An Introduction to John Martyn’s Guitar Technique.

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Although Martyn is now first and foremost a singer, he owes his reputation and his place in musical history in no small part to an extraordinary guitar technique, which evolved over some twenty years. The first recordings reveal an acoustic player in the British 60’s mould, with the string snapping typical of Bert Jansch and an interest from the start in alternate tunings, in coaxing a diversity from the instrument. The guitarist Davy Graham was a significant early influence- Graham’s eclecticism, juxtaposing blues, jazz and traditional folk with Indian forms, had a profound impact which remains even today on Martyn’s musical vision.

By 1971 Martyn was pushing the envelope with his sound, playing through a tremolo-wah-wah combination which could sweep from a soft and mellow chording to a pulsing cackle. Within the following year he discovered that by tuning the guitar low and using repeat echo he could play with and over his own guitar figures, and create bass and percussion,  this produced the Bo-Diddley-on-Red-Leb rhythmic pattern which was for years his trademark and which he has never entirely abandoned. Hot wiring his acoustic through two separate pickups, each connected to its own amplifier, he could, by switching between the two, play lead guitar over his own chordwork, a technique which finds total expression on the live Outside In on Live At Leeds (1975) and BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert (from 1977). He also began to use a volume pedal/echo combination to generate wafting, lapping waves of sound, of which Small Hours from One World (1978) is the best example.

Martyn had begun to play electric guitar on stage in the mid-seventies. At the beginning of the eighties this became his instrument-  his acoustic was relegated to a small spot in his stage show, and it disappeared from his studio albums. For the next three years or so his obvious interest was in playing electric lead guitar, and the live Philentropy (1983) is a fine memento of this phase, showcasing Martyn’s powerful, emotional lines. The albums Sapphire (1984) and Piece By Piece (1986) reveal him experimenting with electronic guitar treatments, playing a small part in a now very keyboard-oriented sound. By The Apprentice (1990) guitar had all but disappeared, although the final track Patterns In The Rain features some gentle classical playing, the first acoustic sounds on record for a decade.  Cooltide (1991) saw the return of that insistent echoplex pattern, and the slower, bluesier, quieter approach that was to characterise his lead playing from here emerged on the title track. Recent albums have continued the ‘band’ approach, the sound keyboard based, Martyn adding electric guitar embellishments. His acoustic playing is reserved for the 1970’s crowd pleasers he adds to his live shows, although he continues to promise an acoustic album at some point, and enjoys the occasional return, as The Transatlantic Sessions (BBC2) ably demonstrated. Nothing demonstrates his progression more clearly than his composing the songs for his last studio album, Glasgow Walker (2000) not on guitar but on synthesiser.

Those who clamour for his return to guitar, particularly to acoustic, miss the point, Martyn is progressive in the true sense of that word. My subjective impression is that by the mid-eighties he had reached the limit of what he wished to accomplish on guitar and that the instrument no longer has the interest for him that it once did, Martyn having concentrated more and more since then on his vocal technique. We cannot imprison him in a timewarp or in our own vision of what John Martyn should be, this is artistic strangulation to a gift such as his.

In General

The tunings John mostly uses is CFCCGD and DADGAD (Spencer The Rover. Bless the Weather, Make no Mistake, Man in the Station all use DADGAD, Head and Heart is the same with the bass string dropped to B) Others used are EADGBE (One Day Without You) and dropped D tuning (i.e. standard tuning with 6th sting dropped to D) on Jelly Roll Blues and May You Never. The tuning for Solid Air however is DAFGCE and then it’s just bar chords (I worked this out from a video). A lot of songs are just the CFCCGD tuning and these chord shapes;

Picking just the 1st, 2nd [sometimes 3rd too] and 6th strings; thumb on the 6th string and 1st finger across the 1st and 2nd [sometimes 3rd too] strings, on the same fret. (That makes a ninth chord I think- I don”t know about stuff like that ). Add the 3rd finger on the 1st string on the next fret up makes a minor chord, on the next fret up again makes a major. The other chord he likes is; 1st finger across 1st/2nd/3rd strings at third fret, play 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 6th, and used as a bar chord too. (Look At That Girl is just this chord, open and barred at the 5th and 7th for the verse, and barred at the 9th, 4th and 2nd for the middle eight).

I think Small Hours, Dealer, One World, Big Muff, Some People are Crazy, Grace and Danger, Lookin’ On, Sweet Little Mystery, Hurt In Your Heart, Could’ve Been Me (and that’s not exhaustive) are all combinations of the above.

Ian Barnett