Q&A: John McLaughlin

What do you think about the late Frank Zappa’s criticism of your work as simply “operating a guitar like a machine gun?” Do you think that Zappa was right when he said that the whole trend in the music business was that faster is better?
I think he was just jealous! I toured with Frank, and while I’ve always enjoyed his recordings, on tour he would take very, very long guitar solos, and he just didn’t have what it takes to play long guitar solos. That said, he has every right to his opinions, and in earlier days, I’m sure he had some validity in his criticisms of my playing.

John McLaughlin on Frank Zappa, 3 days ago, in Dallas Observer. Meanwhile Zappa on McLaughlin (1984):

I met John. I think he’s a great guitar player and I think that he’s probably done a lot to educate American audiences to some aspects of Eastern music that they wouldn’t have come into contact with before. We did a tour with McLaughlin and old Mahavishnu, we did 11 concerts with them.

update: here’s the original quote FZ said in an interview called “One Size Fits All” (1977):

Steve Rosen: What about the contemporary heavies, like Jeff Beck or John McLaughlin?
Frank Zappa: I like Jeff, yeah. I’ve listened to “Wired” [Epic], and there are a couple of solos on there that I like. And I like some of his stuff on “Rough and Ready” [Epic]. A person woud be a moron not to appreciate McLaughlin’s technique. The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun. But I’m not always enthusiastic about the lines I hear or the ways in which they’re used. I don’t think you can fault him, though, for the amount of time and effort it must have taken to play an instrument that fast. I think anybody who can play that fast is just wonderful. And I’m sure 90% of teenage America would agree, since the whole trend in the business has been “faster is better.”

11 Responses to “Q&A: John McLaughlin”

  1. Robert says:

    FZ not having “what it takes to play long guitar solos”? Ha! I (and i bet most other KUR readers) can listen to FZ guitar solos for hours without getting bored.

  2. Dark Clothes says:

    I know, that’s rich, eh? I don’t know if McLaughlin genuinely doesn’t appreciate FZ’s style or if he’s just pissed off at Frank’s remark and makes a retort. But he’s wide off the mark if we’re talking about true musical creativity, something different and much more interesting than conventional guitar technique.

  3. Chuck says:

    I think McLaughlan took it well and accepted some of the critiscism.

    He was also viewing FZs solos from when he saw them which was ’73 or ’74 (??) where FZ’s solos were nowwhere near the compositional beasts he could come up with later. They were a lot more rocking guitar solos.

    Even later FZ’s solos are somewhat touch and go from night to night as he really pushes to come up with something. Case in point his torture solo on Hammersmith Odeon where he is obviously working towards the glory of Rat Tomago, but just isn’t there yet and it is ok but not genius.

  4. Brett says:

    If my memory serves me, the reporter is misquoting Zappa. I believe he said that he appreciates that McLaughlin can operate the guitar like a machine gun, but isn’t always impressed with the notes coming out.

  5. jonnybutter2 says:

    Brett is right – the reporter is spinning Zappa’s comment to sound nastier than it was. It was more along the lines of fairly gentle razzing. Frank did complain in, I think, a different context, that he got bored with guitarists playing ‘millions of gnat notes, which don’t amount to shit’. That shoe probably fits…

    I also tend to agree with Chuck. I LOVE Zappa’s guitar playing, but not all the time. Sometimes he just goes on and on and it doesn’t quite make it – e.g. the unedited ‘Willie The Pimp’ is not better, IMO, than the original release. Imagine hearing a long long guitar solo every single night! Probably more misses than hits. Even Frank himself said that most of the time it’s ‘garbage’. But when it’s not garbage, it’s frequently genius.

    In fact, I’d say that, overall, Frank’s work was better when he was forced to edit (and also forced to STOP editing at some point).

  6. Balint says:

    I’ve just found the original quote from the aforementioned FZ-interview, and updated the post!

  7. Hugh says:

    Quick follow up to Reporter Sterbus’ excerpt of the ’77 interview (above, as well) from UrbanG’s post, “Sunday Big Note – Listening Session #2″.
    You know. I’d gladly “suffer” through hours of guitar solo’s by Zappa AND McLaughlin!

  8. xorg says:

    Speaking as a guitarist, somewhat limited in comparison to both FZ and McLaughlin, I would just like to point out that sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s boring and occasionally I completely mess it up. There are very few guitartists I’ve seen live who have always been excellent. Jeff Beck is one and FZ is another. The late Joe Pass never disappointed, but Eric Clapton has his bad days. McLaughlin was mostly just very fast when playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra but with other set-ups he’s been more thoughtful. And it was within the Mahavisnu context that FZ was commenting. FZ’s solos changed and developed over the years from being merely ‘solos’ to works of creativity closer to composition than improvisation.
    One thing I do dislike though is interminable bass solos. 12 bars is more than enough.

  9. urbangraffito says:

    FZ didn’t have what it takes to play long guitar solos? Hmmmmm. Makes me wonder what handful of Zappa’s recordings McLaughlin actually listened to to arrive at such an opinion? In the 40 years I’ve been listening to FZ’s solos, first on the official releases, then the myriad of field recordings, and live shows – Zappa’s solos have become more and more distinctive. If I could choose a particular guitarist that excelled at live performance, it would be Zappa. Yes, McLaughlin, Beck, DiMeola, Clapton were proficient guitarists and inspired players and composers – yet Zappa was capable of split-second, on-the-spot, improvisational compositional creativity. That’s what set Zappa apart from the contemporaries of his day, and why McLaughlin never created anything close to “Watermelon In Easter Hay”.

  10. Harry Barris says:

    Well, there is that little guitar solo in Inca Roads from OSFA (and YCDTOSA Vol. 2): the *peak* & pinnacle period, imo, for FZ’s soloing!

    I think McLaughlin was a being a little bit ‘snippy’ there for Zappa having the *audacity* to criticize his playing back then in a somewhat negative way–though he does ‘qualify’ his statement in a typically Frankish fashion. (In the later interview, Zappa makes nice, and doesn’t seem to want to ruffle any feathers further.)

    Speaking of (69 year-old) Johnny Mac, i caught one of his recent concerts with his new band, the 4th Dimension, and his playing did sound much more *soulful* & ‘bluesy’ than the more frenetic fusioning of the early 70′s. (As a musician ages it seems they gain the experience/progress to know when “less is more” {subtlety & sophistication} and stop trying to impress everyone with sheer playing speed which can only be a proper & more musical approach!)

    The loud, non-subtle, (all arms flailing) bashing drumming (doubly when keyboardist Gary Husband switched over to the second drumset) provided the “machine gun” ammunition factor that left my ears ringing from their heavy-handed pounding however!

  11. jonnybutter2 says:

    A quote from jonnybutter2:

    Well, there is that little guitar solo in Inca Roads from OSFA (and YCDTOSA Vol. 2): the *peak* & pinnacle period, imo, for FZ’s soloing!

    I love that solo, but I have to say I love the shorter one better, even though it’s (more) ‘imaginary’.

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