The Great Musicians: John Martyn

Tony Bacon
The History of Rock #29 (vol 3)

Rolling Stone magazine described John Martyn's music as 'jazz-tinged pop-folk', neatly encapsulating the problems that Martyn poses for ardent music categorisers and critics who always seem to flounder when faced with such an original musician. There has been a jazz element in John Martyn's music ever since his second album, The Tumbler (1968); the folk element is even older and more deeply entrenched; and such a loose, all-embracing term as pop could just about be applied to anything he has done since the late Sixties. But the first reaction of most fellow musicians when talking of the Surrey-born, Scottish-raised guitarist, singer and composer would be to talk about technical rather than stylistic matters; they would point to his all-important application of electricity and amplification to the prime folk instrument, the acoustic guitar.

Martyn's initial recorded output was characterised by a folk-based eclecticism and willingness to experiment that went far beyond the inaccurate, clichéd view of the finger-in-ear folk singer who could merely strum a few ill-formed chords. In 1971 Martyn started to play around with amplifiers and made various attempts at linking his traditional acoustic guitar to the sound-enhancing properties of valves, transistors and loudspeakers. A pilot system in action, he began to work on new arrangements, including pieces from his Stormbringer LP (1970). He worked towards a sound system that was manageable on-stage, and used at its heart an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar's pickup jammed in the soundhole. Martyn was after the same things that had led blues players to the bottleneck, country-and-western players to the dobro, and rock'n'roll players to the electric guitar: volume and, most importantly, sustain. In the event, he put his amplified acoustic guitar through his new discovery, an American echo device called the Maestro Echoplex, and his natural curiosity led him to experiment further with the machine.

The Echoplex achieves its sounds by feeding the guitar pickup's signal to a continuous loop of recording tape which is run past several recording and playback heads, the position of one of which can be manually varied to manipulate echoes. But the machine's ability to record 'sound-on-sound', where nothing is erased from the loop of tape and the player can build up layer upon layer of sounds, became the principal attraction to Martyn. He gradually came to find that the Echoplex could be used most effectively in this latter mode, and he changed the emphasis of the machine from his original intention of increasing sustain to a new function where, as he had described it, 'you can chop rhythms in between beats'. A track on the album Solid Air (1973) first brought these rhythmic Echoplex-aided experiments to vinyl - a version of Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil.

Martyn has always been strongly committed to live performance and the great advantage of the Echoplex was that he could use it as effectively on stage as he could in the studio. And yet, despite his enthusiasm for the Echoplex, he has never allowed it to dominate him. Traditional songs like Spencer The Rover from Sunday's Child (1975) still possess acoustic simplicity, and it is always the sheer variety of material and treatment that impresses one about Martyn's work, from Gaelic airs on Inside Out (1973) to his own peculiar version of a rock band on Glorious Fool (1981).

Martyn's electronic meanderings are merely part of a continuing search for extra colour and texture in his music. The acoustic guitar remains at the centre of his personal sound, although he is increasingly to be heard with a solid electric guitar - the Fender Stratocaster is a favourite - especially with his recent groups.

Martyn's electronic dexterity can be heard to good effect on Live At Leeds (1976) [actually 1975, ed] where the extended versions of old favourites allow full reign to a sound technique which he has described as less than easy to master (it took around five years from his first tenuous steps to achieve the flowing stride captured on the live record). The shifting patterns of the Echoplex-induced rhythms make a lush backcloth for the probing, growling upright bass of Danny Thompson, a sideman first heard on Road To Ruin (1970), and Martyn's own slurred, blurred vocals. Perhaps Rolling Stone should have slotted 'blues' somewhere in their comment to take account of Martyn's vocal style.

Running through all John Martyn's music is a recurring concern for the effectiveness of sounds as they interconnect as part of a whole, whatever their individual quality. Whether the results are achieved through acoustic or electric instruments, or a combination of the two, seems completely secondary to the overall effect and particular requirements of the individual piece. It is this need for new sound colours allied to strong traditional roots which continues to place John Martyn's music in a category all its own.


Captions: John Martyn playing his acoustic Martin guitar complete with electric pickup wedged in the soundhole, and Echoplex effect unit.
Overleaf: Martyn on stage with long-serving bass player Danny Thompson in the background.

Both photographs went uncredited.

This story was reprinted [July 1983] in issue #45 (vol 4). The History Of Rock was published by Orbis Publishing, London. Chapters appeared weekly in 120 issues to be collected in 10 binders, 52 times a year, between 1982 and 1984. Copies cost 80p.
Issue #29 was called Back in the USA; #45 was dedicated to the Rolling Stones. Apparently John's story was used as a kind of filler. Warner might have even paid for it in their promotional efforts for Glorious Fool. The story was apparently written before August 1982, when Well Kept Secret surfaced.