John McLaughlin was the Jessie James of guitarists in the early ’70s. Nobody was faster or more wicked on a fretboard, and he led his Mahavishnu Orchestra like a band of improvising outlaws hell-bent on making heavenly sounds.
Although McLaughlin invented shred at the helm of his pioneering jazz-rock fusion outfit, the English virtuoso has today evolved far beyond the need for speed. His resume covers another three decades of boundary-free electric albums, orchestral works, and acoustic music distinguished by his longstanding trio with Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia.
The new two-CD The Best of John McLaughlin spans his entire career, from the early ’60s when he was in the Graham Bond Organization alongside Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to his 2006 tribute to sax giant Wayne Shorter “Wayne’s Way.” But its epicenter is a clutch of genre-blending recordings with Mahavishnu and his subsequent group Shakti that set a high mark for rock-era virtuosity and proved that Eastern-influenced music could cater to discerning Western ears without compromising the richness of either culture.
McLaughlin shattered musical walls in both bands using two very distinctive guitars: a double-necked six-string/twelve string electric Gibson EDS-1275 and a custom-designed acoustic Gibson J-200 style six-string with a scalloped fretboard and seven resonator strings.
Although Jimmy Page famously played an EDS-1275 on-stage when Led Zeppelin performed “Stairway to Heaven,” the model was McLaughlin’s primary instrument for his first two years leading the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The EDS-1275 evolved from a hollow body to the SG-like solid-body guitar that McLaughlin ripped on during its original 1958 to ’62 production run. Besides the usual array of pick-up selectors, volume and tone pots, and alnico humbuckers, the EDS-1275 features a three-way pick-up selector which McLaughlin employed while dashing between the warm, wailing Marshall-fired leads and pastoral sections of such incendiary Mahavishnu tunes as “The Dance of Maya” and the apocalyptic “Birds of Fire,” both on The Best of John McLaughlin.
When the Mahavishnu Orchestra screamed onto the scene in ’71, McLaughlin’s seamless, stream-of-notes sound was as distinctive and unprecedented as Eric Clapton’s “woman tone” had been when Cream debuted five years earlier. The foundation of McLaughlin’s playing was his light-speed immaculately articulated picking. Add the EDS-1275, ultra-light gauge strings, a volume pedal, wah-wah, phase shifter, power booster, and a pair of specially wired 200-watt Marshall heads overdriving Marshall 4x12 cabs and the result was not only one of the world’s most distinctive instrumental voices but, by all accounts, the loudest of the day.
McLaughlin’s fascination with Indian classical music rings throughout all of Mahavishnu’s recordings—eruptions of dense mircotonality, harmonic tag-team improvisations, acrobatic unison playing, and blast-furnace soloing. So another factor in his embrace of the EDS-1275 was that his picking and fingering on one fretboard made the untouched strings of the other resonate slightly, like the drone strings of a sitar.
The sonic sharpshooter used the EDS-1275 until 1973, when master luthier Rex Bogue hand-made McLaughlin’s unique “Double Rainbow,” a variation on the Gibson model with meticulously custom-wound and -designed pickups, an ornate tailpiece, and beautiful vine shaped mother-of-pearl inlays along both necks.
Today the EDS-1275 is a Holy Grail guitar for six-stringers who love the music of Mahavishnu and Led Zeppelin, and there’s an Epiphone model still in production. The Gibson Custom Shop also takes orders for the EDS-1275.
McLaughlin’s other iconic axe is an even rarer bird: a supercharged acoustic J-200 that was made specifically for the music of his next band, Shakti. He formed the group in 1975 with three Indian master musicians—percussionist Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar, and ghatam player T.H. Vinayakram—to play original music inspired by the Indian classical canon.
The results were magnificent. Shakti became the first superstars of the nascent world music scene, capturing the rabid intensity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at chamber music volume. The group’s make-up allowed McLaughlin to explore non-Western time signatures, scales, and tonalities to an even greater degree.
The 1976 cut “India” on The Best of John McLaughlin displays how intrinsic the unique J-200 was to Shakti’s sound. McLaughlin’s quavering string bends and dizzying vibrato, inspired by South Indian classical music, and his drone-enhanced tone, akin to that of the sitar-like vina, are breathtaking and unachievable on a conventional guitar.
The instrument was built to McLaughlin’s instructions by expert luthier Abe Wechter, who was working for Gibson at the time. Beneath the six strings on its scalloped fretboard—deeply scooped between frets—are another seven tunable drone strings that can be either strummed or allowed to sympathetically vibrate.
After three prototypes that never left the factory, the fourth was delivered in 1975 and featured a non-cutaway maple body. Again McLaughlin favored ultra-light strings (.09 to .38) over his fretboard, but the drone strings were super-heavy: .23 to .62. Initially the guitar had no pick-ups, but two transducers were added later for live performances. The radically modded J-200 had extra interior braces to compensate for the additional tension of the drone strings. McLaughlin holds the guitar on the cover of Shakti’s A Handful of Beauty.
A year later McLaughlin received a second Wechter-built custom J-200 with a few refinements over the first, including a cutaway body made from East Indian Rosewood.
Today McLaughlin plays a variety of guitars in all sorts of contexts, but in the eyes of many players and fans, he’ll always be associated with the Gibson EDS-1275 and his uniquely beautiful drone-stringed Custom Shop J-200s.