A History Of John’s Guitar Set Ups

Pip Taylor Provides A History Of John’s Live AM, Effect And Guitar Set Ups.


I first heard John Martyn on Solid Air in 1973. I assumed that the textures and layers that on Solid Air were a combination of a whole bunch of talented players and some recording  “black magic” and was amazed when I saw only John and Danny Thompson recreate these sounds live at Kingston Poly in the autumn of ’73.

There was this “folky” looking guy, sitting down!, with a rather worn Yamaha acoustic and a few pedals creating this cascading torrent of sound that reverberated around the hall. That set me off on my obsession to find out how he did it, what he used and to learn how to play it, albeit within my limitations as a guitarist an my budget.

I have chased this tone and live sound for 30 years, spent far too much, wasted so much time having gone up back alleys in a technology sense and came to a realization that you need the real kit to dial in the truly authentic vibe but with some careful selection, avoiding my mistakes, you can get very close, in a home setting with a modern reliable and economical set-up., setting aside guitar quality.

This history is not complete but covers the live context in the period from Early 70’s to Late 80’s.

1)    Early to Mid 70’s

This was a very fertile period following the release of Bless the Weather in 1971, Solid Air recorded in 72, released in ‘73, the seminal Inside Out in 1973 and Sunday Child 1974. There is a broad spectrum of material from acoustic picked acoustic folk to highly innovative free jazz/blues work-outs.

1-1)    Early 70’s Live Set-up

Guitar – Initially a Yamaha FG (solid wood with the lacquered finish rubbed off). The FG series are still great guitars and relatively cheap!
Pickups – Initially no pickups and miked off the front of the guitar.
Then he used a DeArmond sound hole pickup and Barcus Berry (type) contact pickup positioned behind and slightly below the bridge. Both gaffa taped onto the guitar.

Around 72/73 he swapped the Yamaha acoustic for a Martin D28 and appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test with Danny. The DeArmond sound-hole pickup up not stuck down by gaffa tape. The acoustic pickup was stuck just below and behind the bridge and cable taped down. DeArmond cable was routed sometimes below the sound hole and occasionally taped up and over the guitar.

To fit a De Armond you use the integral wire clamp on the rear of the back plate of the pickup and a locking slide latch on the bottom, under the volume control. This latch clamps the pickup against the sound board from inside. These fixing can work loose, the sliding clamp damages the underside of the sound board and looses contact pressure with use and then the pickup can move around and will get displaced if you hit it when playing. Hence the practical useof gaffa tape to keep it in place which he deployed on his  Guild D55NT and Martin D28.

In the late 70’s he started to use a Guild D55NT acoustic guitar and toured with this for a few years. Not sure why he would switch from his Martin’s but it is a glorious sounding guitar Small Hours was recorded using a D28 but from then on when Outside In was toured he used the Guild.

Pic 1 underside of De Armond pickup showing clamp wire and 2 sliding latches.

Underside Of De Armond Pickup Showing Clamp Wire And 2 Sliding Latches







Not sure why he did not get them installed into the guitar but he may have swapped guitars and moved them from one to another?

DeArmond Sound Hole Pick Up in a Guild D55NT







Pic2: DeArmond sound hole pick-up in a Guild D55NT.

The effect of the gaffa tape is to deaden the soundboard to some degree and no doubt it influences tone and it may even dampen feedback from the acoustic contact pickup. This gaffa tape really wound up my “serious” guitarist friends when they saw it along with the “strange tunings”.  But it added to the “BoHo” image, but had a practical benefit.

2)    Output Routing

The DeArmond sound hole pickup was routed into the first pedal in the pedal board.

The contact pick up was routed straight into the dry (non reverb channel of his Fender Twin amp or via a DI box to the same input.

3)    Amplifier/s

The live set-ups I saw in the early 70’s were comprised of a Fender Twin Silver Face for the guitar.

Latterly this was supplemented by a smaller Fender amp through which he ran his Korg drum machine used on Small Hours/ Anna for example.

4)    Effects Set-up

John used a pedal board and two off-board effects. Whilst his set-up looked rather casual, in fact the effects were state of the art back then, professional grade and many had only just been released in the States and these must have been among the first to make it to the UK.

4-1) Pedal board

The pedal board was custom made and comprised of a flight case like base inside were power supplies and plug boards and a top cover that latched onto the base for transit. It looked very like an amp flight case with protected corners, edge strips and strong latches. He played seated behind this board and in-front of his amp set up. The effects were screwed down securely.

Some of the effect to effect cabling ran into the board so it was not possible to state what the cabling sequence may have been but by trial and error I deduce it ran as follows;

The routing effects order that can be seen on the OGWT Collegiet Theater in 1977 is rather unconventional by today’s “effects” wisdom It was;

DeArmond into ???

Effect set out on board left to right facing audience;

EH Big Muff, Mastro Booemerang pedal, MXR Phase 90, Mutron (no CE1 Chorus) but two echoplex’s one EP3 on top of amp the other EP1 or2 on the floor to the left (the Korg drum machine is on the second Fender amp to his right).

By trial and error the set up I have dialed in is as follows:

De-Armond sound hole pickup to the pedal board.

1st into a Maestro Boomerang pedal (an early Wah/Vol pedal and sometimes referred to as a Gibson Boomerang pedal).

2nd into a Mutron III envelope follower (a kind of auto wah) requiring 18volts to power it.

3rd to an MXR Phase 90 (orange one with single control knob)

4th to an Electro-Harmonics Big Muff sustain/distortion pedal the Big Muff Pi version with chicken headed controls.

5th straight into an Echoplex EP1 or EP2 tube driven tape echo/delay machine

6th out to the Fender Twin amplifier and in via the number 2 (Vibrato labeled) socket on the front of the amp.

Note: in 1976 Roland launched the mains powered Chorus CE-1 chorus pedal and this was added between the pedal board and the Echoplex. Due to the lack of real estate on the board and size of the CE-1 this was normally placed on the floor next to the board. I have the impression JM got one earlier the ‘76?

Considering what may have appeared a rather casual approach to live performing, his amp and effects set-up was not the “lash-up” it sometimes appeared to be. The sound quality of his live gigs was excellent and his set-up was consistent. The sound on some live CD’s and bootlegs was often poor and sound quality was down to the PA, the monitors and possibly due to battery sag and the mix of the settings dialed into, non- bypass and non-buffered, early generation effects pedals.

He was certainly not precious about his guitars, he did (or get Kenny his long suffering roadie) to polish them much, did not change strings every gig like some “pros”, and he suffered very few string breakages despite the many and varied tunings he used during a concert, albeit the string tension were in detuned open and low tunings and were quite slack. Oh and not tuner in sight!!!

Home 1970s JM Guitar Set UpPic 3) Example of home 1970’s JM rig set-up

5)    Mid to Late 70’s Live Set ups

5-1) Amp Set up change

In the Mid 70’s the Fender Twin amp was a replaced by a Musicman Amplifier Head and Cabinet. The pedal board was routed into the reverb channel and the acoustic into the non-reverb channel of the amp. This amp set sound magnificent with lots or air moving about and sparkle driven by valves.

5-2) Guitars

The Guild D55NT was still in use but he introduced the Gibson SG with P90 pickups, no pick guard and a traditional stop Gibson bridge. He told me after the Rock Goes to College gig at Reading Uni in 1978, that both the amp and the guitar were given to him by Eric Clapton.

He used this set-up in both seated and standing in front of a band” context.

The Fender Twin was now used for the Korg Drum machine when touring One World solo or with Danny but this was dropped when he played with band members.

5-3) Effects

The effects set up and pedal board remained unchanged. I am told he used a Vox Wah/Vol pedal and a Morley Vol/Wah pedal in this period but did not see these for myself.

The Mutron Auto Wah became more prevalent following the release of One World.

He occasionally used two Echoplex tape echoes at some live gigs. I saw two at a gig at the Epsom Baths. You can record one delayed track onto an Echoplex and them overdub non delayed tracks over it or play back the delayed track you laid down. If you want to put an echo delayed effect over another echo’s track, you will need to delays (2 x Echoplex’s). For example a Big Muff through and echo is great over another delayed track  He also toured a full quadraphonic PA system, (PA speakers in each corner on the hall) See the two vocal mics in some early pics. This was a fantastic sounding PA in a good sized hall.

6)    Band period

Now John was playing with a band or various other musicians and standing in front of the mic rather than sitting behind his pedal board. Many of the idiosyncrasies in his solo or with Danny set up had to been dialed out and the effects set was changed.

Initially an Echoplex was mounted on a purpose made stand that was placed alongside him by the mic stand. He could adjust the delay times and feedback intensity “on the fly”. But this was changed for more modern technology.

6-1) Effects

The Echoplex tape delay’s were swapped for a Korg SDD3000 digital delay. This had presets that could call up settings for specific numbers and a simple sampling/looper function that is rather short.

Initially the SDD3000 was placed on the floor by the mic stand and this caused major problems when he stepped on it! He then mounted it in a 19” rack frame and flight case and put it on top of his amp.

At some stage he may have used two SDD3000 delays but I never saw him gig in that config.I offered him a SDD1000 when he put his foot through his SDD3000.

The Mastro Boomerang pedal has long gone and been replaced by an Ernie Ball Volume pedal.

6-2) Amp change

The excellent valve Musicman Head and Cabinet was replaced by a Peavey combo (solid state is my guess but could be wrong) and he stayed with this reliable and quite loud combo for much of his early band live performances to gain reliability and consistency in his sound set ups.

6-3) An important Guitar Change

By now he had retired the Guild D55NT and replaced this with one or two Martin D28 acoustic guitars which he stuck with from then on.

The pick up set-up remained a DeArmond and a Barcus Berry type, still with gaffa to hold them.

At some stage in the band period he also adopted the Stratocaster and early ones were Japanese Tokia Stratocaster copies. These in fact were excellent guitars (see how good from the Fender – Tokia law suit story, which can be looked up separately) and allegedly better than post CBS Fender Strats.

He also used real Strats  and the Tokia’s and swapped between depending on what tuning he was using.

Sadly the SG was retired for a while.

6-4) Amp change

Towards the end of this period, his on-floor effects set-up was simplified, no more wah only an Ernie Ball Vol Pedal and the EH Big Muff was swapped for a ProCo RAT distortion pedal. Playing volume had increased in this band context.

He then made an inspired change in his amp. He went from Peavey combo to the Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus, a clean and open sounding solid state amp. He retained the JC 120 from then on.

7)    Digital delays

The SDD3000 proved troublesome and were replaced by one and then two ALESIS QUADRAVERB GT multi effect and digital delay units (not with Hank Marvin preset I assume). These were mounted in a 19” rack flight cased config and placed onto top of the JC120 amp.

The Qudraverbs were placed in the effect loop of the JC120. They were ganged together to give him those short doubling delays that you hear on some of his later tracks.

The multi-effects loaded in these Quadraverbs provided chorus and phasing as required and possibly reverb headroom as well.

It is possible that his keyboard player Foster Patterson flew his some/all of his digital effect rig from his position at the keyboards. He certainly had control of some sounds it appeared to me.

8)    The Gibson Les Paul era

John had two early Gold Top P90 loaded Gibson Les Paul electric guitars. One was a 1954 and the other similar in age, this I am not sure of.

John's Gibson SG

He stopped using the Stats (hooray!) and from then on played a Gibson Les Paul. These were retired, stolen, sold off and he eventually used Epiphone Les Pauls in his come-back gigs and it seemed he had quite a few LP’s when he played Solid Air live.

The SG was rolled out again until the neck was damaged and this was replaced by a remarkably similar era SG supplied by “ace” bassist and guitar dealer John Giblin.

Pic 4) Gibson SG taken at a gig in Basingstoke in the 90’s. I think it is the replacement SG due to the distressed nature of the top horn? It has a new bridge and tail stop. Note the relative position of the pickup pole pieces on the neck pick up (towards the rear face of the mount). It has been reversed?

9)    Modern set-ups

John is now touring with Martin D28’s, Les Paul’s and his SG. The amp remains unchanged and the big medal board is long gone.

His effect set up has to be simplified further as his set is reduced. The DeArmond sound hole pickup on his D28’s have been replaced by different sound hole pickups (LR Baggs is one) other I am not so sure. Some sound good many not quite so good.

The contact Barcus Berry pickup is long gone and perhaps he now has a build in ribbon of mounted pick-up in some D28’s. He has what appears to some new D28’s.

His modern touring set became;

Example A)

Fully digital set-up at Basingstoke again

John's Fully Digital Set Up







Note the use of BOSS DDI Digital delays one on the floor and the other on top of the JC120.

John's Fully Digital Set Up 1







The sequence was;

Elec guitar (Les Paul or SG) into Electro Harmonics Qtron +, Qtron+ to ProCo RAT, RAT to BOSS DDI, DDI to Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, EB to second DDI, DDI to DI Box and then to JC120 amp.

Good news – the return of an Echoplex!

At the last band gig I saw he had the following set-up. Which connected differently to his previous Basingstoke set up?

Guitars SG and D28’s

Elect guitar to EB Vol pedal

EB to QTron+,
Qtron+ to ProCo RAT,
BOSS DDI to Echoplex (EP2 – is it a Fulltone made to look like a Echoplex??)
Old original single foot switch to activate and deactivate the echo on the Echoplex, so no longer playing over the recorded loop these days in a band context.

Echoplex to DI box and DI box to JC120 amp.

Echoplex to DI box and DI box to JC120 amp

So there you have it. Sorry I am a bit light on detail of the band set-ups but I am a fan of his early 70’s period.

To end with – here are two pics taken at the recent John Martyn Summer Gathering in Syston Leics last weekend.

The first is a recreation of 2.5 rigs a 70’s rig, Fender Twin but minus the MXR Phase 90 phaser, a mid period Quadraverb rack mount set up and a modern equivalent using a JC120 and modern delay examples TC NOVA and a TRex Repeater. There is a TC Flashback x 4 hidden. The TC Flashback is the one to buy these days. It is an excellent delay with Tube and Tape echo presets and a fantastic looper and at long last you can lay echo over the looped recording (no need for two delays).

The last pic is Ian “Not” McGeachy in my mind the current MASTER of Echoplex’d material playing my rigs at the Gathering. It was an honor to hear him play with and my kit.

Ian 'Not' McGeachy

I wish you Fine Lines and Fine Wines

Pip Taylor
June 2013