John Martyn: Heart On The Rocks With A Twist

Gene Santoro
Guitar World Vol 7 #1

The long, sustained note curls loops over a reggae-flavored Linndrum, a fat-toned bass and floating synth voices. Augmented by delay and overdrive, the note burns toward feedback as John Martyn, eyes closed, sways feelingly onstage at New York's Bottom Line, then steps to the mick to propel the lyrics with his soulful, breathy tenor. After 18 years as a performer and a dozen lp's to his credit, Martyn still digs deep inside himself to find the spontaneous sounds that express his very personal vision.

That musical vision has changed dramatically since the day, 18 years ago, when a 17-year-old Scottish lad first picked up an East German Rolif acoustic guitar: "My best friend at school played me two records: Silver Dagger by Joan Baez and Folk Blues And Beyond by a man called Davey Graham, a Scotsman who was way ahead of his time, hipper than Earl Klugh ten years before." Studying recordings by blues artists like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller as well as British revivalist Bert Jansch provided Martyn with the strong fingerpicking chops he still occasionally exhibits in concert on his treasured Martin D-28; by 1968, a year after he'd begun playing, he'd become a fixture on the UK folk circuit and released his first album, a folkie effort called London Conversation.

From then on, however, Martyn began his relentless addition of instrumental colors to his studio pallette, calling on strings and woodwinds, a variety of percussion and backup vocalists to fill out the sounds he was hearing in his evolving head. By 1981, for example, he'd hooked up with Phil Collins and Warner Bros. for Glorious Fool, which Collins produced thoughtfully, mixing a dash of Genesis into Martyn's own blend of folk, reggae and jazz elements. But neither Glorious Fool nor its follow-up, the aptly-named Well Kept Secret, altered the Scots guitarist's status as a cult figure, and so he left Warners to return to his Island home, whence comes Sapphire, his first self-produced album.

In a departure from his normally guitar-oriented format, Martyn chose to have Sapphire sparkle with subtle touches: tonal shadings, backing riffs, textural elements. As he puts it, "I don't like solos at all. I think their place, if they have a place, is live; in fact, I quite enjoy them live. [imitates carny barker] 'Step forward, son, and say your piece' [laughs]. But I deliberately tried to keep that to a minimum for Sapphire, because at that point I was more interested in synthesizers anyway."

Still, there are on Sapphire bright gems that recall Martyn's original motivation for moving from acoustic to electric guitar. "I'd originally switched because I wanted some sustain without having to play the saxophone," he smiles. "At the time, everybody was playing too damn fast and slick, and I wanted to do something with more heart. Then I discovered the Big Muff and the Echoplex: they were my keys to the future. I was listening mostly to Johnny Mac [John McLaughlin], on those first two records he did for Douglas1 -they were great. I don't like him when he's too clean and sweet, that bores me; but when he's dirty I love him. And I love Jim Hall as well -he's-so subtle."

Live, of course, Martyn still mixes subtlety and raunch with spontaneous impunity. He himself distinguishes between performance and recording this way: "Onstage one knows exactly what one is going to do: it's temporal, it's transient, it's there one night and gone the next. With a record you're committing yourself to a certain longevity: there's more intellectual responsibility when you're in the studio, because you're going to stand or fall by the document you've created. Conversely [laughs] I often play far better live than I ever do in the studio." Which is what you'd expect from a player who claims, "I never think about what I'm going to do for a solo beforehand."

Whether he thinks about it or not, Martyn pulls some incredible sounds from his usual rig -a 1965 SG ("It's warm, fat, an sweet; it's a good friend") or 1954 Les Paul ("I worry about it, it's getting older"), his Peavey with two 12" speakers, and SDB-3000 digital delay and a Pearl effects board loaded with phaser, flanger, and chorus and overdrive ("That's a bit noisy, but they all are"). Long, breathy chord formations that swell as he moves them up and down the fretboard, fingerpicking to draw out different inner voices, can yield to heavy metal crunch; Roy Buchanan-style pedal steel licks, like on Name Of The Game,2 may be followed by a chickenpicker's delight, like the solo in 'Fisherman's Dream.' Somehow, it all sounds like John Martyn. "My own favorite guitar things are still on Inside Out," declares the bemused picker, "which nobody else seemed to like, even though it won a couple of jazz awards."

For his forthcoming lp, as yet untitled,3 Martyn is moving away from jazz-reggae fusion to a more r&b-based sound. "It'll be gentle, like soul r&b with a couple of enharmonic ideas," is how he pictures it. "There'll be relatively simple rhythm tracks based around late sixties and early seventies black music, like Stax-Volt stuff, the things Booker T and The MGs did. I'd really like to get into that groove." Judging by his supple ability to incorporate a diverse wealth of new influences into his musical concerns, there's little doubt he'll succeed.

Gene Santoro

1 Devotion (1970, Douglas 4) and My Goal's Beyond (1971, Douglas 9).
2 No idea what song he means by that one, I suppose One World.
3 Piece By Piece, apparently.
This story appeared in the 'Tune-Ups' section. Guitar World was a bimonthly published by Harris Publications, New York. The original issue featured Yngwie Malmsteen on the cover and cost $ 2,50.