JOHN McLAUGHLIN RARELY SITS STILL—EITHER LITERALLY
or figuratively—unless it is to meditate or enjoy a good meal. At
the time of this interview the 68-year-old guitarist and his band,
the 4th Dimension, were in the midst of playing 24 concerts in
13 European countries, supporting the Coltrane-inspired To
the One [Abstract Logix] recorded just a few months earlier. Of
course, McLaughlin has been on the move throughout his storied
career, from altering jazz history with Tony Williams and
Miles Davis and spearheading jazz-fusion with the Mahavishnu
Orchestra in the ’60s and ’70s, to sharing the Grammy for Best
Jazz Instrumental Album with Chick Corea for their Five Peace
Band Live album last year.
Backed by keyboardist and drummer
Gary Husband, drummer Mark Mondesir,
and bassist Etienne Mbappe, McLaughlin
inwardly recapitulates his musical and
spiritual journey on To the One, a consistently
strong album featuring beautiful
ensemble interaction, inspired improvisation,
and passionate guitar playing. As
Miles famously exclaimed, “Go ahead John!”
You have said that Coltrane inspired the music
on To the One. Are there musical as well as
The music arrived in my mind in an
unusual way. Firstly, I had no intention
of making a recording last year, and second,
the relation to Coltrane’s A Love
Supreme was secondary. The musical ideas
came with their own direction as to
form—that is they were definitely for the
4th Dimension—and the innate character
of the music suggested the atmosphere
of A Love Supreme. There was also a third
reference to this which came in a dream
I had in October of last year, in which the
liner notes and track titles came to me as
a kind of dictation. I had to get up in the
middle of the night and write everything
down, and only after seeing the notes in
the morning was the degree of impact so
noticeable. Also, the track titles themselves
told another story, which was that
of my own itinerary and endeavors in
music and the interior world since1965,
which was the time I first heard Coltrane’s
There are several references to previous
compositions tucked away within the music.
To what extent were they conscious?
In any creation of any kind the mind
and imagination of the artist functions
in both conscious and unconscious ways.
The two most obvious references are the
melody in “Lost & Found”—which is a
theme I wrote in the 1970s, part of which
was recorded by Shakti at that time, and
that I have wanted to record since then,
but have never found the right way—and
the second was an allusion to “Lila’s
Dance,” recorded in the early ’70s by the
Briefly retrace your spiritual journey, from dropping acid to the Theosophical Society
to practicing yoga to Sri Chinmoy and
beyond—specifically in terms of your relationship
to creativity and playing music.
Since the first three stages you
already mentioned, I’ll continue after
my five years with Sri Chinmoy. I should
clarify one thing at the outset, and that
is the spiritual journey began as a separate
consideration from my music.
From an early age I was blessed or
cursed, whichever you prefer, with a
profound desire to understand the
meaning of existence. The relationship
to music came only after fully understanding
that however I am in life is
how I will be in music. This understanding
was due to both A Love Supreme and
its musical and spiritual origins, and
the discovery of Indian music and its
complete integration of the human spirit
in all its aspects. The pieces “Lost &
Found” and “The Fine Line” refer
directly to walking the path. That is, being
on the way, hopefully, towards enlightenment,
liberation, and freedom—and
from time to time falling off the path.
This has happened several times during
my life, but here I am, still on the
way, and hopefully I’ll be on it for the
rest of my time here. The spiritual work
after my time with Sri Chinmoy was the
study and application of meditative techniques
to develop interior clarity. The
techniques found in Bhakti Yoga and
Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism
in particular, interested me most.
There are also wonderful Westerners
who have played and continue to play
an important role, and they are D.E.
Harding, Alan Watts, Karen Armstrong,
and Eckhart Tolle.
Is improvisation something you do or
something that does you?
Improvisation is the living of the
moment—the only one that we truly
have. Spontaneity is the essence of jazz
music. In spontaneity we are truly ourselves.
Notoriously, it takes much time
to learn everything only to go to the
stage and forget everything and be spontaneous!
When playing with other musicians
there’s the “music”—the chords and rhythms and notes—and there’s the music. What’s the difference?
The difference is when the music lives.
When the music reflects the richness of the
players’ personalities, and the richness of
the relations between them as part of a group
activity, and as individuals. When the group
moves as an entity, the music takes on this
entity and becomes rich itself. Without this,
the music remains just notes.
Carlos Santana told me that he wished you
would get your tone together by just plugging a
Les Paul or a Stratocaster into a Marshall or some
other tube amp. What does the concept of tone
mean to you at this point in your career?
We are constantly evolving, and I believe
this affects our perception of tone, which
evolves accordingly. I can understand what
Carlos says about just plug a Strat or a Les
Paul into a Marshall and go. However, the
music I play is not the same as Carlos’ music.
I had already been influenced by Jimi and
Eric Clapton beginning in 1969, with Tony
Williams and Miles—but to integrate the
kind of guitar sound you’d normally associate
with blues or rock into complex and
relatively sophisticated music was a special
kind of work for me. You can see this in the
first Mahavishnu recordings. My music doesn’t
stop evolving, and I am continuing to
work on my tone. I feel I am getting closer
to what I want from the electric guitar.
Have you made any significant changes to your
rig during the last year or so?
I’ve been using a Mesa/Boogie V-Twin
preamp for a couple of years now, and I’m
very happy with it. I also use an MXR Carbon
Copy analog delay and an MXR Stereo
Chorus. I’m still running Apple Logic Pro
on a Mac laptop, with a Roland GI-20 for the
MIDI interface. I’m not completely happy
with the Roland, but it’s about the best on
the market. I’m hoping someone will come
out with a real synth guitar interface soon.
When I think of the Synclavier guitar synthesizer
I played in the ’80s, which was
amazing for the time, it appears there really
hasn’t been much evolution since then.
Are you still using the ES2 Virtual Analog
Yes. In fact, the synth guitar tone I used
on To the One is basically the same patch that
I used on Industrial Zen and Floating Point, though I’ve been tweaking it the whole time.
There are quite a number of parameters you
can modify. The basics are the envelope—
attack, sustain, decay, etc.—and various filters
which change the character of the sound.
Since I liked the basic sound from the beginning,
it was a question of length of note and
EQ, coupled with the degree of pitch bend
programmed. There is also a panoramic
aspect to the sound that makes it move in a
subtle way. I like that as it lends a sense of
Talk a little bit about your approach to using
the vibrato bar.
The vibrato bar allows me to drop the
pitch of a note suddenly, which is the main
reason I have one. Studying Indian music
definitely affected my approach to music in
general and improvising in particular—and
those sorts of pitch changes are reflective of
that. Miles also had a way of dropping the
pitch of a note, so that was also no doubt an
The Godin you are playing in a recent video has
True Temperament frets and a scalloped fretboard.
What’s the story behind that guitar?
My friend Cherian Jubilee had a Godin
Freeway modified with True Temperament
frets and a half-scalloped fretboard—the
space under the first three strings is scalloped—
which is a new experience for me.
Chords are in tune in every position, but
having spent more than 50 years playing
regular frets, it’s taking time for me to feel
completely comfortable with it. The fretboard,
however, is an echo of the scalloped
fretboards on the acoustic Shakti guitars I
played in the 1970s, which I know well. The
scallops prevent the fingertips from touching
the board itself, so the strings are
suspended in the air, and one can bend them
in either direction very easily. Robert Godin
also presented me with a guitar as a Christmas
present. It’s a blonde Freeway, but
without the middle pickup, since that always
interfered with my right-hand technique.
I’m touring with it at the moment.
What strings and picks are you currently using?
I’ve been using D’Addario XL strings,
gauged .010 to .046, for as long as I can
remember. And after making my own small
picks from pie boxes for 20 years, I’ve been
using Jim Dunlop Jazz IIIs, though I roughen
up the tops with my Swiss army knife so I
can get a better grip.
Is it true that you’ll be playing with Allan
Holdsworth on the new Gary Husband album?
I’m hoping so. I already struck out once
with Allan for a piece that I wanted to record
with him, but since Gary knows him really
well, maybe he’s the one who can pull it off.
Is there any possibility that the original four
members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra will ever
play together again?
It was a dream of mine for decades. I tried
to get together a series of charity concerts
back in the ’80s, and while there was muted
interest from some of the members, one
wouldn’t even speak to me. It isn’t meant
to be, but at least this way the band will
remain as it was in the hearts of a lot of people
for some time. Especially mine!