THE CULTURAL IMPROVISATION OF JOHN
MCLAUGHLIN
By Bill Stephen
(Reprinted from Intl. Musician and Recording World: March 1979)
____________________________

 

The Mahavishnu Orchestra did what only a handful of bands manage to do. It broke new ground,
broke the rock music world out of its caste and expanded and developed a style of music that has
undoubtedly influenced many of its successors. As leader of the Orchestra, John McLaughlin found new
forms of expression and has been exploring ever since.
Many label him a "jazz" guitarist. Many believe that he sank into the spiritual pit when he began
following Sri Chinmoy. Many find him too esoteric, intellectual and often overbearing in his approach.
But most people who hear him and experience his development of style and technique walk away a little
bit wiser for the experience.
In short, John McLaughlin surpasses the cliche' to become truly individual.
At Soundmixers Studio in New York, he is recording his newest album, which promises to
establish him yet again as a formidable, if not visionary, guitarist and composer.
No change in music comes without a development and change within the composer creating it.
McLaughlin has moved forward in many ways, although in some respects his last album, Johnny
McLaughlin-Electric Guitarist, suggested that he retumed to foundations before building again.
One thing that provided change and an extension of sound and concept was the development of the
Gibson 13-string guitar, a concept which grew out of his intense study of eastem music and the lndian
string instrument, the vina. He had the Gibson company make the guitar expressly to his specifications
so that it would cope with the intrinsic problems imposed by a linear form of music. It is designed to
allow him to accompany himself: it has seven sympathetic strings angled across the F-hole, which he
strums as accompaniment using the little finger with a fingerpick, while playing lead on the regular
strings.
"It turned out immensely successful," he explained. "The six strings are tuned as a normal guitar
but the seven strings are tuned up for each piece. In Shakti we were playing with essentially a linear
form of music-that means we were using the raga system, a kind of scale founded on scientific and
astrological principals which are also directed to specific human emotions. This would allow me to tune
all the strings differently and I would try to extract for me what was the most meaningful chord, or the
chord that expressed the essence of what the piece was about. "
This obviously allowed John a great deal of individual expression. When he worked in Shakti with
the Indian violinist Shankar, it developed that each would come up with various synthetic scales which
had their own mood.
McLaughlin explained: "This was very interesting because from a western point of view it gave me
a real insight into harmony, which I now see in linear terms rather than chordal terms. "
The Gibson 13-string also held a new development in actual guitar construction which John has
adapted to all of his guitars: the neck.
While studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he began playing the vina which has a
sitar-) ike neck-the strings never actually touch the wood but are depressed between the frets for a tension
that results in a completely different feel and resultant sound.
"I found that while studying the vina I got more and more into it, resulting in a desire to really
understand the music and what it is all about. While practicing more on the vina, and leaming a variety
of things. I began to grow dissatisfied with the guitar in comparison to the silken beauty that results from
the vina's super big frets with nothing undemeath. They're also strung opposite to a guitar (that is the low
string is where the high string is). But I would practice the vina and practice the guitar and I'd find the
guitar very stiff by comparison. "
"I reached a point where I was cutting into my practice time on the guitar by playing the vina. I
reached a crossroads in that I had to ask myself what I really wanted. Of course, it was an obvious
answer: I'm a guitar player, I don't want to be a vina player. "
This prompted John to attempt incorporating a vina-type neck into a guitar. When Gibson delivered
the finished product, he knew it was right from the start and since then he's never looked back.
Currently he is using a Gibson 345 Stereo and that too has been fitted with the sculpted neck as
well as a Dimarzio humbucking pickup. But John has a distinct preference for the Gibson sound.
"I have an L4C with a Charlie Christian pickup. I may put something of that on this album, but I'm
not sure. That's a guitar I had many years ago and I had to sell it to keep body and soul together. It was a
beautiful instrument. I've tried to buy it back from the guy I sold it to, but he won't part with it. "
"I just found another one, not as good, but it's nice. It's really a jazz guitar, a very good one. But I
get a good sound from the 345, not only that but this fingerboard affects the tone. I think it makes it
sweeter and I certainly have greater control over sustain too. I have control over the note. It's the left
hand where you can really sustain it or cut it. "
"The left hand is very, very important for me and so it just changes it-for me it makes it more
guitary, but some people feel it's a little Indian. "
Before McLaughlin was aware of anything east of Yorkshire, England, he was being influenced by
many of the great American musicians of the Fifties and Sixties. Coming from a musical family he was
quickly introduced into the world of piano but when a guitar made the descent from one brother to the
next, finally ending with him, things changed perspective.
The revelation of the guitar neatly coincided with his introduction to blues, which quickly led him
to imitate Muddy Waters. He felt his classical training did little for him as a guitarist, other than to train
his ear.
"When I first heard blues music, Muddy Waters, it was amazing to me because it was an
untempered scale. And also there was such a kind of elegance about it, an urban elegance. I didn't know
how to play it, I didn't know anything about it, all I knew was that it was saying something to me which
was very important. About feelings and about being. It was about four years after that I heard Miles (at
age 15) and in the meantime I'd gone through Django Reinhardt and traditional jazz which was very
popular at the time in England."
" In a sense my fundamental discipline is jazz music. Jazz is truly an art form to me, but one that is
very broad and has the possibilities to embrace many different impulses, cultural and planetary impulses.
But for me, to play jazz properly you need technique that is second to none. You need to have a highly
developed technique, you need high intellectual capabilities and at the same time a harmonic thought
composition. "
His interest in jazz emerged from his work in the blues and from listening to Reinhardt and Tal
Farlow, two of the giant jazz guitarists. From there, he was sucked into the world of Miles Davis and
John Coltrane who, like McLaughlin, take their music beyond the conventional.
"I loved Charlie Parker and the old giants but for me this was the music of the future. " And he
jumped right into it. With Dave Holland, John Surman and Tony Oxley, John formed a band and did a
few gigs in London. But bass player Dave was scooped up by Miles Davis and at that time John left for
Belgium, where he started a band with a European line-up.
But John's name never seemed to quite leave Miles Davis' mind. Just a couple of years later he was
summoned by the master trumpeter and before he knew it he was cutting tracks with Miles on his
seminal albums Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, establishing an intemational reputation for himself.
Jazz shares with eastern music the improvisational dimension. That common denominator,
matched with the times, struck a sympathetic chord with John.
It is the discipline of improvisation that brings jazz and eastern music together. "There are
similarities, but there are also big differences, too, in feeling. The jazz feeling is the jazz feeling, there's
nothing like it and it's very beautiful. It's completely different from anything else. "
"But the way of thought in Indian improvisation is brilliant, since they don't work with a tempered
scale-they don't work with 12 notes. You can go up a quarter tone or even less and it's a different note;
like the flattened third in jazz or blues. The flattened third can be quartered, can be halved-and so on
with quite a number of notes on the tempered scale. "
At various times during his playing career, the influences of eastern music have seemingly been
predominant. But when asked if his music is a combination, a synthesis of the two cultures, he denies it.
"I don't believe one can talk about east-west fusions in music. One can only speak in personal
terms-that's people. I feel very much at home in India, with Indian people, culturally speaking. I feel very
much at home with most people, but the more you understand about their culture and idiosyncracies, the
more at home you feel. For me, that's where the fusion takes place. It's not in the music. If you try to
make an east-west fusion you're going to be a miserable failure right away. "
"There were certain principles I applied to the Mahavishnu Orchestra that were certainly derived
from Indian, maybe mathematical concepts, rhythmic concepts or even melodic concepts, since it is
fundamentally melodic and rhythmic music in India. "
McLaughlin is one of the many performers that find the act of performing live a thrill, a necessity
to the development of the music. "When you have your audience, you go out there and the adrenalin is
flowing and the energy is flowing around and you feel what it really means. To me it means a lot in a lot
of different ways. But in the studio, it's like I walk in and I've got miles of black tape that I can paint on.
That's the way I see an album; it's really the possibility to paint. "
"But there's nothing to equal live work. If you've got deep enough connections with the musicians
themselves, it doesn't matter if there's no-one there at all. I've had rehearsals that you wouldn't believe,
they were so good and no-one was there, just the musicians. "
"An audience is just a participation. They give energy, of course, but if the musicians have a deep
enough connection with each other, the music is going to happen. You never know when the thing is
present, it's a presence. "
McLaughlin has long been a motivator in the world of synthesis for guitar. Originally he was using
a 360 system pitch-to-voltage converter with a bank of Mini-moog modules, one for each string. it was
really the first guitar synthesizer. "I was using an LSS Gibson with a special pickup. It had circular
magnets which the string would go through. It was the only way they could get a really good sound in
those days. It has changed now, but it's still not quite right, still not fast enough for me anyway. "
"The problem is in the conversion from pitch to voltage. There are a couple of people who are
working on digital conversion, which is the only way to go because if you play a very fast run on a low
string it just cannot do its math fast enough in the current system,"
"This is one of the reasons I want to get into synthesizer because with a synthesizer you have total
control over the sound. You can go through a nice Crown or Mackintosh amp with a super clean sound,
and whatever resonance or harmonic distortion you get is intentional and controllable to a very, very fine
degree. It will never replace the guitar. Synthesizer is not a replacement for anything, it's a new
instrument. "
"What happens is that it's very easy to apply pianistic technique to voltage synthesis, but I'm still
waiting for the guitarist to have the possibility. "
That could be why John is without synthesis today. He would like to incorporate synthesis into his
music again, but he feels the systems just aren't ready.
it's ironic that the excellence of his technique has deprived him of a new instrument. He is just too
fast for contemporary synthesis systems to keep up with him.
A concept which he has been harboring since 1974 is to have a guitar with a controller built in it
like a calculator with computer memory for the patching. This may be a little closer now with the
introduction of such products as the Prophet 5 which is a polyphonic keyboard with 40 memories.
"it's the only way to do a performance, otherwise you can spend anything up to an hour or more just
doing a really excellent patch. If you do it beforehand, in the studio or at home, then it's punched into the
memory. My idea was to have a little controller and to be able to address the computer and say'Give me
patch 29 immediately.' It would set the parameters instantaneously, which is perfect for performances. "
"The synthesizer is an extraordinary instrument," he says. "I mean, every instrument is 
extraordinary to me, every instrument has unlimited possibilities really-it just depends on the artist's
imagination and tenacity for hard work. But the synthesizer has something that I want to be able to look
into and apply my guitar knowledge and techniques to. "
McLaughlin keeps his sound fairly simple these days, and continues to use Marshall equipment.
But in the studio he's found that direct injection from guitar to tape, bypassing the amp, has produced a
good effect.
His excellence of technique has not come through idle searching but from hours of practicing and
applying complex eastem rhythmic styles to guitar playing.
" If I'm writing music, that usually takes a lot of time. I may write music at any time but most of my
practice I do on the road. Of course, there are many different aspects of practicing. One is linear
technique, for now anyway since I have this fingerboard, and I have a different kind of practice that is
the horizontal sense. "
"I have another technique that I'm working on which is a development of the crosspicking thing
that I started a few years ago. It's very tricky because I'm working in odd groupings, mathematical
groupings. This is a development of an Indian concept, but it's universal as regards the rhythm of an
eight-beat cycle. I'll work in groups of, say, two fives and two threes, or three threes and two fives or
even three fives and tum it inside out in all different ways. And this is something I'm working on right
now that is very difficult. It's purely a right hand technique, it's very interesting. "
"l'll work it on the top three strings, then the middle three, then try one on four strings-it's a bitch. "
"In a sense it's related to the rhythmical theory that I studied in India-the theory behind it is singing,
of course. When you study rhythm you have to be able to sing it. I can't do it but I understand the
mathematics behind it and so I'm applying it in a sense to my right hand technique. "
"I just started working on a banjo too. This is something I want to put on the album. In fact, I want
another banjo with some sympathetic strings and this fingerboard, because it's very percussive and I love
percussion and banjo. There's something haunting about that sound. I only got the banjo the other day
but I've been thinking about it for a couple of months. What I love about it is what I'm able to do with my
left hand. "
Back to guitar. McLaughlin uses light gauge strings for solo work-"I've been using D'Addario for a
long time"-because the touch is just right for this vina-type fingerboard: "If you have light strings, like a
sitar, you're able to pull them easily. If they're too heavy, you're going to spend effort on it. You don't
want to think about pulling the string so it has to be light. But for any kind of rhythmical work, it's better
to use heavier strings. "
Many jazz artists have moved toward the more commercial side of music, musicians such as Chuck
Mangione who develops a distinct melody line to leave with a listener. McLaughlin feels it is pure
commercial philosophy. He doesn't choose to knock it, but points to a particular philosophy of his own
that sums up his creative essence.
"I don't want to do anything really. All I want to do, as far as music's concemed, is to disengage
myself from the conditioning prejudices that people place upon products because it's in their interests
to. "
This doesn't mean, however, that his recording sessions are not thoroughly thought out in
advance-though, of course, the spontaneous creativity is all-important too: "That has to be there. That's
what makes it magic, that's what music is finally all about. But for me, I have to think it out very
carefully before I go in. At the same time, part of the thought that precedes the work is to set up a
musical situation that will precipitate spontaneous combustion. "
"When I write a tune and go to rehearsal, I have a fairly clear concept of the idea and of the
emotional dress of that idea. You set a stage but you open up role possibilities and present the characters
in the group with both the idea and an emotional stimulus. There's a central idea and a central feeling
behind the piece and that's something that everybody has to be able to grasp. That's the thing that links it
all together. The playing, of course, is everything, but there's a specific mood for each piece. A piece
may go through two or three definite mood changes, too, and it's extremely important for the people
involved to feel the emotional color.