Woodshedding With The Heavenly Timbres
JOHN McLAUGHLIN:
Mahavishnu's hot new band allows the master to rock out on his Synclavier

By Bill Milkowski

(Reprinted from Guitar World magazine: March 1985)


John McLaughlin is a searching soul, an ever-evolving artist. He's blazed many trails in his twenty-plus years as a professional musician, beginning in the sixties with such jazz-influenced British bands as Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, The Graham Bond Organization (with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) and Brian Auger's Trinity. And each new path he took, John McLaughlin brought a new ax. The first guitar McLaughlin became closely associated with was his trusty Les Paul Custom, used on the landmark sessions for Miles Davis - In A Silent Way in '69, Bitches Brew in '70, Live-Evil and Jack Johnson in '71 (all on Columbia).

This Gibson or variations of it (he alternated between Customs and Specials) served him well on several sessions during this period, including his work with Tony Williams' Lifetime (Emergency and Turn It Over for Polydor, both in '70) and on the ponderous Carla Bley opera, Escalator Over the Hill, an ambitious three-record set released in '71 on JCOA Records (available through New Music Distribution Service, 500 Broadway, New York, NY 10012).

McLaughlin continued to use that signature ax through the early days of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, relying on it exclusively for the group's groundbreaking debut in '72, The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia). Later that year, while on tour, he unveiled his Gibson double-neck, sending a chill up the spines of guitar enthusiasts everywhere. That revolutionary ax, with one twelve-string neck for arpeggiating chords and one six-string neck for playing solos, instantly became McLaughlin's new signature piece; so much so that years later violinist Jean-Luc Ponty refused to allow his guitarist Daryl Stuermer to perform with a custom-made double-neck of his own for fear of invoking memories of (and comparisons to) McLaughlin's Orchestra.

In 1974 the familiar Gibson double-neck was replaced with a custom-made double-neck created by a California luthier named Rex Bogue. This ornate ax, christened The Double Rainbow, featured magnificent inlay work and breathtaking craftsmanship. Easily the most striking effect of this fantastic ax was its abalone flowers and mother-of-pearl vines flowing up and down the fingerboards of both necks, serving as decorative position markers on the fretboard. At the time Bogue said his elaborate design work was inspired by the Art Nouveau paintings of French artist Alphonse Mucha. This gorgeous instrument, weighing in at thirty pounds with the inscription "Guru Alo" ("He who leads from darkness into lightness"), suffered an unfortunate fate in '74 when it fell off a bench and split up the middle. McLaughlin then replaced it with a second Gibson double, which he used on the Apocalypse album and tour.

In 1975, McLaughlin went back to the old Gibson Les Paul Special for a time. Then on the Orchestra's 1976 farewell album, Inner Worlds, he unveiled the guitar synthesizer he had been dabbling with for some time. He recalls that this prototype model was a bit unwieldy. "Unwieldy is an understatement. It was like an elephant. I had a Mini-Moog module for each string, just to give you an idea of how difficult it was to tune the thing. I toured with that set-up for about three months but it was so big and so very difficult to carry and patch that I finally decided it was just not feasible for performance."

That cumbersome outfit (designed by Bob Easton of Santa Monica, California) was put to the test on "Miles Out" and on the title cut from Inner Worlds, yielding some eerie effects and dramatic results. But McLaughlin found the conversion from pitch to voltage and then into synthesis to be too slow and problematic. Proclaiming that technology wasn't yet ready to meet his needs, he bailed out of the whole electronic realm and immersed himself in acoustic guitar with Shakti.

That stunning band, hailed by critics as a triumphant meeting of Eastern and Western musical traditions, released its debut album in '76 to universal acclaim. Such respected guitarists as Pat Metheny and Steve Morse still speak in awe of Shakti, pointing to the scintillating interplay between McLaughlin, tabla player Zakir Hassain and violinist L. Shankar, as an inspired peak in McLaughlin's career. Yet the band never made money and disbanded after releasing three albums between '76 and '77.

For his work with Shakti, McLaughlin required a new ax to truly capture the essence of East Indian tonalities. Working closely with Abe Wechter, a consultant for Gibson, he came up with a revolutionary thirteen-string acoustic built from the flattop body of a Gibson J-200. This astonishing guitar featured a set of seven drone strings positioned across the soundhole which could be strummed or merely allowed to vibrate for accompaniment. McLaughlin says he originally got the idea for this Shakti guitar in '73 when he studied the vina, a marvelously expressive Indian instrument with four playing strings and three accompanying strings. "I got involved with the vina because it's so flexible," he says. "The possibilities of expression on that instrument were so much more than guitar. Basically, the key was the fingerboard. I began experimenting with the idea of incorporating the vina's scalloped fingerboard on an ordinary guitar to help satisfy an artistic desire for certain expressivity and nuance on individual notes. This was a major step in terms of being able to articulate." With this scalloped fingerboard, which from a side view resembles a series of waves with a fret on each crest, you get the shifts and subtleties and nuances of notes not by pushing the strings down as a guitarist would but by pulling them towards the floor as a sitarist would. McLaughlin would later incorporate this scalloped fingerboard on the Gibson ES-345 he used in '79 with his post-Orchestra electric ensemble, the One Truth Band, featuring Shankar on electric violin.

McLaughlin's re-entry into the realm of electric music, following his three-year involvement with Shakti, came in '78 with the release of Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist (Columbia). Featuring a cast of old friends and former bandmates (Jack Bruce, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Carlos Santana, Jerry Goodman, Stanley Clarke, Jack DeJohnette), this album highlighted the guitarist on a Gibson Byrdland. For one tune, the ballad "My Foolish Heart," which he dedicated to an old hero, Tal Farlow, he played a Les Paul DeLuxe through a Leslie speaker for a decidedly mellower effect.

This long-awaited return to electric guitar ironically came around the same time that McLaughlin first heard and met flamenco master Paco De Lucia. Since the British guitarist had an avid interest in the passion of flamenco music, dating back to the time he was a kid growing up in Yorkshire, he naturally hit it off well with the Spanish virtuoso. The two began playing together and along with Larry Coryell they toured the States and Europe from '78 to '79. In the fall of '80, Al Di Meola replaced Coryell in The Trio. This new line-up was captured live on the acclaimed Friday Night In San Francisco (Columbia) and their tour was heralded as a victory for the acoustic guitar. For that triumphant tour, McLaughlin used a stock Ovation classic with nylon strings. For their 1983 studio album, Passion, Grace & Fire, he played a Yamaha classical flamenco gut-strung guitar.

By this point, McLaughlin seemed so enamored with the acoustic guitar, speaking in glowing terms about its purity and richness, that it appeared his electric guitar might remain on the shelf forever. But his fascination with the instrument didn't just happen overnight. One of his earliest albums, My Goal's Beyond (originally released in '72 on the Douglas label then rereleased in'82 on Elektra/Musician) was an all-acoustic affair, acclaimed as one of the most beautiful albums of the early seventies. That landmark project, which presaged by several years McLaughlin's return to the acoustic guitar and Shakti, featured on one side an eight-piece ensemble that included charter Mahavishnu members Cobham and Goodman. The other side was strictly solo acoustic guitar with McLaughlin accompanying himself by judiciously overdubbing on such jazz classics as Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and Miles Davis' "Blue In Green." For this early acoustic outing he played a custom-made ax by Mark Evan Whitebook.

Through 1981 and 1982 McLaughlin continued to spotlight acoustic music exclusively. When he wasn't touring with The Trio he was touring or recording with his Belo Horizonte band, which included world renowned classical pianist Katia Lebeque performing on the Synclavier II. The two albums he recorded with this band, 1981's Belo Horizonte and the 1982 follow-up, Music Spoken Here (both on Warner Bros.) took a more orchestral approach and had a more mellifluous feel than the driving bravado of The Trio. It was an intriguing attempt at blending acoustic and electric instruments, but in retrospect he says the experiment did not suceed all that well in a performance situation. "It was beautiful music that I loved very much," he says. "The range of tones and sounds and timbres that Katia was able to achieve on the Synclavier was nothing short of astonishing. It was her input, grounded in the classical tradition, that really inspired me to write a wholly new kind of music, even while building on my past work. But it was very difficult in a live setting trying to balance the acoustic guitar and drums."

And now we come to 1984, the year of George Orwell's Big Brother and all that. And it appears that technology has finally caught up to John McLaughlin. With his newly-revived Mahavishnu Orchestra (which features drummer Billy Cobham on the recently released Warner Bros. LP, Mahavishnu, but has Danny Gottlieb filling in on tour) McLaughlin is playing the Synclavier II digital guitar almost exclusively. He picks up an old '58 Les Paul Special now and then during a given set with the new Mahavishnu Orchestra, but mostly it's the otherworldly effects of the Synclavier II, designed by New England Digital Corporation (Box 546, White River Junction, VT 05001).

McLaughlin is quite taken by this instrument and talked at length about the exciting new possibilities it now affords him: "I knew some time ago that there would be a new instrument coming out. I'd been talking to and working with New England Digital for the past three years, so I knew there were developments coming with their guitar. I had been playing acoustic guitar for so long, but of course, electric guitar is part of me. It's in my blood. So I've been dreaming about this instrument for quite some time. And now I'm excited about the possibilities of this new Synclavier. It's really a whole new instrument, and it's possibilities are equal to that of an acoustic guitar. I like the electric guitar, but to me it's got a narrow emotional frequency band. It just doesn't have the breath that the acoustic guitar has. Consequently, the expression on the acoustic is much greater for me than on the electric. So I've been waiting for about ten years for this new instrument to come along, and now I'm ready to experiment with it."

After receiving his Synclavier guitar last January, McLaughlin went into an intensive period of woodshedding. "I am personally interested in the programmable aspects of the Synclavier and what's available to me through the guitar in this incredible world of digital synthesis. So for the first six months I was averaging about fifteen hours a day just working on the programming, just creating the different sounds and timbres that I feel are me. It's like learning to develop a whole new vocabulary. So now I have this large palette of colors, if you will, with which I am able to paint. The big question then becomes, what are you gonna do with it? You have this incredible red colorèyou're not just going to put it on the canvas and say, 'Doesn't it look nice?' What are you going to do with this red color with regard to the rest of your palette and with regard to the way you feel at this moment in this context in this musical situation. Application becomes the key to it all. It's very extensive, exhaustive work, but very satisfying work."

The Synclavier II digital guitar option provides a link between the Roland GR guitar and the Synclavier Digital Music System. With this option, the guitar player can play any of the 512 preset timbres or 64 sequencers with even more sensitivity than is offered to the keyboard player. Because it is a polyphonic guitar synthesizer, the user can not only play chords but can actually play different sounds on different strings.

McLaughlin is quick to point out that each timbre, whether called up or created, requires a different attack on the strings. "The approach to the instrument is different in the sense that when you're playing a particular timbre, you have to play that timbre. You're not playing the guitar anymore, so to just play guitar phrases with a vibraphone sound or a brass sound doesn't really work. You have to play the timbre as though you were playing that particular instrument or that particular sound. And that sound may be slow, long, fast, short or anything in between. So you are obliged to change and adjust to the sound. But because it is a guitar and you do have the capability of bending strings or doing those things that only a guitar can do, you can impose the particular characteristics of the guitar on whatever sound you choose. So you really have the best of both worlds."

With the Synclavier II, a player has a terrific amount of control over dynamics, attack, decay and the threshold of sensitivity, which McLaughlin finds endlessly exciting. "I've put in so much work in discovering my own timbres, my own voice on this new instrument. Many of my experiments with the Synclavier II are documented on the new album, but I've made so many discoveries since then that I would have Iiked to have on the record. If onlyèyou know? But there's always another record to make, always new ideas. Change and evolution; to me that's what life is all about. It's the only thing I know. To learn, for me, is one of the greatest of all things in the world. It's something I never get tired of, something I never regret. And having this new Synclavier guitar has given me that opportunity to learn again." With its 32-voice polyphonic sampling capabilities, its built-in 32-track digital memory, its timbre/sequence recall, its array of real-time effects and its access to a powerful 16-bit mini-computer, the Synclavier digital guitar does present endless possibilities, especially in the hands of someone like John McLaughlin. Says John, "I've got my work cut out for me for quite a few years."



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JONAS HELLBORG: BASS GYMNASTICS


Old Mahavishnu Orchestra fans turned out en masse recently at the Beacon Theatre in New York City to welcome back an old friend, guitar hero John McLaughlin. But when bassist Jonas Hellborg was given the spotlight, they all but forgot whose show it was. The twenty-six-year-old Swede unleashed a torrent of manic energy and uncanny chops in his extended solo improvisation, beginning with a quotation from Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing" and finishing up with a frantic ax-tossing salute to the crowd. They loved it. They dug his shaved-head punk appeal. They dug his shades. They really dug his technique and above all his sheer reckless abandon. A star was born - Sid Vicious Meets Jaco. Dig it! Of course, most of Europe has known about this Swedish phenom for some time now. He began unveiling his virtuoso chops around Sweden from the time he was eighteen and finally in 1981 his considerable talents attracted the attention of Montreux Jazz Festival promoters. He was given an opening act spot on the bill of the '81 summer festival and wowed the discerning crowd with his thumb-thumping prowess and vast chordal knowledge. But more importantly, he was seen by all the biggies - cats like Michael Brecker, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. Yet in spite of all the acclaim, he couldn't land a contract. So the determined lad formed his own label and put out his first solo bass album, The Bassic Thing (Day Eight Music), on his own. It's a tour de force of bass playing, stretching the instrument to realms where no man (including Jaco himself) has gone before. That auspicious debut, ironically, features a McLaughlin composition, "You Know You Know" from The Inner Mounting Flame album. McLaughlin heard the album in 1981 while on tour with The Trio. Hellborg saw them in Stockholm and slipped a tape to John. His response was, ""We will get together some time." But as Hellborg recalls, "I didn't think it would ever be. So many people say that. I never expected him to call, and when he finally did, around June of '83, I was trembling. I mean, John has been like a god to me since I was fourteen. And when we finally got together for rehearsals in Paris with John and Billy [Cobham] it was like an all-time dream come true. The first time we played together it was like trying to catch a 747 taking off." Hellborg did some recording and a brief tour with Billy's band before beginning the Mahavishnu tour of Europe. His future plans include touring with Mahavishnu through the summer of '85, taking time off to collaborate with drummer Michael Shrieve and bassist-producer Bill Laswell, then reuniting with McLaughlin and company in December of '85 for the follow-up album by his new edition of the Orchestra. Hellborg plays custom-made fretless and fretted basses and also has a double-neck (fretless and fretted) made for him by Wal, the English guitar manufacturer. His amps are custom-designed by him and manufactured by two companies In Italy. Besides McLaughlin, his other heroes include John Coltrane, J.S. Bach ("the very God of music") and Jimi Hendrix ("He has never left me"). For a kid who started out in Cream clone bands, then gravitated to a Black Sabbath clone band, an Albert Ayler-esque free form band, a commercial disco band and on to performing solo guitar recitals, Jonas Hellborg has ended up in a nice placeèturning the music world on its ear with the new Mahavishnu Orchestra. -B. M.