From The Symphonic Stage To The Frontiers Of Technology
By Jim Ferguson - / - Photo by Paul Natkin (Photo Reserve)
(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: September 1985)
- INNOVATOR, TECHNICAL AVATAR, eternal seeker-all of these terms apply to
the extraordinary John McLaughlin, who helped pioneer jazz-rock in the
early '70s with the high-energy Mahavishnu Orchestra. But what best
describes the 43-year-old Englander is the less romantic label musician.
While many guitarists seem trapped in a harmonically bleak, pentatonic
prison, McLaughlin's depth enables him to freely explore the musical
landscape, visiting points that have ranged from Mahavishnu to Indian-based
Shakti to acoustic fusion with Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. Few
musicians, let alone guitarists, boast a resume rich with so many artistic
Since John appeared on the cover of Guitar Player in August 1978, he has
continued to expand his creative boundaries. In 1983, he reconstituted the
Mahavishnu Orchestra, taking up the landmark Synclavier synthesizer guitar.
After recording Mahavishnu and touring extensively, he turned his attention
to the classically oriented score for his Concerto For Guitar And
Like many true artists, McLaughlin has failed to receive full credit in
recent years. While a smattering of vitality exists, the contemporary jazz
market seems to prefer the familiar to the creative. "In terms of
commercial success," John explains, "all artists are suffering. If you're
not a pop or rock star, your music doesn't get propagated, but that doesn't
mean I'm not excited about the future." Guitarists in particular too often
let McLaughlin's advanced technique and vast musical vocabulary obscure his
work's intelligence, passion, and wit. But in spite of being sometimes
misperceived and relatively unrewarded, he has continued to evolve
artistically. While he is known for his early, relentless intensity, his
later work is more mature with unprecedented subtlety.
McLaughlin defies categorization. Rooted in jazz, he was influenced by
Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow, and Jim Hall, trumpeter Miles Davis, and
saxophonist John Coltrane. At the same time, he was fascinated with
classical composers from Beethoven to Bartok. Later, he became interested
in Eastern philosophies and music, studying rhythmic theory and
instrumental technique with several Indian masters. These factors,
intermingled with elements of rock and blues, helped shape his resilient
approach to improvisation and composition, leading him to record with
musicians as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, bassist Jack Bruce, and
Indian violin virtuoso L. Shankar.
John was last featured in the March '81 issue of Guitar Player as a
member of an acoustic trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, shortly
after they recorded their influential live album Friday Night In San
Francisco. That same year, he shifted emphasis and recorded Belo Horizonte,
which featured his acoustic guitar supported by a synthesizer-based
ensemble. In early 1983, he picked up the electric guitar for Music Spoken
Here; then he turned I 80 degrees and again joined Al Di Meola and Paco de
Lucia for the studio effort Passion, Grace & Fire.
Unique custom instruments have often been necessary for John to realize
his musical concepts. Through the years, he has played a number of guitars,
including a Rex Bogue Double Rainbow double-neck and a series of
drone-string-equipped instruments built by Gibson associate Abe Wechter,
featuring scalloped fingerboards to facilitate microtonal bends. While he
experimented with guitar synthesizers, he soon abandoned them, finding the
technology too cumbersome and slow. A decade later, he is now using the
sophisticated Synclavier system made by New England Digital (NED). For a
controller, he employs a Roland G-303 guitar.
To showcase the Synclavier, in late 1983 John formed a new group, which
recorded Mahavishnu in early '84. With keyboardist Mitch Forman, sax man
Bill Evans, bassist Jonas Hellborg, and drummer Billy Cobham, the album
features tight, multi-textural underpinning and blowing solos on eight
McLaughlin compositions. Outstanding guitar performances include the
bluesy, burning improvisation on "Nightriders" and the fluid, uptempo
choruses on "East Side West Side". More recently, he appeared on Miles
Davis' latest album, You're Under Arrest.
Although McLaughlin looks forward to 1986, when he'll use the Synclavier
to record with the same personnel, he is currently concentrating on putting
the finishing touches on his score for Concerto For Guitar And Orchestra,
which he'll debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this November. Unlike
his 1973 album Apocalypse, which featured the Mahavishnu group in
conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra, the concerto will have solo
guitar only. Like Apocalypse, the piece is a collaboration with composer
orchestrator Michael Gibbs.
In the '70s, McLaughlin's progressive work was frequently referred to as
ahead of its time. Now in the '80s, his endless experimentation and highly
individual approach-oblivious to popular trends-suggests rather that he is
in a different time altogether. Regardless of talent, many contemporary pop
and jazz artists rarely do anything more creative than churn out one
similar-sounding album after another. Meanwhile, John McLaughlin unendingly
searches for new avenues of
Do contemporary pop and jazz reflect the degree of creativity that they
have in the past?
On the whole, no. There seems to be a kind of hiatus going on. Today,
rock and jazz are rhythmically, harmonically, and experimentally inferior
to what was happening even as far back as the '60s. But this kind of
backlash against intellectuality of any kind is more of a sociological
problem than it is a musical one. It's cyclical, and a more receptive mood
will return. However, you can't deny that a lot of pop music-including the
type of easy-listening funk by so-called jazz musicians-is terribly banal.
It's superficial, and it is not even covertly commercial; it's unashamedly
blatant. Jazz is vital, living music that should be about life. Don't
misunderstand me, because at the same time I don't knock any kind of music.
I like Billy Idol, you know what I mean? There's room for everybody, and I
like to think that if it's music, then it's good. It's the most profound
spiritual power on earth. It sure beats the hell out of killing people.
You have a reputation as a great technician. Can the intellectual and
technical aspects of music get in the way of speaking from the heart?
Not when the artist is wholly integrated in himself, which is something
we're all working for. I'm alive. I have an intellect, a heart, and a
physical side, and I want to integrate all three to be whole. In the
process of evolution, you may emphasize one more than the other, but that
is perfectly normal because you have to live life in order to integrate
yourself. It's a lifelong work because it presupposes evolution as a human
You are also known for exploring different musical areas. Does that
result from curiosity and the urge to experiment, or is it due to
frustration and restlessness?
It's not due to frustration and restlessness. I get that from myself
because my greatest competitor is my own inability and incapacity. It's
from my love of music. If I hear something great, I want to know more about
it. When I hear a great musician, I can feel his life and his elegance and
his eloquence inside the music, and that makes me want to know more about
him. Whether it comes from east, west, north, or south, music is my
Ianguage. When I first heard some of the great Indian musicians, I had an
enormous desire to know them better. To be able to play with them is
satisfaction you cannot imagine, although I don't really play their way.
I'm able to communicate with them because I know the rules governing their
Is communication generally improving between musicians of diverse
backgrounds and cultures?
The barriers amongst instrumental musicans don't exist like they did in
the past, which is wonderful. We all need enriching, and if we are to make
any kind of progress, we need inspiration. This is especially true in the
exchange that's happening between jazz and classical players. There is a
great deal of mutual respect, and both genres are looking for new blood.
It's terrific that musicians such as [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis, who plays
both styles, is very much appreciated by classical and jazz audiences.
[Pianists] Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are very involved with classical
music. On the classical side, you have musicians like violinist Gidon
Kremer, who has recorded with Keith. Gidon has asked me to write a piece
for him. [Cellist] Yo Yo Ma has also expressed interest. Of course, if it
weren't for the encouragement of Ernest Fleischmann, who is the executive
director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I don't think I would have taken
on a project of such gigantic proportions as my concerto.
How did you and Michael Gibbs come to collaborate on your concerto?
I asked Michael because orchestration is an art that I don't pretend to
be a master of. He is very gifted in that area, and the textural tableau
from an orchestral point of view is so important. The challenge that I've
had in writing the piece has been in establishing dramatic development and
in evolving a structure that doesn't also use a small group. Although I'm
taking the privilege of not being a "classical musician," I feel I have to
observe classical music rules. My appetite is most surely whetted now, and
I think I'm going to write another orchestral piece soon.
Technically, is your concerto very challenging? How large a role does
Improvisation is included because that's very important to me, but it's
featured to a lesser degree. For that reason, I would be delighted if
classical players would attempt it; the repertoire for classical guitar and
orchestra is very small. There are sections of the concerto that are very
difficult for me, but difficulty is hard to assess in terms of another
player's technique. If a fingerstyle player does eventually attempt it,
he'll have to be very flexible and open to adaptation. There are things you
can do with a pick that are difficult to play with the fingers. Being a
jazz musician, you develop the ability to modify your technique. But in
many respects, fingerstyle technique is superior to pick technique.
What instrument will you use?
Abraham Wechter, who has made four guitars for me over the years, is
building a nylon-string instrument with a large body to naturally bring out
a rich bass midrange. I've asked him to concentrate on the upper register,
in order to have a special brilliance. It'll have a cutaway, which I
believe will be adopted by classical players eventually because it
facilitates things that are impossible otherwise. Another unclassical
aspect is that I'll be using a mike. [Ed. Note: Abraham Wechter was
featured in the August 1978 issue of Guitar Player.]
Will your Wechter have a scalloped fingerboard?
No. That doesn't work with nylon strings because you have to pull too far
to bend them; the density of nylon and steel is very different. With steel,
you can do so much with so little.
Can you envision yourself having the synthesizer guitar in a symphonic
Yes, but I can only do one thing at a time. Right now, I am too involved
with the concerto to think much about anything else. The Synclavier has a
great deal of potential, but the next protect I have in mind for it will be
with my latest group, which I can see going on for a long time.
On your last album-Mahavishnu-the Synclavier seemed to change the way you
phrase. Did you feel that yourself?
Your impression is very close to home. The Synclavier allows me to play
in a way that is very difficult to do on a guitar. Conventional electric
and acoustic guitars don't lend themselves to the horn-like flow of
improvisation that's very dear to me. Guitarists-pianists, too, for that
matter-play in a different way than do horn players. The work of Miles
Davis, [saxophonist] John Coltrane, [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins, and
[trumpeter] Clifford Brown made an indelible mark upon me, and I had to try
to adapt my technique in order to accommodate the parameters that they use
in their improvisation. I suffered because it was so difficult. I still
suffer [laughs]. When I first began to experiment with the synthesizer
guitar at the end of 1975, I realized that the potential was tremendous.
The problem was that the technology was elephantine. The Synclavier helps
break down the barriers that obstruct a guitarist from playing at his
optimum. I owe a lot to the digital guitar.
Players are continually adding strings and using alternate tunings to
expand the guitar's possibilities. How close does the Synclavier come to
being a perfect instrument?
It's a revolution. Although it requires that you modify your technique a
certain amount, it's an instrument that allows you to enter the world of
creative synthesis, which cannot be avoided. Of course, there are people
who will never get involved with it. Fine. But for guitarists who are
looking for new ways to create sound, it's tremendous. It's very exciting
to be able to apply that musically. I've tried the other synthesizer
guitars, and they're toys in comparison to the Synclavier.
Do you feel the digital guitar eventually will replace more conventional
For me, no. I fell in love with the acoustic guitar when I was 11, and
for the rest of my life it will be my first love. But I feel that
guitarists' involvement with synthesizers will be like what has happened to
keyboard: First there was the acoustic piano, then the Rhodes crept in, and
finally there were synthesizers. It's not a question of whether I have to
make a choice. You can have your feet in both worlds, although I foresee in
the not-too-distant future a real-time instrument. By that, I mean a
synthesizer so sophisticated that it responds exactly like an acoustic
Specifically, how does the digital guitar change your technique and
approach to phrasing?
Part of it depends on the kind of timbre [tone color] you're using. When
you get involved in the creation of timbres with the synthesizer, you're
creating a new world of sound. That's uncharted territory and something you
can spend a lot of time doing. However, once you've got a particular
timbre, its characteristics will directly influence you as soon as you
start to play. It's as if you're suddenly playing another instrument. For
example, if a timbre has a long sustain, you are able to articulate phrases
that are impossible on a conventional guitar, so you must change your
technique and your concept. If you have a given number of timbres, you have
to approach them individually. Many timbres are impossible to play in a
guitar type of way, and you almost have to caress the strings in order to
coax the sound out.
Can you describe how timbres are developed on the Synclavier?
It's through what they call additive synthesis. You start at the screen
of the computer terminal with sine waves, which are added together to make
up the harmonic spectrum of a sound. Then you have what they call frequency
modulation-FM synthesis-which allows you to create complex timbres by
modulating one set of oscillators with another. With additive, you use a
volume envelope to control loudness of each harmonic over time, and you use
a pitch envelope to vary the pitch of each harmonic over time. It's very
pure and very simple. Once you've added these tones from the tone
generator, then you start to work with attack, initial decay, amplitude,
and the decay of the volume and harmonic or pitch envelope. And that's just
with one partial, a component of a given pitch. This sounds terribly
technical, but it's fairly easy to do once you're there with the equipment.
You can also take the factory sounds that come with the Synclavier and
examine them on the screen and see what they're composed of.
One of the main criticisms of synthesizer guitars is that they don't
track accurately or quite fast enough for guitartists' taste.
Perhaps players are asking too much and aren't willing to modify their
technique. The nature of translating a guitar envelope-the characteristics
of a sound-into digital information is very complex and sensitive. You have
to be very precise because you're directing information, and if you miss
something, the computer has a confused input and will act accordingly. Once
you get used to the Synclavier, the tracking is phenomenal-even with bends
and dynamic nuances-but if you don't tell it what to do correctly, it'll
fight you. As far as speed of tracking is concerned, if you compare it to
the responsiveness of an acoustic guitar, which involves nanoseconds, then
in some sense there's a very, very slight delay. But I've played quickly
with the digital guitar, and if I'm playing right, it's there. Of course,
guys at New England Digital are perfectionists and always see room for
Did you have your Roland guitar modified in any way?
No. I like to have guitars in my own way, but New England Digital
preferred that I use the Roland stock so they could guarantee its
performance, although that was some time ago. One of the main
characteristics of synthesizer guitars in general is that they hate
overtones and vibrations, which computers can read as additional but
garbled information. For instance, the purpose of the crazy handle that
joins the body and peghead on the Roland G-707 is to reduce certain
resonances. Since then, I've talked to [luthier] Mike Pedulla, who has
cracked some of the problems concerning overtones in the synthesizer guitar
body and in tracking. I'd like for him to build an instrument for me.
Is the onboard control panel of your Roland guitar easy to use?
It's very intelligently set up. Other systems use a series of footpedals,
but I like the freedom that the onboard panel allows. Of course, you can
get used to just about anything. I don't see how the Synclavier system
could be foot-activated because there are 16 buttons, each of which has two
functions. At some point, I would like to have the control panel in the
guitar itself, with the buttons flush to the body and the panel raised at
45 degrees, so you could see at a glance what kind of patch you're using.
Onstage, what do you use for amplification?
A Roland Jazz Chorus. I don't want to have too much volume onstage; the
less the better. At the same time, I don't want to have the rhythm section
walk on eggshells, because when the spirit gets them, they gotta testify.
It's very reliable and it has some nice features, such as a distortion
control. I use my Gibson Les Paul and Roland amp in conjunction with a
Scholz Rockman, which is a great invention.
How many different timbres are on Mahavishnu?
About 30, but some of them are hard to distinguish because they're mixed
up with other sounds to create textures and to set up particular kinds of
moods. In concert, I use about 25.
Which cuts best demonstrate the digital guitar's capabilities?
"Nostalgia" has a melancholy aspect that works well with the particular
flute patch I used. The song has a classical Indian raga influence, where
harmony is suggested by a drone. That timbre enabled me to play in a slow,
melancholy manner, which can be difficult to evoke without being sugary. On
"Clarendon Hills," there's a direct guitar in unison with the Synclavier.
You can't really hear the direct guitar, but you can feel it. And "East
Side West Side" has a funky kind of Wurlitzer organ sound on the opening.
How did you avoid conflicts between the guitar and the keyboard?
The minute a synthesizer guitarist starts playing with a synthesizer
keyboardist, you become aware. Mitch Forman has done so much work on his
timbres that they're his and nobody else's, so there's actually quite a bit
Why did you use the particular timbres on Mahavishnu?
Part of the problem was that I went into the studio about six weeks after
I got the digital guitar-when I record again later this year, you'll see a
number of developments as far as sound is concerned. I went with timbres
that I could identify with and felt comfortable with. Many players will
think that the factory sounds are great and use just those because people
are indolent-we all are. But I think it's very important to create the
timbres yourself. The tendency to want to work less is just human nature.
How can you suggest you're indolent, in light of your busy schedule and
your dedication to the guitar?
It's all relative. Although jazz musicians practice as much as classical
ones, when I think about the discipline of some people, I'm very indolent
in comparison. But if you love something enough, you automatically
concentrate on it. That's the best kind of discipline you could ever have.
However, in developing certain areas-technique, for example-it helps to
know how to work. I would like to make a contribution to helping young
musicians. Knowing how to work and how to attack the problem at hand both
in a technical sense and in a personal sense is an area that could use a
little overhaul. Sometimes, if you get the right clue, you can unravel a
great mystery. Many of my feelings about teaching and helping players have
grown out of my relationship with a young friend I've been coaching, Yan
Maresz, who is 18 and is currently attending the Berklee College of Music
What have you been helping him with?
Primarily, I was fairly concerned with his theoretical background, which
was very weak. He was a very good rock and roll player, but he was
dissatisfied and wanted to make progress, so we started on jazz harmony and
its application to the guitar. We also talked about classical harmony,
although we stopped around the Impressionist period with Ravel, Debussy,
Scriabin, and Satie. We haven't gotten to Stravinsky or Bartok.
How did you approach jazz harmony theory?
I began with chord structure, which is essential information for any
occidental musician-oriental musicians don't approach music from a harmonic
perspective. We took standards and looked for ways to extend the basic
chords, using the rules governing chord extensions and related scales. In
effect, we broke everything down into its scalar components and reassembled
it using a scalar approach, which gives you a more linear view rather than
a vertical one. And we thoroughly covered triads, which are such powerful
units, especially when you begin to superimpose them in improvisation.
Can you recommend some books about chords and scales?
Vincent Perfichetti's 20th Century Harmony: Creative Aspects And Practice
[W.W. Norton, New York] is a very important book. And I also highly
recommend Nicholas Slonimsky's Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns
[Charles Scribner & Sons, New York]. Those two will take you a long way.
What do you work on to improve your technique?
It varies. The other day, I invented an interesting right-hand exercise
that is extremely difficult. I took a highly convoluted melodic line-it can
be any series of notes, really-with strange intervals and string changes. I
practiced playing it at various tempos and rhythms. That kind of thing does
wonders for your articulation, speed, and phrasing-the usual, boring stuff
that's very important.
What are the critical aspects of right-hand technique?
It depends on your style. There are so many styles that work; it's so
individual. For example, Allan Holdsworth, who has such an original style
and plays very fast, relies primarily on his left hand. I articulate
everything, picking almost all of the notes, which calls for strong
discipline on the part of the right hand and necessitates a lot of fluidity
in the wrist. It takes a lot of work to develop speed while staying
How do you stabilize your right hand?
I rest the heel of my hand on the bridge, regardless of the type of
instrument. From that anchor, my hand is resting and relaxed and I'm able
to move my wrist with no problems. Again, what works for me might not work
for someone else. You find your position through trial and error. Larry
Coryell, for instance, plays with much more arm movement than I do. If you
suffer from tension in the arm or shoulder, perhaps there's something wrong
with the position of your hand.
If your right hand is resting on the bridge, how do you move closer to
For very difficult passages, I can't play close to the fingerboard.
However, for chordal accompaniment or playing that moves back and forth
between linear and chordal elements, my hand floats in the air.
Can you recommend some rudimentary right-hand exercises?
I have developed a series that is tremendous for articulation and rhythm.
Start with the first string and slowly play four quarter-notes to the
measure, all with downstrokes. Then, while maintaining the same
tempo-preferably keeping time with your foot, although you can use a
metronome-subdivide the measure into six quarter-notes or two quarter-note
triplets. Next, switch to alternate strokes and start progressing from
eighths to triplets to sixteenths to sextuplets to thirty-seconds to
forty-eighths to sixty-fourths. Finally, go back down again. This involves
simple mathematics, but to execute it without losing tempo is quite a
challenge for the right hand. Of course, you can approach it a little at a
time. Now, that's just the beginning. Instead of progressing through
multiples of two and three, you can work with odd-numbered figures, moving
from one to two to three to four to five to six to seven and so on.
If you were to play two triplets in a row, would the first one start with
a downstroke and the second one start with an upstroke?
Yes. You strictly alternate. When you get to five and seven, things
become more unusual. The figure of five should be subdivided into a group
of two followed by a group of three. It's very important that you accent
each group, which is demanding from the standpoint of articulation because
one group of five starts with a downstroke, while the next one starts with
an up. A figure of seven is two groups of two followed by a group of three.
This exercise forces you to be very precise because you have to go from
figure to figure without losing the flow. If your tempo is suspect, use a
metronome. Otherwise, just keep time with your foot. The next step with
these exercises is to do them while changing strings. At some point, you'll
be confronted with the necessity of changing strings on either an upstroke
or a downstroke without losing tempo and articulation. In a roundabout way,
these exercises are related to the work I did with Indian rhythmical
That's a vocal discipline, isn't it?
Yes. The whole Indian classical system is essentially vocal. The way they
develop rhythm is extremely refined; the mathematics are of the highest
order. There is a word for each rhythmic group, and each word is made up of
syllables corresponding to the number of beats in a particular figure. Once
you know the system, you can easily work out rhythmic compositions. I began
using this method with Shakti, and I will continue to use it for the rest
of my life because it's superior to any other approach. The greatest work
that has gone on in rhythmic development has been by Indian percussionists.
Zakir Hussain, the tabla player with Shakti, who also plays on "When Blue
Turns Gold" [Mahavishnu], has an astonishing mastery of rhythm.
Do you ever find it frustrating to work with musicians who are unaware of
We each grow in our own way, you know. There are some people who don't
need them. Tony Williams, who is one of the great jazz drummers, or Billy
Cobham or Danny Gottlieb, in his own way, don't need to study Indian
musical theory. If it interests you, fine. I introduced Danny to this
system, and he is now really excited about it.
Have you ever wished you had gotten into fingerstyle more?
When I first picked up the guitar, I didn't know what a pick was. I still
play fingerstyle a bit, but there's room for improvement. As far as jazz is
concerned, there is phrasing and articulation that is possible only with a
pick. There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles, but after
playing with Paco de Lucia, I'd have to say that flamenco technique is the
most superior approach to the guitar. Many classical players will consider
that to be a heretical statement, and I hope I'm not being myopic.
Flamencos have an incredibly smooth five-note tremolo, while classical
players use a four-note one. They also have an advanced thumb technique
that allows them to play very quickly. Don't misunderstand me, because I
think classical technique is phenomenal. I'm one of Julian Bream's greatest
admirers, and John Williams is amazing, but Paco is absolutely inspired.
How did you come to play on Miles Davis' latest album?
Bill Evans told him that I was in New York, so he invited me to a
recording session. Once I got there, he started some things up and told me
to play. With Miles, you never know what's going to happen, so there's
always an edge of nervousness. That's the way he pulls things out of you.
Miles is playing great right now.
Why does he have such a great affinity for guitartists?
Because it's a little wild, I think. He doesn't like "cool" playing. His
current guitarist, John Scofield, is one of my favorites. He's another one
Speaking of inspiration, how do you place yourself in the kind of mood
that enables you play at your best?
I've been involved in yoga and meditation and everything like that- I
still am. But a state of receptivity is nothing more than a state of
awareness. I want the music to come from the deepest possible point in me
so that I speak from my soul. It's a magical dream when that happens. When
you're inspired, you can do anything.