Even with a wealth of theoretical concepts at his fingertips, Mahavishnu’s leader still plays from the gut.
• Understand how to use odd time signatures.
• Create extremely syncopated and emotive solos.
• Learn how to use the “double harmonic minor” scale.
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What do you get when you cross odd meters with synthetic modes, displaced accents, Eastern philosophy, Marshall amps, and unbridled energy? Unfortunately, most of us would just get a mess of noise, but if you’re John McLaughlin you get the essence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and some of the most revolutionary music to come out of the 20th century.
In The 50 Greatest Guitar Books I wrote extensively about how The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut recording, literally changed my life overnight, so I won’t retell that story here. Nevertheless, it’s worth saying that hearing John McLaughlin’s music for the first time was a pivotal moment, and I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to try to relate some of his musical concepts to you.
McLaughlin’s musical legacy is vast in scope and material. Thus, this lesson focuses on only one aspect of his 50-year career, specifically the original incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which lasted from 1971-1973. Yet even limiting ourselves to just three years and three albums gives us an enormous number of musical concepts to explore, so let’s get started.
To grasp McLaughlin’s playing and compositional style, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of modes. While space limits us from exploring modes in depth, the first few examples provide insight into the variations one can create from basic scales. For our examples, we’ll stay in the 12th position and base our fingerings on an E tonality. In Ex. 1, you can see a basic fingering for the E natural minor scale, otherwise known as E Aeolian (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D).
Our next example (Ex. 2), illustrates the harmonic minor variation. There are several different ways to think of E harmonic minor (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D#), but for our purposes we will consider this an Aeolian scale with a natural 7 (D#).
Ex. 3 is what McLaughlin calls a “synthetic scale,” or a scale that doesn’t occur natively in Western scales and modes. He describes it as the “double harmonic minor” scale. Basically, it’s a harmonic minor with an added b5 or “blue” note—in this case, Bb.
It’s worth mentioning that in John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra scorebook, McLaughlin includes no fewer than 16 synthetic modes as points of reference “for the benefit of the serious music student.”
Ex. 4 is where things start to get interesting. This is a classic McLaughlin-esque arpeggio figure that uses notes from all of the aforementioned scales, thus giving us nine different notes to work with. But it gets even better! Since the arpeggio starts and ends on B, we are actually playing in a synthetic version of B Phrygian dominant (B–C–D#–E–F#–G–A), which is a mode found in the E harmonic minor scale.
If all of this seems needlessly confusing—I hear you screaming—I would agree … up to a point. But it is important to remember that McLaughlin knows, understands, and uses all of these concepts in his playing and composing. So if you want your own music to be unique and innovative, a little knowledge (confusing as it may be at first) can go a long way.
The modes are just the start of what makes this unusual arpeggio pattern so unique. The next aspect to consider is the rhythm McLaughlin used. The time signature here is 5/4, a meter that appears throughout Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” and in portions of the theme to Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin. McLaughlin has a habit of making his odd meters even more challenging by displacing the accents of his bass notes, which I have also done here. You’ll hear these displaced accents throughout McLaughlin’s career, most notably in the Mahavishnu pieces “The Dance of Maya” and “Hope.”
Moving on to our melody (Ex. 5), we revisit our modes and find a highly syncopated line played in octaves (one guitar is played up an octave to emulate the register of Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman) using notes from the B Phrygian dominant scale. (Remember, that’s also the E harmonic minor scale.) This melody or head, as jazz musicians call it, is slow enough to be recognized as a theme but too angular, syncopated, and dissonant to be called catchy. But who needs catchy when you can have angularity, syncopation, and dissonance?
Finally we put everything together and add in the solo (Ex. 6). Ironically, there’s not much theory to discuss, though there are plenty of stylistic details to absorb. Personally, I’m of the opinion that when it comes time to solo over a Mahavishnu tune, McLaughlin lets go of his modal concepts and becomes a much more intuitive player. He frequently plays pentatonic lines over his modal arpeggios, letting the harmony do the work of establishing the exotic mode, while he solos more like a hyper-speed Hendrix than a technically precise music theoretician. When it comes to McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu soloing, the term “reckless precision” has never been more apt.
The solo highlights several of McLaughlin’s signature licks and concepts, including his use of accelerando, or speeding up (measures 2, 5, and 6 of the solo), repetitive licks, and playing on the lower strings in the higher register. And, of course, extreme speed and syncopation.
You can see that it’s not any one concept that makes John McLaughlin’s playing unique. Rather it’s his liberal use of a multitude of influences, both musical and philosophical—rock and jazz, East and West, logic and intuition—that creates his inimitable style. If you hope to attain any resemblance to McLaughlin, you must open your mind, open your heart, and practice, practice, practice.