By Andy Aledort

(Reprinted from Guitar magazine: December 1987)

Photo by Bob Gruen / Star File
Over the last 17 years guitarist John McLaughlin has combined a rainbow of visions with an awesome command of his instrument to become among the most influential guitarists of his time. Starting in 1971 with the Inner Mounting Flame album McLaughlin's original Mahavishnu Orchestra consummated a marriage of musics that included jazz, rock, classical and East Indian music. This successful fusion startled the scene and opened the door for others to follow. Contemporary players as diverse as Steve Morse and C.C. Deville, David Chastain and Carlos Santana, Michael Walden and Jeff Beck have been among those to travel the trails McLaughlin blazed The route shows various incarnations of Mahavishnu, which included musicians like Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jean-Luc Ponty, Fernando Saunders and Bill Evans, the all acoustic East Indian group Shakti, the Super Trio with Al Di Meola and Paco DeLucia and his recent excursions with the Synclavier as heard on his latest album, Adventures in Radioland. An honored graduate of the Miles Davis band, John McLaughlin has never let commercial consideration nor his own technical prowess get in the way of exploring his emotions and imagination on what is in his hands the most expressive of instruments.

Since you've been doing so much work with the guitar synthesizer, I was wondering if it has given you the impetus to write music for a wider application than you previously were?
I've been working with the Synclavier for five or so years and before that with the Prophet. Four years ago I started to write the Concerto for symphony orchestra. That's a wonderful, extraordinary world because you discover things. The good thing about the guitar synthesizer is that it helps you to know what to leave out. Some of the sounds I would play are not like guitar at all, so I'd be playing virtually another instrument, but on guitar, and that timbre would oblige you to think in a different way and I think this is very healthy, because it would oblige me to stop thinking with habits that I'm accustomed to. Breaking these habits is very good, because when I pick up the acoustic guitar or the electric guitar, I don't forget. I think of the impact one note would have instead of six or ten. It widens the way I look at music.

Let's talk about the guitar itself, and some of the things you do on a day to day level.
With an acoustic guitar, articulation is preeminent because articulation is where you really reflect yourself and the way you feel about everything. The more transparent your articulation is, the more what's beyond articulation will be seen and felt, which is what I really like to feel, this vitality. It's athletic and springy, it's bouncy. We can never have enough of that. On the upper strings it's less of a problem, but with the lower strings we're dealing with more weight; we're dealing with silk and wire, steel or bronze, and you have to push that weight around, and you have to push it around at your ease. What I do regularly is work in the lower register, even with a major scale. The thing is to find ways to move easily. How you change your position is very important, because if you are not easy with the way you move around technically, the listener will be uneasy also. The two are inseparable. If you are having problems, the listener will have problems, and the listener is not paying to have problems. He wants to go to what's beyond. Music is like a golden key that comes out and unlocks some special place in the being, where only music can go. That's why music is so important and so powerful and so great, because it is truly the language of the spirit without any shadow of a doubt. It crosses every frontier possible. However, we owe the listener the right to go there and they don't need to be hindered with our problems. So from the guitar point of view, developing strength on the lower strings is one of the most difficult things to do and I recommend to any aspiring guitar player to work on the lower strings and to work on position movement, which should be flawless.
Electric guitar is easier for me to play than acoustic. On the acoustic you are totally exposed and physically it demands more strength, it obliges you to be more accurate and precise and that's a great thing. We can be more lazy on electric guitar. I never practice electric guitar; I haven't practiced my electric in I don't know how many years. I hear it in my imagination. The first movement of my Concerto is a great warmup for me. By the time I get to the end of it, I'm really warm. It doesn't have to be played at A+ tempo, it can be played slowly and I'll still be warm, because there is a great deal of fingering involved and a lot of precise articulation.

How did you go about pursuing music when you were a teenager?
I had an acoustic guitar when I was eleven. I didn't know the electric guitar existed; I had never heard of Charlie Christian. The first music I was exposed to was the blues-Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, who was only playing acoustic guitar at this time. When I was thirteen or fourteen I was very passionate about flamenco music. I lived in a town just south of Scotland and about 150 miles away in Manchester there was a guitar club which met the last Thursday of every month. I would skip two days of school to hitchhike down there. But the love of the blues would never leave me. In retrospect, I got into playing the blues for discipline. When I was 14 I had a skiffle group with my sister who was into Lonnie Donnegan. I ended up performing with three other guys in a little jazz group when I was 15.
I heard Miles Davis' Milestones when I was 15 and I was astonished by the new concepts. I'd put the record on and when it was finished I'd put it back at the top again and I would do this over and over in shock. I knew it was the only way for me to go, in spite of the fact that I had no idea how to go about doing it. I used to just go to jazz clubs; I would haul my little amp and my guitar to these places and I'd go up to these 30-40 year old guys and I'd say, 'I want to play with you guys.' It was terrible. I'd go up to them feeling really cocky and they'd start off with "Cherokee" at such a fast tempo; they'd play the melody and they'd look at me to play and I died. I was fighting a battle that was definitely lost from the first bar. But that was a great experience for me, because I found out where my gravest errors were. You learn more on stage in five minutes than you do in five hours or five days at home. I'd go home and a couple of weeks later I'd go back again. Finally after a period of six months to a year I got known by these guys and I started doing gigs.

How did playing with Miles Davis affect you as a growing musician?
I cannot imagine music in the 20th century without Miles Davis. It's like classical music without Beethoven. Everyone who works with him benefits in many unspoken ways just from his way of being and learning the formulation of his concepts, which is what Miles is really gifted at. I would go to see Miles every day and he'd ask me to bring my guitar. He'd play a chord on the piano and say, 'Do you hear something in that? Listen to that chord, just listen to it.' I'd play a riff on the guitar and he'd say, 'Yeah, but why don't you just change the beat, or make it a little longer so it goes here?' We just talked about life. Not that he talks a great deal, but when he talks, he doesn't say anything without meaning. We were in the studio a lot. After In a Silent Way there was Bitches Brew, Live Evil, and Jack Johnson, which was his personal favorite record. That was really a jam session. I remember after I left Tony Williams' Lifetime and I went to play with Miles again, I talked to him after a gig and told him that I really wanted to put a group together and he said, 'You've got to do it now.' For him to tell me it was the right time was all I needed. I knew he was right, even though I might not have thought so. I knew he was right, so I did it.

Within a short time there seemed to be a tremendous growth in your technical abilities. Were you doing anything in particular to build your technical prowess?
The thing is, everybody who was playing with Miles had great technique and I remember the first concert I did with him. We never rehearsed. He was still playing "Round Midnight" at this time, the big band version which starts like a slow ballad and speeds up. He pointed at me to start playing "Round Midnight" at breakneck speed. It was like going back to when I was 15-years-old and it was 'do it or don't bother.' To be able to deal with every musical situation that was demanded of me demands technical development.

Let's talk about the theoretical side of the music, the modalities. "Meeting of the Spirits" has a heavy phrygian feel, with the combination of pentatonic minor and phrygian, which has a strong root in the blues and Coltrane, who certainly did a lot with pentatonic minor. Your music was very modal, as opposed to playing over changes.
When I first heard A Love Supreme it was really a shock to me. I couldn't understand what the hell was going on. When playing that tune, if you hit the groove you can get very high. It's the same thing if you sing it or chant it. It's a mantra. It took me over six months of listening to that record just to grasp it. I remember hearing an interview with Coltrane in 1960 and he said that he had all these devices; that he's playing everything all at once and learning what to leave out. When you hear "sheets of sound" he's just getting the maximum amount of color from a given chord or suspension. He's just exploring all its harmonic possibilities as soon as possible. His playing had a great affect on all of us. The modal thing was concurrent with the Indian way of playing where you have a raga and you play around the raga, and you develop that. There are tremendous restrictions in the music, which is very good, because to get something out of a mode is difficult. It's almost easier to play on changes because you hear this harmonic movement so the melody doesn't matter. You like to hear that movement, that's the Western way. In modal playing you're obliged to really search and extract the essence of the mode and articulate it. In the first Mahavishnu Orchestra that was part of my music and it always has been, but it's just one aspect. On my most recent record there's a tune called "The Wall Will Fall," which starts on the blues but the center part belongs to the tradition of "The Dark Prince" or "The Voices You Left Behind" (from Johnny McLaughlin-Electric Guitarist) which are definitely Coltrane inspired, using Gmaj7, Bb13 to Emaj7, Gb13 to B, progressions of major thirds, which is all Coltrane. There's also a tonal modulation which is interesting to play, and it's very uptempo, so you really have to know the chords to find something, because you can run the changes, but to find something is very difficult. What I like to do is stack modes sometimes; you can just stack a minor third up on top of it. Sometimes I'll hear a tonal chord, say Cm7, and I'll play the notes Ab, B, C# against the C minor modal chord. You're really pushing the issue there.
Any note can be played with any note, really. What's important is how you get there. If you know that there's a way to get there and you have the intention, you can really impose anything on anything; you can make it make sense, even though all the laws of harmony and logic say no. What's exciting for me is to hear new modes. For example, the Super Locrian mode was a scale I discovered myself. I would try to create scales and what happened was that I discovered scales which already existed for many many years. The Enigmatic scale, for example, the Hungarian major. I wanted to introduce these modes to the public. The way I see music is that in a sense we're painters as well as musicians. The colors are there on the palette, and they mix in any combination. We have to learn the colors before we can apply them, and the colors, to me, are the modes. That's why I say I think in a linear way, because if you take any one of these scales and produce the scaletone chords out of them, you will discover something that you will not discover otherwise. We tend to become cluttered with chords, which is why, if there's a chord I want to break it down to its scale of components. We can then recompose these components into other chords, or impose arpeggios over a given pedal, which may be any one of these tones. I think realizing new sounds in your imagination is the biggest step of all; that's 99% of it, the rest is application. With work and application the most obscure things become simple.

Photo by Jeffrey Mayer

Do you have any personal favorite recordings of your own?
I think My Goal's Beyond is something I can still listen to today in spite of its glaring faults for me. Basically, I feel the past is in the past and it's only now that's important. The future can go anywhere. What you do great today becomes normal tomorrow; it's the new yardstick. I really like some things on Visions of the Emerald Beyond, like "Cosmic Strut" and "On the Way Home," on which I was using a device called a ring modulator, which took me out of the tonality and consequently put me in another place that I'm sure people didn't like. But the thing is, it put me in a special place and I enjoyed being there. But you get bored with the ring modulator very easily. I like side B of the first Shakti album; that was a raga that has a long introduction with the guitar and the violin, which is really a blues mode in E. It was the first time I used this blues mode as a raga. It was a really great experience for me and I'll never forget it. The song "Come on Baby Dance with Me" is the most difficult tune I've ever played in my life. This is pure classical music, Karnatic music. On the album Friday Night in San Francisco my solo on "Frevo" was just inspired. Paco saw me go and gave me exactly what was necessary to get higher. I remember some nights but the thing is, the recordings are much less frequent than concerts, and I really live for the concert. I love the transitoriness of music, but the memory is eternal, or it should be. In the studio you discover things, particularly when you have colors at your disposal which are not usually at your disposal. In the studio you are really painting and everything is possible. What I consider to be the greatest art is to suggest to the imagination of the listener something that doesn't need to be played, so the imagination can take it any number of ways and resolve it any which way he wants. But to do that you have to be a master of the imagination and a master of human nature. You can't really be a master of human nature, but you can be aware of it.

It can be difficult to leave the physical obstacles behind.
It's a battle, the battle of life. We fight with our own incapacities, our own ignorance, but if we don't do battle with them, they'll win. Nothing good comes easy. But we're capable of anything, provided we have enough dedication and enough will power, so why should we sell ourselves short? I became disappointed with a lot of fusion music after the Mahavishnu Orchestra because I need inspiration here, and I want to be inspiring here, and I need to be inspiring to my fellow musicians or whoever is listening, and I want the same thing. If I go to a concert I want to be inspired in my heart and soul and in my mind also. Fusion became indolent, with a feeling of 'well, let's just do it.' But the great thing about eras is that we learn from them. The great thing about doubt is that without it we will never be certain. So I think the system is pretty good, in fact I'm awed by it when every now and then I catch a glimpse of all these parts of this whole gigantic orchestra. It's quite awesome to see the structure of it all, from a physical to a metaphysical way. Life is so deep and profound and there's such joy to be gotten out of it. In music we're capable of everything because the whole thing is one vast miracle. If we can just reflect some of that in the music we can be useful.