Thurday, March 26th, brought the sad news that John Renbourn, the legendary guitarist and Pentangle founder, had died from an apparent heart attack at his home in Hawick in the Scottish Borders. Renbourn was 70 years old. These words from fellow musician Jay Ansill:
In 1978, I bought a copy of John Renbourn’s album The Hermit at a very hip record store in Philadelphia known as 3rd Street Jazz. When I took it to the cashier to pay, the very attractive woman behind the counter said “Ooooh, a John Renbourn record … nice!” It seemed like just owning a Renbourn record was a sort of shorthand that let someone know that you were sophisticated, cool and had impeccable taste.
John Renbourn had already established himself as an important guitarist on the British folk scene by the time he formed The Pentangle, along with another guitar legend, Bert Jansch, the striking singer, Jaqui McShee, and the equally able Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on percussion. The group combined elements of traditional folk music with jazz and blues, and even bits of rock music. The two guitarists were the perfect combination, with Jansch’s sensibilities being slightly more rooted in American blues and Renbourn’s more in classical and early music. The band crossed over into the mainstream and secured John’s place as one of the preeminent guitarists of the era.
Renbourn continued to make solo albums throughout the ’70s, all of which combined a vast knowledge of classical and traditional music with non-traditional elements, like extended improvisations, employing electric guitars and the sitar, (on which he was one of the finer Western musicians of the time to try his hand at the instrument). His own compositions were impeccably conceived and performed. Although his technique was astonishing, his music was never about displaying his virtuosity. His compositional sense was rarely informed by “guitaristic” concerns; things that easily fell under one’s fingers on the guitar. If he had an idea of what he wanted, he’d find a way to play it on the guitar, even if it meant using different tunings or extremely complicated fingerings.
After Pentangle split up in 1972, John also led his own “John Renbourn Group,” combining once more the traditional with the non-traditional, employing tablas (Indian hand drums) which somehow worked perfectly with early music and traditional folk songs.
Beside being a great solo player, John was also a brilliant collaborator, maintaining fruitful partnerships with various luminaries, including Stefan Grossman, Wizz Jones, Isaac Guillory, Robin Williamson and Archie Fisher over the years. It was during a few tours of the East Coast of the US with Robin Williamson in the early 1990s that I got to know John better. I had been Robin’s tour manager and driver when he toured the East Coast, and quickly took on the same role when they teamed up.
There was never a moment when John wasn’t fascinating to be around. He had millions of hilarious stories about everybody he knew (Robin would say that John’s stories were “great … and some of them might even be true!”), and he could also talk knowledgeably on an impressive array of subjects. John was always generous with advice about the guitar and music in general. When the conversations slowed down, he would suggest some kind of word game to pass the time during a long drive.
When I heard on Thursday that John had died, I immediately began to reflect on his vast contribution to the world of music and, particularly, the guitar. It would be difficult to find an acoustic guitarist who wasn’t influenced by him. In a book on The Who, I recall seeing some lead sheets and Peter Townsend’s notes saying to play one song “like John Renbourn.” His influence on Jimmy Page’s playing is obvious as well.
John Renbourn left us with enough music to keep us all engaged and connected forever. What a gift.
— Jay Ansill