But when Bert Jansch picked up an acoustic guitar, people listened, often spellbound by his subtle innovation and mastery.
Jansch, who died of lung cancer Wednesday at the age of 67, was a virtuoso, hailed by the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Canadian rocker Neil Young and Johnny Marr of the Smiths as a force to be reckoned with, and learned from.
In an era of earsplitting supergroups like Cream, known for their volume and pounding drums, he was a founder of Pentangle, a nuanced, visionary mix of folk and jazz music that found a huge audience for its complex arrangements and stunning musicianship.
His solo career was bookended by the outstanding “Bert Jansch” album in 1965 – recorded on borrowed guitars – and the critically acclaimed “Black Swan” CD released in 2006.
Young, who earlier this year invited Jansch to open for him on an extended concert tour, said that Jansch created a new approach to the acoustic guitar much as Jimi Hendrix changed the sound of the electric guitar.
John Barrow, Jansch’s U.K. concert booking agent, said Jansch remained an influential figure even when his music was out of fashion.
“I’ve been his agent for just over 10 years and when I met him he was at a low ebb and not really getting the recognition he deserved,” Barrow said. “But it is a measure of the man that he had at that point continued playing in a pub in Carnaby Street in London. Even at that time Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis were turning up at that pub to listen to him.”
Jansch, who was born in Scotland, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music in 2007 by Edinburgh Napier University. Guitarist Haftor Medboe, a musician in residence at the university, said Jansch had a distinctive sound that was difficult to define.
“Bert was a musician who was genuinely unique and was able to cross genres,” he said. “He was a virtuoso player and could create incredible sounds from his guitar, but he was also very soulful and imbued the instrument with a passion and elegance on a par with any of the great guitarists. It is no surprise that so many great artists name check him as an influence. He was the quintessential musician’s musician.”
Jansch was also a prolific songwriter. He has been recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
Pentangle was hailed by critics and fans for providing modern renditions of classic folk songs, helping to keep traditional music alive and vibrant, and also for innovative, jazz-inflected new material.
Jansch’s final performance was at a Pentangle concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Aug. 1, spokesman Mick Houghton said.
Houghton, who had known Jansch since his early days on the music scene, said the guitarist died at the Marie Curie Hospice in north London. Jansch had recently been forced to cancel several planned solo concerts because of his failing health.
“I don’t know anyone who had less of a sense of celebrity. He was always very self-effacing and critical adulation was completely irrelevant to him,” Houghton said.
Folk singer Eddi Reader called Jansch “a gentle, gentle gentleman.” In a message on Twitter she said: “God speed, darlin’ Bert – get us on the guest list.”
Jansch is survived by his wife, Loren, and son, Adam.