After Mahavishnu And Shakti,
A Return To The Electric Guitar

by Don Menn and Chip Stern

Guitar Player August 1978


"ASPIRATION IS THE FIRST rung of the sky-kissing ladder; realization is the last." Guru Sri Chinmoy's proverb brings to mind one of his former followers, John McLaughlin, who is at once on both ends of a musical sky-kissing ladder: Despite his vast knowledge of theory and awesome technical skills, he remains a searcher, an eternal aspirant. No matter how lofty his achievements, he continues to look up, beyond. For McLaughlin music is a flowing continuum, a river; his goal is not to cross it but to swim in it, partake of it, drink from it - music is to be traveled, explored through all its tributaries, to be revered not so much for what it is as for where it goes.
McLaughlin's conception of himself as a traveler helps to explain one of the most unusual things about him: It seems that just when he masters a style and garners both critical acclaim and commercial appeal - just when he molds an apparent identity for himself - he strikes out anew, embarking from comfortable positions where others would linger or retire. Where another artist might change course in midstream, John McLaughlin changes streams. As he has explained in the past: "For a new era to come, the old one has to die."
Recording with Miles Davis, the Tony Williams Lifetime, several versions of his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, and more recently Shakti, McLaughlin has established himself as a leading exponent of jazz-rock guitar. In 1974 he won Guitar Player's awards as Best Jazz Guitarist and Best Overall Guitarist.
But trying to pigeonhole McLaughlin's style immediately demonstrates the inadequacy of musical categories. "Jazz-rock" really describes only a fragment of his music, much of which has little to do with rock. Since the scope of his artistry is as astounding as its depth, McLaughlin is best described simply and without categorical restrictions: He is a musician. As he has said in past interviews (see GP Nov-Dec. '72), he doesn't care what the music is called, only that it be heard.
To begin to comprehend this diversity of McLaughlin's own creative output, one might naturally look for eclecticism in his roots. Sure enough, he has probed and been influenced by so many kinds of music that it seems that after enumerating them all little is left; indeed, the untapped sources might comprise a shorter list. He has immersed himself in jazz, classical, and flamenco, in the improvisational excursions of saxophonist John Coltrane and sitarist Ravi Shankar; in composers from Beethoven to Stravinsky and in guitarists from Tal Farlow to Jimi Hendrix. It would be a formidable task just to find this music and listen to it all, let alone assimilate much of it and synthesize new musical forms as well. But McLaughlin has done just that; he is one of the most important guitarists of the Seventies because aside from being a student and master of past and present styles, he is a pioneer of new ones. Born into a family of musicians in Yorkshire, England, on January 4th, 1942, John listened to classical music as a child, soon began to study piano and violin (his mother was a violinist), encountered the music of American blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly, and at age 11 learned a few guitar chords from one of his three brothers. When he was about 13 he became involved in flamenco and Spanish classical music, and the next year he first heard Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. (At about this time John started using a pick in an attempt to sound like Reinhardt.)
McLaughlin began to sit in with various jazz bands when he was 16, and he continued to seek new musical inspiration. Charlie Parker and Tal Farlow became heroes, as did Charles Mingus and Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. A turning point was his early discovery of the hard bop and soaring modal improvisations of Miles Davis, particularly on the albums Milestones [Columbia PC-9428] and Kind Of Blue [Columbia, PC-8163]. Coltrane's complexity eluded McLaughlin for a while, but the young guitarist had "finally" grasped it by the time he was 20 or 21.
In 1963 McLaughlin joined the Graham Bond Organization, an English band that included bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, later members of Cream. He also worked with Brian Auger's quintet. John had been brought up with little religious training, but Bond introduced him to a number of books on the occult, and in a search for spiritual bearings he joined London's Theosophical Society, which exposed him to the writings of various Eastern philosophical masters. He practiced yoga, discovered Ravi Shankar, and began to investigate the misty complexities of Indian music. Further probing led to his discovery of the Indian vina, a stringed instrument with movable frets and a gourd resonator at each end. John came to realize that the conventional 6-string guitar would probably never give him the fluidity of Coltrane's saxophone or Davis's trumpet; years later, as Mahavishnu, he would design his own instrument, an acoustic guitar with a scalloped fingerboard and extra strings (see accompanying story).
A crucial discovery for John was Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall [Columbia, PC-8612], an LP that featured an all-star lineup of avant-garde players; drummer Tony Williams had an especially numbing impact on McLaughlin. In the late 1960s McLaughlin shared a London apartment with Dave Holland, a jazz bassist, and one time the pair jammed with drummer Jack DeJohnette. Holland later joined Miles Davis in New York, and he told Tony Williams about his friend, the amazing guitarist back in London. DeJohnette, who had recorded the McLaughlin jam session, returned to the States and played the tape for Williams. In November of 1968 Tony called John and asked him to join his new group. McLaughlin came to America in early 1969 and was recording with Miles Davis - having met him through Williams - within 48 hours after his arrival. (Not long after that he found himself jamming with Jimi Hendrix: see GP's special Hendrix edition, Sept. '75.)
Williams and McLaughlin formed Lifetime with the late Larry Young, who was incidently McLaughlin's favorite organist. The trio was so important to John that he turned down an invitation to become a member of Miles's group. After playing together as a threesome for about a year, Lifetime was augmented by Jack Bruce on bass. At about this time - mid-1970 - John associated himself with Sri Chinmoy and adopted the name Mahuvishnu, from the Indian religious names Maha the Creator and the Vishnu the Preserver. After months of playing to small, obscure houses, he left Lifetime because of various business disagreements.
McLaughlin cut Devotion, released in the summer of 1970 and then My Goal's Beyond released in 1971. During these latter sessions he recorded with drummer Billy Cobham and violinist Jerry Goodman. The three soon got together in 1972 with keyboardist Jan Hammer and bassist Rick Laird. Calling themselves the Mahavishnu Orchestra, they played a long engagement at New York's Gaslight Club. Their first LP, The Inner Mounting Flame, was soon released on Columbia; guitar players and other listeners responded with much enthusiasm to the high-energy mystical jazz, and critics were left to ransack their dictionaries for new descriptive terms. Followup LPs included Birds Of Fire and Between Nothingness And Eternity, a live album. In 1973 McLaughlin and fellow Chinmoy disciple Devadip Carlos Santana collaborated on Love Devotion Surrender.
The tensions of success and various connects over artistic and personal matters caused some bitter resentments and the eventual breakup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It reformed with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and others. An expanded edition of the new group released Apocalypse in 1974 (with Beatles producer George Martin, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and the London Symphony), and Visions Of The Emerald Beyond. John also recorded a number of albums with one of his heros, Miles Davis, including the historic In A Silent Way [Columbia PC-9857] and Bitches Brew [Columbia PG-26].
McLaughlin had been studying Indian music for some time when, in 1973, he met violinist L. Shankar. The two struck up an immediate friendship and an intense interest in each other's musical experiences. Another friend, tabla player Zakir Hussain, joined McLaughlin and Shankar in forming an acoustic ensemble. Shankar's uncle, R. Raghavan played the mridangam, an Indian drum, and T. H. Vinayakram played several Indian instruments. The group performed a few small concerts and did a little recording, but McLaughlin was obligated at the time to spend most of his energies on the Mahavishnu Orchestra's last LP, Inner Worlds. Shortly after that record's completion McLaughlin devoted himself to the group of Indian musicians. They took the name Shakti and recorded three albums from 1975 to 1977.
McLaughlin's most recent LP is a particularly accessible work. Entitled Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist, it features over a dozen distinguished players; some were fellow band members in various phases of McLaughlin's musical evolution, and others are old and new friends and jamming partners. His latest touring ensemble is a quintet called the One Truth Band.
John has tried many guitars (see GP, Feb. '75) and his most recent ones have reflected both his musical expansion and his quest for perfection. He received a custom-built Gibson doubleneck in the winter of 1971; it did not meet his requirements, and he looked elsewhere. Luthier Rex Bogue made an ornate and electronically advanced double-neck, ebe Double Rainbow (see GP, May '74) that pleased John immensely. Several of his current acoustic and electric guitars feature the scalloped fingerboard of his own conception.
In the November-December 1972 GP interview, McLaughlin commented that "musicians are here for people who can't hear so they can learn to hear...." He has also said on other occasions that a musician has a duty to inspire fellow artists. During his career John has attained critical acclaim, popular appeal (particularly among guitar players), and immense respect - even awe - among musicians. Thus he has fulfilled both his desire to help non-musicians to hear new music and his self-imposed duty to inspire his colleagues. These past achievements are sufficient to set McLaughlin apart from most artists, and yet given the fact that his creative energy appears as strong as ever a cardinal aspect of his music is - as always - the promise of things to come.

WHY DO YOU THINK YOU'RE A GUITARIST instead of a pianist or a composer?
Oh, I don't know; I mean, why do I love the guitar? Why do I love jazz music? Why am I a musician? Why me? I don't know! Why is someone drawn to Buddhism? Why does someone make pornographic movies? I don't know the answers. That's something that I believe lies in past lives. All I know is that I love it - that's the self-evident proof. The very first time I ever played the guitar I fell in love with it. I loved the sound, I loved the feeling.
Do you feel the guitar is an unlimited instrument?
Unlimited! Absolutely! Are you kidding? I don't know any instrument that's limited. Music is unlimited, and human imagination and spirit are unlimited.
Why did you disband Shakti?
Well, I didn't exactly disband Shakti. We'll still be working with each other, but I felt it was time for a change. Vinayakram, our ghatam player, went back to India, and Shankar is in my new group [the One Truth Band] on electric violin, which has been an expansion for him musically. I'm still committed to Shakti; that band was probably the greatest musical experience I've ever been involved with, but I wanted to get back into some jazz and electric guitar. I know people will tend to view this as some sort of commercial decision, but it's not that at all. I could have continued with the second Mahavishnu Orchestra if I wanted to just make money, because Shakti wasn't making a great deal of money. I decided to go with Shakti because I believed in the music, and I felt the need to get away from all that volume. I loved every minute of it, and it was good to play acoustically, but now I feel a need to play with electricity and volume again. So I've come full circle.
What made you return to the electric guitar?
The music that I started to write last summer was for bass, drums, and keyboards, and it is simply impossible to play acoustic guitar in this musical environment. These compositions had improvisatory demands as well. It's been such a long time since I played electric that I see it in a completely different light. I'm just using a Gibson ES-345 with a scalloped fingerboard [see cover] and a Marshall 100-watt amp; just plain guitar and amp. Sorry to be so dull. I'm just exploring this familiar world; but now I have a different view of it. I find it very healthy, actually, having been away from it for three years. I see possibilities for the execution of ideas with greater clarity now, given the qualities the electric guitar has that the acoustic doesn't. I'm always dominated by musical mandates inside me, and that's the whole reason for whatever changes I've gone through. I have to obey them, and my whole life is to serve my perfect-as-possible idealization of music and my role in it, in this world. And my ideals of music belong to the highest I can possibly conceptualize artistically and musically.
How much do you think equipment or even specific guitars matter musically?
Well, your instrument is important. Mine is - even more so in the last two or three years since I started doing most of my work on my custom acoustic guitar with its scalloped fingerboard [see accompanying story]. Every person has got a different tone inside - in their own minds, in their own hearts - and I'm no exception. And the same guitar would sound very different in two different people's hands. Yet one of the special things for me is of course the scalloped fingerboards, which now I use absolutely - I would never go back to a regular fingerboard. In fact, the idea began six or seven years ago when I was seriously studying the vina - a 7-string instrument with four playing strings and three accompanying strings - which is known in both north and south India. I was studying the south Indian type with a vina master up at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I was going up there once a week or whenever I could get the time from touring. The vina is such a marvelously expressive instrument that when it came to practicing my guitar, I began to feel quite limited.
What made you feel this way about the vina?
Well, the vina goes back thousands of years, it's the ancestor of the sitar. It has very big brass frets imbedded in beeswax very high, so there's nothing underneath, there's nothing in between the frets - no fingerboard as such. After a while, I was getting more and more drawn into it, and I thought, "Wait a minute - I'm really a guitar player," and I had to ask myself a question: Do I seriously want to just become a vina player, or what is it that I really want to do? Of course I knew the answer - play guitar. But the vina's articulation was much more satisfying. so I got the idea that maybe I could change the fingerboard on the guitar. I could get the same possibilities or at least satisfy my own self in terms of nuance expression and subtleties in the bending of the notes. So I talked to Mark Whitebook out in California - he had built my first acoustic guitar - but unfortunately he was suffering from asthma, and the doctor had forbidden him to work with wood, which is tragic because he's a brilliant luthier. The project got shelved, because I wasn't really sure whom to go to. A while later I was in the Gibson place in Chicago and I spoke to [Norlin director of research and development] Bruce Bolen about the idea, and he said, "Sure, we'd love to make you one." So they did a terrific amount of research and development, and finally the prototype that you see on the cover of Shakti came out. It had several innovations: One was the scalloped fingerboard; the other was accompanying strings, or what people think of as "drone" or "sympathetic" strings, which they aren't truly - they're accompanying strings. It's more like an Autoharp than a sitar. I wanted to be able to play chords without having to stop my single-line soloing.
How are those accompaniment strings tuned?
It varies with the piece. The music that we played with Shakti was exclusively linear. And so what was important to me was to extract the chord that was the most expressive of the emotion that I felt was most embodied inside the scale or mode or the raga of whatever we were playing. Like the mode on "Joy" [Shakti] was an invention of our own: E, F, G#, A, B, D. But that's just one. I would tune the accompanying strings in various ways so they might even come down and go back up like [hums]:

So you have, in fact, a waveform, no matter if you're going from the bottom to the top like [hums]:

and then the opposite going down. I found this technique was very useful. Sometimes I would spend hours trying different tunings just looking for the right one.

Obviously, you like the instrument.
Musically it was a complete cuccess, so much so that whenever I played a normal fingerboard, I felt very restricted. From that point on, which must be about three years ago, I started using the new fingerboard exclusively, and so when I started writing electric music last summer, I figured - "I've got to have this done on electric; I couldn't go back to the normal fingerboard" - so that's exactly what I did. I had my electric guitar modified, and I find it wonderful.
How long does it take to learn to hit a chord on a scalloped fretboard without the notes sounding out of tune?
Not too long; it depends on the individual. I know a couple of people who have tried it and they feel a little funny because they don't have anything under the strings - it's like it's just space there, and that kind of throws them. But it didn't take me long to get accustomed to the feeling, since I had a distinct advantage of having studied vina somewhat, and therefore I was familiar with playing without a fingerboard. Even grabbing complex jazz chords is not as bad as you might think it is. You see, you don't get the shifts, subtleties, or nuances on the notes by pressing the strings down you do it through pulling or pushing. Most contemporary guitar players push the string; sitar technique is a pulling technique. You're pulling the strings down towards the floor. [Ed. Note: Listen, for example, to "New York On My Mind" on Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist, which John begins wilt the B string pulled up to C, the first tone heard. He then releases the string back into the open position and picks the B, the second tone heard, and so forth.]
How much of a pitch change can you get at any one fret?
It depends on the position of the guitar, because way down by the nut it's much more difficult to get a large bend. Although on the acoustic 6-string, for example, on the low E string I can bend F# up to B.
Wouldn't that create enormous technical problems - starting with the string already pulled down to a G and then easing down to an F and then an E without losing crispness and without under- or overshooting the exact pitches?
Yes. But this is just an expansion of technique employing the new fingerboard. It is just a matter of practice. You have this wonderful opportunity to really do much more glide, portamento, sliding, bending - with a much greater degree of control than you get on a regular fingerboard. It's a great opportunity, I think. All I'm interested in is developing what technique I have. I'm never satisfied with what I have. I feel there's always a terrific way to go. I'll probably feel that when I'm 50. But there you are, it's part of the deal, isn't it? The possibilities are endless, you know.
Are you going to modify all your instruments this way, such as your Bogue double-neck?
Unfortunately, the Rex Bogue doubleneck is no longer. It suffered a big accident in 1974. It was quite a disaster. It fell from a bench - no one was near it, very peculiar circumstances - and it hit the ground on the front and split the body right up the middle. It would have to be virtually rebuilt, it was such a bad accident. Later I used a Les Paul, and then in 1975 I started to play my acoustic guitars almost exclusively until January of this year.
How many guitars do you own?
I have the ES-345 I told you about. I have a [Gibson] Byrdland, which is what I recorded the Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist album with; the Gibson concert acoustic guitar with the 13 strings; the prototype of that model; then I have a Mark Whitebook guitar; an old Les Paul Special; a Ramirez classical guitar; a Gibson Recorder 1948 - three-quarter guitar, very small; a Gibson L-4 with a "Charlie Christian" pickup, which is like a guitar I had many years ago that I had to sell just to keep my body and soul together. Oh, it was gorgeous; a great acoustic guitar and a fabulous electric. When I tried to buy it back, the person I'd sold it to wouldn't sell it to me, but I found another one - the only other one I've seen in my life; I was very lucky. I'd been out of arch-tops for a long time. Their sound seems to choke at a certain point, you know, whereas flattops have so much more body to the sound.
An electric guitar with an amp gives rise to all sorts of things like strange, squeaky harmonics, feedback, and so forth. Do you work on, these sorts of techniques?
Oh sure. That's been a part of me for many years. I started to use feedback in 1962 before there were any big amps. I had this guy build me a big amp when I was playing with the Graham Bond Organization with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. And I discovered that feedback was nice.
Do you ever get harmonic effects by touching the string with the skin of your thumb after you pick?
Yes, sure, and one can get nice octave chords by using the outside edge of the palm. As far as left-hand technique goes - I think having big hands and long fingers helps. My hands are pretty big, so I can get some tough chords - partly because I use my thumb for some. On "My Foolish Heart" [Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist] I have to do some serious stretching. Tal Farlow [see GP, Apr '70 and June '75], in fact, inspired me to do that. I worked on a lot of my own chords that you can only play with the thumb. If you're playing a chord that utilizes open strings, then the barre formula is inapplicable, and I use open strings. They have a beautiful resonance.
What about the use of pedals?
I didn't use any, actually, on the new album. "Phenomena/Compulsion" was mixed down using a Marshall Time Modulator, which is quite an amazing device. On "Are You The One?" I had a Mu-Tron envelope filter. I used to like to have a volume pedal more or less all the time though I'm not using one anymore.
Have you tried any of the guitar synhesizers?
A few years ago. I was using Bob Easton's 360 Systems [Box 1804, Santa Monica, CA 90406] pitch-to-voltage converter, going through a bank of six Minimoog modules. I toured with that setup but it was so big and difficult to carry and patch that I decided it was just too unwieldy to use for performance.
Do you think synthesizers hold much future for guitar players?
Well, from what I hear, the [ARP] Avatar is even slower than the one I had. That was another problem I had with mine: The conversion from pitch to voltage and then into synthesis was too slow. The technology wasn't ready. We've got to have some good computer technology and memory banks, although the Prophet synthesizer [Sequential Circuits, 11 72-G Asten Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94086] seems to have some useful computer technology with its patching. I like the synthesizer myself. I really do love it. But the technology is just unable to rope with my demands.
What sort of strings do you use?
Right now I'm using D'Addario lightgauge - for electric they go from .009 to .042. For acoustic, they go .010, .014, .017, .024, .032, .042. I change them every set for both acoustic and electric. They could probably last longer, but the tone is gone.
Do you pick hard enough to break strings?
No. I think if I break strings, it's from pulling or pushing too hard with my left hand.
How do you hold your pick?
The first finger of the right hand is crooked. The pick just sort of fits in there between the thumb and fingers very comfortably. It's quite a small pick. I make my own out of plastic pie boxes that I cut up with wire cutters. You know, when you want to keep a piece of apple pie in the refrigerator - those plastic boxes that are shaped like a piece of pie? They're the perfect size and material for me and perfect for pie. They make nonflexible picks extremely stiff, which last about three weeks. When I play acoustic guitar, besides the regular flatpick I use, I have a fingerpick on the small finger of my right hand so I can easily accompany myself on the seven other strings.
When flatpicking, do you hit with the front, back, or edge of the pick? Or just flat on?
Just flat on - up and down.
Have you heard about "circle picking?" Many people insist you get your speed this way.
I've heard about it, but I don't know what it is. The pick is just flat in my hand, and my hand just floats - it doesn't touch the face of the guitar.
And you don't consciously attempt to follow any preconceived picking formulas?
I just try to play phrasings the way I hear them. To a certain degree one adapts to one's own technique, but, on the other hand, one must adapt one's technique to the idea. This is the very fundamental crux of it: Technique should be a dynamically evolving state. To tend to play continuously beyond you will truly help achieve a dynamic state of evolving technique. But I think one can play anything if one has enough perseverance, enough devotion to it. Finyering is probably the big key to unlocking technique; it is crucial. For example, some of the things that I did with Shakti are very long, complex melodies, and some of them were extremely difficult. Sometimes I spent not just hours but days and weeks on different fingerings to discover the right one, because I believe there is a right fingering for everything if you just take time out to discover it. I can't just fall back on the usual fretboard patterns, since I'm not playing diatonically. For example, if you are involved in any of the synthetic modes, then you have to invent rules and fingering principles for yourself. I have one piece in which the scale goes up, then down, then back up and you have to play it like that [hums]:

It calls for different technique and different perception for looking at the technique itself. It's not really essential to know the names of the various modes and scales that you play, but what is important is that you know their relationship to the chords. In effect, my whole view of chords is different now, having studied Indian music. I see chords as notes of the scale played simultaneously. And so my own view of music now is, in fact, much more linear. No matter how complex the harmonic progression, there's a linear movement through it which can suggest all harmonic possibilities.

What advice would you give guitar players who want to play modally on how to avoid sounding like they're merely running scales in keys other than the key they say they're in?
In every scale or in every mode there are king, queen, and prince notes - the notes of vivid strength and color. In the discreet and tasteful application of these, the possibilities and permutations are infinite. The most important thing is to think melodically. In fact, there's really nothing but melody, and so if you have C or D dorian, the thing is to discover the relationship of each note to the fundamental chord, and that is the color of that chord.
Do you think there's an inherent mood to any mode or chord?
Absolutely. Every scale has a mood. You know "mode" and "mood" are very close to each other. They have a definite emotional content. This is another discovery I made in Indian music. Every raga has a specific quality, and those specific qualities can range from tragic to erotic to profound, in a devotional sense. You can have courageous moods, you can have passionate moods, and the whole gamut of idealized human emotions. The whole basis of the raga is to develop, amplify, and articulate - with as much profundity as possible - the various qualities of the human heart and mind and being. But to me, this applies to all music everywhere. In the West we have to kind of discover it on our own, because the systems are not taught. Over here, only harmony is taught, though our study of it is extremely highly developed - it is second to none. Ultimately, musicians have a vocabulary of modes, seales, ragas, or whatever, and must learn the color of each one in relation to their own hearts, their own selves; how you use it, of course, is indicative of the degree of development in artistic and aesthetic terms.
Do you believe the qualities and moods that you hear in certain intervals are universal, or do they simply become historically acceptable through time, change, and as other sounds become more acceplable?
You're talking about audiences and artists. Audiences are conditioned, and they've been conditioned since going back to the year "dot." Only the true artist and the enlightened listener are nonconditioned, although I can see changes, and I would not like to underestimate the capacity of the audience to appreciate something new. Especially in the last ten years, audiences have become much more educated and more open in a nonconditional way; but it's difficult to bring the two points together. For example, Anton Webern in my opinion is a celestial musician; he was writing stuff in 1902 and 1903 that is still ahead of its time, but it's absolutely dissonant nevertheless. I even think the word "dissonant" is a conditioned qualification, and that qualification is uttered from a lower point of view. How can you say "all that's dissonant"? It's like saying, if you're looking at a Rembrandt, "Oh, that's bright isn't it?" It's silly. It comes from an invalid, completely conditioned viewpoint. It's unreasonable for the artist to even begin to think in those terms. It steals something from the music because you don't even give the music the first chance of being listened to the way it is being listened to for what it is.
How much variety is really offered listeners?
Art and commerciality are diametrically opposed, and it's unfortunate because culturally, I think that the radio in America - and the whole media in America - is like starving for any type of innovative cultural impulse, only by virtue of its own stranglehold, from its own mercenary tendency. If radio would even begin to truly accept the jazz culture, the real art form of America - which it still hasn't done - then you would have much greater education. People should be exposed to more music - horn players in Tibet, the music of Russia, China, Australia, every- where because music is such a fabulous, wonderful, unifying language understood by all. Listening would probably be different - the world would be different for that matter, if the media were to see programming as an enlightening process for the listening public. That would be the first big, big step in terms of mass deconditioning. But the media in America is extremely repressive culturally. It's disgusting, and I hope it changes, because I believe in the beautiful and spiritual and unifying power of music. It's such a mysterious and wonderful thing, and people love it everywhere, and so why don't we use it to bring greater understanding to the people of the planet?
How much do you practice now at home?
Ideally about seven or eight hours a day; that's a nice figure. I have many different aspects of practice. One of them is playing and using bends, which is more an Indian technique, starting off on a note where the string is already bent. I'm also playing inside the bends, which of course is difficult. And then I'll perhaps work on a complicated chordal sequence. I'll just write one down that I can't do and work on it until I can. And then just to complicate matters, I'll play it in a compound time signature. It's just a successive imposition of greater and greater discipline, because this is the only way one can grow - continuous mastery over one's own inabilities.
Do you follow the rule that "slow is fast," that is, that practicing something very slowly is the way to develop speed?
Yes, sure. I mean, you can't just jump in there - especially if it's a complicated sequence.
Do you work with a tape recorder?
Sometimes. I also work with a special metronome that a friend of mine named Leo Hoarty built for me. It has just fabulous possibilities of synchronous compound time. It gives up to four clicks simultaneously. I have the base time - you know, a certain number of beats to the minute. Then I can have a derivative multiple, and then a second derivative multiple which is synchronized but completely independent. If you want, you can get 31 against 30, or 99 against 98. Furthermore I have the possibility of extracting any pulse on any number of beats from one to 99, and from any of the A or B multiples. That whole thing arose from my dire frustration with my other tools. You know the old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention." I had been using a "tri-nome," but I gave it to a friend as a present, went out and bought a new one, and broke it on the same day. So I went back again and again and ended up going through five. And then just out of frustration I called up Leo, who built my present metronome. I have the only one in existence, and it's a fabulous tool. Leo and I have also been working on another project, which is a 4-track self-sync cassette tape recorder.
Did you have a specific format or goal in mind with Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist?
Every piece on the album says some thing special to me. In a sense, I was bringing all of my influences up to date. It was great to get back together with old musical and personal friends. l'd been out of touch with these people and the electric guitar. I conceived the compositional format to be directly related to the people; having a concept of how, one, they like to play, and two, how I'd project they would enjoy playing with me in this context. Now out of all these feelings, the pieces emerged. The pieces were written before we went into the studio that was imperative, really which is why it wasn't difficult in the actual recording; the general structure and form had been made, and so it was simple, really. The recording was completed in only two weeks. I'm happy to say that everyone played at least as well as I expected.
Why did you record "My Foolish Heart"?
That has been a favorite tune of mine for years. The Iyrics have a special meaning for me. Incidentally, on the album, I neglected to dedicate that song to Tal Farlow, and I'd like you to make sure he knows that tune is for him. Tal has been one of my idols for years. He has a flowing lyricism. Not only that, but he also has a very highly developed harmonic sense. He's had such an impact on all jazz guitarists. I heard a George Benson cut on the radio the other day, and I said to myself, there's Tal. He's just fantastic. I feel very close to him. I first heard him when I was 14. I was walking by a record store and I heard this amazing guitarist, and I just ran inside to find out who it was and buy that record. I think it was "Autumn In New York." So I was definitely thinking of Tal when I played "My Foolish Heart." He's the king of jazz guitarists.
How did you get that flowing guitar sound on that cut?
I got that sound on an old Les Paul Deluxe, the one with the cream-colored pickups, and I ran that through a Leslie speaker cabinet, which gave me the most gorgeous sound. When you listen to that cut it sounds like a bass and a guitar together. That's because I used a different tuning on the guitar. The low E string goes down to low A, an octave below the open A of the fifth string. I put a .068 string on the bottom, the thickest guitar string I could find. I'm not sure what type; it could have been Ernie Ball or Darco. I was lucky - I didn't think strings like that existed. When you have the string pitched so low, it's really beautiful for chords, but it's very difficult to tune. The voicings I used on that tune involved using the thumb to bar both of the A strings at once, so sometimes you pull on the sixth string more than the fifth string, and this creates a dissonance in the tuning. I was having problems using an ordinary gauge string, because by the time you tune it down it's really loose. By the way, that was the only time I've used a regular guitar neck since 1975.
What's your favorite solo on ?
"Every Tear From Every Eye." That's a very pretty ballad, and it's slow and quiet, so you can really hear the nuances of the special fretboard.
The opening riff of "Friendship" sounds a bit like the "Ode To Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the section that you said made your hair stand on end as a child [see GP, Feb. '75] Was that an intentional quote?
No it wasn't, as it happened. Isn't that amazing? My wife pointed that out, also. I hope nobody thinks I'm a plagiarist.
Do you write your music down on paper and hand it to your sidemen?
Oh yes, sometimes there is the need to be structured. Sometimes it's easier just to play something for somebody: They get a picture much quicker. Writing might even be unnecessary for something like a little motif.
Do you find that you use any chord progressions more often than others?
No, I don't think so. I kind of go my own way. Any chord can follow any chord in my book.
When doing a chord melody section, do you try to keep a flowing, four-part harmony going?
There's no hard-and-fast rule. It depends on the situation and the context. With three notes - the b7th, 13th, and 3rd - you can say everything about a 13th chord. Same with modulations: There are no rules. I prefer to find new ways of going. The ways of going even from C to A minor are infinite. The composition makes the demand and the improvisation makes that structure, but I don't like the normal ways.
What recording techniques do you use?
For Electric Guitarist, I miked the amp as well as went directly into the board. On the earlier electric albums we just miked the amp. On the live Shakti album I had a Frap pickup that went directly in the PA, and on Natural Elements I had three mikes two in front of the guitar and one behind. I also had a direct line into the board from the 6-string, plus a direct line from the accompanying strings, the sympathetic strings, and a lot of inputs coming in off the guitar.
Do you work on the final mix?
Oh, yes, I always do.
Do you ever overdub?
Yep. You just can't do a solo in certain situations. On Natural Elements, for example, both Shankar and I had been deeply involved in the compositions. We had no time to even think about solos, and for a solo you really need to work, and think, and explore in your own self what it means to you, the possibilities, and how you're going to articulate them.
So it's not like you go into a studio and run off 15 solos and splice in the best?
No. But of course, you always hope and pray for inspiration, that's the magical thing that gives you some sense of immortality.
Why were you attracted to flamenco?
It was its passion, I think, that really took me out. And technically, it's virtuosic and devastating. You hear a great flamenco player, and he can just knock you off your feet. That's what I liked about the blues, too - it has such emotional impact.
What was it that stood out for you in Miles Davis's playing?
Miles was just really soulful. His style - well, that's the wrong word, because he created his own style. One would normally think of style as something someone picks up and uses, but he is the originator of that style. To quote William Blake: "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another's." With Miles for me, it was his simplicity, his directness, the authority of his music from a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic point of view. His conceptualizations, from my point of view, were revolutionary. Everything I could see in Miles touched me. He was a good-looking fellow, a sharp dresser, you know. He epitomized elegance to me in every way. His music is really elegant, and eloquent, too. Miles has the capacity and the ability to draw out of people things that even surprise the musicians themselves.
So, he's a musical avatar of sorts.
Well, yes. He's been a guru of sorts to a lot of people. He was certainly a musical mentor to me. It's ironic I dreamed of playing with Miles for years. To play with him, I thought, would be the ultimate achievememnt, but I came to America to play with Tony Williams. The fact that Miles asked me on a date the day after I got here was just an unbelievable plus. Tony hadn't left Miles at the time, so we went into the studio and did In A Silent Way. Meanwhile, Lifetime had been rehearsing and our first gig was at the Club Baron up in Harlem, which was another big thrill for me. For a European, to come to New York City and play up in Harlem is the biggest thrill of all. But I was very naive when I got here, and I figured, "Well, everybody up in Harlem's got to be hip to what's really happening." We pull up outside the club, and they've got something like 'Now Appearing - The Tommy Willis Lifestory.' I mean I was shocked beyond belief that the owner of a club didn't even know Tony Williams's real name, and he was booking him - which to me showed utter ignorance of the music. Anyway, Miles called again while we were at the club, and he asked me to go into the studio with him to make Bitches Brew.
Did you do any concerts with him then?
As a matter of fact I did, because at the time Lifetime wasn't working much. That band had Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Miles; later on I did some dates in the band that had Keith Jarrett, Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, Airto, and Jack DeJohnette - and, of course, there were a lot more musicians in the studio. That's how I met Billy Cobham at a Miles date. I was very lucky. When I came to America I got to play with all my favorite musicians. I recorded with Wayne Shorter, Larry Coryell, and Miroslav Vitous that was a lovely session [Mountain In The Clouds, Atco SD 1622; it also features Joe Henderson on tenor sax and Herbie Hancock on electric piano].
What were you doing at the time Miles asked you to join his band?
I was very involved with Lifetime, I was writing a lot for the group, so it was as much my group as Tony's. I was much more involved in a composing sense than I would have been with Miles's group. So after years of idolizing Miles I was feeling strongly about my own musical directions, and I had to turn him down. I obviously would have made a lot more money with Miles, but musically Lifetime was extraordinary especially after Jack Bruce joined us and it was a vehicle for me to write, which of course Miles could understand. Jack and I go back a long way together, playing all types of music. In those days there was only one club to play in London, so everyone worked with each other.
What club was that?
The Flamingo All-Nighter [laughs]. That was the club where everybody played: Alexis Korner, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Eric Clapton. I was with Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames then. There was such a small possibility of work that everybody kept running into each other. The whole scene in London was very turbulent and eclectic for almost everybody.
Why did you leave Lifetime?
Eventually I left because it was too crazy a scene. The management didn't know how to handle us; they didn't know what they had. They were managing people like Flip Wilson. They could have been getting us good work; instead we ended up in like Henry County, Illinois, in a high school gym - dates in these obscure places. In New York we'd play a lot at Slugs, a club that used to exist on the Lower East Side. That was a great gig. That's where I met Duane Allman [see GP, May/June '73]. He was coming by every night - Janis Joplin, too. But we were totally mishandled. Jack spent a lot of his own money on the group, but I was barely scratching by, so I had to leave. I went up to Boston to do a night with Miles, and he told me, "John, you know you have to get your own band together." Sometime after that Sri Chinmoy told me the same thing, and that solidified the idea in my mind. I went on to make an acoustic album, My Goal's Beyond, but I already had an idea for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That album gave me an opportunity to bring in Jerry Goodman and Billy Cobham and play with them. I talked about my ideas with them and we were in accord. So I began looking for bass players, and I talked to a lot of people. I'd asked Tony Levin, but he was with Gary Burton at the time. Then I remembered Rick Laird, who I'd known since I was 20.
Are there any recordings of you and Rick with Brian Auger?
No. You see, that was in the days before cassette recorders, and a tape recorder was a mighty investment - too mighty for me. Rick and I went back to the days when I had a trio with a baritone player, Glen Hughes - God rest his soul - when Glenn and I were both 18 years old; guitar, baritone, and bass. We had such an incredible relationship as friends, and as musicians we had fantastic rapport. We used to do Jimmy Giuffre/Jim Hall things; and Chico Hamilton; Miles; and Sonny Rollins tunes - Sonny Rollins is a musician and a man whose influence is not small in my life. Finally Glenn and I formed a trio with Rick Laird on upright bass, but there are no tapes, it's gone forever. Back then I also had another drummerless trio with Danny Thompson, who was in Pentangle. He was a fantastic bass player; also in the group was Tony Roberts, a reed man who was just way ahead of his time. You've never heard of him; he lives in Canterbury, England. I do have a BBC broadcast recording of that trio but we didn't leave any records. But to get back to Mahavishnu, Rick was in England, and he'd just finished doing a tour with Buddy Rich. So I called him and asked him to come over. In the process of putting the personnel together I got a call from Miroslav, who asked me to join Weather Report. I said no - I'm putting my own band together. So Miroslav said that if I were looking for a keyboard player I should call up Jan Hammer, who was with Sarah Vaughan at the time. I got the best musicians available at the time, I think. It was important to me that the musicians have their roots in jazz, although Jerry's roots are in classical music and rock. Billy Cobham is known as a great rock drummer, but his roots are in jazz. He made his big impact playing with people like Billy Taylor and Horace Silver. Anyway we got together rehearsed two weeks, and played our first club; within a month we went into the studio and recorded The Inner Mounting Flame. You know the rest.
What do you see as the impact of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra?
That question asks me to make an objectification of a subjective experience, which is difficult to do. Oh, it was a great band while it lasted, but it didn't embody what it should have embodied.
What should it have embodied?
Oh, more brotherly love, I'd say.
You feel there was too much competitiveness?
No, not competitiveness. Competition, in a sense, is very good because it makes you work. It's like sports. I love to play ping-pong, and I play hard. There's nothing I like better than to have a great player on the other side, because that makes me transcend my own limitations, and it's the same in music. I constantly want to transcend my own limitations. So it wasn't competition on that point. It was the lack of mutual spiritual consciousness. That's the only way I can put it. I don't know if that sounds pompous or anything, it's just that at the time I was a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. I don't care what path anybody takes. It's just that I feel music needs the content of a consciousness that is in an ascendant attitude. This is all so difficult to put in words, because as soon as I say something it's not that. It's not what I just said because what I just said implies that you have to be religious which is not true. I'm talking about consciousness and a mutual acknowledgement of God, the creator of us, the creator of music, and the One who's given us the capacity to realize these gifts in a physical sense. What happened to the Mahavishnu Orchestra was a misunderstanding. Tension in a group can be positive in a musical sense, sometimes, but not on a continual basis. Unfortunately it resolved itself into a kind of continuous tension, and you get to the point where that manifests itself on the physical plane. Too bad, but it's not too bad. It's part of the divine plan, of which we are all part, and whatever it has in store for me, I'm ready. I hate to sound holier-than- thou, because religious judgment is absolute nonsense. But I see causes which lie behind the effects, the effects of which are the dissolution of a group to the dismay of a lot of people. The causes go back to a very fundamental level, in a human sense, and that is the inability to make mutual acknowledgements of a higher order.
How did Miles organize rehearsals?
He's amazing to work with, because he'd never say, "I don't really want that"; he'd just say, "play long" or "play short." Once he told me "Play like you don't know how to play guitar." That's Miles, and you just go along with it.
In gaining an understanding of Coltrane's lines, was it a matter of writing them out, or was it all just absorbed with the heart?
What I couldn't understand was the level he was operating on, the level that he lived on. In fact, A Love Supreme [Impulse/ABC, S 77] was the first record that went over my head. I just couldn't grasp it until a couple of years after I'd first heard it. It was just astounding.
Spiritually as well as musically?
Yeah, but spiritual and artistic levels are the same - there's no difference.
How does one go about creating long lines like Coltrane's that are original, nonrepetitive, and still ongoing?
Oh, I don't know. Music is my voice to God. I mean, I pray, and God listens to me and I try to listen to God. Music is my strongest voice, or rather, it's my public voice. And I'm very acutely aware of my need of God's loving kindness and his grace. My need of him - just my utter longing for his presence is part of my own being that just pushes me forward. I have to give everything to that. What I'm doing is basically a kind of musical prayer. And so I don't think of it as playing this or that line; of course that happens, but basically the only thing I live for is this presence of God. When I walk out onstage, I want inspiration to take everything that I have, everything that is me. I want it to be at his own disposal. Because then, if I can get out of the way, if I can be pure enough, if I can be selfless enough, and if I can be generous and loving and caring enough to just abandon what I have and abandon my own preconceived, silly notions of what I think I am - and become truly who in fact I am, which is really just another child of God - then the music can really use me. And therein is my true fulfillment. That's when the music starts to happen. And that's part of my process in my own spiritual life - to become more selfless, because it's selfish to impose myself on the music. I get that from Coltrane; I get that from other musicians, too - that giving, you know.
But before you can reach that sort of consciousness, don't you need technique that's virtually autonomic?
I don't mean that purely technical considerations are irrelevant. I have to practice; I have to do my best. If I didn't, then how is it going to happen? There's no point in kidding myself. I've got to work, and that's what my life is all about. I'll be working till I die, because every day I'm given strength and power to work, and to be in harmony with the evolution that has been taking place inside me. But at the same time, it's like everything that I have is at the disposal of the divine grace which is manifested internally in the form of just real true inspiration, which gives the possibility of complete artistic and spiritual liberation in musical form. And that's really all my goal is about. If onstage, I can manifest or experience artistic and spiritual liberation, then the music will be full of it, and I believe whoever can identify with the music will enjoy the same experience.
Do you ever find yourself falling back into old habits or a run or two bars that are similar to those you used another night?
You have to keep that in perspective. You have to use what you have, but continuously hope for inspiration. I mean, sometimes I perform, and I just feel inspired before I even hit the stage. I feel a presence of love in me, and I feel just the wonder and awe of life. One plays the composition, but it's me - it's the spontaneity onstage which is of paramount importance, because how I feel now, I never felt before, and I'll never feel again.
You've said that music is about love and that you've got to have humor everywhere, including music. What devices do you use to inject humor into your music?
That can only really happen spontaneously - otherwise it's just contrived. You can't really preplan true playing. It's dependent completely on the individual musician and the surrender of all his or her experience and knowledge and technique to the mood of inspiration, because every day it's so different. One night you go onstage and feel nothing but tragedy. Like the other night, I really felt the sorrow of life very heavily, and so I walked onstage feeling that, and so the music was just all about that. But then like the night before it may have been the opposite. It's just like suddenly you feel a certain mood and you just give vent to it. I don't know any techniques for injecting any human quality, because for me they are only valid at the moment they arrive.
Does a tragic sense of life make you have a less than inspired performance?
No. Tragedy is part of everybody's life. Just having a separate existence is, in a sense conducive to tragedy and to pain. But still it's more or less inspiring, because it's such a natural part of life. I think if you took the pain of life away. you'd take away more or less everything.
What do you see as your legacy?
You re asking me to objectify something that is utterly subjective, so I can't really say. I think I've done very little, quite frankly, in this life. There's a lot more for me to do. I've attempted to make some contribution to world peace, miniscule though it might be. This world is really paradise, but we've forgotten, that's all. So if the music can remind people where they truly belong in the consciousness of love and kindness - which is really God-consciousness - then it might be a small contribution, but at least it's a positive one. Obviously the world cannot change - it is people who have to change. There's so much unhappiness and sickness in the world. I mean, there are still wars going on. People have not yet accepted the divine spark in man, the inviolability of human beings. If I can bring some comfort into someone's life, then I won't have lived in vain. All we can do is help each other to remind ourselves that in the midst of all this anguish there is a sanctuary, that everything is alright. Music can do that. It is a healing force in the world.