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JGT Series: Acoustic Flattops in Jazz #2, John McLaughlin



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Marc Silver continues the ‘Acoustic Flattops in Jazz’ series with the legendary John McLaughlin.

The first time I saw John McLaughlin play live in 1970 will be forever etched into my memory… along with some permanent hearing loss! He was playing with The Tony Williams Lifetime band, featuring McLaughlin on electric guitar, Khalid Yasin (aka Larry Young) on organ, Jack Bruce on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. My lifelong friend and bandmate, keyboardist Greg Gore and I had no idea what we were in for that night…

I was 16 years old and thought I was a pretty good improviser, so I brought my guitar to the concert just in case there was an opportunity to sit in with the band. Remember, I was just 16 and didn’t realize how incredibly naive and stupid I was! Fortunately, I left my guitar in the trunk of the car. Needless to say, the band completely tore it up while playing things no one had ever heard before… and at volume levels I had never experienced then or since. It is now 50+ years later and my ears are still ringing from that night… happily.

Hang on a minute! Isn’t this supposed to be about acoustic guitars in jazz? Yes it is, so let’s continue…

It’s no secret that John McLaughlin is one of the most innovative and technically brilliant guitarists of our time, or any other time. He has a unique ability to play totally different genres of music and be masterful in every one of them.

As a young player I never seriously considered the flattop acoustic to be a viable jazz guitar… that is until I heard John McLaughlin playing an Ovation Legend on his 1971 album, My Goals Beyond. Additionally, I never knew that McLaughlin’s 1969 debut with Miles Davis on the album In A Silent Way was played on a Gibson Hummingbird with a DeArmond soundhole pickup. For over 50 years I thought he had played a solid-body electric on that record, but in John’s recent JGT interview with Bob Bakert, he revealed that he played a Hummingbird flattop acoustic on that pivotal recording. What? That blew my mind! When you hear his acoustic playing on the song Shhh/Peaceful you will understand.

I am also an old friend of master-luthier Abraham Wechter, who has made many of John’s most iconic acoustic guitars. If you’re a longtime McLaughlin devotee, you will be familiar with his revolutionary “Shakti” steel-string acoustic guitars as well as his midi-equipped “Florentine Nylon” guitar that he played so prominently with The Guitar Trio recordings and live concerts. All of those amazing instruments (among others) were custom-crafted for McLaughlin by Abraham Wechter.

Let’s look and listen to what I have been trying to describe with mere words…

Hearts and Flowers (My Goals Beyond) – Played on Ovation Legend 1717 steel-string. On side one of this recording John is accompanying himself, so you get to hear his prodigious chord and single-note skills.

Shhh/Peaceful (Miles Davis – In a Silent Way) – Played on a Gibson Hummingbird steel-string with DeArmond soundhole pickup. On this 1969 recording with Miles Davis, McLaughlin introduced a revolutionary new jazz guitar sound that would signal what many consider the beginning of jazz-fusion.

Joy (Shakti Live at Montreaux) – Played on a custom Gibson steel-string with drone cross-strings and a scalloped fingerboard, designed and handmade by luthier Abraham Wechter (who was working for Gibson at the time). This is known as the Shakti Guitar (one of several versions). This instrument allowed John to bend strings more like a traditional sitar for playing authentic Indian music with a standard-tuned acoustic guitar.

Opening Solo (Rare Classical Guitar Concert 90s – Live in Hungary 1990s) – Played on a midi-equipped Abraham Wechter Custom-made Florentine Nylon. I saw McLaughlin perform this opening when The Guitar Trio toured through Chicago around this same time. Right after John finished his opening solo, I remember saying out loud that I had already gotten my money’s worth for the night. His solo playing was mesmerizing.

The “Mediterranean” Concerto Live Played on his Abraham Wechter Florentine Nylon. This is a beautiful orchestral piece composed by John McLaughlin that features him as the soloist throughout the piece.

Waltz for Debbie (Time Remembered) Played on his Abraham Wechter Florentine Nylon. This is a wonderful album featuring all Bill Evans compositions, arranged by McLaughlin for himself and a classical guitar quartet.

Cherokee with The Tonight Show Band (Johnny Carson) Played on his Abraham Wechter Florentine Nylon. John showed up to the Tonight Show and played an up-tempo big-band arrangement of this well-known standard.

Like I said earlier, I am a huge fan of John’s acoustic playing. Now I hope you are too.

Marc Silver is a guitarist, composer, and author, best known for writing the classic instruction book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), which has been teaching guitar players around the world how to improvise since 1978. Visit online at

Flattop Acoustics in Jazz? Absolutely!

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