by Matt Resnicoff

(reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: May 1994)

Illustration by Isabelle Samaras

"The music, of course, is poetry."

Did John McLaughlin, that seldom earthbound improviser and devout spiritualist, throw out his back while wrenching his body skyward in a fit of inspiration? Not quite. John had to suffer through the recent Tokyo recording of his next album because weeks earlier, he'd leapt on his dog to prevent it from fighting with another dog on the beach. John overcame, he survived, he thrived. He overcame two years earlier, after he severed the tip of his left index finger on a television pivot. He overcame the death of fusion, the birth of happy-jazz, deaf record executives, Jan Hammer. John McLaughlin shrinks at no challenge, however ugly.
But none of this explains why he didn't play in the States even once in 1993, when acoustic pop and jazz enjoyed new heights of visibility. He didn't need to: Europe keeps him plenty busy, and some of his past acoustic work, especially 1980's Trio smash Friday Night in San Francisco with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, and Live At The Royal Festival Hall featuring Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, have charted higher than anyone might have imagined for "jazz" records. Certainly McLaughlin's been at no loss for acoustic profile, and since the late 60's -- when he began investigating the regional musics that culminated in the group Shakti and found him alongside everyone from Miles Davis to Egberto Gismonti -- his rapturous relationship with the acoustic guitar has made up the bulk of his work, and arguably some of his best. But as John reaches wide, he also reaches back into his past, so that even when the contexts shifts from hard rock to the alap to the "Mediterranean" concerto with full orchestra, his voice remains distinct. He is no less blinding on, say, Time Remembered, doing interpretations of plaintive Bill Evans pieces with a classical guitar quartet, than he was while flailing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Nothing can stop him, nothing can corner him. "You guys are really far behind!" he laughs while considering his acoustic career; he's spent the past nine months playing a Bigsby-equipped Gibson Johnny Smith with Free Spirits, a band deploying powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers and organ prodigy Joey DeFrancesco. "I was really sick when I made the record," he says, "but there's some good music on there." Apparently, understatement is an acoustic musician's secret weapon.

Is it difficult to get a good recorded sound when you're blending many similar acoustic instruments, as you did on Time Remembered?
No, no. Guitars are made for each other. Believe me. It's not for nothing that the Trio was successful. A guitar hears another guitar and it's like, "Let's get together," you know? And you put six of 'em together, the sound is gorgeous. We were in a big studio with a lot of resonance, and it was beautiful. The music, of course, is poetry.
Some tunes needed extension for your soloing. Would you extend a hormony so improvising would be comfortable, or did you try to replicate a feeling that preceded it in the piece?
Both, because I had to progress from Bill's tune into a transition that was musical and would serve for me as an ideal way to improvise. So it was just five months of just writing and rehearsing, rewriting parts, rehearsing again, rewriting, back and forth until they started to sound right. I was tearing my hair out. But when I heard it, boy, I was so happy, so much so that I'd like to do it again with some of my favorite tunes, whether it's Victor Young or Lerner and Lowe, the great Broadway songs of the '40s and '50s. Another walk down memory lane!
You began playing on a classical-type guitar.
When I was very young? I must have been nine. It was 1951; an electric guitar didn't exist. It was a five-dollar guitar, but it was beautiful. I stayed with that until I discovered jazz when I was 15 and started to play with some other jazz players. I had to get an amplified guitar, but even then it was a big body with a pickup on it.
On the cover of Extrapolation, a burning jazz record, you're pictured with a Gibson acoustic.
Yeah, a Hummingbird, with one of those funny DeArmond pickups. As a matter of fact, it wasn't the guitar on the album. When they shot that photo I was playing with Tony Williams and Larry Young.
You played an acoustic with Lifetime?!
In the beginning, but it was tough because Tony's such a powerful drummer and Larry was pulling these weird sounds out of the organ. It was loud and sometimes would start to feedback, and it's hard to play when the guitar is freaking out. But, for example, [Davis'] In A Silent Way -- that's a Hummingbird, just a pure acoustic with a pickup. But as time went by Miles wanted a louder guitar, and I did too. It was in the air: The end of the '60s, early '70s was a pretty wild period, so I went with a solidbody, and especially when the Mahavishnu started, because it was so loud. But we featured acoustic guitar in all the recordings, onstage. And in the hotel there was always an acoustic.
Was My Goal's Beyond conceived as a clear representation of you as an autonomous acoustic artist?
For me it was the guitar. And I had problems with the record company: I did an electric album called Devotion and went away on tour and they hacked it to pieces and put it together every which way. I said, "Listen, I want to do an acoustic album because I just want people to hear how beautiful the guitar sounds." And don't forget, in 1970 I started vina lessons at Wesleyan University and got so involved that I thought I'd have to abandon everything else. And of course, in this life I'm a guitar player, so I let it go. At that point I was doing Mahavishnu, but I was working with a luthier [Abe Wechter] on a guitar with a scalloped fingerboard. Then Shakti started playing little concerts in '73; in fact, the first album was on a Whitebook guitar, not even scalloped.
My Goal's Beyond had you playing an Ovation.
That was the best acoustic I could find. I never liked a Martin sound; it's great, but it was a folk guitar. And liked the Hummingbird, but what I liked about the Ovation was its projection. Plus, you ever throw an Ovation on the ground? It bounces back up. It's really hard to break. But that record ... in a way, it's the difference between synthesizer and piano. You hear recordings of acoustic piano, and there's a sonority that goes with beautiful music, or more lyrical music, anyway.
Did you consider bringing in a guitarist to comp before you decided to multi-track the "duo" pieces?
Not really. And Lord knows how I could play with other guitar players. It's like Time Remembered; originally the record company thought I was going to do everything, but I thought it was much better to play with people. I don't think I'd do a multi-tracked thing again, because I enjoy playing with people too much.
You did some of your most amazing playing in Shakti, after which you said you'd never go back to a non-scalloped fingerboard.
This is true, but in 1978 the steel strings started to get to me. They were a little brittle in the upper register. Nylon strings have better tone, plus you have much better percussion, better response in the upper register than with steel strings, curiously enough. And they don't rust; you don't have to change them every day. I don't like steel-string acoustics, with the exception of 12-string, where you get a nice twangy sound, slightly out-of-tune. For chords, 12-string is gorgeous. But if I had to play melodically or solo, I would absolutely prefer nylon. And with technology today, you can play with a symphony orchestra.
Were American fusion audiences less receptive to your Indian explorations?
American audiences are as great as any in the world. They might be a little noisier... What is a problem in America is the media; everything turns on money in America, with the exception of National Public Radio or NET. In Europe, Japan and South America there's a different attitude towards music. I ran into this when I began with Shakti. I'd just broken up a very popular band, electric sound, boom, selling records, and here I am sitting on the ground playing acoustic guitar with Indian musicians. The audiences don't care; they're ready for anything, especially in America. The media is where you get into trouble. But them's the risks!
So whose idea was the supertrio with Paco and Al?
This originally was my idea. I heard Paco on the radio in '79 and said, "I gotta play with this guy." I was exposed to flamenco when I was 14 and it had a big impact, but it was impossible to get to a teacher where I was living. Plus, don't forget that in this period Coltrane made Ole, Miles made those records with Gil Evans' orchestrations, Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain -- here was my idol in jazz playing with flamenco influences. They all got the bug, but I got it heavily. And I wanted to learn. So Paco and I met in Paris and decided to get Larry Coryell, and we did a couple of European tours which went very well. We went back to our careers an done day Paco called me and said, "Why don't we do a trio with Al Di Meola?" And Larry at this time had his head in another place, for sure, so we went with Al, and this was the biggest phenomenon of all, the great success of the live record.
It's fitting that you made a commercial splash with more harmony in the personalities than in Mahavishnu.
Yeah, but nobody expected it. I'd seen from the experience Paco and I had in Europe, it was popular right off. I was with CBS at the time and said, "I think you should release this worldwide," and they said, "You're out of your mind. Who wants acoustic music these days?" That was one of the reasons I left CBS. My contract said I'd do electric and acoustic records. I'd done two or three electric and said, 'Let me do acoustic," and ran into problems. So they didn't want to record the Trio worldwide, but they did with America because Al was with Columbia. It just goes to show how people make mistakes. Look how many years later, the record still sell great. Why? You hear three guys playing up each others' nose [laughs] and having a good time doing it... And plus, Paco and Al -- there's some pretty good players.
Why were there problems if you had acoustic records written into your contract?
Who knows? Record companies, they have bugs, like programs, and occasionally they crash. But I continued with acoustic music, in combination with synthesizers, because when I got the Synclavier in 1980, I started really working on FM synthesis. But since the '80s, sometimes it's been difficult in America, because the whole situation changed. For example, Paco and I did a big tour in '86 and played everywhere except America. In fact, I saw him New Year's in Paris, and we're talking about doing something next year.
After those electric albums, you did a duo acoustic tour with Jonas Hellborg. Was that an offshoot of having worked together in Mahavishnu?
I felt the need to be more economical, with more space. He was playing great, he had his doubleneck bass and he'd do slapping and chords, and it was sweet. We played for three months, and I thought, "Maybe a percussion player would be nice." I'd heard Trilok in Germany and said, "This guy's ideal for acoustic guitar." Because regular drums with acoustic guitar, this is a slaughter onstage; acoustic guitar reacts violently to loud noise. But here was a guy on his knees playing pots and pans, this amazing touch, swinging. So I brought Trilok in, and in fact we started with Jeff Berlin. That was also the period I finished the first piece for orchestra and guitar. All the music I was writing was written around acoustic guitar, and then I got a MIDI transducer for the acoustic guitar bridge which maintained the tone, and this was the beginning of a very nice adventure. I really like the contrast of these two worlds, the modern, strange sounds with the old sound of the acoustic guitar.
"The Mediterranean" concerto was written very guitaristically. Often when composers get a chance to write away from their instrument, they avoid the ideas that characterize their improvising.
Maybe I'm not that smart. [Laughs.] I don't think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. But this piece, I just followed the classical format, three movements. I love to hear them play it, and I have some tricky parts, but I also get to improvise.
And you use a plectrum when you play classical guitar.
Yeah. I'm not a classical guitar player. But with the acoustic guitar you can move into different worlds, maybe more easily than with sax or something, though Chick Corea has done things with orchestra and piano, and Keith Jarrett has even recorded classical pieces. The classical audiences are a little more conservative in America, but they'd probably go for it. And Yo-Yo Ma, the great classical cellist -- we had dinner and he's saying, "Wow, I'd love to be able to improvise." The walls have been coming down. People see acoustic music in the big bowl of jewels known as music.
Why is that?
Maybe because it's got an antique sound. You have to play acoustic guitar with heart and soul, and maybe the sound evokes something in the subconscious racial, cultural memories we all have. When I hear somebody playing acoustic guitar, it'll stop me, even more than electric. The tone reminds me of something in my forgotten history; I know it goes back to my beginnings, but even beyond that. It reminds me of music I heard before I was born in this life. I think this is happening to me now. I'm going back in time, though I want to bring my traditions up to date. But life is mysterious -- like, why would I suddenly go for a Hammond organ trio, which is so different from the trio I've been playing with for years? Its been happening to me all my life, and since I figure that music doesn't lie to me, then if I just go with it, everything will be cool. Actually, if I don't pay attention to that, I might get into trouble, you know what I'm saying?


By Andy Widders-Ellis

When Abe Wechter accepted the commission to build McLaughlin a new nylon-string guitar, the master luthier knew it was going to be the biggest challenge of his career. "John told me he wanted the finest work I could do," recalls Wechter. "This was a totally open-ended commission, with no price or time limit. John was absolutely faithful to both conditions for the duration of the project - ten years or more. It was an incredible challenge. I had to develop new techniques and do a lot of visualization."
Dubbed "Our Lady," the guitar is inspired by Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. The instrument's neck, back, and sides are made from stripes of hard bird's-eye maple. Wechter cut the wood to expose its vertical grain and reveal intense flames. Larger than a regular classical, the guitar's top is 16" across at its widest point (classicals are usually between 14" and 14 1/2" across). Our Lady combines moderate side depth with a deeply arched, 3' radius back. "Imagine a 6' diameter ball," explains Abe. "This back would be a section of that sphere. Typically, a back will have something in the vicinity of a 25' radius, or a section of a 50' ball." According to Abe, this higher dome yields a gothic look in keeping with the Notre Dame theme: "That high, vaulted back was common in period instruments. The arch makes the back very stiff for its weight and enhances reflectivity."
Our Lady features a flat ebony fingerboard sporting McLaughlin's standard dimensions - 1.995" at nut, 2.345" at 12th fret - as well as flamenco-style friction tuning pegs, a European spruce top with an extremely pronounced bear-claw figure, and a hand-blended oil varnish. Most unusual is the 14-karat gold filigree adorning the soundhole and headstock.
Wechter is quick to point out that Our Lady is a jazz guitar, designed to be flatpicked. "Its response characteristics are totally different from a classical. Our Lady has a 26" scale and a very low action - about half that of a concert guitar," details Abe. "Jazz pick attack is much lighter than traditional fingerstyle classical. When you build your technique around a non-amplified instrument, as classical players do, you learn to really dig in to project. Jazz players don't generate as much string excursion."
The guitar's price remains a secret. However, confides Wechter, "John has always been extremely generous in his commissions." For Abe, there were less tangible rewards as well. "The whole process was extremely helpful artistically," he allows, "since it got me thinking in a way I never had the luxury to think before."

[ Click here to see how does "Our Lady" look like. ]