John McLaughlin Talks About Archtops, Guitar Synths
and Walking Down The Eternal Path Of Jazz

(Reprinted from Guitar Shop magazine: Spring 1998)

 How many guitarists, year In and year out, can play packed clubs and concert halls, and each time perform with a new band and completely material? No hits, no golden oldies, no vintage chestnuts - just fresh, steamin' spoonfuls of original jazz. So how many players can do this? Probably just one - John McLaughlin. Since his early days as a British sideman in the '60s through the breakthroughs with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then on through a million musical incarnations until today, McLaughlin has lived under one musical creed - keep moving on. His latest adventure is The Heart Of Things, a smoldering urban-bop disc featuring a stellar band and more of the fiery flatpicking that put McLaughlin on the map nearly 30 years ago. On the day Guitar Shop caught up with him, the fusion maestro was down with the flu, but was still eager to talk about his tone, the tools of his trade, and his commitment to keep plowing straight ahead.

I caught your last show In Philadelphia. Was that a [Gibson] Johnny Smith archtop you were playing?

Yeah. Actually, it was in Philadelphia that I caught this cold, because there was no heating backstage in the dressing room. I got sick on the way up to Boston afterward, but the show was good, I think. Anyway, yes, I was playing my red Johnny Smith...a '77. It's got that Bigsby vibrato on there that I really like. You can use it in a very expressive way, especially for bending notes down a semi-tone. It's completely stock and I put D'Addario .010-.046 strings on it. I had three Johnny Smiths at one point. You see, I had this '58 Les Paul that I hadn't used for a long time. But then a friend called me up and offered me a lot of money for it, like $25,000. I found out later that it was worth more than that, but I didn't care and I spent the money on the three Johnny Smiths. One was a '62 blonde that had such a beautiful flame maple on top - I gave that to a South African guitarist who's a good friend of mine. He was playing a piece of shit, so he was thrilled to get that. Then there was a sunburst '68 and the red-or "Wine," maybe they call it - one from 1977. And I just use Jim Dunlop III picks on all of them, the heavy ones.

You use some interesting-sounding effects on stage. What's in your lineup?

I have two Sony M7 multi-effects processors and a MIDI footswitch attached that I use to call up various patches. I program lots of different sounds, like creating multiple choruses and the frequencies in which they kick in. You've also got a very extensive parametric EQ, so you can really fine-tune your tone, which suits me better than the tone controls on your amp, which are crude, but still effective. I also like the Sonys because that means I don't have to carry an amp around. The Sonys go straight to the PA.

Do you do all the programming on the processors?

Oh, yeah. I've been involved with FM programming since the Synclavier era [during the mid 1980s], which was the first digital synthesizer, and then also the DX technology that succeeded it. So I've been programming for a long time. You really just have to get into the architecture and understand the mind behind it. Sometimes people get put off by things that are too techno, but it's worth putting in the effort, I think.

Where does your distortion tone come from?

For overdrive, I have a custom fuzzbox that's very old, and then there's a Pete Cornish preamp that splits my signals and gives me a headphone out. The fuzzbox is great because it retains the dynamics in the tone. Most fuzzes eat all your dynamics. When you play, your phrases are all in 3-D - from soft to loud - but this box leaves the dynamics alone. I like distortion - I mean, I grew up as a fusion player - but I think it should be used judiciously.

Do you have any problems with feedback onstage?

No, not really and I think that's due to the Johnny Smith guitar. If you go with a Super 400 or another really big body and put the volume over five, you're going to have problems. And I don't stuff the bodies with anything because I think you lose tone that way. Also, it helps that we don't play too loud on stage, because we have monitors.

Does going through the Sonys give you a warm enough tone, as opposed to, say, using a tube amp?

Well, I never get to hear it out front, but I like the sound. The soundman may have to tweak the sound because some monitor systems have horns, which make them a little pingy. Generally speaking, I'm very happy the way it works out.

Are you still using the Axon guitar synth?

Not right now because I don't have the transducer pickup yet for my Johnny Smith. I need a system like I have on my Wechter - a hexaphonic piezo that will drive both the synth and my acoustic tone. Anyway, I like the Axon system's response and the built-in sounds are good. I use the Roland GR-09 for writing and programming at home, but I think the sounds in the Axon are superior and they're all stereo - there's a Yamaha sound module inside. I don't miss having it with this band, because we have Jim Beard on synthesizers and he's a master at programming. But I used it a lot last year with the Guitar Trio [McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco de Lucia] and it worked great. It's nice to use a synth to create contrast, but you don't want to O.D. on it.

Have you ever gotten negative feedback for playing synth from fans? Allan Holdsworth once told me about finding notes on his rig during breaks, telling him to stop playing his SynthAxe.

Yeah, he was just killing on that SynthAxe, wasn't he? But as to your question, if you stop to listen to what the people want or what they don't want, then you end up not being your own man anymore. We all want to be adored and admired, both as musicians and as human beings, but at the same time, if you stick to your guns, you will win in the end. I mean, that's why I don't play my old songs. I think people finally accepted the fact that I play only new music in concert and those that liked it stayed, and those that didn't, took off and went to see somebody else. As long as you're prepared to receive the consequences of your actions, then do it. Then again, it's also in my nature to keep going and exploring.

As you keep exploring and trying new styles, do your famous old guitars pile up at home in a big collection?

No, I've given most of them away, like the black Les Paul Custom I used on Inner Mounting Flame. The Rex Bogue doubleneck [used with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the mid '70s, this was the basis for the Ibanez Artwood Twin -Ed. ] got wiped out in a very bad accident. It fell off something backstage at a gig onto a really hard ceramic-tile floor and the guitar split down the middle. It was a horrific moment. So the guitar suddenly became two guitars and, since it fell on its face, the Tune-o-matic bridges were driven right into the wood, which also caused extensive damage. I guess the insurers still have it, or else they dumped it. Of the Wechter guitars I had with Shakti [which had six steel strings and then sympathetic harp strings across the soundhole], I still have the prototype, but it's in pretty bad shape. I also have the second one, which is the one I did the majority of Shakti recordings on. There was also a third one that I lent to a friend, but the neck-which was joined to the body with a steel plate - got horribly warped and it hasn't been fixed yet.

What are your plans for 1998?

Well, I did a tour with about 75% of Shakti a month ago in Europe. It was me, the two percussionists - Zakir Hussain and T.H. Vinayakram-and a bamboo flutist from India named Hariprasad Chaurasia. Unbelievable! He was named "Best Musician In India," and we're talking about a country with 750 million people! We recorded some shows and I'm going back to India to play a big show in Bombay celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence. I also have to do the second concerto, either with the Monte Carlo or Cannes symphonies. I have to mix the concerts with the new Shakti band, too, and I have an idea for some sort of weird industrial record. This has been buzzing around my brain for about a year now-I really want to do it in '98.
I also wrote a song for Jeff Beck's new record. When I was playing with Shakti in London, Jeff and Steve came to see me play. They both can play really well and, of course, Jeff's one of my all-time favorites. So he asked me to contribute something to the album he's doing with Steve. I wrote a piece for three electric guitars, with no bass or drums. He heard it and was excited. So after I get back from India, I'll probably be going into the studio with Jeff and Steve. I'm really looking forward to that.