May 29, 1989 (aged 45) John Cipollina and his twin sister Manuela were born in Berkeley, California, on August 24, 1943. Cipollina attended Tamalpais High School, in Mill Valley, California, as did his brother, Mario(born 1954), and sister, Antonia (born 1952). Their father, Gino, was of Italian ancestry. He was a realtor, and his mother, Evelyn, and godfather, José Iturbi, were concert pianists. John showed great promise as a classical pianist in his youth, but his father gave him a guitar when he was 12 and this quickly became his primary instrument.
Trained as a classical pianist, John Cipollina however didn’t just play the usual pentatonic rock and blues riffs; he meandered about the fretboard, producing a plethora of melodic and evocative notes, inflected with plenty of whammy bar, his signature, particularly during the psychedelic era. Simply stated, nobody played lead guitar like John Cipollina!
One of the forerunners of the San Francisco Bay Area sound in the middle 1960s, Cipollina played lead guitar for the fabulous Quicksilver Messenger Service, until the band went “poppy” in the early 1970s. Man do I remember playing Who do you love and Mona. Epic.
Cipollina had a unique guitar sound, mixing solid state and valve amplifiers as early as 1965. He is considered one of the fathers of the San Francisco sound, a form of psychedelic rock.
I like the rapid punch of solid-state for the bottom, and the rodent-gnawing distortion of the tubes on top.
To create his distinctive guitar sound, Cipollina developed a one-of-a-kind amplifier stack. His Gibson SG guitars had two pickups, one for bass and one for treble. The bass pickup fed into two Standel bass amps on the bottom of the stack, each equipped with two 15-inch speakers. The treble pickups fed two Fender amps: a Fender Twin Reverb and a Fender Dual Showman that drove six Wurlitzer horns.
After leaving Quicksilver in 1971, Cipollina formed the band Copperhead with early Quicksilver member Jim Murray (who was soon to leave for Maui, Hawaii), former Stained Glass member Jim McPherson, drummer David Weber, Gary Phillipet (AKA Gary Phillips (keyboardist), later a member of Bay Area bands Earthquake and The Greg Kihn Band), and Pete Sears. Sears was shortly thereafter replaced by current and longtime Bonnie Raitt bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson who played on the Copperhead LP and stayed with the band for its duration. Copperhead disbanded in mid 1974 after becoming a staple in the SF Bay Area and touring the West Coast, Hawaii (Sunshine Crater Fest on New Years Day of 1973 with Santana), the South (opening dates for Steely Dan) and the Midwest.
In May 1974 Cipollina and Link Wray, whose playing and style had influenced John as a young musician and who he had met through bassist Hutch Hutchinson, performed a series of shows together along the West Coast (with Copperhead rhythm section Hutchinson & Weber and keyboardist David Bloom) culminating at The Whiskey in LA where they performed for four nights (May 15–19) on a bill with Lighthouse (band). Cipollina continued to occasionally perform with Wray for the next couple of years.
In 1975, the Welsh psychedelic band Man toured the United States, towards the end of which, they played two gigs at the San Francisco Winterland (March 21 and 22), which were such a success that promoter Bill Graham paid them a bonus and rebooked them. While waiting for the additional gigs, the band met and rehearsed with John Cipollina, who played with them at Winterland in April 1975. After this, Cipollina agreed to play a UK tour which took place in May 1975, during which their “Roundhouse gig” was recorded.
Rumors that Micky Jones had to overdub Cipollina’s parts, as his guitar was out of tune, before their Maximum Darkness album could be released are exaggerated; only one track, “Bananas”, was to have his track replaced, per Deke Leonard. “Everything … which sounds like Cipollina is Cipollina.”
During the 1980s, Cipollina performed with a number of bands, including Fish & Chips, Thunder and Lightning, the Dinosaurs and Problem Child. He was a founding member of Zero and its rhythm guitarist until his death. Most often these bands played club gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Cipollina was well-known
Cipollina died on May 29, 1989, at age 45. His cause of death was alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a lung disease, which he suffered from most of his life and which is exacerbated by smoking.
Quicksilver Messenger Service fans paid tribute to him the following month in San Francisco at an all-star concert at the Fillmore Auditorium which featured Nicky Hopkins, Pete Sears, David Freiberg, and John’s brother Mario, an original member of Huey Lewis and the News. Cipollina’s one of a kind massive amplifier stack was donated, along with one of his customized Gibson SG guitars, and effects pedals, for display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995.