was great, thank you!

You are welcome. It is a great album, it is the least I can do! I read quite a few of your recent interviews; it seems that you have talked to quite a few journalists who are musicians. I’ve got to say, I am not a musician, so I won’t get technical about equipment and stuff.

No worries, no worries, yeah. Whatever you like!

Sure. I can’t not say that I am star struck doing this interview, so if I sound a bit nervous, sorry! To me you are a living legend, as you are one of Whitesnake. I really, really regret not being able to come to your concert last year; you were booked to do a gig in June in London.

I know, it’s very disappointing to have that run cancelled. We’ve been trying to get a good solid UK run now for a while, so it is disappointing.

It was supposed to be with Foreigner and Europe, so a triple delight…

Yes, that would have been great. We would have loved that, we love touring with each of these bands!

If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about different things, because you are such an interesting character and do so many things that are so different. Obviously, this interview is part of your promotional campaign for your new album, Joel Hoekstra’s 13 ‘Running Games’, so we will be talking about that as well, but would you mind going back to the very beginning? I really like your first albums, the jazzy/fusion kind of stuff and the instrumental acoustic pieces. Is that something you still like to do?

Not at the moment, just because I think it needs to fit in more with what’s happening with my guitar playing career, it just makes more sense. I could foresee maybe doing some stuff like that down the road though yet, doing some guitar albums, good instrumental albums. Maybe down the road. Right now, I am really enjoying Joel Hoekstra’s 13 albums. They are fitting in with what is happening in my life.

That’s great. You have so many faces, it feels like you wear so many hats. Do you want to talk about your current project first?

Whatever you want!

You are part of Whitesnake, you’ve been briefly with Foreigner, you’ve been for quite a few years with the Night Ranger, you are partnering with an awesome duo of singers as well in your JH13, you also do all these things like Broadway, Cher, guitar lessons and all that – how do you manage to fit all that in??

Just day by day, ha ha. It comes down to being the best I can in all these situations, do the best I can every day and just kind of let life take me where it goes. I guess, with the current situation, the landscape changed, not being able to be out touring, I went from 285 days on the road in 2019 to not being able to tour! So, trying to find a way to keep moving forward and active with the guitar. That pretty much involves, as you mentioned, the teaching, one-on-one and master classes, doing cameos for people, doing sessions, doing quarantine videos, obviously releasing the album is a big deal, projects like the ECHOBATS Project with Tony Harnell, and of course I just turned in the guitar riffs for the project coming up Michael Sweet and Nathan James. All these things together just kind of amount in me, I guess they come from me staying busy every day.

You’ve got family as well, children, it must be quite a juggling act.

Yes, yes! I definitely need my energy every day, that’s for sure!

Do your children realise who you are, or are you just dad?

Oh I don’t know, I mean, they are pretty young! You know, they’ve seen me at some shows, TSO, but they are too young to come to the evening shows or to travel extensively, so just a little bit, but it’s all good. I’m just dad.

It must be weird not being able to travel like before, but sounds like you are keeping probably busier than you would have been otherwise. Does it give you some time for reflection as well, or you just keep busy with music?

I don’t know. I mean, I definitely miss the element of touring and certainly just being out interacting with people. It’s tough times, but we are just trying to make the best of it all for sure at the same time. I don’t want to look back at this time like I completely blew it. I am doing my best to hang in there!

Oh you are certainly doing that! I understand from one of your interviews that you’ve recorded everything in your flat. Is that easier because it’s just you, or would you have preferred to be using a professional studio with sound engineers, etc.?

I mean, it would have been nice to have the feel of the mic up a guitar cabinet, like an actual guitar amp, I didn’t really do that, because I am in a New York City apartment, so I basically went direct. That was the only downside to it. As far as being alone, I love it, because that allows me to do as many takes as I want and have it exactly the way I want the sound. So I definitely didn’t mind that! I enjoyed that. Otherwise, when I cut stuff in a studio, I tend to settle because I guess the level to which I can be nit-picky about my tracks usually exceeds what other people’s expectations are. I usually tend to, I’ll spend a lot of time.

How did it work with the rest of the band? Did everyone do their own recording at their own houses, and you then mastered it all together?

Yeah, everybody recorded at home. So, basically, I record the guitars, then I play on the guitar basically with the vocal of me singing in a way, just because sometimes I don’t have the words, I just have the melody, so I play that as a kind of a guitar solo over the entire thing for them to give them an idea, and that’s what Vinnie and Tony record, too. And then I just try and stay out of their way. So pretty much what you hear on the album is what they play at the first time they sent the songs to me. I just let them do their thing and try to let everybody have a good time doing this and not nit-pick them. I just nit-pick myself.

So it was a proper partnership rather than you being the boss kind of thing?

Yeah, I am the boss but I just try to…

To be the nice boss?

Yeah, exactly. That way when I ask them to come back, they will come back. I mean, they did the first album, they thought it was cool, so here they are back for the second one. So that means they must not hate me.

Obviously! Now, would you like to talk a bit about your partnership with Russell Allen? He is one of my biggest vocal idols, and you are one of the biggest guitar idols, so it is a very interesting partnership. Obviously, Jeff Scott Soto is a huge thing as well. Are they easy to work with, is it more of a friendship you’ve got, or is it all professional?

I am friends with both of them. We see each other outside of doing these albums. We see each other at TSO every year. Now, Jeff tours with the west band, and Russell and I tour with the east band, so we don’t actively tour as yet. I do see them basically for about two and a half weeks, something like that, two weeks, for rehearsals, so we spend a little time together every year there. I worked with Jeff a lot over the years, so we are good friends. Good guy. Russell, we met I guess right back when ‘Dying to Live’ was being made, so 2014 maybe. He joined and we are friends nowadays. We tour together now for whatever, five-six years in the band, so we know each other well. He lives pretty nearby here to New York City.

Who, Russell or Jeff?

Russell. Jeff is in LA. So that’s giving us the opportunity to connect here and there outside of doing these albums and I’d say him coming and doing the Monsters of Rock Cruise and singing on my set was a lot of fun, and just an opportunity for us to hang out and play a couple of these songs acoustically, play some cover songs, fun, just having a good fun, you know. For Russell, it’s a vacation, you know, and for me, it is pretty cool too. Just doing one set of music, so not so bad!

I met him very briefly a few years ago when Symphony X had a small gig in Coventry, England. I was there with a journalist pass and was allowed to hang with them by the bus. All of them were just nice guys, having a nice chat. And with Jeff, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there is a Bulgarian connection there. I am originally Bulgarian, and he is very popular in Bulgaria. His wife is Bulgarian.

Yeah, yeah, I know that from following her on social media so yeah, that’s cool.

Since we are on the topic of working with other people, what is it like to work with David Coverdale and be part of Whitesnake? You feature in some of their videos as well.

Yeah, it is an honour. I mean, Whitesnake has been around for a long time, it’s been a lot of amazing musicians in the band, so I am honoured to be a small part of the history. David’s great, he’s a great guy. I love working with him and for him, definitely just thrilled to be a part of the band!

How does it feel to be part of writing music history? Do you realise you are doing that, do you feel privileged?

Yeah, I definitely feel blessed to have the opportunity to be there. That all comes down to David, that’s his vision for the band, he’s giving me some input in that department. So that’s great, I am very grateful for it.

Out of all these genres you work in, is it the current one that you most identify yourself with? Or are you just a versatile talent and you don’t mind which genre you go into?

Definitely rock is the main thing with me. That’s what made me want to start playing the guitar and everything kind of went full circle and eventually it all worked out there for me which is kind of amazing, in terms of making a living. I’d be happy playing other stuff, I really would, just to be able to play and get better. It’s always musician first, as far as the whole thing goes, you know, rock stars – whatever, that could mean anything, so maybe yes, maybe no, but definitely happy to be a musician and, I guess, make a living getting better at what I am doing. So we’ll see where it all takes me, but I’m just gonna try to do the best at every turn, but for sure rock is my main thing. That’s what made me wanna start.

It probably feels very good to be in the position of being able to make a living as a rock musician? We know people who are famous musicians and still have to have a day job because being a musician doesn’t always pay the bills. So it is probably quite an empowering position?

Yeah, it is a scary business to set out in. You almost have to be crazy to do it. For me it’s, like I said, at the moment teaching is really my main avenue in terms of making a living. That was the way it was for me many, many years ago, I would say from the time when I was 21 to the time I was 30, I basically taught 70 students a week.

Oh wow!

I did what gigs I could, so I would do, I don’t know, about one or two gigs a week, but I can’t think how rough those years would have been if I didn’t have the teaching to fall back on! It’s a tough way to go just trying to think about all the gigging. And eventually that took off for me, like I said, let’s say 2001 is where it all kind of changed, and then from 2001 all the way to now it is basically only performing. This is my, I guess, shifting back to the basics, so come on, OK, I’ll do teaching, you know, that’s a good thing to fall back on.

It’s funny how life goes sometimes, isn’t it.

I’m just kind of riding the way. For me it’s fine, it keeps me on the guitar, it keeps me able to make a living and not watch all the money I worked hard for and saved go away during this time; now that would be very disheartening. Especially, I live in New York City, that money goes away pretty quickly! So I’m happy to have some kind of avenue to be a pro and just try to be the best I can at it.

Your lessons, are they for a particular level of ability, particular genre, have you got any requirements for the level of your students?

No, I would say it’s more about… I am more excited about them getting better. I have some who are beginners that I really enjoy, because they are improving rapidly and you can see the excitement, so for me it’s that, how much they are improving, because then I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. If I am helping them get better, I feel it’s time well spent, you know? I’d rather see that than sit around and play for them for 45 minutes for a lesson. I am really actively interested in improving the student.

Is it more towards classical play of the guitar, or more towards the rock side of it?

No, it’s the rock thing. I usually teach them a little bit of the classical stuff, like here and there, but in general I don’t really play classical guitar anymore these days. I did, I’d say, ‘till the end of high school and my first two years at college. I got my degree in performance and I spent a decent amount of time doing that.

Your parents are classical musicians as well, aren’t they? 

Yeah, yeah. I spent some time doing that, but in regards to these days, not a lot. Whatever the professional task is at hand these days, that’s the way it goes.

If any of our readers are interested in your lessons, how do they get in touch?

If they go to my website, just write me an email.

OK, thank you. I am conscious that our time is getting on. Is there anything you want to say specifically to your audience in the UK?

Just really hoping to go back there and to do a proper tour with Whitesnake would be amazing. We miss you, guys!

We miss you, too! Thank you so much for this interview!