The Hendrix of the acoustic

By Sergio Ariza

When Bert Jansch is spoken of, two points are usually highlighted: first, that one of his biggest fans, by his own admission, took his arrangement from the traditional folk song Blackwaterside and converted it into an instrumental on Led Zeppelin’s song, Black Mountain Side, and then put his own name to it: Jimmy Page. The second is that when Neil Young was asked in 1992 for the name of his favourite guitarist he didn’t think for a second before responding: "Bert Jansch is the best acoustic guitarist; certainly my favourite. For electric I would say Jimi Hendrix. (...) But Bert Jansch is at the same level as Jimi". Those are the two anecdotes that many people highlight (I myself have just done it); but we shouldn’t forget that Jansch was a lot more than just a great guitarist, as he was also a magnificent composer. Someone who has written songs as moving as Needle of death and Poison - and who besides is important in the career of others such as Nick Drake, Donovan, Paul Simon, Johnny Marr, plus the two named at the start - makes him much more than just an exceptional guitarist.    

Jansch had a long careeer with more than 25 albums to his name - either solo or with Pentangle - and was one of the biggest (or the biggest?) figure on the British folk scene, linking founding figures like Davey Graham with what became known as ‘British folk rock’; represented by bands like Fairport Convention. But Jansch’s style fitted many more things than folk - like blues, jazz, rock and those flourishes on the guitar that became known as ‘baroque folk’. He never had - nor did he seek - the fame that his many admirers had, but few can boast that list of names mentioned above. Before dying in 2011 he added to those already named (and others like Pete Townshend, Richard Thompson and Elton John) a new generation of artists like Devendra Banhart, Pete Doherty and Beth Orton.

The Scotsman was born on 3 November in Glasgow, although he grew up in Edinburgh. From a young age he was fascinated by the guitar, and his early idols were Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan, whose popular skiffle, incorporated elements of both folk and traditional jazz. At 14 he got his first guitar, a Zenith - which was known as ‘the Lonnie Donegan's guitar’ - and began to visit the first folk music clubs. There he met Archie Fisher and Jill Doyle, who would become his first teacher, and introduced him to the world of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and his idol, Big Bill Broonzy. But the man who impressed Jansch most was Doyle’s half-brother, Davey Graham, from whom he would learn at first hand the influential Angi. Later in his career Jansch himself would recognise "the only three people I have copied in my career have been Big Bill Broonzy, Davey Graham and Archie Fisher".

At 15, following in Graham’s wake, he left home and went to live as a travelling vagabond in Europe, and even Morocco; a place that he visited to check out its music. At that time his technique was already so impressive that he earned a living not only playing, but teaching guitar. When he returned to the UK he soaked himself in the British folk scene, with people like Martin Carthy, Ian Cambell, and especially, Anne Briggs, who taught him songs that would be fundamental to his career like Blackwaterside and Reynardine. In 1963 he moved to London where a strong folk scene was emerging, centred around Soho, thanks to the international repercussion of Bob Dylan. Jansch’s growing renown led him to meet the engineer and producer Bill Leader, in whose kitchen he recorded a collection of songs on a Revox tape-recorder, which would become his first album. It was 1965 and the British folk scene had found its king.

Leader sold the tape to Transatlantic Records for 100 pounds. The album ended up selling over 150,000 copies, boosted by Donovan’s cover of Do you hear me now? It is clear that that was not his only great song, as there was also the incredible cover of Angi, plus two of the best songs he would write: Strolling down the highway, which would later be covered by Nick Drake, and Needle of death, a song that would have such an effect on Neil Young that he would use it as a basis for two of his own songs: The needle and the damage done and Ambulance blues. The Canadian described this album as ‘epic’, but he wasn’t the only one who became obsessed with him, as Jimmy Page - at that time one of the most in demand session musicians in the country – said: "It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that."

The curious thing is that Jansch continued distant from both fame and passing fashions, as the king of the British folk scene played only for the initiated, from his kingdom at Les Cousins in London’s Soho. He continued acting like a vagabond and he didn’t even have his own guitar; his first album was recorded with a Martin 00028 that Martin Carthy had loaned him. Around him there was a distinguished group of musicians like Roy Harper, John Renbourn (another fantastic guitarist, with whom he shared a flat in Kilburn) and the American Paul Simon who, when he returned to the US at the end of 65, took with him the version of Angi that Jansch had taught him and renamed it Anji when he recorded it with Simon & Garfunkel. Around the same time his second album appeared, called It don't bother me, on which Harper and Renbourn appear as guests. It would be with the latter who he would form his most important musical relationship. His intricate conversations on guitar would lead to what became known as ‘baroque folk’. Renbourn was an expert in medieval subjects and Jansch was passionate about jazz; and with Charles Mingus at the head, their mix of styles, with folk and blues, would lead them to create something totally unique.


With the appearance of Jansch’s third album, the influential Jack Orion, on which he did covers of traditional songs - including Blackwaterside that Page would appropriate - his style became more intimate, as can be seen on the song which gave its name to the album title. Jansch and Renbourn began to play as a duo in the dives of Soho, managing to record an album together in 1966. The following year, in their performances in the Horseshoe pub, the singer Jacqui McShee occasionally appeared, and shortly afterwards they were joined by the rhythm section, with Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on drums; and together they started to perform under the name of Pentangle.

Meanwhile Jansch continued with his solo career. Nicola was his fifth album and was more poppy, with the marvellous Woe is love my dear a forerunner of what Nick Drake would do years later on Bryter Layter. However, the absence of commercial success took him to prioritise Pentangle, which released their debut album in May 1968. Their attractive mix of folk, jazz and blues made them points of reference in the nascent British folk-rock scene. On their first album, The Pentangle, the incredible communication between Jansch and Redbourn’s guitars can be appreciated, with an excellent contribution by Terry Cox on drums on Bells; a perfect mix between folk and jazz. In that moment Jansch played a guitar built by John Bailey, a legendary name on the British folk scene. In 1969 they put out their masterwork, Basket of light, which included their most famous song, Light flight, besides other great songs like Once I had a sweetheart and Train song, a duet between Jansch and McShee. Instrumentally it is also the peak of Jansch’s career, as can be heard on the solo in Springtime Promises; the John Bailey of Jansch and the Gibson J-50 of Renbourn read each other to perfection. Furthermore their palette had broadened with oriental and rock touches; Renbourn also plays an electric, a Gibson 335, and the sitar, and Jansch adds the banjo. To finish off what can easily be called the best momento of Jansch’s career, Birthday Blues also emerged, his sixth solo album, on which Thompson and Cox appear; as well as one of the best songs of Jansch’s career, Poison.


But Pentangle’s good commercial patch arrived at an end with Cruel sister, which was a commercial, although not artistic, failure. Pentangle recorded two more albums but dissolved in 1973 over a bitter 'royalties' dispute with their record company. It was a bittersweet end for a great band. Jansch, disenchanted with the world of music, went to live on a farm with his wife and stopped playing live, although he continued recording on his own, as can be heard on the notable L.A. Turnaround of 1974, on which he debuted his Yamaha FG1500, after someone robbed his Bailey. But life as a farmer did not last too long and in 1977 he left his wife and returned to music, forming the group Conundrum. There were various tours and albums more, but the 80s were marked by his heavy abuse of alcohol.

His aristic resurrection came in 1995 with When the Circus Comes to Town, on which appeared the beautiful Morning brings peace of mind. From this point his career began to resurge. In 2000 he recorded Crimson Moon, an album on which younger guitarists like Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler appear as guests. The following year the BBC gave him a lifetime career award, and two years later Rolling Stone included him on its list of the top 100 guitarists of all time. In 2007 came the moment of Pentangle’s recognition, and the whole band started to play together again. In 2010 Neil Young had the opportunity to thank him for his enormous influence by taking him on as his support act on his 2010 tour. That same year Eric Clapton invited Jansch to his Crossroads festival. In these final years he was loyal to his Yamaha LL11.

Despite being diagnosed with throat cancer, Jansch decided to tour in 2011 with the reformed Pentangle, giving their final concert in the Royal Festival Hall, in which they had recorded, 43 years earlier, part of the legendary Sweet Child. But ‘the Hendrix of the acoustic’ finished by losing his battle against cancer, and died on 5 October 2011. It is still today impossible to evaluate the enormous impact of his music and his way of playing in the world of the acoustic guitar, but no-one with a minimum of interest for the most stripped-down sounds should overlook the influence of his monumental work.