John Perry discusses guitar tricks unique to John Martyn - as revealed by the man himself
Lanarkshire is hard country. Grey little granite houses huddle on the lee side of countless steep hills, and fast running burns rush down to join the headwaters of the River Clyde. Wind-swept sheep populate the fields and peat bogs, seemingly oblivious to the roaring air.
All in all it is tough country, and as such it's admirably suited to accommodate a man who has survived more than 21 years in a business which has found a dozen ways to kill off, stultify or suppress many of its greatest talents.
John Martyn has recorded 18 albums since his Island Records debut in 1967 (not counting live recordings) and shows every sign of continuing. He's deliberately chosen to live far away from the city; he know[s] himself well enough to admit - with a leer - to being 'easily led astray'. This decision is a common one amongst artists of all types, hence we find John and his wife occupying a large cottage with room for a small studio and enough beds to accommodate his drummer, bassist and second guitarist who are preparing themselves to record album number 19 in a Glasgow studio.
John belongs to that school of thought which holds that familiarity breeds empathy amongst good musicians rather than contempt, and prefers recording as much live playing as possible, to the endless overdubs in the control room method.
Recording that way (or playing live) you get, at the best moments, a situation where 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts'; a phenomenon that all experienced players know about. Referring it to live gigs John reckons that 'out of 10 gigs, two must be diamonds, really sparkle, three should be really good, three OK for the crowd but you know there were holes, and two can be thrown out for the dogs.'
This is a formula I have come across widely, [Jerry] Garcia from The [Grateful] Dead told me much the same, and in practice I've always found it to be true. What it means in the end is that you cannot force those magical performances to happen, when they want to occur they will.
One of the best John Martyn performances I remember seeing was a mid-70s [Old Grey] Whistle Test where he'd put an acoustic through an Echoplex and various other pedals, set up a long repeat and was playing in and around the echoed sound. I asked him exactly what the set up here was.
'I had two acoustics, either a Yamaha F180 or a Martin D28 fitted with D'Armond and Barcus Berry pickups. The signal from the D'Armond (see Fig 1) went into the Echoplex, then to a board with a choice of Fuzz, A Gibson Boomerang which now seems defunct, and into one channel of a Twin Reverb. The Barcus Berry signal was fed clean into the other Fender channel.'
Anyone who saw these performances will remember them for the astonishing sounds which one man seemed to be getting out of an acoustic guitar. John says nobody ever seems to have borrowed the idea but adds 'if you're gonna do it you got to swing. Don't let the machine lead you.'
He continues, 'The one thing I do give myself credit for inventing is the Back-Slap, exploiting hammer on and hammer off with the Left hand. It just comes automatically to me that if I hit a ONE beat I'm gonna hit something on the THREE, be it the bridge, body or my own hand. Nobody quite overkilled it the way I did!!'
'It's really quite simple and it makes you look terrific... everyone thinks it's terribly difficult.'
It's inevitable with a man whose tastes run from Theloni[o]us Monk to Davy Graham that a fair old number of influences are going to be in play. When you add to that a lack of interest if formal musical notation and the whole Celtic/ Modal background you can be certain that this person's approach to the guitar is going to be unusual.
John says that if he's listening to a record and hears something he wants to play along with, he just tunes various strings till they are harmonically right with the track and takes it from there. This is what I mean by a Modal approach as opposed to thinking in chord structures.
His favourite tuning is one which derives from fiddle playing in that nearly all the intervals between strings are a fifth. Going (in reverse to my usual method) from thin top string across to the bass 6th string the tuning is D G C C F C. As you see if you start at the F on the 5th string all the intervals are fifths. The two C's are tuned in unison.
Figs 2, 3, 4 show the main positions from which John works out; Fig 4 sounds especially good if you give the neck of your guitar a good wiggle as the open strings ring. It is worth noting that even though shown as six strings chords, the root notes of Figs 2 and 3 are really on the fifth string - these two can of course be played anywhere on the neck.
It is also worth bearing in mind that if you have a lightly strung guitar these tunings are going to make the strings sound very slack, so transpose them all up, say a third, or whatever interval feels right.
The next tuning is a corruption of Open D called DADGAD. This time we are going from the bass string across to the highest so tune to those notes D A D G A D. Whilst being a very Celtic tuning this is also found in many American folk s[o]ngs. To form a D chord you need just one finger as shown in Fig 5.
Another lovely chord which John calls a 'heartbreaker - use it sparingly' is shown in Fig 6.
This tuning is especially effective with a capo which can be used around the 5th or 7th fret.
Fig 7 shows some positions you can play as melodies or scales in this tuning.
The next two tuning[s] are corruptions of DADGAD. Version A consists of simply tuning the 3rd string down a semitone to F Sharp so that you have the open chord of D Major. Those of you who remember the Plus 1 shape from open G will recognise the shape in Fig 8 which is the same, simply moved over one string. The other two positions illustrated show further moves up the neck.
John proceeded to play a very Celtic sounding lament1 on this tuning while I found that I could play my customary Rolling Stones licks with no trouble; a wide range of alternatives is obviously open to you, as is the case with Version B which we'll look at now.
In this one the 3rd string changes again, this time coming down to D in unison with the 4th string. John says that this one is very good for Laments but also points out that Bukka White used it a lot. When John plays, with his background the result is a curious mix of Blues with Traditional Celtic music. Unless you have the same background you are never going to feel the accents in the same places, or improvise the same melodies, so I won't try and give you a literal transcription of what he played.
The tuning is good with a bottleneck, the melody being played mainly on the 1st & 2nd strings while the other strings give a sympathetic drone and the bottom string provides the bass. This approach is practically universal, linking Scotland, The Deep South and Africa, with India and the Sitar.
John states firmly that 'The classical music of America is not [John] Cage and [Philip] Glass, those people, but the Black music, Blues & Jazz, Monk and Big Bill Broonzy, Coltrane and Duke Ellington.'
By this time the Malt was doing its work and I had absorbed as many new tunings as possible.2 I took to my bed leaving John and his guitarist Taj to play away into the night. When I got up at 12 the next day there was no sign of either of them!
1 The Celtic sounding lament must have been Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail.
2 I have the distinct impression the word 'tunings' might be replaced by 'whiskey' here :o)
The exact date of the interview was difficult to pinpoint but it had to be around the time of the recording of The Apprentice, as guitarist Taj Wyzgowsky features only on two of its tracks. Ten tracks were already finished in February 1988. The release of the album however was as late as March 1990.
The reference 'who has survived more than 21 years' is correct as John's career started in 1967.
John Perry confirmed to me having visited Roberton, Lanarkshire January or February 1988 and that IM&RW ran the story very soon afterwards. He also remembers John's girlfriend kindly drove him back to the station: "But my main memory is the COLD..."
The issue of International Musician & Recording World was dedicated to the Frankfurt Music Fair and had DJ/ producer Jellybean Benitez on the cover.