John Martyn: A fingerpicking Brityn

Dan Hedges
Guitar Player Vol 9 #5

As a guitarist, Glasgow-born John Martyn is undeniably one of the finest in Britain. As a guitar innovator, he's one of the very few. Having embarked on a recording career at the ripe old age of eighteen (with London Conversation), he's since recorded seven albums in as many years (including Stormbringer! [Island, ILPS 9113], with his wife, Beverley), the latest of which, Sunday's Child [Island, ILPS 9296], was released last December.

His playing has changed incredibly over the years, evolving from a more or less straightforward folk-picking style in the early days, to its present synthesis of jazz, blues, folk, rock, and just about everything else under the sun blended together with the unmistakable stamp of "John Martyn."

He was one of the first musicians (if not the first acoustic guitarist) to successfully explore the on-stage possibilities of an Echoplex, and the effect is something he's become quite well-known for. Over the past few years he's casually joined forces with ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, and has supported bands like Yes, Traffic, and Chick Corea's Return To Forever on various American tours, playing venues ranging from Max's Kansas City to Madison Square Garden.

The following interview took place in the legendary British seaside resort of Brighton while under the influence of several bottles of Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Brown Ale.

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When did you first become interested in the guitar?
Well, it actually started about seven years ago. There really wasn't anything else for me to do, you see. I was already singing by that time, but I wanted to learn the guitar, and unless you went to a teacher -which I don't believe in- the only way you could learn was by going to folk clubs, watching people's fingers, and talking to the musicians. You'd get in for free if you played, too. So once I learned enough to play, I used to go and get in for free - a fringe benefit, you might say. After that, people started saying, "Would you like to play for money?" and, being a greedy bastard, I'd say, "Certainly! How much would you like to give me?" It just went on from there.

But did you ever go out and buy a chord book or anything like that?
No, I just watched other guitarists very closely, picking up a bit here and a bit there. I don't really watch anybody for that purpose now. I just fiddle about on my own.

Does your family have any musical leanings?
My mother used to sing. So did my old man, for that matter, but it was all vaudeville stuff.

What guitarists did you listen to in the beginning?
Davey Graham [See GP, Dec. '71]. That was it. He was my absolute hero. I had two ambitions back then: To get a record out, and to play in a London club called Cousins, which is now defunct, but back then it was a very hep club to play in. Of course, once I started playing there all the time, I got sick of it. But in the beginning, it was something I just had to do. Anyway, Davey Graham used to go there all the time and play with this classical guitarist named Tim Gould, I think. He got into trouble though, and Davey asked me if I wanted to take his place. I said, "I can't play all that classical stuff." But he said, "Just play blues and whatever else you know how to do." This was before he quit playing. We only played together for three months. Of course, the Incredible String Band influenced me, along with Indian music, Celtic music, all kinds of modal stuff, [John] Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders.

Can you read music?
No, and it's probably helped me in the long run. Dan [Thompson] knows all of that, and he'll say, "You're playing a fifth there," but all I care about is that it sounds nice. For me, it's a more emotional way of playing. I've thought about going to someone, not so much for reading as for technique, but I've decided that it isn't really necessary. I don't think that I play like anybody else, and I've never heard anybody play like me, which is exactly the way I want it. If you start taking lessons, you're liable to end up playing like your teacher, because he's obviously going to say, "No, not like that. Like this." I've always felt that it's better to find your own way of doing it.

You seem to have come a long way in seven years.
Yeah, it was fairly fast, but I played my ass off for the first two years. I really don't practice at all now. The only practice I get is on gigs, when writing songs, or just fiddling about. I've often thought that if I could get back the enthusiasm that I had during those two years it'd be incredible. I used to play all the time. It was ridiculous. Of course, you have to have some talent for the thing in the first place. I mean, I've heard people who've been playing for twelve years, but the timing isn't right or some nuance is missing. But I don't practice. I've gone a month without picking a guitar up -which is bad, but I've done it- especially after a tour. I'll just sit and watch television. Don't care what's on. I'll just sit and stare at the interference to clear my head out. I'd love to be disciplined, but I just don't have it in me. I'm not a disciplined person.

Who do you listen to now?
Oh, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Zawinul [pianist] of Weather Report - I don't listen to any guitarists, really, I do think McLaughlin's fantastic, though. He just blows me away.

So the modal influences come primarily from listening to jazz?
To a large extent, yeah, and it was my wife who turned me on to a lot of those people. Then, too, being Scottish, it comes quite naturally. The Scottish and the Irish have a tradition of modal tunes. There must be hundreds of thousands of Irish pipe and harp tunes, and they're written down. They're very complex, and they're all modal. I think that every form of music has a definite "vibration," if you don't mind the term, and that whoever you are, you identify with the music that's really in your heart. It sounds silly, but I genuinely believe that. Nobody plays blues better than American blacks, for example. A lot of people have tried to imitate them, but the heart isn't there.

When did you first hit on that whole echo effect?
I honestly don't know when it started. Initially, I got into it because I sussed out that if you put enough repeat echo on the thing, and the signal went in strong enough, you had to get incredible sustain. I wanted as much sustain as possible, and that's really how it started.

What kind of equipment do you use to get the effect?
Just the average stuff: Gibson Boomer pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, a fuzz box, Fender amp, Echoplex, and a phase-shifter. Nothing exotic, really.

Very few people seem to use it on stage.
Well, most of the people that do don't use it right. On the other hand, Joe Zawinul doesn't use it the same way I do, but what he does with it sounds fantastic! [Tenor sax player] Eddie Harris is another guy who really knows how to use it. The thing is, you've got to be so tight with it. I listen to things I recorded two years ago, which I thought were great, and they're just not there now. I wasn't precise enough.

Well, you've never really gotten it down properly on record anyway.
That's the trouble. I'd like to do a "live" album, just to see how it comes across. You see, the producer I was using, John Wood, just didn't like me playing electric music, and thought it was a waste of time. So he didn't have the interest in it, and that's why it sort of got nosed-off in the studio.

Could you run down a list of the guitars you own?
Well, there's a Martin D-28 and a Les Paul. That's it.

What kind of pickups do you have on the Martin?
A DeArmond for the electric stuff, and a Barcus-Berry for the straight acoustic stuff.

And the strings?
On the Martin I use Darco light gauge wire-wounds, but they're closer to being mediums, if you know what I mean. The only reason I use them is that the name is easy to remember. The ones I use on the Les Paul come from Cardiff, and they're called "Rock 'n Rollers." They're fantastic and cheap! I love them. [The Cardiff Music String Co., Ltd., Pontygwindy Industrial Estate, Caerphilly, Glamorgan CF8 3HU, U.K.]

What kind of picks do you use?
Well, this one is a Fender medium, though I've used pieces of cardboard. I recorded "Over The Hill" with a piece of cardboard, you know.

You usually play in a finger style. Do you use finger-picks?
Never. Don't like them. I don't even use a flat-pick that often, just my fingernails. I've got these plastic nails that I put on, because I blister very easily. I put them on to take the edge off. It's a powder and a liquid that you mix together and smooth over your nails before it hardens.

What special tunings do you use?
Anything and everything. I don't know what the chords are, I just play. I used to use C and D a lot - D modal, but now I use everything. I just make them up as I go along.

When did you first get into playing straight electric guitar?
Only a couple of years ago. I had an old Hofner that I used for playing a couple of lead lines on. That was about three years ago, I guess, but I find I'm getting out of it now. I suppose that if I got a regular band together, I'd play a lot more electric music.

How did you strike up your partnership with Danny Thompson?
Is that what you call it? Well, we've always dug each other, and I find him totally compatible in a musical sense. We've played together in the studio for the last three years, and on the road for the last year-and-a-half. He helped me out on Bless The Weather [Island, ILPS 9167]. It was a case of my wanting the best bass player, and there he was. Once I decided I wanted to work with him, there really wasn't anyone else I'd even consider. I think he's the best bass player in Britain, apart from Dave Holland, but I prefer Dan because he's interested in the same things and understands exactly what I'm on about.

Do you play any other instruments?
I can get a tune out of a sax, and I can accompany simple songs on the piano - very simple. I wouldn't say I can really play either of them, though. Actually, I'd really like to play drums. I've been quite carried away with them recently, but it's difficult to play solo all the time! I play a bit of 5-string banjo as well - "Cripple Creek" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," oddly enough.

Have you ever considered using a 12-string guitar?
I've been thinking about it. There's only one 12-string that I've ever played that I really like, though, and that belongs to a chick named Bridget St. John. It was handmade, and the only reason I like it is because the third set of strings buzz, which is a fault in the guitar, really. It has a lovely drone to it, though, a really lovely sound. She won't give it to me!

To wrap it up, do you feel your style is going in any particular direction?
Well, I think I'm gradually beginning to get a style of my own together. It isn't something I can really put my finger on, it's just a feeling that I'm maturing, beginning to find my feet. I've been a completely hand-to-mouth man all along, though, so I really can't plan ahead. I'll just have to wait and see what happens.

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Guitar Player (The Magazine For Professional And Amateur Guitarists) was a monthly published by Guitar Players International, Saratoga, California. This issue had Dutch guitarist Jan Akkerman on the cover and originally cost $ 1.00.