Martin Barre

Three Decades with Jethro Tull
Three Decades with Jethro Tull

Since the late 1960s, guitarist Martin Barre has been an important fixture in the legendary British band Jethro Tull. The only Tull album on which he didn’t play was the band’s first, This Was, but he’s been on every one since Stand Up. His unique tone and riffs are as integral to the band’s sound as the flute and vocals of frontman Ian Anderson.

Yet Barre has also been pursuing some solo projects of late, and when he called Vintage Guitar while on tour, he also discussed his second solo effort, The Meeting (on the Imago label). At the outset of our conversation, we asked Barre about his early musical years in Birmingham, England:

Vintage Guitar: You’re not the first person I’ve interviewed from Birmingham. In your opinion, were there any other “regional sounds” in Great Britain other than the fabled “Mersey Sound” from Liverpool?
Martin Barre: I don’t think so. The Liverpool sound had sort of a romantic image brought about by the pop journals. Bands all over the country were looking for work, but if you were a band from Liverpool, you had a bit of an edge.

As a matter of pride, I think a lot of good stuff came out of Birmingham. The bands all knew each other, we’d get together and swap ideas. Records by people like Big Bill Broonzy or Buddy Guy would get passed around. We shared ideas, so I think it’s fair to say there was a Birmingham “scene,” and I’m proud to have been a part of it in those days. There were the Moody Blues and Spencer Davis, for example. A lot of good players came out of there.

In his own interview with this magazine, Spencer Davis noted that the music coming out of Birmingham was more R&B-oriented.
I think so, too. R&B was certainly popular, and to me, Liverpool spawned the “pop” groups; Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Beatles, Billy J. Kramer.

I have a policy of mentioning Radio Luxembourg to any British interviewee. Comment?
I certainly listened to it, because in those days BBC Radio was dreadful. Radio Luxembourg was the only station that played decent music. It was still a pop station, but it was better than anything else.

Tell me about your “pre-Tull” musical experiences and instruments.
I was in bands while I was in school, and I eventually got kicked out of university, so I figured I’d better have a go at being a musician (chuckles)! I was really naive. I’d played a “rubbishy” guitar my dad got on credit for me. It was a Dallas Tuxedo, and I’ve never seen one since. Obviously, my dream was to earn a Gibson or a Fender. It seemed that you would go one way or the other; you were either a Gibson man or a Fender man in those days.

My personal dream guitar was a Gibson 330; I wanted a cherry red 335, but I couldn’t afford one, so I eventually got a 330 on credit. I’d seen it in a shop window; in those times, the best guitars stayed in shop windows for months, because nobody could afford them (chuckles). I gigged with that 330 for three years. I was in soul and R&B bands; I played saxophone as well as guitar; I played flute, too.

In late ’67 and early ’68, a blues boom started in England, which meant I could start playing more guitar. The same groups that had been soul bands now became blues bands; you changed with the times. I carried on playing flute in sort of a Roland Kirk style. I heard of Jethro Tull because Ian was playing the same way. Eventually, we played together and got along very well. Six months later, Mick Abrahams left Jethro Tull and I joined.

How did that come about?
Ian advertised in Melody Maker, and I answered the ad because our group had just split up. But when I found out it was Jethro Tull, I was petrified! I didn’t go any further with it, but by coincidence, they had been trying to get in touch with me for several weeks; they remembered me from the gig we’d played together but they didn’t know how to get in touch with me. They finally contacted me, and I was terrified, but I went through the audition. There were a lot of players who wanted the Tull gig; I think Ian didn’t want a blues player; I think he wanted somebody with an open mind.

At the audition, I had my 330 and an early Laney amplifier. That guitar squealed and whistled because it was a hollowbody, and I didn’t get the job; Tony Iommi did. I called Ian back and said if there was ever another chance, I’d like to have another go at it. He said that Tony didn’t work out, and offered me another audition. At that audition, I borrowed an SG Special from a friend, so of course I didn’t have the same acoustic problems I did with the 330. Shortly after I got the gig, I bought an old, beat up Les Paul Special from a shop in London. We used Hiwatt amps back then.

A lot of our readers probably consider “Locomotive Breath” a definitive British rock guitar song. What was your setup on that tune?
That was a Hiwatt amp with a 4X12 cabinet, and a Les Paul Junior. We’d played in America with a band called Mountain, and I loved Leslie West’s sound. I thought his tone was tremendous, so I bought a Les Paul Junior. That was the only guitar I used on the Aqualung album. I didn’t use any effects; I plugged straight into the Hiwatt. The reverb or any other sounds were studio rack effects.

In the time you’ve been with Tull, what do you think was the most complex effort the band has done, studio and in concert?
(pauses) I think the most difficult album at the time was Passion Play. Nowadays, I’d find it easy to play, but in those days you couldn’t just “play” it; you had to be counting all the time to know where you were. Thick As A Brick was a bit advanced, because it had a few oddball time signatures, but up until then we had been doing pretty basic stuff. We used to do the entire album of Thick As A Brick in concert, but when we took Passion Play on the road, it was a killer to do live. We didn’t do it too long; maybe 20 gigs. The audiences found it to be a bit much, as well.

But in retrospect, all the albums since have had much harder music on them, but we’ve been able to do some of the later material well in concert because I think we’ve always been improving as musicians.

Back in the ’70s, the band was known for some very unusual stage moves. I recall one concert where the road crew was setting things up, and there were five individuals left onstage, all wearing long coats. Suddenly they removed their coats, and it was the members of the band, ready to play.
(chuckles) Right! That was the era of the “rock star” in America – tight pants, pouting and strutting. We wore “straight” clothes, and saw ourselves as “antiheroes.” We laughed at other bands, and laughed at ourselves, as well. We would do things onstage to see how the audiences would react poking fun at other bands and our own band. It was almost a Monty Python kid of thing; we were doing to music what Monty Python would do to humor.

Everybody had these presumptions about rock stars, and whenever we came to America, everybody was convinced we were total druggies, just because we looked weird (laughs). But we were straight.

And I’ll tell you about another band like that – Captain Beefheart. As far as I know, they were straight as well, but there were presumptions about them since they did some things that were oddball, too. We played with them a lot; they were a great band.

We always did strange things for the audiences. We had fun doing it, and we weren’t trying to be smartasses.

If I remember correctly, you were an early Hamer endorser.
I used a sunburst Les Paul for about four or five years, during the time of Thick As A Brick and Passion Play, but such guitars have become too valuable to take on the road. I met Paul Hamer when he used to deal in vintage guitars. I started playing his guitars because of the value of my old guitars; I hadn’t been interested in new guitars for a long time before that. It wasn’t a formal endorsement, but maybe they did use me in an ad at one time. It was more of a personal relationship with Paul. I used Hamers for around 10 years.

What about other brands you’ve subsequently used?
After Hamer I had a brief relationship with Ibanez, then I bought a Tom Anderson guitar in England. Those instruments are well-made and durable; you could play one in the Sahara one day and in Alaska the next. I met Tom Anderson, and ultimately bought some more of his guitars; I still use them in the studio.

In concert, I’m using a Manson electric. The Manson brothers are in England; Andy makes acoustics and Hugh builds electrics. Ian and I both use Manson instruments. They make them like I want; I always order an ebony fingerboard. The neck dimensions are what works for me, and the instruments are wired in stereo.

There have been times when other notable musicians have been with Jethro Tull, if only temporarily. Eddie Jobson was aboard around the time of the A album, for example.
Eddie recorded the A album with Ian; it was intended to be a solo album, but Ian asked me to play on it as well, so it ended up becoming a Jethro Tull album and tour. Eddie never wanted to be in Jethro Tull, and he never had a commitment to Tull, but he did the tour. He had other things he wanted to do, such as producing, so he moved on.

Here’s your chance to comment about Crest Of A Knave winning the Grammy a few years ago, when Metallica was expected to win; they even performed live at the award show.
I thought we should have been there, since we were nominated, but the record company didn’t send us over there. The drummer, who lived in L.A., wasn’t given tickets to go. I thought it was nice to be nominated, but we weren’t there, and it wasn’t our fault. Metallica was there, of course; they had record company support and PR support, and their fans were there. They were in the right position to win. I didn’t think we’d win, either; I thought it was ludicrous to shove two categories – “Rock” and “Heavy Metal ” – together. I thought the award was a fair deal, though, and Metallica was really nice about it, but their fans thought it was a ripoff. It was a sad day; I would have liked to have been there to say thank you. When Metallica did win it the next time, they mentioned that they were glad Jethro Tull wasn’t around that year (chuckles).

The Meeting is your second solo effort. When did the first one come out?
About 21/2 years ago, although I’d completed it 31/2 years ago. It didn’t get the distribution it needed; it really never got a fighting chance at all, which was very sad and annoying to me. When I got hooked up with Imago, I wanted to get a second album out as soon as possible; I want solo projects to be an active part of my career.

How does The Meeting differ from your first solo album?
I tried to make it more focused, bearing in mind that I’m going to be out doing shows to support it. The first album was… not “busy,” but a little indulgent; trying to be jazzy, folky and classical, among other things, and all of that probably wouldn’t work well live. I wanted to do more straight-ahead material that’s all original.

Nevertheless, it seems like The Meeting does have an eclectic mix of styles and influences.
Well, I think my music will always be that way; I’m an “offspring” of Jethro Tull (chuckles), so that’s sort of ingrained into what I do. I could never do a blues album, for example. Some people tell me “You ought to do a blues album; everybody’s doing them,” and I say “Yeah, they are, and they’re doing such albums better than I could; it’s not me.”

See if you think this is a fair statement: I’ve always thought that there has been what could be discerned and distinguished as a “Martin Barre tone.” An appropriate amount of distortion, a flirtation on the edge of harmonics with a few squeals in the mix, and a straightforward sound otherwise. Comment?
(laughing) I love it! I recognize those adjectives, but I never analyze what I do. I am very critical of my own performance, but sound-wise, I’m like every other guitar player. I’m sort of chasing the rainbow, thinking that around the corner there’s a better amp, a better guitar, a better sound effect. I’m never standing still in that respect, so if people recognize my style even though I’ve been meandering through all sorts of guitars and amps over the years, I’m really pleased. That may not be a very good answer, but I don’t like being “linked” to specific things. I’d like to think that I could pick up a guitar, plug it into an amplifier, and play, because I think the most important links in the chain are a person’s brain and fingers, and the guitar and amp are tools.

While what might be called a stereotypical Martin Barre tone is on The Meeting, I heard some other tones as well; a Strat-like sound, for example.
That’s a really nice Schecter that I had made about 10 or 12 years ago; I also used it on the Under Wraps album. I was looking for some different sounds, and it’s a lovely guitar. It’s got EMGs and pao ferro wood.

Are the acoustics heard on The Meeting Manson guitars?
Yeah, but I also bought some “jumbo” guitars to get a deeper, richer sound; I got a Santa Cruz and a Taylor. I also used a Martin classical on the album.

Another interesting aspect of The Meeting is its use of female singers for the vocal tracks.
Maggie Reeday and Joy Russell did the backing vocals on my first album, and were also in my band when we played in England. I sang on that tour, but I couldn’t do a lot of the guitar parts while I was singing, so I made the decision to use another singer or singers next time around, and I wanted to keep it sort of “in-house;” I didn’t want a session singer. I’ll be using Maggie when we tour to support The Meeting.

One of the most recent U.S. tours for Jethro Tull had another veteran English band as an opening act, but it’s difficult for me to imagine Emerson, Lake & Palmer in a warmup slot. What was that like?
In all honesty, it’s been one of the most successful combinations we’ve ever had! It is strange, but they’re from the same “era” as us. We could look into the audience and see people wearing ELP t-shirts, and other people were wearing Tull t-shirts. We might have thought that half the audience would leave after Emerson, Lake & Palmer played, and the other half would boo ELP because they wanted to see Jethro Tull, but it worked amazingly well.

We had Procol Harum open for us a couple of years ago; they were a great band, but it didn’t work as well. Maybe the tour with ELP was better because they are so far removed from us, sound-wise. They don’t have a guitar player or a flute player; there’s a lot of contrasts in our sounds.

VG: What’s in the future for your solo efforts as well as Tull?
Ian’s doing a solo album, and I’ll be touring, then we’ve got a major European tour. There’s a lot on the horizon.

When I interviewed Mick Ralphs for this magazine a few years ago, he noted that a band is probably bigger in the music business than any solo projects its members might do.
Oh, absolutely; that’s very true, even in the case of Ian’s solo albums under his own name. It’s a whole different ballgame, and some of Ian’s albums have differed quite a bit from Tull albums. Walk Into Light was one of those computer/drum machine albums; there were some great songs on it, but I think Ian would admit, as I would, that the time of drum machines and a heavy synthesized sound is gone. I don’t think it’s possible to synthesize the “essence” of music. Why have a flute sample when you can have a flute player? The bottom line is that the guys who are actually playing music are the ones who are going to keep it alive.

Right or wrong, there are probably still some people who think Ian Anderson’s name is Jethro Tull.
(laughs) We’ve also had to put up with the “…which one’s Jethro” line for decades. It’s gotten to the point to where I decided that if they didn’t know, then it didn’t matter. But I’m pleased that after all these years, most of our fans know who I am. When we’re onstage, and Ian introduces everybody, it really means a lot when the audience gives me a round of applause. Same goes for the other guys in the band. They haven’t been around as long as me, but that kind of audience reaction is what it’s all about.

In his comments, Barre alluded to “…a lot on the horizon.” Considering his decades of experience and active future plans, said horizon looks quite appealing, eh?

Photo courtesy of Imago.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’97 issue.

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