Bert Jansch: A lesson with the master
Bert Jansch, the veteran acoustic musician and inspiration to a generation of rock axemen, gives the music writer and guitar neophyte Will Hodgkinson some tips on how to become a legend
Friday 05 May 2006
"Put the guitar down for a moment," says Bert Jansch, in his firm but patient Edinburgh brogue, "and listen. You'll never get anywhere if you don't listen."
We're in the guitar-lined living-room of Jansch's garden flat in Kilburn, north London, on a bright Friday afternoon. I've just presented this genius of the acoustic guitar, who emerged in the early Sixties to inspire a future generation of axe heroes including Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Neil Young, with my rendition of an instrumental classic called "Anji".
Having picked up the guitar for the first time a year earlier with the principal goal of mastering this beautiful, deceptively complex tune, which was written by a wayward genius called Davy Graham, I think I've got it down pretty good. Composed in 1960 as a gift of love for Graham's girlfriend at the time, "Anji" became a rite of passage for every would-be acoustic maestro to play, and nobody plays it better than Jansch. I know that my version is no match for his, but the basics are there. Aren't they?
I've had some top-flight free lessons, after all. Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Davy Graham and Jansch himself are among those that have shown me how to combine the minor-key melody of "Anji" with its insistent bass-line, and Michael Tyack of the psychedelic folk band Circulus spent some increasingly fraught evenings trying to teach me the tricky run in the middle.
It all contributed to my book Guitar Man, which follows my attempts to learn the guitar at the late age of 34, tell the story of the guitar as the world's greatest tool of rebellion, and do a gig six months after picking it up.
Jansch became the chief inspiration and guide, and I soon found out that I wasn't the first to beat a path to his door: the folk singer Beth Orton and the former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler are among Jansch's more illustrious pupils. But with the weary resignation of a master faced by the dawning realisation that his wayward charge is never going to amount to much, Jansch has stopped me half-way through my rendition, just at the point when my eyes are closed and my head is bobbing like a pro, lost as I am to the spirit of guitar.
"I can hardly hear the bass," he begins. "And you're adding the wrong notes all the time, rather than concentrating on keeping it simple and just playing the right notes. Above all, you need to think about the rhythm. Where did it go when you did the run in the middle? It disappeared entirely."
He plays "Anji" the way it should be played - and, sure enough, it does sound rather different. Jansch clearly isn't going to waste his time giving false praise. But wanting to encourage others in the passion that has gripped him since adolescence, he's not disparaging about my efforts.
"As long as you keep practising, you'll get there, because you do have the basics - you just haven't got the execution of the song right. Also, playing guitar is all about improvisation and change. Every time I play 'Anji', I do it slightly differently. You have to have the feel and the rhythm of it, but once you've got that, you can go anywhere."
It is this less-than-purist approach that defines Jansch. After receiving lessons from Davy Graham's sister, Jill Doyle, while a teenager in Fifties Glasgow, Jansch devoted his life to the guitar at the age of 16. He started out in folk clubs but quickly irritated the folk faithful through his not exactly devotional approach to traditional material. After recording his first album in the kitchen of the folklorist Bill Leader in 1965, he quickly carved out a niche as the romantic, troubled loner of the acoustic world, living without fixed address or conventions.
"In the early days, I didn't conform to anything, be it school, work, where I lived... there were no rules," Jansch says. "If you put a rule in front of me, I would break it because it would get in the way of the process of living, and from leaving school up until my first marriage I was a tramp on the streets. When I made the first album, I had no home and no possessions - not even a guitar. I borrowed one from Martin Carthy for the recording."
The socialist singer Ewan MacColl threw Jansch out of his traditional folk night, The Singers Club, in the early 1960s for playing a version of "Anji", while Davy Graham himself has publicly berated Jansch for fooling around with his song, although that appears to be part of a love/hate relationship that has lasted between the two for the past four decades. Jansch and Graham have a mutual fascination and a grudging respect for one another.
"He doesn't like the way I play it, because I add a note that's difficult to get right, and he always gets it wrong," Jansch says of Graham. "But if you got a lesson from Davy, God knows what he would tell you to do. It would entirely depend on his mood and the time of day." (I did try to get a lesson from Davy. It consisted of his standing in the middle of his Camden bedsit performing a mandolin recital while I sat on his bed and, following his orders, rolled him joints.)
With "Anji" only a partial success, perhaps I can redeem myself in the master's eyes with a piece of music I wrote myself a few weeks earlier. Alongside being famous for "Anji", Davy Graham is also known as the man who transposed the sounds of Oriental music on to the guitar by inventing the tuning D-A-D-G-A-D, which creates a drone-like sound reminiscent of Eastern instruments such as the oud and the tampura.
Using D-A-D-G-A-D with an alternating bass-line technique that Jansch showed me on an earlier visit to his Kilburn flat, it wasn't hard to come up with a piece that almost sounded quite nice. I perform it for Jansch with monkish concentration. After waiting for a few agonising seconds, he gives his verdict.
"That's not bad," he says - which is high praise coming from Jansch. "Of course, it will be a lot better if you follow the blues pattern of using the first, the fourth and the fifth notes in the scale. But still, not bad."
I ask Jansch what he makes of the other, rather more talented guitarists who seek him out - Johnny Marr, for example, and Bernard Butler. "Normally, they want me to play something that I recorded 30 or 40 years ago, and they end up showing me how to do it as I've long forgotten," he says. "They generally want to do the number with me, which is good because I'm forced to go back to my old repertoire."
Before the afternoon's lesson comes to an end, Bert's genial wife, Loren, tells me that his next album features a guest spot from the American singer Devendra Banhart and is produced by Banhart's producer, Noah Georgeson; two more younger musicians who have sought Jansch out.
"It's absolutely impossible to get Bert to do anything he doesn't want to do," Loren says with a mix of exasperation and pride, when I ask her why these guitarists keep coming to him. "So I think they respond to that integrity."
For myself, I think the fact that he can show them how to play "Anji" might have something to do with it. I thank Jansch for his generosity and guitar-related wisdom, then leave to spend much of the weekend practising what he has shown me, going over the same tune again and again and annoying my wife intensely in the process.
By Sunday evening, you can at least hear the bass-line. One of these days - if not in this lifetime, then at least in the next one - I'll play that damn song perfectly.
Will Hodgkinson's book 'Guitar Man' is published by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99. Bert Jansch's new album is scheduled for release in September
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