Premier Guitar

Interview: Martin Barre - Taking Aqualung on the Road

June 29, 2011
The rich and complex history of rock ’n’ roll, as expressed through the electric guitar, cannot be told authoritatively without the including the work of Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. Barre's contributions are cataloged under classic Jethro Tull albums such as Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and War Child to name a few. Tull, masterminded by writer/guitarist/vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson and supported by Barre's guitar work, added concepts and progressive riffs that expanded the electric guitar's boundaries established by British blues-rock—a genre that was in full bombastic bloom when Tull's Aqualung was released in 1971.

In spite of any perceived under-recognition, Martin Barre's masterful solo on Aqualung's title track consistently pops up in the top five of nearly every “greatest guitar solos” list. The solo is a great example of Barre's contribution to the medium and it exemplifies what makes a great rock guitar solo—the suspenseful melodic build up that peaks with intensity, a gorgeous tone, soulful expressions that sink deep inside the listener, and technique without the slightest whiff of wankery. Jethro Tull is in the US for a summer tour, and the band is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Aqualung by playing the album live in its entirety. Anderson and Barre have been playing together so long that, as Barre puts it, "Even if we're playing a song we haven't done in ten years, Ian and I will remember what we did, and where we move. It's like we played it yesterday." Anderson and Barre are the only original members touring, and the first time they played together in preparation for the US tour was sound check at their first show at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Visiting friends, family, and guitar shops in advance of the tour, Martin Barre sits down with Premier Guitar to talk gear, the tour, and his simple but effective approach to tone.

Are you excited about the tour?

To be honest, most tours are special and only a few are a pain in the ass. I don't like going to India because it's a very sad country, but I love playing in America. For me, America is really a second home and I can't even imagine how much time I've spent in here in the last 42 to 43 years. Playing Red Rocks will be great—I know where the dressing room is, I know the venue, I know Denver, and I know where to go for a run. I'll probably even recognize a few people in the crowd. I love playing anywhere—be it a small club in Germany, outdoors at a festival in Italy, or somewhere in America. It's always a labor of love.

What gear will you be taking on the road for this tour?

I'm just bringing my PRS 513s, which I've played for about 10 years, and a mandolin. Ian plays his acoustic, and for the few acoustic parts I play, I'll just use the 513. If I could, I would bring ten guitars on the road with me. But given the logistics of coming from England, it's not practical.

I'll be using Soldano Decatone amps. I have a good relationship with Mike Soldano, and I think I’ve worked with that same amp for 20 years now—they always do a great job. I fly around the world with them and they get thrown about, but you turn them on and there you are—they sound exactly how you want them to. My favorite setup is a Decatone with a Marshall 2x12 and 1x12, running the 1x12 at the front of the stage like a monitor. I take both cabinets off the amp so I'm in the middle of the sound. That's all I use, it's really simple with three channels—clean, crunch, and distortion.

Any effects or processing?

I use a tiny little Alesis PicoVerb for a tiny bit of reverb. It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

Picks and strings?

I use quite a heavy pick so I've got lots of control, and they're made for me in England. I have a great guitar shop in the UK called Manson's and they build guitars as well. They're friends and do all my repairs, make me a coffee and feel at home when I come in. For strings, I use GHS 10-46s.

Rumor has it that in early days of Jethro Tull, you used a Hornsby Skewes Treble Booster that picked up radio signals.

Yeah—that's true and I've still got it! It's the worst bit of kit ever made. [Laughs.] You open it up and it's got just a few bare wires and a capacitor. They were virtually wireless receivers. There were so many gigs in America where we'd be playing downtown, and atop of the concert hall would be a radio mast—just a nightmare. I used to neurotically look out the window of the car on the way to gigs, watching out for radio masts.

You have very pure tones on your recorded work. Do you use much processing or EQ in the studio?

No, I don't use any EQ. I only want the sound of the guitar coming out of the amplifier—nothing else. When I go to any studio, I insist the EQ is either turned off or set to null.

The tone on your solo work, while it doesn’t sound processed, is quite different from your tone with Jethro Tull.

Well, in Jethro Tull, I get one or two hours and that's it. If I haven't got it by then, then my solo is going to be a flute solo. On my solo albums, I have the luxury of spending as much time as I want to experiment with different guitars, different sounds, and mics. It's a different process and there is no pressure. With Jethro Tull, there's always somebody waiting to record their part, so there is a bit of pressure on you.

I don't spend a lot of time doing guitar parts, because I want them to be fresh. But I think that if something doesn't work in one or two takes, that bit of music doesn't work or you've got to completely rethink what you are doing. You can't just keep bashing away at the same idea.

Do you prefer humbuckers or single-coils?

I like to switch around and don't use one tone for very long—I go through the catalog of what's available. I always had a humbucker in the bridge and then a couple single-coils so I could get both the sweet Fender sound and the full-blown humbucker sound. When listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robben Ford, you can really tell when they're digging in with their right hand. You get a different kind of compression on a single-coil than a humbucker. You can sort of overdrive it with your fingers—I love that sound. And I love that sound where you need to bite in to get that sustain.

Speaking of single-coils, you used a 1958 Les Paul Junior on Aqualung. Why that guitar?

We did a tour with Mountain. Back then, bands weren't particularly friendly with one another, and Mountain was the first band that we really became friends with. I just loved Leslie West's playing and they truly were a great “feel” band with the way they fed off each other live. He's probably the only guitarist who has influenced me directly. He played a Les Paul Junior, so that's why I bought mine.

The solo on the song “Aqualung” has received as many accolades as any rock guitar solo in existence. Was that composed, one take, or a composite?

It was a one-off and I did it first take. I've never learned licks—especially at that point of my career—and I never, ever used the blues licks. All the other guys were doing that and I wanted melody. In my mind, I can hear a melody, and then I can play it. That's what I've always loved about playing an instrument. You hear where you want to go in your head, and your fingers can go there for you—it's sort of a direct connection. I don't have any sort of hang-up about having to play a B.B. King or Freddie King lick. I love the blues as well, but in those days, it was a very free approach. I just played.



Led Zeppelin was in the same studio as Jethro Tull when you were recording Aqualung. Did you guys ever drop in on each other's sessions?

We were Led Zeppelin's support band in 1969. They were a wild bunch of guys as you can imagine, but we got along well enough. In the studio, we both got buried in our work for some reason. I hadn't seen Jimmy Page in over a month in the studio, but when I was doing the solo for “Aqualung,” he coincidentally decided to come upstairs and say hello. I was in the middle of the solo and he was in the control room waving at me. I thought if I waved back, I'd have to play the solo again. So I just carried on playing and grinned, and that was the solo used on the album.

Your audition for Jethro Tull went badly. What happened?

It was in this huge basement room. For some reason, they had a drum kit and an amp in the middle of the room, and all the guys auditioning sat in chairs all the way around the room. There were like 30 or 40 guitarists waiting for their turn to play, and everybody was watching everybody else. It was just horrible and I don't think anyone could play well under those circumstances. It was so much pressure and I played awful.

Yet you got the gig.

Because I read the music press in England, and a couple of weeks went by with no news, I had a feeling that Ian hadn't found anybody. I called him, asked if he had found someone, and he said he had—Tony Iommi. But Tony had an accident in a factory, and the tops of his fingers were cut off. He couldn't play many complex chords, but fortunately for Tony, he did go on to make it huge with Black Sabbath. Since he couldn't do the Tull gig, I asked Ian if I could have another go and he said yeah. This time was just me and the band spending a whole day of playing together. Obviously, that went a lot better.

Ian wanted a guitarist that with no pre-conceived style. He didn't want a blues guitarist. He had already had one in Mick Abrahams, who went on to form Blodwyn Pig. Ian wanted someone with an open mind who would try stuff out and go to a different place without questioning it. So it worked out perfectly.

As a self-taught guitar player, how were the complex parts that make up a Jethro Tull song communicated?

I knew everything they knew. I was taught flute professionally before I joined Jethro Tull, so I could read music and I understood music. We were all at the same level musically.

I was in the middle of the solo and [Jimmy Page] was in the control room waving at me. I thought if I waved back, I'd have to play the solo again. So I just carried on playing and grinned, and that was the solo used on the album.

Talking about your early rock ’n’ roll days in the late ’60s, you said there were two types of players—those in the Gibson camp, and those in the Fender camp. Can you elaborate on that?

At that age, it was a style thing. If your favorite player played a certain guitar, that’s what you aspired to. There was no real advantage of one over the other from the information we had about guitars back then. Once you've gone down the Gibson road, that sort of neck profile and design stuck with you. But by the mid-’70s, I was playing Fenders as well. By then I was more aware of what you could get out of the instruments. At that time, many guitarists wanted both because they wanted to expand their library of sounds.

What drove that shift from traditional electrics?

I met and got to know Paul Hamer. Paul used to come around to all the big rock bands and sell vintage guitars. When he started building his guitars, he brought one to a show for me to try out. At the time, my Les Pauls were becoming so valuable that I didn't want to take them on the road—so the Hamers were a perfect replacement. They played like a Les Paul, they sounded good, and if you lost one, you could get another one. It was also a relationship thing. I got to like Paul so much that I wanted to support him. When Paul left Hamer, I played Tom Anderson and Ibanez guitars for a short time, and then Mansons, Schecters, and Fenders. Now, I’m playing PRS.

All these people I've dealt with have been really good people—Tom Anderson, the guys at PRS—we got along so well. I never asked for anything—we all just had a common love of music and a love of good guitars. That's why I use them and why I've got a lot of them. I've bought most of my guitars from a local shop in England.

Many established players prefer vintage guitars. Like your guitar work, you tend to go your own way on that trend.

I don't tend to play vintage guitars and I only own a couple—they aren’t practical. Vintage guitars are a bit more temperamental, but I do appreciate them. There's this guitar shop in Mississippi where the guy in the shop—an older guy—has a huge collection. I’ll go to his house, sort of dive through his cupboards, and I always find something nice in there. I bought a blonde Gibson ES-140 3/4 from him, and on this last visit, I got a 1962 Gibson mandolin.

Inevitably, I always compare myself to somebody like a carpenter with a toolbox. He's got his favorite tools, and they're not valuable other than being able to perform the task he asks of them. That's like me with guitars. I ask a lot of them, and put them through a lot of adverse conditions and temperature changes when touring. I ask them to sound perfect every night, and if they do, then I have a great respect for them. Listen to someone like Jeff Beck. He can play any guitar through any amp, and he will still sound like Jeff Beck. Guitars are tools.

Martin Barre’s Gearbox

Guitars
Paul Reed Smith RS 513

Amps
Soldano Decatone
Marshall 2x12 and 1x12 cabs

Effects
Alesis PicoVerb

Strings
GHS