John McLaughlin is one of the truly unique voices on the guitar. To define him merely as a jazz-fusion pioneer is only telling half the story, as his playing defies categorisation.
When the Mahavishnu Orchestra released their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, in 1971, guitarists were immediately aware that there was a new master in their midst, and he has remained fiercely individual throughout his career.
Equally at home on both electric and acoustic guitars, he has explored Indian music and many other genres, each bearing the stamp of his singular style. A fearless experimenter with technology, McLaughlin is one of the only guitarists who has persevered with the guitar synthesiser. The new album, Black Light, is a showcase for the instrument, a state-of-the-art system that manages to keep pace with some lightning-fast playing.
Our first question revealed his experiences with a guitar synth on his latest CD.
“It’s always an experiment with a guitar synthesiser. I’m using a Paul Reed Smith guitar with a Triple Play, from Fishman, that was actually invented by an old friend of mine from Budapest called András Szalay.
“He’s been working with Larry Fishman for a few years now and it’s quite an amazing unit, because it’s wireless and it’s got really good latency - or should I say ‘really bad latency’, in so far as there’s very little delay and it’s really the best thing that’s around. It’s not perfect, but getting MIDI out of a guitar is a real tricky problem.
“Converting to frequency and then to MIDI, it’s a big thing - and you’re talking about technology that’s really a tough nut to crack. I think they’ve got it. I think it’s a question of developing it from now.”
Do you amplify the synthesiser separately to your guitar signal?
“I have a dongle that comes with the Triple Play, like a USB plug, and I just plug it into my laptop and I run Logic. In Logic Audio, there’s all kind of built-in soft synths and there’s a patch that I’ve been tweaking for 10 years now that sounds a bit like a flute, and I continue to use it because I like it.
“I like how it speaks and it makes me play differently, too. You’ll hear it on the opening of Being You Being Me and it’s the melody in Gaza City. It’s got a kind of melancholy, a nostalgic character to it, but I’m constantly tweaking it to go looking for more ‘naturalness’, I suppose you could call it.”
How does the synth work for you live? They’re kind of renowned for being unreliable on stage…
“They are capricious - let’s say, still ‘in development’. Sometimes it’s freaky. For some reason, they’re sensitive to mobile phone signals, I think they’re sensitive to the big antennas that are broadcasting at very high frequencies and that can play havoc, it really can.
“That actually happened to me and I spoke to András about it. He’s constantly working on development, but there are nights when it works perfectly - and you haven’t done anything except set it up - but the next night, it’s glitchy and you don’t really know why.
“He feels a big part of the problem is the volume of microwaves in the air, especially because the Triple Play is wifi, which is really fantastic because you don’t need this big MIDI cable - you know, the 13-pin Roland cable - you don’t have that, it’s fantastic.”
MIDI played a large role in your DVD, This Is The Way I Do It, too…
“The concept I had was to have a music score running in sync along the bottom of the screen and that was a tough nut, actually. The solution was quite simple, but then difficult in its realisation.
“What I ended up doing was I had to record MIDI and audio simultaneously. That’s the only way, and the best guitar I could find at that time with a MIDI capture on it was the Godin.
“I used to go through the Roland halfsize unit which converts the signal to MIDI and into the computer. There was some latency there and also there were glitches going on, so what I did was I recorded the audio guitar with the MIDI, took the MIDI file and cleaned it up and quantised it so it became readable.
“I then converted that to an mp4 video file through the laptop and exported it back into the main frame, where the main video taping was going on. And then it was really just a question of syncing it up, which actually wasn’t difficult.”
What sort of signal path are you using for your guitar rig at present?
“I’m using three kinds of tube preamp, depending on what sort of mood I’m in. The old one is a Mesa/Boogie V Twin, which I really like because I used to play Mesa/Boogie amps back in the 70s and 80s. Then I have a [Hermida Audio] Zendrive2; this has one valve in it. The last one is a Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic and this album has been recorded with the Seymour Duncan from start to finish.
“But it all depends on the mood, really, because the last live CD I did was recorded with the Zendrive2 and it sounded great, too. I just go with my instincts, really, but I like all of them for different reasons. They’re all good.”
Power amp vs preamp
Do you use any foot pedals?
“I use a Line 6 wireless system [Relay G30], which is the best one I know - really top class and it even has a virtual cable switch if you want to get the cable sound, but I don’t bother with that.
“I go straight into the tuner and from the tuner into the preamp, whichever one I’m using, and from there it goes into an MXR [Carbon Copy] Delay - I really like MXR for quality - and from that into an MXR Stereo Chorus, and that’s it. Then the output goes to the monitors and to the front of house.”
So you don’t have a power amp on stage?
“Not any more. I’ve got a wonderful power amp from Paul Reed Smith, but it’s, like, 60lbs. It is so heavy to lug around and to go on tour with, it’s a nightmare. The thing is, the control I have over the sound from these tube preamps is excellent. I’m really happy with the way they work. I’m particularly happy with the sound on this recording with the Seymour Duncan.”
New York New York
What was it that attracted you to Paul Reed Smith guitars?
“They’re great! Do I need another reason? [Laughs.] Paul and I go back about 20 years when he gave me the first guitar, the PRS that I have loved since forever. It’s a fantastic guitar.
“And then I ran into Paul again in Frankfurt, at the Musikmesse, about seven or eight years ago and I hadn’t seen him in a while. He said, ‘So how’s your guitar?’ and I said, ‘It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t have MIDI.’ So he said, ‘I want to make you another one and I can do it with MIDI, too.’
“So, he made me three guitars: one had MIDI built-in, but of course it was the Roland kind of pickup, but Larry Fishman gave me the Triple Play to test and it’s really the best one. But since then, Paul’s built me the one on the cover of Black Light. It’s a work of art and the sound is just out of this world.”
Is this the one with the New York skyline down the fingerboard?
“Yes, New York is very dear to me. [The ’board has] even got the Twin Towers on it. They were going up when I was living there and I used to go down on my bike to Lower Manhattan just to see them go up. It was so impressive.
“I love New York to this day - Miles Davis was there, Tony Williams was there, it’s where I met Jimi… New York is a very special place and Paul put it on the guitar just like that - totally amazing.”
Do you write on the guitar?
“Yes, but sometimes I can’t actually sit down and write music, I have to wait until I hear something. That’s why I like my iPhone: I get an idea and I can sing it directly into my phone and it’s archived.
“It might be just a melody or it might be an idea I have for a particular chord progression or it might just be a rhythmical idea. So I actually do so much with my iPhone and my voice. And who knows where I might be? I’m not necessarily going to be home when I get an idea and if I don’t record it, it’s gone.
“I’ve had great ideas and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll remember that…’ and I’m busy doing something and when I get back, it’s, ‘What was that again?’ and it’s gone; gone forever and it never comes back.
“So now I’ve learned my lesson, I sing it into my iPhone and it’s fantastic. I did a track recently with Cindy Blackman and the piece came from exactly that - something I sang directly into my phone and it worked out fantastic.”
The new album employs Konnakol, a South Indian art of vocal percussion…
“I studied Konnakol in the 1970s with Pandit Ravi Shankar and he was marvellous. And, of course, working with Shakti, I was able to develop the Konnakol to the point where, about eight years ago, I released an educational DVD on how to master it.
“It’s a fantastic system because you can sing rhythms so easily, I would recommend it to anybody. I use it all the time and when I’m with the band and we’re in rehearsal, I will just sing a rhythmical idea to them and they know exactly what it is.
“Ranjit [Barot, drums and vocals] can sing it but Gary [Husband, drums and keyboards] picks it up like lightning. I sing it to Ranjit and he will sing something to me. He’ll say, ‘What about if we do a development of that rhythm?’ and sing it back at me in Konnakol so I understand exactly what he’s doing. So if you can sing Konnakol and understand it, you can play it.”
Loco for Luca
There’s also a track on Dark Light in memory of Paco de Lucía…
“Oh I miss him, I miss him terribly. This tune was one of the pieces that we were due to record last year together. We had planned to do a duo album and I talked to him just before he left for Mexico; that must have been early February, because it was on 25 February that he had his heart attack in Playa Del Carmen. We’d traded pieces already and this was one piece he was very fond of - and then we lost him.
“I was devastated, to tell you the truth. It took me a while to get over it and when I’d calmed down, I thought, ‘Well, I should do this piece for him because he really liked it.’ It was supposed to be for two guitars, originally - acoustic guitars - that’s why I play acoustic guitar on it.
“I did an arrangement for the band and I thought it came out really well. It’s got the kind of atmosphere that Paco would like. The title, El Hombre Que Sabia, means ‘the man who knew’ and he really knew. He was such a human being and what a guitar player. Holy moly!
“But there is some good news because, finally after 28 years, I’ve got Eagle Rock to release a concert Paco and I did together in 1987 at the Montreux Jazz Festival and that’s going to be coming out, I think, in January. It was a fantastic night and we were both nuts, you know. I’m really thrilled about that.”
John McLaughlin’s new album, Black Light, is available now on Abstract Logix.