This is a story of a cosmic, out-of-the-blue musical offer, the generosity and sweet vision of an organization I’d never heard of, and one pretty remarkable guitar. Last summer, the pandemic had already forced us all into our individual bunkers and made the casual musical interactions we had always taken for granted impossible. We were twitchy and grumpy and wishing for a miracle that kept not coming. Bandmate Kevin Carr and I hadn’t seen each other since January when he called to ask, “You were a Bert Jansch fan, right?” “Fan?” I replied, “When I was eighteen I wanted to be Bert Jansch!” ‘So, have you ever heard of the Bert Jansch Foundation or the Around the World In 80 Plays Project?” No on both counts.
Kevin explained that the Foundation was set up a couple of years after Jansch, the trail-blazing Scottish guitarist, died in 2011. Founded by a group of musical friends and family, including director Geraldine Auerbach, its intent was and is to celebrate the rich heritage of acoustic folk music, to keep the legacy of Jansch’s massive influence alive, and to support young players with grants, workshops, career opportunities and more. The Foundation sounded delightful. But the Project was a jaw-dropper.
The Foundation was sending a guitar around the world to eighty guitarists who were either friends and colleagues of Bert’s or were inspired by Bert’s music. The guitar was an exact replica of Bert’s beloved Yamaha—an LL-TA TransAcoustic dreadnaught. Each recipient would be asked to record a song video using the guitar with maybe a little message to Bert. “Who are these eighty guitarists, then?” I asked. “They haven’t chosen them all yet, but there’s Richard Thompson and Tommy Emmanuel and Steve Tilston and Alex deGrassi and Ralph McTell and guys like that. Oh, and me, too. David Nigel-Lloyd recommended me.” I was stunned, but not as stunned as when he asked if I’d like him to recommend me to be the next guy to get the guitar.
Talk about a dream come true. I’d trotted off to college in 1970 with my trusty Yamaha FG180, discovered Jansch, Renbourn and Pentangle in the dorms, and then, in cahoots with my equally obsessive-compulsive roommate, tried for a couple of years to become Jansch and Renbourn. After my adolescent dalliances with the Beatles and Paul Simon, Jansch was my first true guitar hero, and my musical life has been colored by his influence ever since.
So yes, I said, I’m in.
The guitar was delivered. In my hands, this guitar felt familiar, though somehow with more gravitas than my dear old FG180. I was taken aback by the first arpeggios I strummed. There was a sort of sonic shimmer that accompanied the notes. I thought maybe I was imagining things, but continuing to play up and down the neck, the brightness persisted. The guitar was strung with Elixir strings, which I’ve always found to be wonderfully bright and precise. For a while. But these strings weren’t new and the brightness wasn’t simply string brightness. The brightness had depth—not a surface effect but a tonal presence rare in my limited experience. To say I was smitten would be an understatement. I couldn’t put the thing down. Songs I had become bored with came back and made me smile again.
It was many days later that the guitar dished up its second revelation. I have always been averse to using effects on my guitar. For years I avoided any and all effects boxes or EQ. Several times I had internal electronics installed, but always with the insistence that they make the guitar sound exactly as it did, only audible in the cheap seats. Okay, once, when I noticed how cool Richard Thompson’s acoustic sounded fed through a Boss Chorus stomp box with a 55 msec slap, I had to try it, but after maybe a year I admitted it was his shtick, not mine, and abandoned it.
The LLTA came equipped with a built-in TransAcoustic effects unit, which I stubbornly ignored until curiosity got the better of me. The unit is activated with one of three little buttons, the other two controlling a range of room/hall reverb and chorus settings. I enabled it and quickly came to admit that this was a spectacular addition to a guitar that already pretty unassailably fantastic. Keeping the reverb and chorus settings rather low, they succeeded both in not drawing attention to themselves and in providing a sort of sonic umami—just taking what the guitar was delivering and making it more so.
I played around with a number of songs before deciding on “Loughrask”, a song I’d written in the ‘80s and which, with a meditative march intro, seemed to be the most appropriate hat tip to my musical debt to Bert Jansch. My friends at Stringletter Press helped me tape the video so I didn’t have to do it with an iPhone duct-taped to a chair. The video of the song is now included in the Jansch Foundation collection. I couldn’t be more delighted.
I signed the guitar and passed it along to Dave Ogden, a fine finger-styler living in Bakersfield, to continue on its merry way. Now back home, playing Bert’s “A Dream, a Dream, a Dream” on my own guitar, I send my thanks off to Bert and to Geraldine Auerbach and the Jansch Foundation, for keeping Bert’s music and spirit very much alive.
About the Bert Jansch Foundation
All about the Foundation and its educational and other activities can be found on their website: https://bertjanschfoundation.org. Details on the Around the World in 80 Plays Project can be found at: https://80plays.bertjanschfoundation.org/. Spread the word if you can. These are good people doing important work.
About Bert Jansch and Yamaha Guitars
Bert played Yamaha guitars for years, including the FG1500 and LL400, but settled on his favorite LL11E during the last years of his life. He praised both the guitar’s inherent tone and its built-in electronics.
About the Around the World in 80 Plays Guitar
The guitar is a Yamaha LL-TA TransAcoustic dreadnaught with a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, a 25.56” scale length, and measuring 1.732” wide at the nut. It’s equipped with the System 70 TransAcoustic preamp with piezo pickup and interior mounted actuator, strung with Elixir strings. It’s available online for under $1100. Yamaha claims to artificially age the wood used in the guitar, providing tone you might only expect from a nicely-aged, vintage instrument. It could be true, as the sound is truly glorious, though you couldn’t prove it by me.
Youtube video demo of TransAcoustic effects: