Bert Jansch

“My sense of song form comes from traditional British music,” says Scottish guitar legend Bert Jansch. This explains a lot about the influential guitarist’s tendency to play in phrases rather than adhere strictly to bar counts or time signatures—to play music that always flows with purpose, even if that means adding or dropping a beat here or there. “Singers like Anne Briggs don’t think in bars of 3/4 or 4/4,” says Jansch, “they think of [each phrase] only as ‘one.’”

Born in Glasgow, raised in Edinburgh, and schooled in the folk scene of early 1960s London, Jansch forged a songwriting, arranging, and playing style that has influenced several of the world’s most celebrated folk and rock musicians, including Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Johnny Marr. Speaking of influences, Jansch is quick to pay homage to his own, including folk guitarist and “Freight Train” composer Elizabeth Cotten, and genre-bending guitarist Davy Graham. “Davy was one of those guys who could take what [jazz bassist and composer] Charlie Mingus’ entire band was playing and put it on the guitar,” says Jansch. “That always intrigued me. Davy also used to travel to places like Morocco and Bulgaria so he could learn to play all those odd meters and scales with no problem.”

Jansch’s eponymous 1965 debut album caused such a stir in the U.K., with hits like “Do You Hear Me Now” (covered by Donovan that same year) and “Needle of Death,” that Jansch quickly began a recording career that has yielded no less than 35 releases to date (both as a solo artist and with the group Pentangle). Jansch’s latest offering, The Black Swan [Drag City], showcases him with some of the U.K.’s finest young folk musicians, including Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart, Otto Hauser, Helena Espvall, Kevin Barker, and even his son Adam Jansch. The album is an eclectic mix of traditional music from both sides of the pond, as well as Jansch’s own brand of Celtic and blues-tinged songwriting, which explores themes as disparate as spaceships, Irish prisons, and the state of Texas.

The following examples were performed on steel-string with a mash-up of fingerpicking techniques from the worlds of classical, folk, and flamenco. In order to maintain a full, ringing sound, take care to hold down the notes of each arpeggiated chord as long as possible. (This may require significant finger independence in some examples.) Ex. 1, the main riff from The Black Swan’s title track, utilizes the very open sound of a Bsus2-Asus2 chordal shift. Only the quick D to C# (m3 to 2) pull-off in measure 1 hints at a tonality (B minor), as neither chord contains a 3. In Ex. 2, Jansch takes the same riff into that mysterious musical realm somewhere between Celtic and Flamenco, particularly with the spooky F#7add11 chord featuring A# and B (the chord’s 3 and 4) creating friction in measure 4.

For a bit of classical-meets-blues texture, try the main guitar part to “Let Me Sing” [Ex. 3], which first appeared on Jansch’s 1980 album, Thirteen Down. Note how leaving a beat off in measure 3 of Ex. 4 effectively propels the tune into the next section. Jansch has never had an inclination to do plucking/picking hand coordination exercises. “Actually, I think of this hand [holds up plucking hand] as nonexistent,” says Jansch, laughing. “Whatever my fretting hand does, my picking hand just reflects it. You just have to think of what you want to play and hopefully both hands will get there together.”

“Blackwaterside,” from the 1966 album Jack Orion, has been the subject of rock folklore ever since Jimmy Page allegedly lifted Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional Irish tune, changed the name to “Black Mountain Side,” copyrighted it as his own, and stuck it on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut. To judge for yourself, check out the extremely recognizable riff [Ex. 5] and chord melody [Ex. 6] from the intro to Jansch’s vocal version. Again, realize that Jansch probably wasn’t thinking about different time signatures, simply phrases. On his Jack Orion album, Jansch used a dropped-D tuning and capoed the 4th fret, putting “Blackwaterside” in the key of F#. Page, on the other hand, tuned to DADGAD, then lowered the whole guitar a half-step.

In October 2006, Jansch came to the U.S. to perform several dates, including the famed Bridge School Benefit Concert that Neil Young puts on annually near San Francisco. Young surprised Jansch by asking him to join him on a duet to open the second day’s concert just ten minutes before show time. “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” confesses Jansch. “Neil said, ‘I’ve got this song that’s a bit derivative of one of yours that I’d like you to do with me.’”

It turns out this “tune” was none other than Young’s “Ambulance Blues,” which was influenced by Jansch’s own “Needle of Death.” Jansch’s impromptu performance went off without a hitch—but then that’s not surprising for a man that Young himself has proclaimed to be “as much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix].”

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