John Renbourn: A Guitar Legend

By Miche Archetto:

English acoustic guitar legend John Renbourn plays here his famous song “Sweet Potato”, first relaeased in the album “Sir John Alot Of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte” (1968).

Here is the interesting bio you can find at his official website


was born in Marylebone, London in 1944, right at the end of the War. My Mother played light-classical pieces on the piano, which also served as the family bomb-shelter during the air raids.  I recall her playing with great fondness and still play an arrangement of Schumann’s “Im Wunderschonen Monat Mai” on the guitar.  Later on, at school, I took music lessons with a patient man named John Webber who introduced me to Early Music which had yet to become part of the curriculum.  At the same time I sat my grade exams on classical guitar at the Guildhall, presided over by Adele Kramer.

An interest in Early Music has remained with me, not least in my approach to arrangement.  The classical guitar studies helped a lot in the transition to steel-string fingerpicking styles, “Faro’s Rag” owes more to Fernando Sor than Madame Kramer would probably care to acknowledge.

In Britain in the late fifties the musical craze was for ‘Skiffle’, an amalgam of American folk, blues, bluegrass and jugband styles.  The big hit was “Freight Train”  which drew attention to Elizabeth Cotten’s original, as well as to the work of such musicians as Leadbelly, Jesse Fuller, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.  These players  all came over to England and their guitar styles left a strong impression on a generation of young skifflers.  As soon as I left school I went hitch-hiking,and met up with others trying to play like them.  Mac McCloud, Gerry Lockran, Mick Softly and Wizz Jones were already well on the way,and we were all in awe of Davey Graham.

Around this time I got my first playable steel-string guitar, it cost me a fiver and was an object of wonder and beauty.  It was a Scarth and, like Abbott and Aristone, a British-made dance-band instrument having an arched top and tailpiece but with a round sound hole.  It had its little idiosyncrasies – the action went up and down according to the weather, which could be counteracted by wedging a lollypop stick under the neck – a feature that merely added to its mystique.  You don’t see too many like it any more! 

However, good steel-string guitars were few and far between with Harmony and Levin leading the field.  I was living on an old boat on the River Thames and stringing together tunes based on picking patterns, such as “Down On The Barge” and that old Scarth served me well – featuring on the cover of my first LP, in the traditional ‘folk-singer-on-the-rubbish-dump’ pose.

In the early sixties I attended Kingston College of Art fairly frequently.  The Art Schools seemed to be turning out more musicians than artists at that time.  The Yardbirds were at Kingston, as were Eric Clapton and Sandy Denny.  The R’n’B craze had replaced skiffle and the best band was considered to be Alexis Korner’s “Blues Incorporated”. 

I played in an Art School R’n’B band for a while, “Hog Snort Rupert’s Famous Porkestra”, using a borrowed electric guitar.  I found that some of the band’s riffs sounded interesting played fingerstyle on an acoustic guitar and pieces like “The Wildest Pig In Captivity” came out of that.”

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