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John​ McLaughlin Asks, Is That So?



Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today:

In the late 60s Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were at the top of everyones list. And then the musical tsunami hit.  The Mahavishnu Orchestra was “mind blowing” to use the vernacular of the times.

“The Mahavishnu Orchestra created a kind of mystique that was wholly unprecedented for its time.” Bill Milkwowski – Jazz Times, 1998

John McLaughlin - Jazz Guitar Today - January 2020 - NEW5

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin opened up sonic doors to places that most of us could not even dream about (it was so far above what we considered possible).  John’s career has been what I think all great artists shoot for… constant exploration, innovation and re-invention; not for the audience but rather for himself.  John has graciously invited us into his life’s journey in musical art and there we lie witness to genius.  

Enjoy our story and tribute to John Mclaughlin.

John McLaughlin INTERVIEW

JGT: You have done more than any guitarist I have known to bring Indian music and western music together. Please tell us about the new project “Is That So” with Shankar Mahadevan and Zakir Hussain.

John: ‘Is That So’ has its roots in the Shakti traditions, but is a new form that could have its own evolution and development. Now while it’s true that I began studying North and South Indian music as far back as 1969, I never had the desire to become an “Indian musician” in the sense that I would master an Indian instrument such as the Vina or Sitar and perform the classical style of either North or South. I grew up as a western musician, first as a piano student and then the guitar. Once I discovered the beauty of Indian music and it’s common ground with Jazz, my desire was and remains to this day, to be able to play with these master musicians.

From the beginnings of Shakti, I always had the desire to find ways to integrate harmony, the one aspect of western music that doesn’t exist in Indian music. It is quite delicate in the sense that playing in a raga setting, you cannot simply impose arbitrary chords, they have to be directly relative to the raga. However, I always looked to bend the rules in order to enhance and complement the soloist, and this was a work in itself.

About 7 years ago after working and playing with Shankar Mahadevan for many years, I had the idea to abandon all rules East and West and harmonize the improvisations and songs of Shankar. This idea goes against all preconceived notions about how a song should be sung, and how harmonic progression in a western sense, should move. We started with less than a minute of collaboration, and we were so thrilled with the result we knew we had to continue wherever this new form would lead us.

Six years in the making, Is That So? is one of John McLaughlin’s deepest and most profound musical collaborations with prolific Indian composer and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. Joining the duo is their life-long friend and musical brother Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla, who has been collaborating with John since they founded Shakti in the early ‘70s, acknowledged by most to be the first groundbreaking crossover East-West musical group.

JGT: You played with some of the most influential progressive musicians the world has known. You studied Indian music before the Mahavishnu recordings. How did your incredible interest in Eastern music come about?

John: My interest or rather my love of Indian music stems from my asking the great questions of existence starting in 1968. India has been addressing these questions for thousands of years and finding answers to them. Since music is integrated into the traditions of the search for self-knowledge, it was inevitable that I discover it. In addition, George Harrison was already doing a fine job of making people aware of the musical traditions of India. I began studying the Northern system in 1969 on bamboo flute, in 1972 more seriously the Southern tradition on Vina.

Fortunately for me, Pandit Ravi Shankar took me as an extra-curricular student of theory in 1975.

John and Shankar Mahadevan in the studio. Photo Credit: Ina Behrend

JGT: Your Konokol course with Selvaganesh Vinayakram is quite an undertaking for the “westerner”. For those who don’t know about this system, what could you say here to briefly explain the premise and benefits.

John: The heart of both Jazz and Indian music is in improvisation, both rubato and with rhythm. It is imperative that the instrumentalist knows exactly what the percussionist or drummer is doing rhythmically. Mastery of rhythm is as essential as mastery of harmony and melody. Konokol is the simplest and most efficient way to master rhythm. It obliges the student to sing the rhythms while keeping the cycle with the hands. Once you can improvise rhythms while keeping the cycle intact, it is simply a question of application to your instrument.

JGT: Your music moves from Electric to Acoustic fluently. While many guitarists play acoustic and a select few have contributed to both idioms, I can’t think of any that have made such strong statements, contributions and commitments to both instruments. Is there a difference in the way you approach the instruments? How would you explain what draws you to each?

John: I was 11 years old when the guitar arrived in my hands. It was an acoustic guitar. Prior to this I had studied western classical music on the piano. This was quite some time ago and I didn’t even know what an electric guitar was. Fast forward a few years and I’d discovered jazz. Jazz is a collective form of playing and the acoustic guitar is quickly drowned out by the drums etc. An electric guitar is the only solution. However, my love of the guitar goes back to the acoustic model which I love to this day. The approach is different. Physically it is more demanding. A bit like a synth player will feel when they move to the acoustic piano. The instruments also prefer different forms. When playing with Paco de Lucia and Al di, or with classical orchestras, it can only be with acoustic guitar. However, I began playing electric guitar with Shakti from the moment  Shrinivas joined Shakti playing his electric mandolin, and they worked perfectly together.

JGT: Jimmy Herring was on our cover a few months ago and he described the first time he jammed with you at a PRS event. He said, it was like a “parting of the sea” when you hit the stage. You honored him by inviting him to be a part of your final America tour. What can you say to us about the experience of playing with Jimmy?

John: Jimmy is a great guitarist. Let me say just one thing about Jimmy: The first time I heard him play was on one of his recordings. He was playing Piece of Mine from the Mahavishnu days. After playing the theme he improvised a solo and after hearing that I was so impressed, I said to myself “Why didn’t I play a solo like that!”

JGT: I told some guitarists that you were going to be on our cover and asked them if they had any questions.

What music are you listening to now?

John: Indian and Western classical. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Flamenco. The great Mississippi Blues players and singers. Other ethnic musics.

I am very interested in what is going on in the “Underground “. There are some young musicians who don’t actually play an instrument, but are masters of sound design with computers and creating soundscapes. This is a new domain.

If someone really wanted to understand your evolution as a musician, what music would you recommend they listen to?

John: All of the above.

Photo Credit: Manas

JGT: What instruments will you take on the Shakti tour? Please share as much detail as possible about string, pick up, preamp, action height, etc.

John: I am my guitar tech. I am taking a PRS Guitar made for me by Paul Reed Smith, D’Addario strings 10 through 47, Jim Dunlop Picks, Jazz III red.

A Roland digital interface connected to a MacBook Pro. It has 4 outputs to allow two stereo outputs: one for guitar and one for Softsynths. Action height is what the guitar came with.

JGT: What electric guitar and amp are you currently using?

John: For Shakti see above. For playing with the 4th Dimension I use either the MesaBoogie Twin preamp, or the Seymour Duncan Twin Classic preamp, or sometimes the Zen 2 Preamp. MXR Chorus and MXR delay. I use a Line 6 Wireless system.

John is currently touring with his custom built PRS Private Stock McCarty Violin guitar that Paul Reed Smith built him in 2011.​

The wood on this guitar is particularly interesting…

It’s believed to be harvested from the same forest Stradivarius got the wood to craft what is largely considered to be the pinnacle of stringed instruments. This guitar is equipped with a Pernambuco neck, a wood sometimes used in the making of high-end violin bows. While this instrument was based off a 50 piece limited run, John requested some custom appointments including a tremolo bridge and a 59/09 bass pickup.

Some Classic Shots From the Past

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A Few Words From Friends and Admirers...

There’s no doubt that John McLaughlin is one of history’s major influences to fusion guitar. His entrance into the Miles Davis Group in “Bitches Brew”, set standards for the ongoing progression of our instrument. In addition, his awareness of music with respect to humanity and what it represents. 

Pat Martino, January 2020

“John McLaughlin is an icon, like Miles Davis before him.  Hearing him for the first time was so powerful it changed my entire idea of what was possible in music… through John, I learned that music is more important than the instrument one plays, and vision more significant than guitar licks or exercises… his influence is infinitely deep and lasting… they will still be talking about his musical innovations for centuries.” 

Jimmy Herring – 2020

“John is the godfather of modern jazz guitar, there would be no fusion or jazz rock without him! He’s the innovator. He opened the doors for us to explore jazz guitar in so many ways, he made it ok to play loud, solid body guitar with distortion in a jazz format.  John’s own personal vocabulary of jazz mixed with rock & Indian music influenced generations of musicians all over the world. As a guitar player his technique and control over the instrument is amazing, when McLaughlin plays the acoustic guitar — to me he’s untouchable” Oz Noy

John McLaughlin revolutionized fusion guitar, tastefully blending elements of Indian classical music with jazz, superimposing linear, modal ideas over complex harmonies, and all with Herculean chops.  His virtuosic playing exhilarates the listener with a limitless, almost ego-less, exploratory quality.  His goal was beyond.   – Rick Beato

So there I was. I still remember that fateful day. Being a 15-year-old guitar-obsessed kid, I was ready for anything with 6 strings and overdrive. what happened was, there was this guy my Dad worked with–a tile guy–who’s name escapes me now… but he heard that Greg Gambill’s kid was waaaaaay into guitar. So he gave my dad an album to let me check out. It was called “Birds Of Fire,” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I looked at the back… .Jan Hammer? Well, everybody knows I love TV music, so that was enough for me to stop practicing for a minute and give it a shot. 

So I dropped the needle, track 1, side 1. You know that scene in “Almost Famous” where the kid puts on the Overture from “Tommy” and you know that everything just kind of CHANGED at that moment? Yeah, that was me… MIND. BLOWN. 

I can’t even say I LOVED it right away, but I can say that I had never, EVER heard ANYTHING LIKE IT. And the guitar playing was just ridiculous. John McLaughlin? Isn’t that the guy from the Sunday Morning Financial shows or something? Probably a different guy, I told myself. But I kept listening and listening and listening, and it just got inside of me. To say it was a gateway drug into fusion would be a pretty dramatic understatement. That one took me down a crazy road. Later on I discovered the Guitar Trio and of course John’s solo records, but that’s where the landslide all started for me.  – Slim Gambill

What can you say about a legend like John McLaughlin? He paved the way for fusion guitarists and his influence can be heard to this day in players that may not know where that vocabulary came from. It’s funny, I can hear his influence in some things that I play that I thought I learned from other players growing up . I later realized they got it from him.  An icon.  –  Jeff McErlain

Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Souvik Dutta, Michelle Gutenstein Hinz and Ken Weinstein for their contributions to this article.  Thanks to Beat Pfaendler for above photo, header photo and JGT cover photo.

And special thanks to John McLaughlin for inspiring us all for all these years!

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