Legendary Fingerstylist John Renbourn

DURING THE MID AND LATE ’60S, A SMALL CADRE OF mostly English and European guitarists redefined folk music by introducing elements from classical, jazz, blues, rock, and various styles of early music, as well as sometimes devising alternate guitar tunings to help facilitate their explorations.
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DURING THE MID AND LATE ’60S, A SMALL CADRE OF mostly English and European guitarists redefined folk music by introducing elements from classical, jazz, blues, rock, and various styles of early music, as well as sometimes devising alternate guitar tunings to help facilitate their explorations. John Renbourn was a principal exponent of this new music, both as a solo artist and alongside fellow innovator Bert Jansch in the seminal “folkbaroque” quintet Pentangle from 1967 to 1973 (Pentangle emerged from retirement in 2008 to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC 2 Folk Awards and briefly tour the U.K.). Concurrently with his work in Pentangle, Renbourn released several solo recordings that also helped establish him as a leading voice in the burgeoning progressive folk movement, perhaps most notably 1968’s Sir John Alot of Merry Englandes Musyk Thynge and ye Grene Knyghte. Following those heady early days, Renbourn continued to evolve as a player and composer, deepening his knowledge of classical and early music styles, and collaborating with luminaries such as Robin Williamson and Stefan Grossman. Today, he remains one of the finest and most accomplished fingerstyle guitarists in the word. Renbourn’s latest recording, PalermoSnow [Shanachie], is a superb collection of ten tunes featuring six originals and four arrangements of compositions by others, including Erik Satie’s “Sarabande” and J.S. Bach’s “Cello Prelude in G.” Renbourn was also recently honored by C.F. Martin & Co., which introduced the limited-run OMM John Renbourn Custom Artist Edition guitar in March 2011.

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How did you go about selecting the tunes on Palermo Snow? They’re all very different, and yet they work quite well together.

I’m really glad you say that. I went back to college to learn how to orchestrate and do a few things I couldn’t do before, so I thought I’d like to try something new—but I wanted to tidy up a few pieces that I had lying around before moving on. I began with “Palermo Snow,” and then I looked around for other pieces. But being on the road, it took a long time to finish the record. I’m known as a Celtic folk-based player, so this was quite a departure because it was very romantic sounding and rather more harmonic and a little bit more classical. For a while, I thought it was never going to work, because there was such a mish-mash of material— but some of the pieces actually look the same on paper. For example, one is a Jellyroll Morton-style ragtime piece, followed by an Erik Satie impressionist piece. In fact, however, the harmonies are identical in spots. Reportedly, Morton was offered the chance to tour Europe at a time when Satie and the impressionists would have been quite open to those influences. The Harlem Hellfighters, who played similar music, went instead and were a huge influence on the classical movement. So there are real connections there.

That’s really interesting. Of course, there was a huge jazz craze in France at that time.

Yeah. The French were the first to adopt jazz absolutely—lock, stock, and barrel. It must have been fantastic. There is a story that, in fact, Ravel had heard these guys playing ragtime and he got one of them to come to his house to show him the chords. So those two pieces actually sit together quite well.

You get a really beautiful sound on the new album. How were the guitars recorded?

Nick Turner, who really knows how to record acoustic instruments, recorded the album at Watercolor studio in the Scottish Highlands. For years I’d been struggling to get a good acoustic sound, and frankly, recording there changed my life. He used a pair of Neumann microphones—probably U87s—and blended in a tiny bit of my [Mike Vanden] Mimesis pickup. We were in a live room that he built where he actually records bag pipers and fiddle players and real Celtic players. I sat in a central spot in the studio and Nick got a great sound. It was his ears as much as anything.

On “Dery Miss Grsk” there are these little bends that happen a couple of times. Were those overdubs, or did you actually play them while also playing the chords and arpeggios?

That is just one guitar. If I practice something a lot I can sometimes get two or three parts going at the same time. The D, A, E, G, A, D [low to high] tuning may also have helped.

Do you use artificial nails?

I stick pieces of ping-pong ball on my nails to emulate what used to be called “players nails.” But I’m way behind the times. I just did a workshop in Andalusia and guys had immaculate nails made from all kinds of different materials. And for a long time some flamenco players used to stick silicon on their nails and have them manicured. But I’ve got so used to these ping-pong balls that I can’t play properly without them.

Have you ever played with a flatpick?

I used to very early on. And I also tried to play with fingerpicks because I read a book about Lead Belly—but neither of those approaches worked out. I also studied classical guitar when I was about 12 or 13, so I had a little of that technique.

You appear to have retained much of that classical right hand technique.

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Yeah. During my classical training, I got used to playing with my thumb and three fingers in a very orthodox way, although that was actually so long ago that classical technique hadn’t even been properly established. In fact, the woman I learned from played without fingernails, and her approach was pretty similar to the way a lot of the blues and folk players play when they rest their fingers on the thumb board. Playing with your thumb and three fingers doesn’t work, however, if you’re playing blues or ragtime or some types of medieval music, because to get the percussive effect you need for dance tunes your right hand has to be flexible and not in a fixed position. And it is the same for the left hand. The idea of having a rigid position just doesn’t work because you’ve obviously got to change as the music changes. Speaking of classical technique, a great Italian classical guitarist named Marco Rossetti, who comes from the Santa Cecilia Academy, has just completed recording a CD of my songs arranged for classical guitar.

You use a number of alternate tunings. Do you begin with the music and choose a tuning to more easily facilitate playing it, or begin with the tuning and compose music based on how it inspires you?

Both. A traditional tune that doesn’t need a lot of chordal accompaniment may sound good in a semi-open tuning such as DADGAD, or you may find that getting the tune to ring and sit well on the instrument—or to get some of the rolls and traditional effects—simply requires altering one string. So the tune itself then dictates which tuning you use. On the other hand, I wanted to play the “Cello Prelude in G” on an old cello a friend had left at my house, but it was hopeless, so I tuned my guitar to C, G, D, G, A, D [low to high], which assimilated cello tuning. Then I could read the cello music and get more or less the same thing on the guitar. After that, I was so inspired by the tuning that I wrote “Weebles Wobble (but they won’t fall down).” So you see, it goes both ways.

You have played the same two guitars for quite a long time now. What it is about them that has kept your attention?

My main guitar is a Franklin OM made by Nick Kukich. It’s an extraordinary instrument based on the Martin OM or orchestra model. The back and sides are Brazilian rosewood and the top is spruce. It has14 frets to the body rather than 12, and the neck is a little wider than standard for a steel-string, but not as wide as a classical. Over the years it has been smashed many times by the airlines, and at this point all that remains of the original are the back and fretboard—but it has just gotten better and better. My other guitar is another OM model made by Ralph Bown, which is quite similar to the Franklin but has a brighter sound. Both guitars are a quantum leap away from anything else I’ve ever played other than my new Martin signature model. You can play practically anywhere on the neck and get a clean and balanced response.

What do you string them with?

I mostly use a funny mixture of Rotosound Phosphor Bronze round wounds, gauged .052, .040, .028, .020 wound, .015, and .012 [low to high]. The .012 is a little heavier than usual, but it cuts through better with a magnetic pickup, and the .052 is heavy enough to work well when dropped down to D.

What pickup and amplifier do you use?

I use either the Mimesis or the Fishman version called the Rare Earth. I don’t bother with the one with the little microphone inside, though, because that’s a bit fizzily. My amplifier is a small AER that has a pretty nice built-in EQ. I also sometimes use an LR Baggs Para DI box, which has an exceptional tonal range and a sweep to notch out offending frequencies.

You actually played a dot-neck Gibson ES-335 for a while back in the ’60s, didn’t you?

Absolutely, and I really miss that guitar. It was stolen from a van in Liverpool. I tried to replace it, but by that time they had become “collector’s” guitars, and were already quite expensive.

In a video from that period you are playing a different Gibson electric that looks a little like a Byrdland.

It’s not exactly a Byrdland, but it is quite similar. It’s my pension scheme, as I think that guitar is now worth quite a lot.

You were playing it with a wah pedal into a rather large amplifier.

[Laughs]. Oh well. So much for the folk purist!

The Martin OMM John Renbourn Custom Artist Edition

“I HAVE NEVER PLAYED A GUITAR LIKE IT,” says John Renbourn. “It is absolutely superb, and a dream come true.”

The OMM John Renbourn Custom Artist Edition has a 15" body with Madagascar rosewood back and sides and an Italian alpine spruce top with 1/4" scalloped bracing. The mahogany neck is fitted with a 20-fret ebony fretboard and has a 13/4" nut width. The custom inlay work includes pentangle-shaped mother of pearl position markers on the fretboard, and a richly detailed unicorn inlay in abalone pearl, gold and white mother of pearl, and Micarta on the polished headstock. Additional cosmetic enhancements include an ebony pyramid bridge with ebony bridge pins, an ebony end pin, fine herringbone and delicate black/white line purfling, grained ivoroid binding, a genuine bone nut and compensated saddle, and Golden Age nickel tuners with ivoroid buttons and engraved plates. The individually numbered and signed instruments are $5,499 retail (a 1935 sunburst finish and onboard electronics are available as options).

“As one might imagine, there are few moments in anyone’s life that are as satisfying and rewarding as providing a work of musical art and tone to a musician of John Renbourn’s caliber,” relates C.F. Martin and Co.’s Dick Boak. “The guitar was a long time in the works with many small details, but it means nothing unless it truly serves the purpose it was made for. All of us at Martin are so honored to have undergone this special collaboration with John, and I am personally thrilled about his reaction to the sound and feel of the instrument. And really, in the end, that’s all that matters.”