“I WAS FASCINATED BY THE GUITAR when I was very young,” says
66-year-old British Isle folk legend Bert Jansch. “But it wasn’t
until I was a teenager that I actually started playing and going
to folk clubs and watching all of the amazing guitarists. A woman
named Jill Doyle, Davey Graham’s half-sister, was my first
guitar teacher. After I learned the basics, songwriting and playing
just seemed to go hand-in-hand—three chords and you’re
off.” From there, Jansch went on to become arguably not only the
British Isles folk guitarist, but also one of Britain’s most influential
guitarists period. Jansch’s style is a wonderful amalgam
of the traditional folk discipline with deep, yet-never- obvious
blues, jazz, and Middle Eastern influences woven throughout.
Combined with his wonderful singing
voice, a supple yet driving sense of time,
and songwriting prowess that led him to
being tagged the “British Bob Dylan” back
in the mid ’60s, Jansch is indeed, as Neil
Young testified, “On the same level as
Jimi Hendrix.” Jansch’s most recent studio
album, 2006’s The Black Swan [Drag
City], features collaborations with Devendra
Banhart and Beth Orton. The album,
like nearly every one of his 23 solo
releases, is a must-have for anyone interested
in a true master of the instrument.
The stunning “authorized bootleg”
album, Live at the 12 Bar [Sanctuary/
Fontana], was released earlier this year.
Health-wise, the past few years have
been challenging for the guitarist. In 2005
he had heart surgery and in 2009 an extensive
North American jaunt was cancelled
due to a lung cancer diagnosis, which is
now, thankfully, in remission. But after
each setback, Jansch continued recording,
gigging, and generally playing some
of the most inspired music of his life. This
past summer saw him road doggin’ across
the U.S., opening up for Neil Young,
appearing at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads
festival in Chicago (at the personal behest
of Slowhand himself), and then playing a
slew of additional dates with Young.
Jansch’s consistent and exceptional output
throughout his career has made him
impervious to resurgence—he’s never gone
anywhere. But there does seem to be a bit
more recognition of his continued, singular
brilliance these days by a whole new
generation, and that’s a good thing.
How has your playing evolved over the years?
It’s a lot less complicated. I find that
with all things guitar, you tend to continuously
explore—which can obviously be a
good thing. But oftentimes you end up
adding a lot of extra stuff and I’ve been trying
to cut that down as much as possible
and focus more on melody rather than extra
parts that don’t really need to be there.
Has your songwriting process changed at all?
Not really, but kind of like everything else
when you get older, it takes me a lot longer
to write a tune than it used to. But even
though it takes me three times as long to
finish a tune now, I think I have a more complete,
fully realized product when I’m done.
You famously tracked your 1965 debut album
in a kitchen with a Revox tape recorder. Has modern
recording technology made it any easier for
you to capture your creative output?
Yes. I have my own studio at home at the
bottom of my garden. It’s a wonderful space
to play guitar in and it’s sort of my hideaway/
hang out area too. I have a Pro Tools
setup in there and if I stumble across something
real good, I can capture it whenever I
want or hone the idea whenever I want. I
tracked all the basics for The Black Swan in
my house, before I built the studio out back.
I passed ideas back and forth with [producer]
Noah Georgeson over the Internet.
What do you play before you hit the stage?
To warm up, I’ll often play a blues.
Maybe an eight- or 12-bar blues for about
an hour. I’ve found it’s the best way to get
my fingers moving in all directions. It’s not
really something I’d play onstage—I don’t
consider myself a blues player. I just did
Eric Clapton’s Crossroads benefit show,
and there are some real blues guys there who I would never consider putting myself
Did you practice with a metronome when you
I don’t think metronomes were invented
when I first started playing! I’m a fairly
organic player, so no I never did that. I pick
up the guitar and I play it. I’m never too concerned
with tempos and things like that.
You mentioned in the past that John Renbourn
inspired you to get your reading chops together.
Did you keep up with that?
No. I’m not really an academic person. I
had a great interest in it because I was into
the guitar, and Renbourn spurred me on. He’s
such a great reader and player. He’s brilliant.
When he writes music, he really writes it—he
doesn’t use a tape recorder. He notates it all.
You’ve been playing the same Yamaha LL11
acoustic for more than ten years now. What
attracted you to that guitar?
I really like the big neck on it. I don’t like
shallow necks—they cut into my hand too
much. I prefer big-bodied acoustics too, like
jumbos. My guitar has the stock Yamaha preamp,
which allows me to blend a piezo pickup
with an internal contact mic. I never use the
piezo, however, and we always place some
type of condenser mic in front of the guitar
on stage. A mix of the contact mic and the
condenser goes out front to the house, and
I hear the internal guitar mic through the
monitor, but the volume is low enough to
where I can also hear the guitar acoustically.
For strings I use Martin light gauge .011-.052
sets. I don’t like phosphor bronze strings.
They’re too zingy. I’d rather have dull-sounding
strings than bright ones. After a couple
of gigs, strings start to sound much better as
the treble response settles down a bit.
You’ve managed to roll jazz, blues, and Middle
Eastern influences into the British folk oeuvre.
How did that come about?
It’s just listening. From the very start,
when I’d go to the local folk club in Edinburgh,
it was full of traditional Scottish and
Irish players and I got to know them and
their styles. But at that time my main interest
was blues, so I was listening to a lot of
Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee. After
that, it was jazz—Miles, Mingus—and I had
a huge interest in that stuff. By listening so
much, it just starts to come out after a while.
I was also meeting other players who were
into jazz and who could play it. I wasn’t analyzing
charts or chord substitutions, I was
simply soaking it all in and trying to make
the sounds I heard in my head come out of
my fingers. That’s usually the best way to
get where you want to go.
Also, you can’t overstate how influential
the late Davey Graham was to the entire guitar
scene. He opened so many doors for so
many people. Davey was a walking tape
recorder. Whatever he heard, he could transfer
it to the guitar. I met him when I was 16
and he had a great interest in Middle Eastern
music, even going to Morocco to learn and
listen. Of course I figured that if I were going
to be a great guitarist like Davey, I’d have to
go to Morocco too. That was really the logic
I was operating with [laughs]. But I went and
found the influence to be huge. I guess when
you’re young, that’s sort of what you do.
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