Instruments of the World – The Shakti Guitar

shaktiThe name John McLaughlin needs no introduction to music followers we believe, especially jazz and fusion followers. In case he does, a pretty detailed one shall be given in our Gods of Guitar section soon enough and we don’t want to kill the suspense right away! This article would rather deal with an instrument made specially to his specifications, an experimental guitar which he christened the Shakti Guitar.

The idea for the Shakti Guitar struck McLaughlin early 1971 after he started learning Veena, a South-Indian stringed musical instrument, under Dr. S. Ramanathan, then a teacher of South Indian music at the University of Connecticut. When McLaughlin formed the fusion band Shakti with Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar and Vikku Vinayakram, he started looking for a Veena-like articulation in his guitar which led him to Abraham Wechter, a consulting luthier for Gibson guitars. In collaboration with the Gibson R&D team and helped by the ideas from the Sarod(a North-Indian stringed musical instrument) maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, McLaughlin took his first Shakti guitar to stage for the Shakti concerts in the 1975-1976 timeframe.

Coming to what a Shakti guitar is all about, it mainly differs from the normal guitar in terms of its 13 strings, made up of seven drone strings in addition to the standard six. The seven sympathetic drone strings are placed beneath and diagonal to the standard ones. Another innovation was the scalloped fingerboard, ie, the area between the frets were shaped concavely similar to that of a Veena. This ensured that the fingertips didn’t touch the fretboard while playing, and also enabled pushing down

The scalloped fingerboard of a Veena

The scalloped fingerboard of a Veena

and pulling of strings across frets. What resulted from all this was a radically new sound that had never before been heard from a guitar.

The Shakti guitar was used extensively by McLaughlin during his Shakti concerts till late 1970s. In 1978 however the band got broken due to various reasons, and that unfortunately was the last that was seen of the Shakti guitar. In 1997 when the band was reincarnated as Remember Shakti, he could not use the Shakti guitar as it had been previously lent to a musician and was returned in a totally unusable condition. McLaughlin instead went for Gibson Johnny Smith, a hollow bodied acoustic-electric guitar that he had been playing in between. The Shakti guitar was not seen to return even in the subsequent concerts of Remember Shakti, the last one being in 2007. Here is hoping that John McLaughlin decides to use the great instrument in the near future so that the current generation gets to see it live in action.

John McLaughlin playing his Shakti guitar at Shakti’s Montreal concert in 1976

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