Born January 4, 1942, in Yorkshire, England; mother was concert violinist. Addresses: Record company--Verve Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

Musician magazine, in a 1993 survey of "The 100 Great Guitarists of the 20th Century," referred to John McLaughlin as "the mystic credited with inventing real fusion." The guitarist himself--whose work has embraced jazz, rock, blues, Indian music, and flamenco, among other styles--has long disdained the label. "I'm not trying to make any kind of fusion--it just happens that way," he protested to Guitar Player. Yet McLaughlin's fearless hybridization of musical genres blazed a trail for other musicians and demonstrated a set of possibilities that spawned the eclectic jazz-rock movement that came to be known as "fusion."

McLaughlin has always been far too restless to dwell in any musical territory for long. From his early work with the Graham Bond Organization to his innovative excursions with jazz legend Miles Davis to his increasingly ambitious endeavors with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, and his own trio as well as countless brief collaborations, McLaughlin has pursued his own musical development with an openly spiritual outlook. "My work in music is a work of the spirit," he proclaimed in a Down Beat interview. "It's a development of my spirit, and the development of myself as a human being."

That development began in Yorkshire, England, where he was born in 1942. Raised to a background of classical music, he studied the violin--as his mother had--as well as piano, but became interested in the guitar early in his adolescence. This was due in part to the influence of one of his brothers but largely to that of American blues, European jazz, and flamenco. Recordings by blues artists like Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, were particularly galvanizing for the young musician. "When I first discovered guitar at age 11, it was a five-dollar acoustic nylon-string guitar," McLaughlin recalled in a Guitar Player interview. "I didn't know what acoustic or electric guitars were." He added that "The very first time I ever played the guitar I fell in love with it. I loved the sound, I loved the feeling."

As he got a bit older, he felt an increased desire to emulate the great jazz guitarists. Soon Reinhardt "was my hero," he told Down Beat. "Later I heard Tal Farlow and found what I consider a genius. Tal was a great source of inspiration for me." The great artists of bebop and post-bop jazz, too, made an indelible imprint on McLaughlin: Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. The latter's spiritual odyssey A Love Supreme took him a long time to understand, he recalled, but years later he would translate the piece into a fiery guitar duet with Carlos Santana. It was drummer Tony Williams, however, whom he wanted to play with most of all.

He began playing professionally in London in the early 1960s, hooking up with the Graham Bond Organization, a seminal outfit that included bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, later the rhythm section of the influential psychedelic-blues trio Cream. McLaughlin also worked with Brian Auger's band Trinity and with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He was still in England when he became interested in Eastern religion and music; the sitar master Ravi Shankar made a particularly strong impression on him. It was the beginning of a very long artistic and spiritual quest.

In the meantime, however, he was still searching for his niche as a musician. Working as a guitar teacher, he had a number of promising pupils, including future Yardbird and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. He shared a London apartment with bassist Dave Holland, and the two of them played experimentally with drummer Jack DeJohnette, who taped the session. When Holland hooked up with Miles Davis, he described his former roommate to Davis's drummer--Tony Williams--as a fantastic player. DeJohnette played the tape for Williams on a separate occasion; as a result, Williams invited McLaughlin to join his new band Lifetime.

It was early 1969 when the guitarist came to America to play in one idol's band; within two days he had met Miles Davis and found himself in the studio working on Davis's album In a Silent Way. He worked on a number of other albums with the legendary trumpeter-composer-bandleader, including A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, Big Fun, and the groundbreaking Bitches Brew, which saw Davis inaugurating the jazz-rock era almost singlehandedly. Davis titled one track "John McLaughlin"; the guitarist later told Down Beat this "was the biggest surprise to me. I mean, I saw it on the record. I was shocked, really shocked." He would return the compliment by placing a piece called "Miles Davis" on an album some ten years later. Davis also brought McLaughlin together with rock guitar trailblazer Jimi Hendrix for a jam session.

In a Guitar Player interview McLaughlin discussed Davis's profound influence upon him: "With Miles, for me, it was his simplicity, his directness, the authority of his music from a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic point of view. His conceptualizations, from my point of view, were revolutionary. Everything I could see in Miles touched me."

Though Davis--who died in 1992--at times left composing and arranging to the many talented musicians in his fold, he displayed "the capacity and the ability to draw out of people things that even surprise the musicians themselves." McLaughlin found liberation in Davis's general, even cryptic directions: "He's amazing to work with, because he'd never say, `I don't really want that'; he'd just say, `play long' or `play short'. Once he told me, `Play like you don't know how to play guitar.' That's Miles, and you just go along with it."

Though the guitarist had to refuse Davis's invitation to join his band because of his investment in Lifetime--which briefly featured Bruce on bass--he did later heed his recommendation to put his own band together. McLaughlin put out his first solo release, Extrapolation, in 1969. More solo efforts-- notably 1971's My Goals Beyond--followed, but soon McLaughlin was driven to assemble a more ambitious group.

Having become a disciple of the guru Sri Chinmoy, he'd also become interested in fusing Eastern and Western musics. Working with keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird, tabla player Alla Rakha and drummer Billy Cobham, he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The band would do much to shape the fusion of the ensuing decade; McLaughlin's playing covered a huge stylistic territory. Indeed, wrote jazz scholar Joachim Berendt, "One is almost tempted to say that he plays all guitars simultaneously."

McLaughlin himself would adopt the name Mahavishnu; in 1973 he recorded an album with Santana and in the ensuing years made several more albums with the Orchestra, though with frequent personnel changes. According to Down Beat's Lee Jeske, the group "reached a plateau for electric interplay and depth of feeling that has, to these ears, never been equaled."

Differences within the group caused friction, however, though McLaughlin revived Mahavishnu with different players some years later. "If you consider electric fusion music to be part of the jazz mainstream--not everyone does--then McLaughlin may be the most influential jazz figure since Coltrane," proclaimed Rolling Stone in 1976. "As far as guitar is concerned," Berendt opined around the same period, "McLaughlin certainly is the towering figure of this development."

By the mid-1970s he had grown restless again, however, and formed the more acoustically oriented Shakti, with violinist L. Shankar, tablaist Zakir Hussain, and two other Indian musicians. This project became his main focus until 1977, when, as he told Guitar Player, "I wanted to get back into some jazz and electric guitar." The solo albums Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist and Electric Dreams, with the One Truth Band, soon ranked among his most highly regarded works.

During the 1980s McLaughlin returned to the acoustic guitar. This led to a falling out with his record label Columbia and a move to Warner Brothers, which seemed to have more respect for his new direction. "One of the fundamental differences is that, with the acoustic guitar, the notes die out very quickly," he reflected in a colloquy with Jeske of Down Beat. "This is a more tragic sound, it's more poignant in a beautiful sense. So, that in itself compels the player to modify, in some far-reaching ways, what he'll play." McLaughlin added, "It reminds me of music I heard before I was born in this life," in a 1994 Guitar Player interview with Matt Resnicoff.

Struck by the impressive work of Spanish guitarist Paco De Lucia, McLaughlin sought him out; the two played some concerts with Larry Coryell, and performed and recorded with Al Di Meola. 1987 saw the release of an album by a new Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring McLaughlin's luthier Abraham Wechter on acoustic guitar. McLaughlin also wrote a concerto for guitar and orchestra and formed a trio with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and a changing roster of bassists including Kai Eckhardt and French sensation Dominique Di Piazza.

In 1990 McLaughlin's career was endangered by a freak accident: a television set moving on a mounting track sheared off the tip of his left index finger. Fortunately the finger was reassembled in surgery, but the guitarist couldn't play for two months and reported to Musician that he was "having nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night sweating." Soon, however, he was performing again. He released Que Alegria in 1992; recorded live in the studio, the album won a plaudit from Down Beat. "At 50, the inner fire is still burning," declared reviewer Bill Milkowski. "He's just cooking on a lower flame."

The following year saw the appearance of his tribute to jazz pianist Bill Evans called Time Remembered in 1993. The Evans tribute involved a European guitar quartet; "I felt that if I transcribed it for a number of guitars, I could get this essential character, translated from the paino and the way he played, to the acoustic guitars," he noted in a Down Beat profile. Reviews mere mixed; some critics, like Howard Mandel of Pulse!, complained that McLaughlin "has stifled the momentum" of Evans's best work and made an album that "seems too still for jazz." Entertainment Weekly's David Hajdu, however, proclaimed "this guitar guru has finally found the God of the Details."

The guitarist didn't wait around for his review; he was already discussing forming an organ jazz trio and returning to the electric. He'd long since given up gurus and followed a more personal path, but as Guitar Player's James Rotondi observed, "McLaughlin's music continues to reflect his spirituality, passion for life, and great discipline."

Success at the critical or commercial level has always mattered less to the guitarist than the heroic process of creativity. "I'm an eternal learner," he insisted in a Down Beat profile. "I don't think I'll ever stop learning; it's a personal idiosyncrasy. I'm looking all the time for a way through music--searching, in a sense, for those different ways--harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. For me the big joy of life is to play--that's the big joy--just to play music."

by Simon Glickman

John McLaughlin's Career

Worked as a guitar teacher, 1960s; joined group Tony Williams Lifetime, c. 1969; recorded with Miles Davis, 1969; released solo album Extrapolation, Polydor, 1969; formed Mahavishnu Orchestra and released its Columbia debut, 1972; formed Shakti and released its debut Shakti With John McLaughlin, 1976; recorded and performed as solo artist and guest performer, 1978--; recorded live and studio albums with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, 1981-83; left Columbia and signed with Warner Bros., 1981; re-formed Mahavishnu Orchestra with new lineup, 1984; appeared in and performed on soundtrack of film Round Midnight, 1986; moved to Verve Records, c.1987; formed John McLaughlin Trio, 1988.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

November 30, 2004: A McLaughlin edition of Guitar & Bass was released. Source:,, December 2, 2004.

Further Reading


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