100 Favorite Guitarists: #1 John McLaughlin (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Solo Work, Shakti)
I must admit, with all the great heavy metal and classic rock guitarists I had on the list before him, picking jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin is a bit anti-climatic. But when I sat down to make this list and thought of all the different things I love about guitar and whose music made me feel passionately about the instrument, it was John McLaughlin that I arrived at. Jazz on the whole is a genre I often have difficulty articulating my feelings on, as it seems to use a different system of logic than what I as a predominantly rock n roll listener am used to. At times this means that compositions fall into wild abstraction, noise that has difficulty making sense when put against itself, leaving you alone to feel either desolated by the experience or try and comprehend the totality. Yet, John McLaughlin is a wonderful ray of light for those wishing to find their way into the jazz world, as his guitar spans the circumference of the world, lighting tiny beacons of rationality among the different styles of music and showing the way in which all music can come together to express its primal purpose. His compositions are filled with beautiful little moments that reflect a deep passion for what music is supposed to be doing, making us feel something and rather than alienate one particular audience, he instead uses the jazz standard of variations of a theme to bring together discordant elements, trying out different generic conventions on the same idea. Frosty like a morning in the dead of winter, his guitar will bring us that wistful sound of the classical guitar, the nylon strings vibrating against still air in mechanical movement until to just out into a passion, burning firecely as chords as full as the ocean ring bright harmonic elements, that flamenco style coming into play and then dropping into a minimalist presentation, where each individual note takes on a special meaning because we are left alone with it, to meditate on the experience of arriving there. Everything from rock to Indian music to modern classical is possible with his music and it is exciting to hear the way these totally different styles can be brought under reign and then made to sound natural against one another.
I would also speak of just how great his technique is, as it is easily quantifiable by one of the classic measures: speed. Holy hell, I don’t think I can think of a guitarist faster than Mr. McLaughlin. Well… Rusty Cooley maybe, but he looses all sense of melody when playing so fast. McLaughlin manages to find that beautiful medium where the natural intensity of fast playing still manages to be imbued with the natural dignity of the notation and we can see the musical intention as something larger than its hubris. I love to bring up Friday Night in San Fransisco because of this, where he played with the great Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia, as it is mind blowing to hear guitar played just so fiercely and with such precision. I describe it as the perfect bit of guitar pornography, the moment where all we can do is appreciate and revel in the sound of the guitar, played so fast that only cheetahs can hear all the notes. The consequence of the fast playing seen on the album is this strange rhythmic sense, where the guitar’s melodic patterns begin to take on a natural backbeat, a kind of lopsided gallop in order to orient the audience towards following what they are doing without having to lose the natural expressive nature of the guitar’s sound. Note after note is torn screaming into the world, yet each is clearly voiced and paints a larger narrative picture. This style of music lends itself so well to story telling, as scenes can be set simply by occupying archetypal description, forests having slower paces with more varied and sparse notation, while discovery can be heard in sudden peaks in frequency of the notes and danger made with uninhibited speed, etc. etc. As listeners, we can understand the general descriptions coming from the music or simply get lost in the natural reaction to the lightning pace of the music, each giving us a different but totally worthwhile experience.
But even with all this, I think I have missed the most important thing about McLaughlin’s playing: it is uncompromisingly beautiful. I know beauty is a totally subjective thing, yet I have little difficulty describing McLaughlin’s work as such, as both his tone and intentions with it seem dedicated towards giving us something that we will stop and marvel at. My first experience with John McLaughlin came when I bought Miles Davis’ seminal work, Bitches Brew, having heard of it on some music show and wanted to give jazz a try. Looking back on it, it is hard to imagine a kid like myself hearing this and thinking anything of it, as I freely admit that I have had my share of bad taste in music, and yet, it stuck. On the album, there is a track named after him, “John McLaughlin,” and listening to it, its at first strange to see why, as most of the track is made of keyboard, clarinet and drums, with the guitar only popping up every so often. But when you listen to it, you’re always drawn to the guitar, those little flare ups where notes fit right into the mix and then transcend everything around them, making them all drop off into oblivion to a moment before they snap back to reality. His playing is so stunningly brief and yet so captivating, like seeing a rare flower bloom and wilt all at once, leaving you wanting a chance to find more. In his other works, he seems to find those perfect moments where his sound becomes the center of the world, those perfect little moments when tone can crystallize and fragment or a burst of runs can leave us wondering what happened. It is especially easy to find these moments in his classical work because the instrument so easily lands in that emotional spectrum of joy and heartbreak, always recalling in crystal clarity tones that match our own world. Every time I hear his work I am awed at just how much order he can bring out of the chaos around him.
And so here we are, the end of my list of my favorite guitarists and John McLaughlin sits at number one. His is perhaps not the music for everyone, but he is an artist who encompasses so many things about what makes guitar playing great. All of the passion and emotion and technique that can bring the instrument to its fullest resides within his music and we fragile mortals need only listen to draw it out for ourselves.
The Equipment: His main guitar at current is a Godin Freeway Midi guitar, which allows him a great deal of choices in his instrumentation on stage, especially important as he is often prone to long improvisational moments. During the early years, I associate him most with the Gibson EDS-1275, the double necked guitar, which gave him the ability to switch from six to twelve string whenever so chose. Other guitars he has used have included the Gibson L4, the Fender Mustang, the Gibson ES-345 (with scalloped frets) and the Gibson Byrdland. I have no idea what classical and acoustic guitars he uses, aside from them maybe being built by Abraham Wechter. McLaughlin no longer uses amplifiers on stage, instead plugging directly into the PA, but had previously used Marshall Plexis in the 70s. His current pedalboard is pretty minimal, likely due to his guitar being MIDI, but includes a Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic, a MXR Carbon Copy Delay and a MXR Stereo Chorus pedal.
Key Track: Birds of Fire