OVER THE TOP
With JOHN McLAUGHLIN
by Jon Chappell

Throughout his multi-decade career, John McLaughlin has mastered whatever style he touches, be it cool jazz (in his work as a sideman with Miles Davis), fusion (as evidenced by the Mahavishnu recordings), Indian music (the blistering acoustic performances he turned with Shakti), or modern jazz (on his recent work with Michael Brecker, Joey DeFrancesco, Dennis Chambers, Jim Beard, et al. on The Promise, McLaughlin's latest release). We'll continue our study of the King Midas of style in this second lesson studying the greatest velocity picker the planet has known.

Last month we examined a line McLaughlin wrote for "Jazz Jungle," a tune inspired by the playing of jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker. This time we'll look at a classic acoustic lick, typical of McLaughlin's work with Shakti, where his lead lines blazed in alternate-picked ecstasy. When asked for a typical scale passage in the North Indian-classical vein, McLaughlin immediately proffered:

"Wow, it's been so many years since I've played in that style. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline, but here's a good line to study because it captures very much what I was doing with Shakti, and of that whole school in general. It's a major sound, basically, but it sounds exotic to Western ears. It has the b9 in it."

McLaughlin is describing what is sometimes referred to as the "Phrygian-Dominant" scale (in E: E F G# A B C D), so named because it includes a major 3rd and b7 -- defining notes of the Mixolydian or dominant scale -- and a b2, which is characteristic of the Phrygian mode. It should be noted that this scale is actually the fifth mode of the harmonic minor (in A: A B C D E F G#). This creates an uncharacteristically wide interval between the second and third notes of the scale -- an augmented 2nd or minor 3rd. "It's the shift on the 2nd string that helps you get all the way up to the 13th fret," McLaughlin advises.

A quick glance at the tab shows McLaughlin's approach to be three notes per string, but the jump at the beginning of bar 3 (the position at the string crossing) bears special attention. You must play the G# with your left-hand 1st finger in order to complete the run up to the 13th fret on the 1st string. "Coming down is the same problem," says McLaughlin, "where you must put your little finger on the 3rd string after having played the 2nd string with your 1st finger." If you linger at these "trouble spots," you'll notice that your left-hand index and little fingers are one fret apart, at the 9th and 10th fret, respectively. This can create a "hiccup" in your line if you don't isolate this passage and work out the transition.

No audible hiccup was heard from John McLaughlin as he played Example 1, though. His playing is as smooth and fleet-fingered as ever. "I guess you just don't ever lose it," he says. "I still have to practice like crazy, but I still remember all that Shakti stuff like it's burned into my mind."