Martin plays guitar by tapping and uses Velcro as a mute on his headless 16-string doubleneck. “I don’t play open strings that much,” he says. Photo by Mary Escalona
If you’re unfamiliar with Venezuelan guitarist Felix Martin, your first reaction to his technique might be, “Seriously?!”
Martin, who is left-handed, plays an upside-down, extended-range/multiple-string, doubleneck guitar. But his guitar is no ordinary upside-down, extended range/multiple-string doubleneck: The two necks are conjoined—although the fretboards are separate—and create an almost contiguous 16-string playing surface.
On top of that, Martin is a bona fide virtuoso. He plays using an eight-finger tapping style, one hand per neck, and the parts he plays are often contrapuntal, polyrhythmic, and piano-like in their harmonic richness. He insists that he doesn’t practice two-handed independence, but your ears may tell you otherwise.
This complicated style isn’t a gimmick. Martin is a diverse musical talent who graduated from Berklee College of Music, where he studied composition, orchestration, production, arranging, and transcribed music from around the globe. His genre home base is post-Dream Theater prog, but he’s fluent in multiple styles including classical, world, and jazz fusion.
On his latest album, Mechanical Nations, Martin chose to focus on that which makes him different: two-handed tapping and percussive techniques. Despite his formidable picking chops, he stopped using a plectrum three years ago. He also doesn’t currently use distortion, a traditional amp, or stompboxes—instead deriving his tones from a Fractal Axe FX II, which he runs direct to the board both live and in the studio.
And still, his new album is heavy. The music’s rhythmic intensity and powerful percussive element help maintain his metal credentials. Using clean tones means he can showcase his music’s complexity without sacrificing aggressiveness (or muddying up the mix).
Left-handed, conjoined, doubleneck guitars aren’t commonplace, obviously, and Martin’s instruments are custom built (see the accompanying sidebar to learn about his latest collaborator, Polish luthier Skervesen Guitars).
We spoke with Martin as he was about to embark on a 10-city tour with Middle Eastern fusion masters Consider the Source. Martin discussed his innovative approach, building his unique instruments, his deep musical roots, and why—despite what looks like compatible technique—he doesn’t play a Chapman Stick.
What is the genesis of your approach?
I started when I was 12 or 13 years old. For me as a beginner, it was very hard to play fingerstyle guitar. For some reason, tapping was a lot more natural. I started playing these classical tunes, pop songs, and everything using tapping instead of classical fingerstyle. Then I started playing with two guitars at the same time.
I feel if you have one hand on each guitar, there’s more freedom. You can play chords in one hand and then melodies in the other hand and your hands won’t overlap. I spent a lot of time when I was in high school playing like that—taking a regular Ibanez 6-string guitar and a Stratocaster, and playing them at the same time.
Did you take lessons at the beginning?
I grew up in a small town in Venezuela, so there weren’t teachers there. Nobody played electric guitar; just three guys in town. It was hard for me to learn guitar but, at the same time, it made me creative, because I had to discover everything for myself. Fingerstyle was extremely hard for me. It didn’t make sense for me at all. That’s when I started tapping, basically. Tapping was more natural. It made more sense—everything was more organized.
Did you ever try a regular doubleneck guitar?
No. I’m left-handed, so to find a left-handed guitar like that is impossible. My guitars are different from a traditional doubleneck.
Your music incorporates so many different influences. What do you listen to?
I grew up listening to everything, from classical, to jazz, to metal. I was into world music a lot when I was growing up, too. When I was at Berklee, at the Berklee library, I would take music from each country and transcribe it.
Felix Martin’s latest album, Mechanical Nations, was recorded with his trio, which consists of bassist Kilian Duarte and drummer Victor A. Carracedo. Martin prefers no layering or backing tracks on his studio recordings.
Music from Greece, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and all of Europe—world music was a big passion I had. When you want to be a professional musician and have music as a career, you want to learn every style. That’s what I did for many years. Even traditional jazz and death metal … everything.
So, you can play everything from Charlie Parker to Napalm Death, and everything in between?
I could play it, but I’m not a jazz musician. I’m mainly a rock and metal guitar player. There’s a video of me playing Charlie Parker—and it’s cool and it sounds good—but I’m not a jazz player.
What did you do to develop your two-handed independence? It looks like your hands do very different things.
Mainly, a lot of practice. I actually don’t practice independence that much; I just do stuff. If I have a musical idea or a solo thing that I’m working on, I try to mix it with both hands. It just happens. One thing I’ve noticed: When you’re playing two things at the same time, you’re not thinking “twice.” Some people think, “You’ve got two brains.” That doesn’t exist. You have one brain. The two things you’re doing, you’re doing as one thing. You’re thinking one thing, but you’re doing it with both hands.
You hear it as one idea.
It’s just one idea. When I’m playing these complicated lines with both hands, I’m playing it as a regular guitar player. I’m thinking just a single thing in my brain. It’s easier than people think.