John’s mind-blowing adventures with Hindustani slide guitar
In 2016 John Butler did something very few established artists would consider; he took a break from his intense touring schedule and travelled to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India in a quest to begin learning a discipline of guitar only a handful of players master in their lifetime. And his teacher was one of the greatest players in the world, Debashish Bhattacharya…
“I went over there and it was summertime,” John explains, picking up the story of his travels. “No one goes there in the summer because it’s too hot. So instead of being at his school I was just upstairs at his house. He lives in this flat and in the top flat there’s no one. There was a mattress in there and an empty room that I practised in. I’d go down to his place and his family would feed me every day and I’d practise in his room and he’d give me heaps of technique. I’d go back upstairs and practise for six to eight hours a day. It was awesome.”
You’re an accomplished slide player yourself, what was especially challenging about the Hindustani approach?
“It’s extremely rigorous. you watch Debashish play and you realise what 10 hours of practise a day for 10 years looks like. It’s like watching Michael Jordan… it’s superhuman, like an alien. Seeing that technique. I started from scratch and he’s the reason why I use fingerpicks right now for Wade Inthewater.”
“It takes a lot of work and I’m not at all accomplished at it yet. There’s so much muscle memory going on and it takes hours and hours and hours. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the iceberg. I’m finding my own stride with it but it takes so much practise that I made this tool [inset pic above] so I could practise Hindustani slide picking technique. The playing is so precise, to really play it properly I need 45 minutes of practising before my hands are tuned in. It takes so much time and I just don’t have that much. But I do, however, have a lot of dead time travelling so I just sit on planes. I look like a weirdo if you’re sitting next to me!
“But Debashish said something really interesting and that was, ‘Through discipline comes freedom’ and it’s so true. When I practise and I stay disciplined I’m able to become free with my hands. Then I can do what I want.”
Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya