Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Remembering John Renbourn

A week or so ago the death was announced of the British acoustic guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn was one of a small group of acoustic players in the early 1960s, along with Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, who developed a style that became known as ‘folk-baroque’.

The style was eclectic, embracing elements of blues, jazz, tradition and contemporary folk (Graham also brought in elements of African music heard in Morocco). It was played largely fingerstyle on steel-strung acoustics, taking full advantage of the longer sustain of the upper strings in comparison to the nylon strings of a classical guitar. Where string guages permitted, there could be a certain amount of string-bending. The style evolved to be musically complete, in that a player would provide bass, harmony and top melody. It could be technically demanding, though some of the simpler syncopated right-hand picking patterns were easy and gave great results. Altered tunings were also developed by these players.

Graham, Jansch and Renbourn influenced people such as Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Gordon Giltrap, Donovan, and Jimmy Page.

Having made several albums solo and in partnership with Bert Jansch, Renbourn and Jansch became part of the folk-rock group Pentangle who enjoyed considerable success in the eclectic music scene of the second half of the 60s. After the group split, Renbourn pursued many musical interests, including Elizabethan lute music, making many arrangements for steel-string guitar of tunes from the 1590s. He was a composer and a scholar with a wide grasp of music.

I saw John Renbourn play on several occasions and interviewed him. I found him a charming, thoughtful and personable man with a deep and inspiring commitment to music. His playing was precise, tasteful,  and elegant, and imbued with a humane spirit.

If you haven’t sampled his music there are many budget compilations of his solo work and of Pentangle. You can’t go wrong with the solo albums he released in the 1970s such as The Hermit.

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