Ian Elliott Shircore
Probably the most decisive influence on developing acoustic guitarists on the folk scene these days is a young Glaswegian who hasn't played the folk circuit himself for many months. But although John Martyn is now established quite firmly as an electric rock player, his style and his unique approach to the acoustic guitar have spawned a whole generation of imitators. It is virtually impossible to spend an evening in any but the most traditionally-oriented clubs without seeing at least one guitarist trying to achieve the rhythmic pungency and explosive dynamics which are the Martyn trademarks. And though John's career has led him away from the clubs, his spirit is as dominant now as that of, say, Bert Jansch or Davy Graham in the late sixties.
When he first came down to London, about seven years ago, he began, like so many others, playing to tiny audiences in the back rooms of pubs, in dark little cellars and odd venues like the old, clapped-out barge moored on the Thames at Kingston. He was a shy, quietly aggressive teenager with a battered guitar, a few songs of his own and a startlingly punchy and flamboyant way of interpreting old blues numbers like Cocaine and Jelly Roll Baker.
At first, his own songs tended to be relaxed, whimsical little numbers with gentle, rolling tunes. But there were also a couple of fast instrumentals which gave him the chance to show off his unorthodox but dazzling technique. His playing has always been powerfully rhythmic. He snaps at the bass strings with his thumb to emphasise the beat and overlays this with intricate and skilful treble figures, played with an extraordinary degree of swing and attack. And his experiments with a variety of unusual open tunings have led him to utilise a number of unlikely chords which he has stumbled upon more or less by accident. For John is very much an intuitive musician. He depends upon a natural ear for melody and harmony and his left-hand technique, though dramatic and undoubtedly effective, is a guitar tutor's nightmare.
After establishing himself as the most important innovator on the club circuit, his next step was out into the unknown, experimenting with the use of modern technology to produce a completely new way of making music. Using a Yamaha acoustic with a bolt-on pick-up coupled with an old Fender reverb amp borrowed from the Fairport Convention, he began to adapt his style. He added fuzz and wah-wah and used echo repeat to build up layer upon layer of sound, until it seemed almost impossible to believe that there was only one guitarist producing this massive, loose-textured wall of music.
In the three years he has been following this line of development, he has gradually learnt to control and structure the results with great finesse, and the novelty and individuality of his playing have taken him from the pubs to major concert-hall gigs and even put his last album, Inside Out, into the bottom end of the charts. Though he has not yet achieved the universal recognition which will eventually come his way, John has deservedly made it to the top.
But it is a heartening thought, as one watches young folk players struggling with the acoustic guitar techniques John pioneered during his folk club days, that the best of them will soon be carrying on the process yet another stage further.