“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 with.
Did you practice with a metronome when you started out?
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.