By Richard Bienstock
In the new issue of Guitar Aficionado, we travel to Glasgow to explore the many and varied luxury destinations found within this rejuvenated city. As a companion piece, we present here a playlist from one of Glasgow’s own, fingerstylist extraordinaire Bert Jansch, whose work over close to half a century has influenced everyone from Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, and Nick Drake, to Neil Young, Johnny Marr, and Devendra Banhart. Below, we take a closer look at four of the musician’s greatest performances.
“Needle of Death”
(Bert Jansch, 1965)
Recorded, along with the rest of this album, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder at a friend’s home, “Needle of Death” is built on a jaunty but ultimately morose fingerpicking pattern, over which Jansch sings of the ravages of drug use. It is of a piece, at least in subject matter, to Neil Young’s later “The Needle and the Damage Done,” though Young ultimately borrowed the song’s melody for another of his tunes, 1974’s “Ambulance Blues.”
(Jack Orion, 1966)
Jansch’s most well known song, though most people are considerably more familiar with Jimmy Page’s instrumental rendition (titled “Black Mountain Side”) on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut. And while Page’s version is a prime example of DADGAD-tuned fingerpicking, Jansch actually performed his take in drop-D.
(Pentangle, Basket of Light, 1969)
The teaming of Jansch and fellow British fingerstylist John Renbourn in Pentangle rendered the combo something of a British folk supergroup. Of the clutch of albums the band issued during their first incarnation in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Basket of Light remains their standout effort, and “Light Flight,” the album’s leadoff track, perhaps their most popular composition. Jansch and Renbourn’s twisting, interlocked guitars, along with Danny Thompson’s double-bass playing, form a latticework behind Jacqui McShee’s fairy-like vocals, and aptly capture a sound that has often been described as “folk baroque.”
“Hey Pretty Girl”
(The Black Swan, 2006)
Jansch’s 2006 “comeback” record was a celebration of sorts, with the guitarist joined by a host of disciples, including Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton. But this solo performance, which closes the album, is a reminder of just how captivating the artist remains with just one guitar and voice.