SOME MUSICIANS REALLY LIKE to work. Take guitarist Tariqh Akoni: In his career to date, he’s performed with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, LeAnn Rimes, George Duke, the Backstreet Boys, Whitney Houston, and Tom Scott. He’s played in the house band on American Idol, appeared on Saturday Night Live with Christina Aguilera, and recorded with Smokey Robinson.
In his Santa Barbara, California, studio Tariqh is currently working with five singer-songwriters, prepping for a gig with Patti Austin, and acting as musical director for a local production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And that’s before he goes on the road with Stevie Wonder.

On top of all his other impressive credits, Akoni is the musical director for multi-genre megastar Josh Groban, with whom he’s performed for more than a decade. Playing with Josh gives Tariqh a chance to draw on his full musical vocabulary, from pop to jazz, R&B to classical.

“I feel really lucky,” he says. “It gives me the opportunity to play classical guitar, mandolin, 12-string, 6-string, and electric, and really work with tones. I get to do so many things that I really couldn’t in a lot of other gigs. And Josh is great as an artist, because he wants to push further every time. I’ve never done a tour with him where I didn’t have to come out of my comfort zone and be challenged somehow. That’s a great feeling.”

So what does such a diverse guitarist look for in an instrument? “It’s both the sound of the instrument and how it feels in my hands,” Akoni says. “I always use the analogy that if you give a carpenter a hammer, they can build you a table. But if you give them the right tools, it’s going to be an amazing table.”

akoni-sideOne of the tools Tariqh relies on most is his Yamaha NCX1200R acoustic guitar. “That guitar has been with me since the “Awake” tour in 2007,” he says. “It’s a very warm, rich-sounding guitar, with a big, expressive sound. Funny story: I was studying with a classical instructor, and I decided to buy a really legit classical guitar for that tour. But I also wanted something as a backup, so I contacted Yamaha about getting a traditional classical non-cutaway that I could put a pickup in, just in case something went wrong. Well, I went into rehearsal, and the Yamaha just floored the other guitar. Everybody was looking at me like, ‘All right, you’re going to have to use that on everything.’”

Since then it’s become his primary classical guitar. “That’s the one people associate with me,” he says. “I’ll rent some other guitars I may need, but that classical I have to have. It’s seen a lot of the world!It’s got to translate to the audience not as an electric classical, but as a classical guitar. And it absolutely delivers every time.”


Akoni also plays Yamaha’s Pacifica Mike Stern signature guitar with Groban. “I had it modified with a piezo pickup so I could blend in acoustic sounds along with my electric sounds,” he explains. “I used that especially on the first couple of tours, because I had to go from acoustic to electric and back very quickly. I like to blend in just a little bit of acoustic—it has a really neat sound, almost like a guitar going direct into the mixer. It’s something that would be very difficult to get with any other guitar.”

Besides playing guitar, Tariqh’s musical director duties involve everything from conducting a choir in rehearsal to managing personnel. Everything he does is geared toward making each performance seem effortless. He says: “You want it to be transparent, so someone listening can just enjoy the experience.”

But his most important role is to make Josh shine. “He’s a phenomenon, but he has to be phenomenal every night. He has a huge job: to sing this material night after night and deliver. My goal is to make sure nothing gets in the way, and all he has to think about is singing.”

With all this thought, craft, and preparation, both behind the scenes and onstage, Akoni has no small job either. But when it pays off, there’s nothing better.

“People are giving you such an honor, to pay good money to buy seats and see you perform,” Tariqh says. “You look out into the audience, and it’s like that moment is what they’ve been waiting all year for—to see Josh, to see the band, to experience the music live. It’s what I love to do, and I love the fact that I can share that and inspire people. Especially working with an artist who believes the same thing, and is always pushing toward the bigger, the better, the more musical.” He laughs. “And thank God people still want to see live music!”