From a family of musicians (his mother being a concert violinist), McLaughlin studied violin and piano as a child, but took up the guitar at the age of 11, exploring styles from flamenco to the jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. McLaughlin moved to London from Yorkshire in order to involve himself in the thriving music scene in the early 1960s, starting with outfits such as the Marzipan Twisters before moving on to Georgie Fame's backing band, the Brian Auger band, and importantly, the Graham Bond Quartet in 1963. During the 1960s he often had to support himself with session work, which he often found unsatisfying, but which radically enhanced his playing and sight-reading skills.
Before moving to the U.S., McLaughlin recorded Extrapolation (with Tony Oxley and John Surman) in 1969, in which he showed technical virtuosity, inventiveness and the ability to play in odd meters. He moved to the U.S. in 1969 to join Tony Williams's group Lifetime. He subsequently played with Miles Davis on his landmark albums In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew (which has a track named after him), On The Corner, Big Fun (where he is featured soloist on Go Ahead John) and A Tribute to Jack Johnson — Davis paid tribute to him in the liner notes to Jack Johnson, calling McLaughlin's playing "far in." McLaughlin returned to the Davis band for one recorded night of a week-long club date, which was released as part of the album Live-Evil and as part of the Cellar Door boxed set.
A recording from the Record Plant, NYC, dated 25 March 1969, exists of McLaughlin jamming with Jimi Hendrix. McLaughlin recollects "we played one night, just a jam session. And we played from 2 until 8, in the morning. I thought it was a wonderful experience! I was playing an acoustic guitar with a pick-up. Um, flat-top guitar, and Jimi was playing an electric. Yeah, what a lovely time! Had he lived today, you'd find that he would be employing everything he could get his hands on, and I mean acoustic guitar, synthesizers, orchestras, voices, anything he could get his hands on he'd use!"
His reputation as a "first-call" session player grew, resulting in recordings as a sideman with Miroslav Vitous, Larry Coryell, Joe Farrell, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley, the Rolling Stones, and others.
He recorded Devotion in early 1970 on Douglas Records (run by Alan Douglas), a high-energy, psychedelic fusion album that featured Larry Young on organ (who had been part of Lifetime), Billy Rich on bass, and the R&B drummer Buddy Miles (who had played with Jimi Hendrix). Devotion was the first of two albums he released on Douglas.
On the second Douglas album, however, McLaughlin went in a different direction in 1971 when he released My Goal's Beyond in the U.S., a collection of unamplified acoustic works. Side A ("Peace One" and "Peace Two") offers a fusion blend of jazz and Indian classical forms; side B features some of the most melodic acoustic playing McLaughlin ever recorded, including such standards as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", by Charles Mingus whom McLaughlin considered an important influence on his own development. Other tracks that expressed some of McLaughlin's other influences include "Something Spiritual" Dave Herman, "Hearts and Flowers" (P.D. Bob Cornford), "Phillip Lane", "Waltz for Bill Evans" (Chick Corea), "Follow Your Heart", "Song for My Mother" and "Blue in Green" (Miles Davis). "Follow Your Heart" had been released earlier on Extrapolation under the title "Arjen's Bag".
My Goal's Beyond was inspired by McLaughlin's decision to follow the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, to whom he had been introduced in 1970 by Larry Coryell's manager. The album was dedicated to Chinmoy, with one of the guru's poems printed on the liner notes. It was on this album that McLaughlin took the name "Mahavishnu."
Around this time, McLaughlin began a rigorous schedule of woodshedding, resulting in a transformation in his playing from his usual odd-timed, angular guitar lines to a more powerful, aggressive and fast style of playing, which would be put on display in his next project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In 1979 he formed a short-lived funk fusion power trio named the Trio of Doom with Tony Williams on drums and Jaco Pastorius on bass. Their only live performance was on March 3, 1979 at the Havana Jam Festival (March 2-4 1979) in Cuba, part of a US State Department sponsored visit to Cuba. Later on March 8, 1979 the group recorded the songs they had written for the festival at Columbia Studios, New York, on 52nd St.. Recollections from this performance are captured on Ernesto Juan Castellanos's documentary Havana Jam '79.
McLaughlin's 1970s electric band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, included violinist Jerry Goodman (later Jean-Luc Ponty), keyboardist Jan Hammer (later Gayle Moran and Stu Goldberg), bassist Rick Laird (later Ralphe Armstrong), and drummer Billy Cobham (later Narada Michael Walden). The band performed a technically virtuosic and complex style of music that fused eclectic jazz and rock with Eastern and Indian influences. This band established fusion as a new and growing style within the jazz and rock worlds. McLaughlin's playing at this time was distinguished by fast solos and exotic musical scales.
In 1973, McLaughlin collaborated with Carlos Santana, also a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, on an album of devotional songs, Love Devotion Surrender, which included recordings of Coltrane compositions including a movement of A Love Supreme. He has also worked with the jazz composers Carla Bley and Gil Evans.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra's personality clashes were as explosive as their performances and consequently the first incarnation of the group split in late 1973 after just two years and three albums, one of which was a live recording "Between Nothingness and Eternity". In 2001 the "Lost Trident Sessions" album was released, recorded in 1973 but shelved when the group disbanded. McLaughlin then reformed the group with Narada Michael Walden (drums), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), and Gayle Moran (keyboards and vocals), and a string and horn section (McLaughlin referred to this as "the real Mahavishnu Orchestra"). This incarnation of the group recorded an additional two Mahavishnu albums, Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. A scaled-down quartet was formed with McLaughlin, Walden on drums, Armstrong on bass and Stu Goldberg on keyboards and synthesiser, which generated a third "Mahavishnu 2" recording in 1976 largely due to contractual obligations, "Inner Worlds". McLaughlin then became absorbed in his acoustic playing with his Indian classical music based group Shakti (see below). Around this time, McLaughlin also appeared on Stanley Clarke's School Days, among a host of other musicians.
After the first reincarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra split, McLaughlin worked with acoustic group Shakti. This group combined Indian music with elements of jazz and thus may be regarded as a pioneer of world music. McLaughlin had already been studying Indian classical music and playing the veena for several years. The group featured Lakshminarayanan L. Shankar (violin), Zakir Hussain (tabla), Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram (ghatam) and earlier Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam). John was one of the earliest westerners to attain any acclaim performing Indian music for Indian audiences. The group recorded three albums; 'A Handful of Beauty' (1975), 'Shakti' (1976), and 'Natural Elements' (1977).
In this group, McLaughlin played a custom made steel string acoustic guitar made by luthier Abe Wechter and the Gibson guitar company, which featured two tiers of strings over the soundhole: a conventional six string configuration with an additional seven strings strung underneath on a forty-five degree angle - these were independently tunable and were played as "sympathetic strings" much like a sitar or veena. The instrument also featured a scalloped fretboard along the full length of the neck which enabled McLaughlin to play bends far beyond the reach of a conventional fretboard.
In 1979, he teamed up with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell (replaced by Al Di Meola in the early 1980s) as the Guitar Trio. For the fall tour of 1983, they were joined by Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse, who opened the show as a soloist and participated with The Trio in the closing numbers. The Trio, again featuring McLaughlin along with de Lucía and Di Meola, reunited in 1996 for a second recording session and a world tour. In 1979, McLaughlin recorded the album Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist, the title on McLaughlin's first business cards as a teenager in Yorkshire. This recording was a return to more mainstream jazz/rock fusion and to the electric instrument after three years of playing acoustic guitars, particularly his Gibson 2-tier custom-made steel string with the Shakti group. McLaughlin was so used to the scalloped fretboard from his Shakti days and so accustomed to the freedom it provided him that he had the fretboard scalloped on his Gibson Byrdland Electric hollowbody.
He also formed the short-lived One Truth Band who recorded one studio album, Electric Dreams. The group had L. Shankar on violins, Stu Goldberg on keyboards, Fernando Saunders on electric bass, and Tony Smith on drums. 1979 also saw the formation of the very short-lived Trio of Doom, consisting of McLaughlin with Jaco Pastorius (bass) and Tony Williams (drums). They only played one concert, at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, Cuba on March 3, 1979, as part of the Havana Jam festival, a US State Department cultural exchange program known by some musicians as the 'The Bay of Gigs'. Their performance is clearly captured on Ernesto Juan Castellanos's documentary Havana Jam '79. They later recorded three tracks at CBS Studios in New York, March 8, 1979.
In the late '80s and early '90s McLaughlin recorded and performed live with a trio including bassist Kai Eckhardt and percussionist Trilok Gurtu. The group recorded two albums: Live at The Royal Festival Hall and Que Alegria, with latter featuring Dominique DiPiazza on bass for all but two tracks; parts of the subsequent tour also included Jeff Berlin on bass. These recordings saw a return to acoustic instruments for McLaughlin, performing on nylon-string guitar. On "Live at the Royal Festival Hall" McLaughlin utilised a unique guitar synth which enabled him to effectively "loop" guitar parts and play over them live. The synth also featured a pedal which provided sustain when pressed. McLaughlin played parts which sound overdubbed and creating lush soundscapes, aided by Gurtu's unique percussive sounds. This approach is used to great effect in the track "Florianapolis", amongst others.
With the group Fuse One, he released two albums in 1980 and 1982.
In 1986 he appeared with Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier's film "Round Midnight." He also composed The Mediterranean Concerto, orchestrated by Michael Gibbs. The world premier featured McLaughlin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was recorded in 1988 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. McLaughlin does improvise in certain sections. Also included on the recording were five duets between McLaughlin and his then-girlfriend Katia LaBeque.
In the early 1990s he toured with his trio on the Que Alegria album. The trio comprised John McLaughlin, percussionist Trilok Gurtu and bass player Kai Eckhardt (later replaced by Dominique DiPiazza). Following this period he recorded and toured with The Heart of Things featuring Gary Thomas, Dennis Chambers, Matthew Garrison, Jim Beard and Otmaro Ruíz. In recent times he has toured with Remember Shakti.
In addition to original Shakti member Zakir Hussain, this group has also featured eminent Indian musicians U. Srinivas, V. Selvaganesh, Shankar Mahadevan, Shivkumar Sharma, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. In 1996, John McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia and Al Di Meola (known collectively as "The Guitar Trio") reunited for a world tour and recorded an album by the same name. In that same year he recorded "The Promise". Also notable during the period were his performances with Elvin Jones and Joey DeFrancesco.
In 2003, he recorded a ballet score, Thieves and Poets, along with arrangements for classical guitar ensemble of favorite jazz standards, and a three-DVD instructional video on improvisation entitled "This is the Way I Do It" (which contributed to the development of video lessons ) In June 2006, he released a hard bop/jazz fusion album entitled Industrial Zen, on which McLaughlin experiments with the Godin Glissentar as well as continuing to expand his guitar-synth repertoire.
2007, he left Universal Records and joined hip and artist friendly Music Label and Distribution House Abstract Logix that works closely with independent jazz, progressive rock, and world music bands. Recording sessions for his first album on the label took place in April. That summer, he began touring with a new jazz fusion quartet, the 4th Dimension, consisting of keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bassist Hadrian Feraud, and drummer Mark Mondesir. During the 4th Dimension's tour, an "instant CD" entitled "Live USA 2007: Official Bootleg" was made available comprising soundboard recordings of 6 pieces from the group's first performance. The album was available after that and all subsequent performances and a limited number were made available through Abstract Logix. Following completion of the tour, McLaughlin personally sorted through recordings from each night to release a second MP3 download-only collection entitled "Official Pirate: Best of the American Tour 2007". During this time, McLaughlin also released another instructional DVD entitled "The Gateway to Rhythm", featuring Indian percussionist and Remember Shakti bandmate Selva Ganesh Vinayakram (or V. Selvaganesh), focusing on the Indian rhythmic system of konnakol. John also remastered and released a shelved project dating back to 1980 called "The Trio of Doom" featuring jazz/fusion luminaries Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams. The project had been aborted due to conflicts between Williams and Pastorius as well as what was at the time a mutual dissatisfaction with the results of their performance.
On July 28, 2007 John performed at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
On April 28, 2008 the recording sessions from the previous year surfaced on the album "Floating Point", featuring the rhythm section of keyboardist Louis Banks, bassist Hadrien Feraud, percussionist Sivamani and drummer Ranjit Barot bolstered on each track by a different Indian musician. Coinciding with the release of the album was another DVD, "Meeting of the Minds", which offered behind the scenes studio footage of the "Floating Point" sessions as well as interviews with all of the musicians. Floating Point, Meeting of the Minds, Live at Belgrade were all released in collaboration with Abstract Logix and Mediastarz (Johns Company)
McLaughlin engaged in a late summer/fall 2008 tour with Chick Corea, Vinnie Colaiuta, Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride under the name "Five Peace Band", from which came an eponymous double-CD live album in early 2009.
McLaughlin has been cited as a major influence on many generations from the '70s and '80s fusion guitarists, prominent players such as Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Mike Stern, Al Di Meola, and Scott Henderson. His influence did not stop in the 80's as hardcore punk guitarist Greg Ginn of Black Flag cited Birds of Fire by The Mahavishnu Orchestra which inspired him to record more progressive guitar work and even recording instrumental songs ,current players still hold him as highly influential including Omar Rodriguez of The Mars Volta. According to Pat Metheny, McLaughlin has changed the evolution of the guitar during several of his periods of playing. McLaughlin is also considered a major influence on composers in the fusion genre. In an interview with Downbeat, Chick Corea remarked that "...what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar set the world on its ear. No one ever heard an electric guitar played like that before, and it certainly inspired me. John's band, more than my experience with Miles, led me to want to turn the volume up and write music that was more dramatic and made your hair stand on end". In 2010, Jeff Beck called him "the best guitarist alive".
- Gibson EDS-1275 - McLaughlin played the Gibson doubleneck between 1971 and 1973, his first years with the Mahavishnu Orchestra; this is the guitar which, amplified through a 100-watt Marshall amplifier "in meltdown mode," produced the signature McLaughlin sound hailed by Guitar Player as one of the "50 Greatest Tones of All Time."
- Double Rainbow doubleneck guitar made by Rex Bogue, which McLaughlin played from 1973 to 1975.
- The first Abraham Wechter-built acoustic "Shakti guitar," a customized Gibson J-200 with drone strings transversely across the soundhole.
- He currently plays Godin electric/MIDI guitars, one of which can be seen on the Eric Claptons Crossroads Chicago 2007 DVD