'My Life And Guitar'

As told to Steve Rosen

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: February 1975)

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin has taken the guitar further in the last two years of his career than most players hope to in a lifetime. His approach to the instrument, coupled with a superb technical mastery, has recently garnered him GP's 1974 awards as Best Jazz Guitarist and Best Overall Guitarist. His devotion to the guitar is never-ending, and the pioneering work he has done with the double-necked instrument makes these advancements even more important.
Acknowledging that this interview for GP was the first of its type he had ever given, John was entertaining, encompassing, and effusive in discussing his past work, guitar approach, and ultimate goals.
Because his previous playing involved stints with such greats as trumpeter Miles Davis, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Tony Williams, it is natural to pre-date these instrumental excursions, and search out the true beginnings of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin's musical development.

My mother was a violinist, and I had three brothers who were into music. So, from when I was about 4 there was a lot of music happening in the house. Symphonic music, basically classical music. But when I was around 7 we got a gramophone, and that was the first time I actually heard anything in music, ever recognized anything. I remember quite regularly putting a record on the player, and getting one of my mother's knitting needles and waving my arms around in front of the mirror and "conducting" this orchestra. But I quickly found out that it was much more satisfying if I knew the music, because then I could bring the violins in here and the horns in there.

I recall hearing things that really moved me, like the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It's a vocal quartet that's so unbelievable that it used to make my hair stand on end-it still does, actually. I didn't know what it was except that this music used to give me a thrill, and this thrill was wonderful. I continued to just listen to music until I was 9, then I started learning classical piano.

I did that for about three years, taking lessons; then a guitar came into the house via one of my brothers. It went from him, to the next one, to the next one, to me. And that was the beginning of the beginning.

No sooner had the guitar come into my hands than I was exposed to the black ethnic blues culture through Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and the Mississippi Delta blues players. I was really into Sonny Terry (he wasn't with Brownie McGhee then) and the whole blues-harmonica-guitar-bottleneck thing. I didn't even know what a bottleneck was. For years I thought they were doing it with their fingers. I was trying to sing and play like Big Bill and Muddy, you know, "sing da blooze." I was around 12 then.

I had also been exposed to Spanish flamenco music, which is so heavy, so strong, because you improvise and it's very bluesy, too. Then at about 14, I heard Django Reinhardt and started using a pick instead of just my first fingernail. Immediately I tried to play like Django, then I heard Tal Farlow-my first white American guitarist (although when I first heard [pianist] Oscar Peterson, I said, "Oscar Peterson. Wow! He must be Swedish!"). Tal Farlow really took me out, because he was ahead of his time-or maybe he was just right in his time. His chords and his single-line work became very powerful influences on me. Jim Hall, too, but Tal Farlow really did it to me.

Then I heard Miles [Davis]. I bought that album, Milestones, [Col., CS 9428] with Miles, [John] Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. That completely blew away my previous concepts of how to improvise. I had been aware of two movements in jazz: The West Coast thing with [Stan] Getz, [Lennie] Tristano-a cool kind of thing; the East Coast was the hard bop movement. I'm sure it wasn't like this in America, but it was as far as I was concerned, in England.

The hard bop movement, which was a black movement, was where it was at for me. And the Miles-Coltrane thing was a logical extension of hard bop. As individual players they were unbelievable, and collectively they were fantastic. The rhythm section had a concept that was phenomenal; still is. Then I started listening to their other records-like when Cannonball left Miles and got the quintet with his brother Nat, and Coltrane left to work with [Theolonius] Monk. And as time went by I discovered earlier recordings of Coltrane, like from 1948-50, and he became a dominating influence on my life, spiritually as well as musically.

At the same time I still hadn't lost my love of classical music. I gradually found myself listening more and more to 20th Century composers. [Bela] Bartok was stupendous; Anton Webern is to me a musician who realized the music of the spheres; Stravinsky another one. Whew! Then you've got people like [Maurice] Ravel, [Claude] Debussy. There's lots of them. And then the [East] Indian culture came into my life and became a very important part of it.


I had my first band when I was about 15, in school. I played electric guitar; it was an acoustic that I put a pickup on and played through a record player. That was my first and last band right up until the first [Mahavishnu] Orchestra. I was always a sideman, but that was fine by me because I was learning. I still am. Furthermore, I needed a lot of time to develop what I've achieved today. I've been playing guitar a long time-20-21 years now-probably a lot longer than some Guitar Player readers have been living. But it doesn't make me feel old, for some strange reason.

I was playing in a lot of different groups in England-a lot of different music: R & B, avant garde jazz, Jimmy Smith Trio-type. About ten years ago, when I was 21, I was with the Graham Bond Organisation with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. They were the greatest rhythm section in the world at that time. Later, Jack was in Lifetime for a year with Tony Williams, Larry Young, and me. I'd play with Ginger and Jack anytime. They're beautiful.

About twelve years ago was the Georgie Fame era. There was just one club in London where everyone played. I was with Georgie Fame, Jack and Ginger were with Alexis Korner along with Mick Jagger who was vocalist, and Eric [Clapton] was with John Mayall. That's where I first met Eric. I really liked his playing. He was just playing blues, but I liked it because my first guitar experiences were like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Leadbelly. They were some baaaaad guitar players, I'm telling you. Eric had like a sweet blues thing.

During this whole time I went through many guitars and amps, because, like most musicians, you pay your dues. You've got to take all kinds of jobs, and you can't always make enough money to live, so I've bought guitars that I had to sell. I was using Gibson mostly, and Gretsch and Fender. I was using a Les Paul Custom in the early days of the first Orchestra, but then I got the idea for a double-neck. I had an electric 12-string, but to play it I had to take the other guitar off and it was such an unnecessary hassle. Then I saw this double-neck in a catalog and thought, "Just flick a switch and you've got your 12-string!" So I ordered it and took off from there. My first one was a Gibson, but I did go look at a Mosrite. The order took about four months; I picked it up in Chicago during Christmas of 1971.

Full utilization of both necks comes fastest through working. When you're up there on stage and you've got to play the thing, you do it. I tend to do the arpeggiated chords on the 12-string. They sound best there, because you've got a shimmer, like a liquid movement, like a river. And it's sonorous, it's sweet, it's clear, and it's bell-like, which you can't get on a 6-string. The 12-string is terrific for rhythm, too. But the 6-string is much more melodic. The 12-string is stiff, but there are certain things that couldn't be done on a 6-string. Like on the Orchestra's live album [Between Nothingness And Eternity, Col., KC 32766] there's a 12-string solo on one piece that wouldn't have worked on the 6-string.

You can sort of see the two necks in different roles: One in terms of chords, the other melody-be they rhythmical or arpeggiated. I do play melody on the 12-string sometimes, though, and then I hit both of the paired strings when I solo. It's a beautiful instrument; I'm really glad someone invented it. The 12-string has a different action than the 6-string, and you have to adapt to it. It's stiffer, so you have to execute everything properly, every single note.

The double-neck I'm using now was made by Rex Bogue in Los Angeles [see GP, May '74]. I had asked Gibson to make me another one, because the first one was custom. It had ebony fingerboards and I wanted bigger frets because I found them easier for pulling (though I no longer think that's a hard and fast rule). So they said they'd like to do something, maybe, if I'd like to endorse one. I said sure, so they agreed to make me a special guitar. I said I'd like this and this and this but it took them a year to do it-they had strikes and everything. Finally I got it, but they had only done one thing I had asked, and that was the writing of "Sweetest Is My Lord" on the necks. The one thing they'd done was the least important as far as the music. The electronics they hadn't done, the neck they hadn't done, the body shape they hadn't done, they hadn't even used the right wood. And I thought they obviously didn't care about me; they might care about some big star, but not about me. I've still got the guitar-it's brand new, I've never used it. [Ed. Note: The Gibson Company claims that the problem was simply one of a lack of adequate communication.]

I had wanted the neck to go to D, because the other one only went to C and that's low-I mean, if you want to get to E then good-bye, no way. And E is pretty natural for the guitar. I also wanted the guitar in stereo; I wanted the necks separate and with ebony fingerboards; I wanted deeper cut-aways and Grover heads. The pickups were fine-humbuckings are good pickups. So around then I was working at the Whisky in Los Angeles, and this guy burst into the room with this guitar case and said I had to have a look at his guitar. It was a hollowed-out solidbody-a beautiful little guitar with flowers going down the neck, and this beautiful ebony board. The neck was really fine, too. His workmanship was impeccable, faultless. He was into electronics, also. He said, "I've got to make you a guitar!" So I told him to go right ahead. He spent thirteen months hand-carving and sweating blood over it. I even got my acoustic guitar in L.A., from Mark Evan Whitebook. I must say, though, that a Gibson J-200 with a rosewood body was the best guitar I ever had. It was light -but the top split.

On my Bogue double-neck there's a master volume so one volume can control both necks or just one if that's all I have on. I also have individual volume controls so I can pre-set them; then when I hit the neck switch I'll be at a specific volume. But I can't go to a specific tone, because the tone controls are for both necks together. To compensate for that I've got a pickup switch, plus Rex took tappings off the coils so I can get sounds out of the pickups that are amazing. By putting them in phase or out of phase or opposing the coils together I can get more brilliance, roll the bass right off, bring the middle in, roll the top off, roll the bass in-there are all kinds of things I can do just by phasing the coils. I can get a lot of tonal range and response that I can pre-set on the neck. Secondly, it's got a pre-amp built right into it.

This guitar, in combination with the amp [Boogie Amps from Prune Music in Mill Valley, Calif.], allows almost every note to sustain almost indefinitely without feeding back. I just happened to hit on the right combination. This amp is loud, and it's all tube (I think you get more pure overtones with tubes). I used to use Marshall amplifiers, but with my current band they would be too heavy. I don't need them. That was a problem I had with the previous band-the volume would sometimes become oppressive, just too loud, destroying the musical content.

This amplifier has three volume controls: For the pre-amp, the mid-amp, and one is like the output amp or something. Each one is very sensitive. The thing that is so beautiful is that I could sit right in a hotel room and have low volume, but still get heavy sustain just by altering the volumes. I would say it's the best guitar amp in the world, and I've tried quite a few. But if you get into Maclntosh or Bose amps, which I might, then they're great. Rex is thinking of making me a guitar synthesizer, and to do that we might need a Maclntosh or something. I like synthesizers; I have a little mini-Moog at home that I use.

I only use a few pedals: A De Armond volume pedal, and a thing called a frequency shifter, where I'm able to split the notes-the beginning of a synthesizer.

My picks I make out of plastic. They're shaped somewhat like a very small Indian bead. One side is flat, the other is grooved so I can get a hold of it. They're very stiff and quite wide [approx. 1/16" ]. I use Darco strings: .008, .010, .012, .019, .029, .039. I just adopt these gauges for the 12-string so that I have two 8's and two 10's on top, then a 12 and an 8 for the G, a 19 and a 10 for the D, a 29 and a 12 on the A, and a 39 and 19 for the E. I used to have to Epoxy the windings, because if I really pulled a string I'd pull the winding off. I went back to Darco, and they've changed the windings and apparently been very successful.


Playing speed is all relative, really. If someone thinks I play fast, they should hear John Coltrane. I mean, he just rips up and down that horn, and the notes fall out like a cascade. It's all just a feeling, and I'd like to be able to articulate that feeling on the guitar. You can do anything, with work. Anything is possible, and it's up to you. If you're willing to spend hours working, devoting and dedicating yourself to the articulation and execution, then sooner or later you're going to come through.

I practice all the scales. Everyone should know lots of scales. Actually, I feel there are only scales. What is a chord, if not the notes of a scale hooked together? There are several reasons for learning scales: One, the knowledge will unlock the neck for you; you'll learn the instrument; second, if I say I want you to improvise over Gmaj7aug5, then go to E3aug935 then to Bmaj735-well, if you don't know what those chords are in scale terms you're lost.

I used to lock myself in my room with a little cassette recorder, choose chords and analyze them to find out what they were. Like why certain notes sounded certain ways in a major seventh against a particular note. And you have to know many scales in many positions-you have to be able to move. In classical terms there is the Dorian, Aeolian, Lydian, Ionian, Lochrian; then you've got the synthetic scales-Hungarian minor, Neopolitan minor, super Lochrian, the symmetrical, the major-minor. And there are all the harmonic progressions, too. And you've got to know them. You can go to school, and maybe get there faster, but I didn't have a school to go to. All I had was chords, and I had to unlock them. It's not all that difficult, but you have to be ready to apply yourself, to do some homework for at least a year-longer, actually. I went through a period where I wanted to play everything in chords, so I had to find out substitutions and inversions and all that. You discover a lot of things when you do that.

Not only do you have to know scales, though; you have to know rhythm, because rhythm is of supreme importance. It's hard to say how you learn this-you can practice with a metronome or, preferably, a drummer. I used to use a cassette player, and write down random sets of chords, then play them rhythmically-6/8, 4/8, 3/8, 7/8, 5/8, 9/8, 11/8, 13/8, 21/8, anything you want. Just write out some sequences and improvise through them. Eventually you start finding chinks in your knowledge, and then some lights in the darkness.

The joy of music is like the joy a runner gets from running, and, musically, I'm running. If music doesn't carry any deep emotion, then what's it for? You find notes that are more joyful to you, and you play them at a fast tempo, and people will get something from it.