For a guy who can be seen playing regularly alongside jazz musicians like Jesse Boyd, Tom Fischer and Don Vappie, guitarist John Rankin has an unusual claim to fame. “I play with the LPO [Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra] when they need a guitar or a banjo,” he says. “Last year I did Mahler’s 7th [symphony] with them.”
As a classical guitar instructor, Rankin is omnipresent. It’s hard to find a New Orleans institution of higher learning that he has not taught at. He’s an adjunct faculty member at UNO, Loyola and Tulane, has held similar positions at Delgado and Xavier, and teaches private lessons to students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).
Yet he doesn’t exactly fit the image of the music professor. A fixture at Jazz Fest for 30 years now, he is immensely fluent in popular styles of every sort. “I know a lot of great guitar players,” says guitarist and songwriter Paul Sanchez. “But it’s a short list of them that can play all the different styles that John Rankin can play.”
“My jazz playing was just a natural consequence of who I am and where I’m living,” Rankin says. “[Jazz and classical] are different mental states. As a teacher, I try to find the common thread between them. What’s the same? What’s different?”
For someone with Rankin’s resume, his own beginnings on the guitar were humble. He and his family moved to New Orleans from North Carolina when he was nine years old. “When I was 14, my mom got an old Hawaiian guitar out of the French Market,” he remembers. “I never studied in high school. I think that was a mistake; on the other hand, I was so ignorant that I wonder if I’d have stuck with it if I’d known how bad I was.
“I’d say I’ve owned 75 or 100 guitars over the years. I’ve got about 25 right now,” Rankin says, adding quickly, “but they’re all left handed! Not worth stealing!”
As a young left-handed guitarist, Rankin initially took the Jimi Hendrix route, playing a restrung right- handed guitar. “When my mom got me the guitar, it was strung right- handed,” he remembers. “I just turned the strings around.” Today he advises his left-handed students to take a different approach. “I tell them to try right-handed first,” he says. “There’re different degrees of left-handedness. After a few weeks, they’re often fine.”
Rankin never set out to play the music of his adopted hometown. “I was listening to so many kinds of music from everywhere, but I didn’t realize how much of it was coming from New Orleans,” he recalls. “I started realizing how much of the stuff I was already playing was New Orleans music or profoundly influenced by it.”
Rankin’s decision to split his time between performance and education was a conscious one. “The child inside always says to me you’re a musician. But I don’t know that I think of myself as one or the other. Sometimes when I’m teaching, I’ll think, ‘I can’t wait to get to that gig tonight.’ And sometimes when I’m at the gig, I’ll think, ‘At least all I have to do is teach tomorrow. I don’t have to haul gear and all that.’”
“I was self-taught to begin with,” Rankin says. That led to some trouble when he went to get his Master’s degree in classical guitar. “I had a lot of remedial work to do, a lot of bad habits,” he recalls. As most New Orleans musicians lack formal training, that aspect of his learning process has given Rankin some crucial tools as an educator. “I think it helped me as a teacher to have done everything wrong,” he says.
But what makes Rankin’s impact so unique is his influence on his fellow professionals. “I think that his impact on the players in this city and around the country is more far reaching than he would admit,” says Sanchez. “He’d be the last to tell you. You could ask a dozen guys and they’d say, ‘Yeah man, John Rankin really had an impact on me.’”
In 2008, Rankin began coaching Sanchez on guitar in exchange for songwriting lessons. Sanchez is effusive about the effect that Rankin’s tutelage has had on him. “You can hear the difference,”
he says. “Listen to my playing on Exit to Mystery Street—my first record after the flood—and then two records later on A Stew Called New Orleans.
“He makes learning fun,” Sanchez continues. “He makes it exciting. He doesn’t talk down to you. He talks to his students like equals.”
“I think I’ve encouraged a lot of people that they were good enough,” says Rankin. “I think I’ve shown people that they could do things they thought they couldn’t do.”