THE CULTURAL IMPROVISATON OF JOHN McLAUGHLIN
By Bill Stephen
(Reprinted from Intl. Musician and Recording World: March 1979)
The Mahavishnu Orchestra did what only a handful of bands manage to do.
It broke new ground, broke the rock music world out of its caste and
expanded and developed a style of music that has undoubtedly influenced
many of its successors. As leader of the Orchestra, John McLaughlin found
new forms of expression and has been exploring ever since.
Many label him a "jazz" guitarist. Many believe that he sank into the
spiritual pit when he began following Sri Chinmoy. Many find him too
esoteric, intellectual and often overbearing in his approach. But most
people who hear him and experience his development of style and technique
walk away a little bit wiser for the experience.
In short, John McLaughlin surpasses the clichÈ to become truly individual.
At Soundmixers Studio in New York, he is recording his newest album,
which promises to establish him yet again as a formidable, if not
visionary, guitarist and composer.
No change in music comes without a development and change within the
composer creating it. McLaughlin has moved forward in many ways, although
in some respects his last album, Johnny McLaughlin-Electric Guitarist,
suggested that he returned to foundations before building again.
One thing that provided change and an extension of sound and concept was
the development of the Gibson 13-string guitar, a concept which grew out of
his intense study of eastern music and the Indian string instrument, the
vina. He had the Gibson company make the guitar expressly to his
specifications so that it would cope with the intrinsic problems imposed by
a linear form of music. It is designed to allow him to accompany himself:
it has seven sympathetic strings angled across the F-hole, which he strums
as accompaniment using the little finger with a fingerpick, while playing
lead on the regular strings.
"It turned out immensely successful," he explained. "The six strings are
tuned as a normal guitar but the seven strings are tuned up for each piece.
In Shakti we were playing with essentially a linear form of music-that
means we were using the raga system, a kind of scale founded on scientific
and astrological principals which are also directed to specific human
emotions. This would allow me to tune all the strings differently and I
would try to extract for me what was the most meaningful chord, or the
chord that expressed the essence of what the piece was about."
This obviously allowed John a great deal of individual expression. When
he worked in Shakti with the Indian violinist Shankar, it developed that
each would come up with various synthetic scales which had their own mood.
McLaughlin explained: "This was very interesting because from a western
point of view it gave me a real insight into harmony, which I now see in
linear terms rather than chordal terms."
The Gibson 13-string also held a new development in actual guitar
construction which John has adapted to all of his guitars: the neck.
While studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he began playing
the vina which has a sitar-like neck-the strings never actually touch the
wood but are depressed between the frets for a tension that results in a
completely different feel and resultant sound.
"I found that while studying the vina I got more and more into it,
resulting in a desire to really understand the music and what it is all
about. While practicing more on the vina, and learning a variety of things,
I began to grow dissatisfied with the guitar in comparison to the silken
beauty that results from the vina's super big frets with nothing
underneath. They're also strung opposite to a guitar (that is the low
string is where the high string is). But I would practice the vina and
practice the guitar and I'd find the guitar very stiff by comparison."
"I reached a point where I was cutting into my practice time on the
guitar by playing the vina. I reached a crossroads in that I had to ask
myself what I really wanted. Of course, it was an obvious answer: I'm a
guitar player, I don't want to be a vina player."
This prompted John to attempt incorporating a vina-type neck into a
guitar. When Gibson delivered the finished product, he knew it was right
from the start and since then he's never looked back.
Currently he is using a Gibson 345 Stereo and that too has been fitted
with the sculpted neck as well as a DiMarzio humbucking pickup. But John
has a distinct preference for the Gibson sound.
"I have an L4C with a Charlie Christian pickup. I may put something of
that on this album, but I'm not sure. That's a guitar I had many years ago
and I had to sell it to keep body and soul together. It was a beautiful
instrument. I've tried to buy it back from the guy I sold it to, but he
won't part with it."
"I just found another one, not as good, but it's nice. It's really a jazz
guitar, a very good one. But I get a good sound from the 345, not only that
but this fingerboard affects the tone. I think it makes it sweeter and I
certainly have greater control over sustain too. I have control over the
note. It's the left hand where you can really sustain it or cut it."
"The left hand is very, very important for me and so it just changes
it-for me it makes it more guitary, but some people feel it's a little
Before McLaughlin was aware of anything east of Yorkshire, England, he
was being influenced by many of the great American musicians of the Fifties
and Sixties. Coming from a musical family he was quickly introduced into
the world of piano but when a guitar made the descent from one brother to
the next, finally ending with him, things changed perspective.
The revelation of the guitar neatly coincided with his introduction to
blues, which quickly led him to imitate Muddy Waters. He felt his classical
training did little for him as a guitarist, other than to train his ear.
"When I first heard blues music, Muddy Waters, it was amazing to me
because it was an untempered scale. And also there was such a kind of
elegance about it, an urban elegance. I didn't know how to play it, I
didn't know anything about it, all I knew was that it was saying something
to me which was very important. About feelings and about being. It was
about four years after that I heard Miles (at age 15) and in the meantime
I'd gone through Django Reinhardt and traditional jazz which was very
popular at the time in England."
"In a sense my fundamental discipline is jazz music. Jazz is truly an art
form to me, but one that is very broad and has the possibilities to embrace
many different impulses, cultural and planetary impulses. But for me, to
play jazz properly you need technique that is second to none. You need to
have a highly developed technique, you need high intellectual capabilities
and at the same time a harmonic thought composition."
His interest in jazz emerged from his work in the blues and from
listening to Reinhardt and Tal Farlow, two of the giant jazz guitarists.
From there, he was sucked into the world of Miles Davis and John Coltrane
who, like McLaughlin, take their music beyond the conventional.
"I loved Charlie Parker and the old giants but for me this was the music
of the future." And he jumped right into it. With Dave Holland, John Surman
and Tony Oxley, John formed a band and did a few gigs in London. But bass
player Dave was scooped up by Miles Davis and at that time John left for
Belgium, where he started a band with a European line-up.
But John's name never seemed to quite leave Miles Davis' mind. Just a
couple of years later he was summoned by the master trumpeter and before he
knew it he was cutting tracks with Miles on his seminal albums Bitches Brew
and In A Silent Way, establishing an international reputation for himself.
Jazz shares with eastern music the improvisational dimension. That common
denominator, matched with the times, struck a sympathetic chord with John.
It is the discipline of improvisation that brings jazz and eastern music
together. "There are similarities, but there are also big differences, too,
in feeling. The jazz feeling is the jazz feeling, there's nothing like it
and it's very beautiful. It's completely different from anything else."
"But the way of thought in Indian improvisation is brilliant, since they
don't work with a tempered scale-they don't work with 12 notes. You can go
up a quarter tone or even less and it's a different note; like the
flattened third in jazz or blues. The flattened third can be quartered, can
be halved-and so on with quite a number of notes on the tempered scale."
At various times during his playing career, the influences of eastern
music have seemingly been predominant. But when asked if his music is a
combination, a synthesis of the two cultures, he denies it.
"I don't believe one can talk about east-west fusions in music. One can
only speak in personal terms-that's people. I feel very much at home in
India, with Indian people, culturally speaking. I feel very much at home
with most people, but the more you understand about their culture and
idiosyncracies, the more at home you feel. For me, that's where the fusion
takes place. It's not in the music. If you try to make an east-west fusion
you're going to be a miserable failure right away."
"There were certain principles I applied to the Mahavishnu Orchestra that
were certainly derived from Indian, maybe mathematical concepts, rhythmic
concepts or even melodic concepts, since it is fundamentally melodic and
rhythmic music in India."
McLaughlin is one of the many performers that find the act of performing
live a thrill, a necessity to the development of the music. "When you have
your audience, you go out there and the adrenalin is flowing and the energy
is flowing around and you feel what it really means. To me it means a lot
in a lot of different ways. But in the studio, it's like I walk in and I've
got miles of black tape that I can paint on. That's the way I see an album;
it's really the possibility to paint."
"But there's nothing to equal live work. If you've got deep enough
connections with the musicians themselves, it doesn't matter if there's
no-one there at all. I've had rehearsals that you wouldn't believe, they
were so good and no-one was there, just the musicians."
"An audience is just a participation. They give energy, of course, but if
the musicians have a deep enough connection with each other, the music is
going to happen. You never know when the thing is present, it's a
McLaughlin has long been a motivator in the world of synthesis for
guitar. Originally he was using a 360 system pitch-to-voltage converter
with a bank of Mini-moog modules, one for each string. It was really the
first guitar synthesizer. "I was using an L5S Gibson with a special pickup.
It had circular magnets which the string would go through. It was the only
way they could get a really good sound in those days. It has changed now,
but it's still not quite right, still not fast enough for me anyway."
"The problem is in the conversion from pitch to voltage. There are a
couple of people who are working on digital conversion, which is the only
way to go because if you play a very fast run on a low string it just
cannot do its math fast enough in the current system,"
"This is one of the reasons I want to get into synthesizer because with a
synthesizer you have total control over the sound. You can go through a
nice Crown or Mackintosh amp with a super clean sound, and whatever
resonance or harmonic distortion you get is intentional and controllable to
a very, very fine degree. It will never replace the guitar. Synthesizer is
not a replacement for anything, it's a new instrument."
"What happens is that it's very easy to apply pianistic technique to
voltage synthesis, but I'm still waiting for the guitarist to have the
That could be why John is without synthesis today. He would like to
incorporate synthesis into his music again, but he feels the systems just
It's ironic that the excellence of his technique has deprived him of a
new instrument. He is just too fast for contemporary synthesis systems to
keep up with him.
A concept which he has been harboring since 1974 is to have a guitar with
a controller built in it like a calculator with computer memory for the
patching. This may be a little closer now with the introduction of such
products as the Prophet 5 which is a polyphonic keyboard with 40 memories.
"It's the only way to do a performance, otherwise you can spend anything
up to an hour or more just doing a really excellent patch. If you do it
beforehand, in the studio or at home, then it's punched into the memory. My
idea was to have a little controller and to be abIe to address the computer
and say 'Give me patch 29 immediately.' It would set the parameters
instantaneously, which is perfect for performances."
"The synthesizer is an extraordinary instrument," he says. "I mean, every
instrument is extraordinary to me, every instrument has unlimited
possibilities really-it just depends on the artist's imagination and
tenacity for hard work. But the synthesizer has something that I want to be
able to look into and apply my guitar knowledge and techniques to."
McLaughlin keeps his sound fairly simple these days, and continues to use
Marshall equipment. But in the studio he's found that direct injection from
guitar to tape, bypassing the amp, has produced a good effect.
His excellence of technique has not come through idle searching but from
hours of practicing and applying complex eastern rhythmic styles to guitar
"If I'm writing music, that usually takes a lot of time. I may write
music at any time but most of my practice I do on the road. Of course,
there are many different aspects of practicing. One is linear technique,
for now anyway since I have this fingerboard, and I have a different kind
of practice that is the horizontal sense."
"I have another technique that I'm working on which is a development of
the crosspicking thing that I started a few years ago. It's very tricky
because I'm working in odd groupings, mathematical groupings.This is a
development of an Indian concept, but it's universal as regards the rhythm
of an eight-beat cycle. I'll work in groups of, say, two fives and two
threes, or three threes and two fives or even three fives and turn it
inside out in all different ways. And this is something I'm working on
right now that is very difficult. It's purely a right hand technique, it's
"I'll work it on the top three strings, then the middle three, then try
one on four strings-it's a bitch."
"In a sense it's related to the rhythmical theory that I studied in
India-the theory behind it is singing, of course. When you study rhythm you
have to be able to sing it. I can't do it but I understand the mathematics
behind it and so l'm applying it in a sense to my right hand technique."
"I just started working on a banjo too. This is something I want to put
on the album. In fact, I want another banjo with some sympathetic strings
and this fingerboard, because it's very percussive and I love percussion
and banjo. There's something haunting about that sound. I only got the
banjo the other day but I've been thinking about it for a couple of months.
What I love about it is what I'm able to do with my left hand."
Back to guitar. McLaughlin uses light gauge strings for solo work-"I've
been using D'Addario for a long time"-because the touch is just right for
this vina-type fingerboard: "If you have light strings, like a sitar,
you're able to pull them easily. If they're too heavy, you're going to
spend effort on it. You don't want to think about pulling the string so it
has to be light. But for any kind of rhythmical work, it's better to use
Many jazz artists have moved toward the more commercial side of music,
musicians such as Chuck Mangione who develops a distinct melody line to
leave with a listener. McLaughlin feels it is pure commercial philosophy.
He doesn't choose to knock it, but points to a particular philosophy of his
own that sums up his creative essence.
"I don't want to do anything really. All I want to do, as far as music's
concerned, is to disengage myself from the conditioning prejudices that
people place upon products because it's in their interests to."
This doesn't mean, however, that his recording sessions are not
thoroughly thought out in advance-though, of course, the spontaneous
creativity is all-important too: "That has to be there. That's what makes
it magic, that's what music is finally all about. But for me, I have to
think it out very carefully before I go in. At the same time, part of the
thought that precedes the work is to set up a musical situation that will
precipitate spontaneous combustion."
"When I write a tune and go to rehearsal, I have a fairly clear concept
of the idea and of the emotional dress of that idea. You set a stage but
you open up role possibilities and present the characters in the group with
both the idea and an emotional stimulus. There's a central idea and a
central feeling behind the piece and that's something that everybody has to
be able to grasp. That's the thing that links it all together. The playing,
of course, is everything, but there's a specific mood for each piece. A
piece may go through two or three definite mood changes, too, and it's
extremely important for the people involved to feel the emotional color."