In the history of the fingerstyle genre, John Renbourn is perhaps the most influential guitarist still actively performing. Whether as a solo artist, playing duets (most famously with Bert Jansch in the 1960s and later with Stefan Grossman), leading his own group, or as a founding member of the seminal British folk-jazz ensemble Pentangle, Renbourn’s playing has left a profound imprint on the modern landscape of acoustic music.
Born in London, in 1944, Renbourn was introduced to music by his mother, who played classical piano. Although he studied classical guitar in school, Renbourn’s hands-on involvement with music began in earnest during England’s skiffle craze of the late 1950s, eventually leading to a stint playing electric guitar in a band called Hog Snort Rupert’s Famous Porkestra. Attending London’s Kingston College of Art in the early ’60s, Renbourn became involved with a group of students (including Eric Clapton and cohorts, who eventually formed the Yardbirds) more interested in blues and rock ’n’ roll than painting.
While some of his contemporaries were reinventing electric blues, Renbourn became interested in fusing American fingerpicking blues influences with the sounds found in the flourishing British folk revival. Heavily influenced by Davey Graham and Shirley Collins’ 1964 release Folk Roots, New Routes, Renbourn began performing with American singer Dorris Henderson, with whom he made his recording debut, 1965’s There You Go! Later the same year, his self-titled solo LP was released on Transatlantic Records, making it one of the earliest recordings featuring solo steel-string guitar instrumentals. Among them was “Judy,” a tune that borrowed heavily from Graham’s composition “Anji” in its contrapuntal movements, and which is still in Renbourn’s repertoire today.
Countless hours of playing with his flat-mate Bert Jansch led to the legendary collaborations between the two guitarists. Released in 1966, Bert and John remains required listening for anyone interested in tackling steel-string duets. Already at the center of London’s thriving folk-music scene, Renbourn and Jansch decided to expand their musical lineup. Vocalist Jacqui McShee had made an appearance on Renbourn’s solo debut, and bluesman Alexis Korner, with whom Renbourn and Jansch often jammed, introduced them to Danny Thompson (bass) and Terry Cox (drums). The five joined together as the Pentangle and devised a melting pot of folk, jazz, blues, and world music (Renbourn even played sitar on some tracks). The band enjoyed huge success between 1968 and 1973, when it broke up; decades later, it’s impossible to discuss folk-jazz fusion without mentioning the quintet.
Now living in rural Scotland, Renbourn continues to tour the globe, mostly solo, but recently also in a duo with McShee. Although his most recent studio recording, Traveller’s Prayer, was released in 1998, and his live shows—represented by the recording John Renbourn Live in Italy, which came out in 2006—focus on an established repertoire, he continues to work on new material, in particular arrangements of early music composers, including John Dowling. I met Renbourn last July in Occidental, California, where our interview was followed by a dinner of salmon and abalone—caught the previous day by Renbourn’s U.S. booking agent, Matthew Greenhill of Folklore Productions—under a star-filled summer sky.
You’ve been around the fingerstyle guitar community as long as anyone. How do you think the scene has changed in the last 30 or 40 years?
Some of the first fingerstyle players I heard were British people who were copying the American fingerpickers. The first wave of people to actually do that style of playing were revivalist players, among them Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Jack made some records that included Gary Davis’ “Cocaine” and maybe “Railroad Bill.” So he’d listened to Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotten, and Reverend Gary Davis, whom nobody had ever heard of in England. And Peggy Seeger played “Freight Train,” and it was a hit—not by her, unfortunately, but by a skiffle group. But it made people aware of that old style of picking. In Britain, hardly anyone could play that way, and it was a bit of a revelation. A few guys got hold of the older, American-based style, but it was a real minority thing. It has expanded to an unbelievable degree! I was about 14 when I first heard that kind of stuff. Now I’m 62, and everybody I meet has taken it in an amazing direction. It’s just lovely that it has gone on and developed.
The whole story was that the British guys were copying the Americans as best as they could, and the American guys weren’t always there, so when they weren’t around, people started to make things up themselves. There were players coming up who were actually very creative and very original. The outstanding guy was Davey Graham, without a doubt.
What do you think of the notion that there are distinct British and American schools of fingerstyle guitar playing?
I think there could have been many more schools. It just so happened that the Americans had the record industry, so that established one kind of style. For me, Merle Travis is one of the greatest players I ever heard; I love that stuff. The British record companies began to record people like me in the early days simply because it was very cheap! Amazingly enough, those records started influencing people all over Europe, so a lot of people came out very quickly, playing steel-string guitar in the places where those records were released. Maybe it was easier for people to get our records than to get the American records, so things began moving further east, if you will.
What I think happened is that everyone thinks that the American style of playing is solely boom-chick based, and it’s always associated with Chet Atkins, and then the folk people got interested, and started hearing some of the old-time players, who were actually very varied and beautiful. Etta Baker is a lovely player, and of course Gary Davis was amazing. They’re not really quite as formulated as Chet Atkins.
Then Davey Graham made a record with Shirley Collins, and that kind of opened the floodgates, and then Bert [Jansch] began to play more traditional tunes—he was already writing contemporary songs—and playing like Brownie McGhee. Martin Carthy, of course, developed his very unique and strong approach, mainly based on songs. So the guitar styles were actually influenced by traditional songs, and when you have that, and the traditional song is something that doesn’t fit into a boom-chick [structure], and it’s got a totally different thing with different time signatures, a modal melody, and inner rhythms, then boom-chick doesn’t work, so you’ve got to find another way around it, and it becomes something different. You take away the initial influence, which is the song, and you’re left with something on the guitar that sounds like a guitar style, a school.
There is a common thread in your playing, where your style is identifiable through different kinds of music. Do you use a similar approach in working on, say, folk, blues, jazz, or classical compositions?
I’m not sure. If I work on something, I follow through the idea, as far as I can, and if it comes out with a stamp that people identify with me, that’s more accidental. I don’t think it’s anything that I plan. These days, I never work [directly] on the guitar anyway, so maybe it comes later.
On tunes like “Watch the Stars,” you use a fairly simple fingerpicking pattern in your accompaniment role, and I was wondering whether you have a set of patterns that you use, or whether you adapt each pattern and start from scratch to make it work.
There aren’t any actual patterns anymore in my playing. There never really were; I never liked the idea of there being patterns. Most [fingerstyle playing] is treble and bass, and to have a set pattern in the thumb often doesn’t give you a very logical bass line. It gives you a pattern, but if you cook the bass line on its own, it wouldn’t sound very coherent. It can sound very good for certain things that are actually from that music, but once you play something that doesn’t fit that, you have to look for something else.
A lot of singer-songwriter-based players tend to do exactly that, go with a set of patterns. It’s something that separates a player like yourself: thinking about the music and adapting the right-hand technique.
[Plays Example 1, excerpt from “Watch the Stars.”] That’s a little different from an actual pattern picking, isn’t it?
I was curious about your arrangement of “Plains of Waterloo.” It sounds like you’re doubling the vocal melody on the middle strings, and you have a bit of a drone going on the top strings. Is that a technique you use frequently?
That’s in one of the DADGAD variations. It’s D A D E A D [in which string 3 is tuned down a minor third from standard or DADGAD —ed.]. When Davey introduced DADGAD by playing “She Moves Through the Fair” in the early ’60s, it was an enormous breakthrough. He really hit it; that was exactly what the guitar needed, to integrate it with the singing style. It took a thing like “She Moves Through the Fair,” which was a hallowed unaccompanied song, and not only did he play it great, but he took it apart and improvised on it. It was really revolutionary and great. It wasn’t the virtuosic quality as much as the ideas. Many people started to use DADGAD or slight variations of DADGAD, and the first attempts were basically to play the tune on the middle two strings and use the open strings as drones on the top and the bottom [Example 2].
So you’re pretty much doubling the vocal part on the guitar?
Yeah, it’s not an arrangement at all; I just play the tune! When Jacqui [McShee] does some ornaments, I try to follow those as well. A lot of those things were very simple to start with. “A Maid That’s Deep in Love” [Example 3, played in DADGAD] is similar. It’s not exactly the same, but similar. All the very early DADGAD things were pretty much like that, doubling the song on the inner strings.
Let’s talk about your use of bends in “South Wind.” It’s not something very many Irish players would do. Is that the blues influence in your playing?
Have you heard Willie Clancy, the piper? A lot of those pipers, they’ve got one note that they can push up, depending on the drones, so they do get those bends in Irish music. The guitar is built for that, and the blues players were using it, but not the traditional players. I think when you play not in a blues scale but in one of the modes, you can get some nice colors.
You bend the string down, toward the treble string, not up like a blues player would, is that right?
Yes. Have you ever played the sitar? What you have to do is to get a hold of the whole string and pull it. With those sort of bends, people say, “My God, how can you bend a string at the second fret?” I guess what I’m doing is, I’m actually holding three fingers down.
Your early work with Bert Jansch set the standard for steel-string guitar duets, and I’ve also seen you perform with Stefan Grossman and Duck Baker. I was curious about your approach to arranging for two guitars. Do you tend to think of it as adding a second part to an existing solo guitar arrangement, or do you think of a way of splitting the parts up?
The thing that predated me and Bert was Davey Graham and Alexis [Korner], doing “3/4 A.D.,” so that was the thing that we liked to listen to.
I’m interested in arranging; it’s what I do more than anything else. With guitar arranging, there isn’t any one way of doing it. With Stefan [Grossman], some of the pieces were based on ideas that he had, almost like solo pieces, and he said, “Could we make a duet out of this?” I’d listen to what he was doing, and figure it out: If he’s doing something in that register, and I play a part that’s an extension harmonically of what he was doing on the top, then we’ll have a part that works.
In which case you’re adding to something that already works as a solo arrangement?
If that’s what you’re doing, yes. Otherwise, you might have something that’s quite different, and the two parts aren’t independent on their own.
Do you prefer one way or the other?
It all depends on the music. I don’t think the approach comes before the music. The music actually dictates what you want to do. I made an arrangement of a John Dowling piece, “[My] Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home.” It was a lute piece, and I found out that I couldn’t play it on the guitar, so the only way of doing it was to have it as two guitars, and then the idea goes from there. [See Renbourn’s arrangement of another Renaissance piece, William Byrd’s “The Earl of Salisbury,” ipuiblished in n the January/February 2020 issue and linked below. —ed.]
How did you split it up?
By integrating the two parts, so they became a whole, like a keyboard piece. With guitar players, you can easily sit down and one guy plays chords, and the other plays the melody, but how interesting is that?
Do you ever use recording yourself in the writing process?
Usually not. The writing is just done on a piece of paper. It’s really old-style compositions, perceived to be playable as is. There have been occasions where I’ve wanted parts to do different things that were impossible. And then you have to deliberate, “Should I really do this?” And the answer is, yeah, of course, if you can do it; the music is what counts.
John Renbourn died on March 26, 2015, at 70.
This article is excerpted from the March 2007 Issue of Acoustic Guitar; It was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue of AG.
This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.