Faster than the speed of Sound

By Mario Benito

Who was that English guitarist seated beside Paco de Lucía and this other guitarist whom I didn’t know at that time and who was playing an acoustic Ovation at  such speed that you could hardly see which notes he was playing? His fingers traveled the fretboard of the neck with dizzying speed, but the sound seemed to come quicker than his digits. It happens on all his recorded videos, if you look closely as long as you play the guitar, or try. They were called The Guitar Trio and had so much success that they got back together years later, releasing records and international tours included. Alongside the brilliant Paco de Lucía  - one the greatest guitarists of all time— played Al Di Meola  — distinguished in jazz/rock — and the Englishman we were talking about, John McLaughlin, an unclassifiable virtuoso who makes me wonder everytime I see him and especially each time I listen to his dizzying phrasing, if it’s possible to play faster than the speed of sound.

I am undoubtedly convinced that this super-gifted musician must be obsessed with the limits that can be reached on a guitar. “He’s very fast”, is the first thing he said about Paco de Lucía in interviews where they asked him about the experience playing with him. And Paco de Lucía  played with his fingers and not a pick like him, a useful tool when it comes to speed , as McLaughlin must know well. Maybe because of this obsession for speed he later  got together with Hindu musicians with whom he has kept what we could call a resounding endless dialogue of percussion at stellar speeds with different instruments: the guitar and the  tabla, the guitar and the sitar, the guitar and violin in groups such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and especially, Shakti

John McLaughlin was born in January 1942 in Doncaster, U.K.. His father was a concert violinist and he was surrounded by music since he was very young, studying the piano and violin. At 11 he became interested in the guitar and from that moment on, it was with this instrument he became utterly engrossed (almost fused together). As his music is a fusion of jazz, classical, rock — in fact he is one of the most important musicians of the 70s movement from the last century called jazz/rock — Indian music, flamenco...


In the early 60s he moved to London from Yorkshire and formed a part of several rock groups and his most renowned work was the recording of the album Extrapolation (1969) where he used a Gibson with a body model L4 with Charlie Christian pickups. That same year he took off for the USA where he first joined the group Tony Williams Lifetime, and then became known internationally for  having  recorded with Miles Davis on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew — an album considered the foundation of jazz/rock with a million copies sold, the first in which electric instruments were used by jazz musicians, and where  the amazing pianist Chick Corea also played alongside  Joe Zawinul  and Wayne Shorter on sax, among others that have already made history —On the Corner and Big Fun. It’s the golden age of jazz/rock fusion and McLaughlin became one of its big recognised virtuosos, in these works with Miles Davis  he slides his pick faster and faster on an electroacoustic Gibson Hummingbird, a Fender Mustang, and mainly a black Gibson Les Paul Custom from ‘58 that McLaughlin himself says “I rented because both bands (Lifetime and Miles Davis) were playing harder and harder and the Hummingbird had a feedback problem, the Les Paul was the perfect instrument”.  


In the following decade, John McLaughlin turned into Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, baptised by its spiritual master Bengali Sri Chinmoy (a writer and musician too, emigrated to New York). Besides  converting to Hinduism, he first formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, now a legendary jazz/rock fusion band, together with the extraordinary virtuoso drummer Billy Cobham — who he  had met while recording with Miles Davis — , Rick Laird on electric and acoustic bass, Jan Hammer on piano, and Jerry Goodman, the until then leader of the band The Flock, on violin. They recorded some very prestigious albums like Birds of Fire (1972) or that fabulous live show in NY’s Central Park in 1973 with the title Between Nothingness and Eternity. The speedy dialogue between the electric violin, Cobham’s drums and McLaughlin’s guitar were brutal. A Gibson SG with 2 necks 0f 6 and 12 strings — “a dream guitar”—. but also a Les Paul Junior from the 60s and especially, a double-necked guitar built in 1974 by Californian luthier Rex Bogue based on an Ibanez Artwood with Gibson humbucker pickups, but modified as was all electronics  by Bogue. McLaughlin named  that guitar ‘The Double Rainbow’ and is an instrument he has used a lot up to the present. Also during those Mahavishnu years he played what he called “my first synthesized guitar, a modified Gibson Les Paul Special, “a real elephant, but it worked”.  


Between 1975 -78 he  gets together with Indian violinist L. Shankar, famed tabla percussionist Zakir Hussain — considered the best in the world on this instrument —,  Ramnad Raghavan and ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram, both percussionists and all originally from India to form Shakti, a group that, despite its short life and only having recorded 3 records, one of them live (Shakti, 1976), is a benchmark in terms of of fusion of musics and cultures — a precursor for some critics of what would come to be known as World Music —-.  Shakti was a very special acoustic group and McLaughlin wanted an acoustic guitar that adapted to that music, with a set of 7 additional strings installed on the body, besides the normal strings. On the first album he played a conventional acoustic guitar made by prestigious luthier Mark Whitebook - maker of coveted handmade guitars for players such as James Taylor -, whom he contacted to make that special guitar he was looking for. But Whitebook was ill with asthma and had to leave work, so finally it was Abraham Wechter - who was working for Gibson at the time -, who made the guitar which McLaughlin called ‘Shakti guitar’.  

Just after the Shakti experience came The Guitar Trio, mentioned at the top of this article, where he joins guitarists like Al Di Meola- who replaced the no less great Larry Coryell, an original member-, and Paco De Lucía. Together they would record an historic live album, Friday Night in San Francisco (1981). The two electroacoustic Ovations of McLaughlin and Di Meola play together with the powerful flamenco guitar of De Lucía made by the Conde Brothers in their ancient workshop on Gravina St. in Madrid - before they broke up -, and gave a series of concerts on a world tour that left the lucky ones who got to see them awestruck, where the guitars make the styles jazz, rock, flamenco and classical  unimportant and rather focus on  the exquisiteness of the music. They got back together in 1996 for a new record and world tour. 


With all of this there would be enough to sign one of the most impressive and successful  musical careers in the world of guitars, but we’re only in 1980 and McLaughlin is still active today in 2017. The JM Trio (1987-93), The Free Spirits - JM Trio (1993-95), again The Guitar Trio (1996), The Heart of Things (1997), Remember Shakti (1998-2003), a tremendous return with great records like Saturday Night in Bombay (2001), Orchestral projects and Education  between 2003-2005, his 4th Dimension project since 2006 with whom he played last summer in Madrid and Barcelona, where his 74 years did not show  in the incredible speed of his fingering with a synthesised Godin Freeway SA.  

One could say that this wonderful guitarist has not yet finished his incessant search of musical styles, each more demanding in terms of virtuosism, different musics in which his quick nervous phrasing always with his signature sound, as usually happens with all great musicians, playing so fast thatitseemsasifthesilencebetweennotesiseliminated to reach the fastest guitar solo that you can imagine. You don’t listen to it, because to achieve that you need to be faster than the speed of sound. 

(Images: ©CordonPress)