Joel Hoekstra is an immensely talented guitarist that has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. In addition to being the lead guitarist for Whitesnake, Cher, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he’s the former lead guitarist for Night Ranger and the Broadway musical, Rock of Ages. I recently spoke with Joel about his impressive career and exciting projects he’s working on, including a summer tour featuring Whitesnake, Foreigner, and Jason Bonham.
When did you join Night Ranger and how did the opportunity come about?
Kelly Keagy used to be a guest at Jim Peterik’s World Stage concerts, which I was in the house band for. So, I knew Kelly basically by seeing him once a year for seven years or so. He mentioned to me one year, finally, that Jeff Watson wasn’t in Night Ranger anymore. I said, “Hey, man! How come you didn’t call? I’d be a great fit in your band.” He said, “Well, we have Reb Beach right now on guitar but he’s going back to Whitesnake.” I said, “Make sure you call me.” It turned out that Reb needed to miss a show, literally one week later, so Kelly gave me a shot at that show, which was in the summer of 2007, and it went well. Once the dates with Reb ran their course, I started working with Night Ranger full-time in 2008.
Why did you decide to leave Night Ranger?
The Whitesnake opportunity is a great way for me to branch out more internationally. Big in Europe, big in South America. Fantastic catalog to play. You get shown off a lot in Whitesnake on guitar. I have five minutes to myself on stage where I’m just playing all by myself at Donington in front of 90,000 people. Where else do you get that opportunity? It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy in Night Ranger. There was just a great opportunity with Whitesnake. Also, with Night Ranger they have a lot of last-minute fly dates on the weekend so it can be difficult to schedule anything else. With Whitesnake it’s more predictable. I know when tours are going to happen so I can schedule around that. For example, now I’ve become Cher’s full-time guy. I can do the Trans-Siberian Orchestra thing too. It has nothing to do with being unhappy in Night Ranger.
You worked on Whitesnake’s The Purple Album. What was that like?
That was a great way to get acclimated with joining the band. The album was already mapped out. A lot of it came down to me coming up with alternate guitar parts, which is stuff that people don’t normally think about. But those original Deep Purple songs pretty much only had one guitar part on them. And, of course, a ton of keyboards. For me, it was always about trying to figure out whether I should recreate the keyboard line on guitar or double what Reb is doing — the main guitar parts — or do I come up with something different? That was the creative challenge with making that album. It was a lot more creative on my end than I think people realize. It’s not just an album of cover songs. We did our own versions of those songs. A lot of them are in different keys and there are different arrangements. Definitely, on my end, it was me playing something different than what was on the original Deep Purple recordings.
You also play with Cher. How did this come about?
Whitesnake had some downtime so I texted all my colleagues in the business letting them know that I had some free time. My friend Justin Derrico, who plays guitar for P!nk and who also plays on The Voice, knows one of Cher’s guitar players that was looking to sub out. He asked Justin, “Who should I get to fill my place?” And Justin recommended me. It was a great example of how staying in touch with people on a regular basis can lead to opportunities. Cher does two or three-week residences, and I originally came in to only fill in for one run. Over time, the other guitarist got busier and busier with what he was working on so I started to become Cher’s full-time guy on guitar.
What’s it like working with Cher?
It’s great. It’s such a professional scene. It has so little to do with my interactions with her. (Laughs) She isn’t usually at soundcheck. We see her for a minute before the show when everybody holds hands and we psych ourselves up for the gig. It’s just like every band I’ve been in. We do this in Whitesnake, and we did this in Night Ranger. (Laughs) It’s very professional. Everyone in her band are amazing players.
Do you think you might have the opportunity to do anything in a recording studio with Cher, such as a new song or album?
I have no idea. But I’m psyched that I get to do a big Australian arena tour with her this fall. I’ve never been there before. That’s as far as it’s gone. Five weeks down in Australia, playing the big arenas. Cher recently turned 72 and I’m not sure if she’s looking to record a new album. I have no idea. I never would have thought that my first time going to Australia would be with Cher, but it’s awesome.
You played guitar in Rock of Ages. How’d that come about and what was that like?
A friend of mine who lives a block or two away from me, who is a pit musician, asked me to sub for him on some of the shows he does, so I did. I filled in for him on The Boy From Oz, La Cage Aux Folles, and Tarzan, where I met the keyboard player who would go on to become the music supervisor for Rock of Ages. When it came time for him to put together the band for Rock of Ages, he thought of me because he knew I was a theater musician that could also do the rock thing. They also loved that I was playing with Night Ranger at the time too.
The show itself was really fun. I’d play on stage and all of my musician friends that came down to see it really enjoyed it. It was a little dirty and raunchy and poked fun at itself. The PG-13 movie was goofy and didn’t work as well but having a cameo in the movie was fun too. The musical itself was much better. The best part was I could sub out whenever I wanted. So, I was in the show for six years or so, while also in Night Ranger and Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the time. As a musician, it’s key to find gigs that fit together. It’s rare to do one thing and make a living because it’s harder. Rock of Ages — those six plus years — is when I went from being a struggling musician to a guy that’s doing pretty good. That was a big step for me.
Tell me about your time in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
I went in and auditioned just like anybody else. I did two auditions and then got the gig, and I started to tour with them in 2010. Since then, I’ve only missed one tour.
This summer Whitesnake is touring with Foreigner and Jason Bonham. That sounds like a killer show.
I actually filled in for Mick Jones of Foreigner in 2011 when I was in Night Ranger so I know those guys really well. That’ll be just like seeing all my friends basically. It’s going to be a great night of classic rock. You’ve got the Zeppelin stuff, the Whitesnake catalog and the Foreigner catalog. A lot of good songs that everyone knows. You can’t get much better than that.
You’ve accomplished so much in such a short period of time. What else is on your musical career bucket list?
You just work hard and take things as they come and do the best you can. It’s really hard to plan. Certainly, as a kid, I never wanted to be in a Broadway show but the hard work thing paid off. That was out of left field. Playing with Cher is completely odd. I never thought I’d be doing that. It’s great! You do the best you can with the opportunities you have and keep rolling with it. You see where it takes you. In the end, it is who you are. You just have to take advantage of each scenario and do the best you can.
See Whitesnake live on June 22 at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, on June 23 at BB&T Pavilion in Camden, NJ, and June 30 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ.
Michael Cavacini is an award-winning communications professional, and his arts and culture site, MichaelCavacini.com, features additional interviews with iconic artists.