John McLaughlin was born into a musical family on January 4, 1942 near Doncaster in the United Kingdom. Not only was his mother a violinist but his three brothers and one sister were likewise artists. Music, generally classical, was constantly in the background in his home, however it was not until McLaughlin was 9 years old that he initially took a couple of piano lessons. Three years later he started to play the guitar, influenced by the recordings of blues guitar players Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and Leadbelly.
At the age of 14 McLaughlin started to pay attention to recordings of jazz guitarists including those by Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow, Him Hall, and Barney Kessel. His musical development started to be directed towards modern jazz. He led his own jazz band at school and in the next couple of years widened his musical horizons by studying the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane along with classical masters Bartok and Debussy. These influences all assisted John in developing his very individualistic style and technique as well as composing music in general.
For the next 6 years John McLaughlin acquired important experience playing in all kinds of jazz groups, mainstream to avant-garde, as well as in rhythm and blues bands. In his late teenage years McLaughlin stayed in the Newcastle Upon Tyne region and played in local jazz bands consisting of Pete Deuchar's "Professors of Ragtime" and Mike Carr's Quintet. He relocated to London when he was 21 and got his very first significant gig with "The Graham Bond Organization". Other artists in this group consisted of bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker of "The Cream".
John McLaughlin also performed with artists such as Georgie Fame, Tony Oxley, John Surman, and Brian Auger. During his years in London John experimented with many of the ideas that are now thought of as common place strategies in the majority of jazz / rock fusion guitar players' playing. He also ended up being fascinated by Eastern approaches to life and religious beliefs. In the late 1960s he went to Germany for a few months. There he played in a free jazz group led by Gunter Hampel.
Drummer Tony Williams was an avid admirer of McLaughlin's unique and energetic approach to playing jazz fusion music on the guitar, as was legendary jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. A life and music changing turning point in McLaughlin's professional career happened in the spring of 1970 when he met the guru master, Sri Chinmoy.
This meeting altered John McLaughlin's attitude about life. It also provided him the inspiration to form his own group and play a new type of music which was significantly influenced by Indian music. The result was the first "Mahavishnu Orchestra". In this band McLaughlin normally played on a specially developed double neck guitar. For many jazz lovers the exotic style and rhythms of "The Mahavishnu Orchestra" were the coolest thing to occur to both jazz and rock music for a long time.
From 1975 on John McLaughlin's love for the East and its' lifestyle continued to influence his playing. In 1976 he formed a brand-new group called "Shakti" whose members were Indian instrumentalists and singers and caused as huge an uproar on the modern jazz scene as the original "Mahavishnu Orchestra" had actually done. In this group McLaughlin played a specially constructed acoustic Gibson guitar, designed by the popular Gibson Guitar Company master luthier Abe Wechter, which incorporated "drones" (open strings), generally seen only on Indian instruments.
After "Shakti" broke up in 1978 McLaughlin returned to playing electric guitar with his new jazz-rock group called "The One Truth Band". This group did not last long and he went back to playing an acoustic guitar in a trio with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell and flamenco guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucia. This trio attained fantastic success establishing a new format in jazz by blending improvised music from America, Europe, and the East. This trio continued its success into the 1980s with jazz guitarist Al DiMeola arriving to replace Larry Coryell.
In 1976 John McLaughlin chose to go back to Europe and make his residence in Paris, France. It was there that he often played in an acoustic guitar duo with Christian Escoude. In 1984 he appeared on the Miles Davis album "You're Under Arrest". In November, 1985 he premiered composer Michael Gibb's guitar concerto, "Mediterranean Concerto", with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles, California.
In the exact same year John formed another Mahavishnu group with drummer Billy Cobham showcasing jazz saxophonist Bill Evans. In 1988 McLaughlin began an acoustic duo with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. This duo later on broadened into a trio and their 1989 performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London was released to the world on a recording.
During the past 20 years or so John McLaughlin has kept extremely busy! The guitarist had a trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco and Elvin Jones on drums that was a bit similar to Tony Williams' "Lifetime". In 2007 he assembled the still active fusion band called "The 4th Dimension" which showcases mainly original music and in 2009 he toured with Chick Corea in an all-star quintet called "The Five Peace Band".