JOHN RENBOURN TRIBUTE
Farewell to an acoustic legend
Stuart Ryan looks at the styles that made John Renbourn such an influential player on the world’s acoustic fingerpicking scene.
THE ACOUSTIC GUITAR world lost one of its true pioneers when the great John renbourn passed away earlier this year. although often referred to as a folk guitarist, renbourn’s range on the instrument was staggering and he was equally at home with DADGAD style folk, Mississippi blues, traditional classical styles and a whole lot more.
unlike many players from the acoustic world at the time (John was a stalwart of the 60s and 70s scene) renbourn was a schooled musician who had taken classical guitar grades. While he travelled through many styles musically, the precise technique of the classical fingerstylist would always be at the core of his playing.
renbourn’s formal studies also gave him a lifelong interest in medieval and ‘early’ music, which would be prominent at various points in his career. however, while he was studying as a child in the 50s he also discovered the music of legendary folk-blues artists Josh White, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, and so the blues also became an integral part of his musical make up.
Like his musical counterpart, friend and Pentangle bandmate Bert Jansch, renbourn initially made his name in the London club circuit of the 1960s. Influenced by legendary English fingerstylist Davey Graham, Renbourn’s first professional musical forays were with blues singer Dorris henderson with whom he recorded two albums. however, it was through his association with Bert Jansch that he truly began to develop his own voice on the instrument. These early duets with Jansch are a curious blend of folk and classical styles that has come to be known as ‘folk baroque’.
renbourn’s style developed throughout the 1960s and towards the end of the decade he was working with folk singer Jacqui Mcshee fusing his traditional, bluesy style with jazz elements. however, he really started to enter the public arena when he formed Pentangle with Jansch, Mcshee, percussionist Terry cox and the legendary bassist Danny Thompson. This was truly a pioneering musical unit that fused all of its members’ musical influences into a melting pot of folk, jazz, blues, medieval and even the burgeoning rock sounds of the day.
renbourn’s virtuosity found its home within Pentangle and the band toured steadily, performing throughout the UK and us with appearances at the isle of Wight Festival, New York’s carnegie hall and the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival. after Pentangle disbanded in 1973, renbourn returned to his solo career playing with his old sparring partners Jansch and Mcshee and legends stefan grossman and Doc Watson.
For this month’s tribute to John renbourn we will look at the variety of elements and styles that made him such a broadly-versed and well-informed musician. as well as licks using 6ths intervals, we’ll examine the importance of the Davey Graham influence, look at some of renbourn’s traditional folk style playing; analyse his early blues musings and check out some of the techniques and approaches he brought to his folk-rock band, Pentangle. of course, since renbourn’s classical playing informed so much of what he did throughout his career, we’ll also be looking at this, as well as homing in on his approach to the celtic guitar style he so loved.
John renbourn was a truly original player in the world of fingerstyle guitar; in fact we could say he was one of its founding fathers, such was his influence on others. While John will be sadly missed, thankfully, he leaves behind an extensive back catalogue of recordings, transcription books and DVDs. if you haven’t explored his playing and you wish to delve into his incredible style then there are plenty of resources to get you started.
John Renbourn was a true original in the world of fingerstyle guitar; in fact we could say he was one of its founding fathers.