'My Life And Guitar'
MAHAVISHNU JOHN McLAUGHLIN
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
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
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
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.