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

Paul Reed Smith RS 513

Soldano Decatone
Marshall 2x12 and 1x12 cabs

Alesis PicoVerb