Music Interviews

Martin Barre – Interview with Jethro Tull guitarist

Martin Barre, Jethro Tull


Question: “Do you like Jethro Tull?”

Answer: “Yeah, I have a bunch of his albums.”

Rock music fans will get the joke. Jethro Tull isn’t one person but a band that’s been playing a unique blend of blues and British-Isles folk rock since the late 1960s. If Jethro Tull has a face, it’s certainly vocalist/flutist/acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson, whose flamboyant costumes and stage mannerisms cut a unique path through the late 1960s and decade that followed. If Anderson is the face and voice of Tull, then guitarist Martin Barre must be the “sound.” Along with Anderson, the other constant in Tull has been Barre’s tasteful guitar work. Since 1969, Barre has been churning out riffs and solos that have become part of the vocabulary of rock music. Everyone has heard “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” but those well-worn radio hits are only a sampling of Barre’s 6-string mastery, whose own catalog contains three excellent solo albums, “A Trick Of Memory,” “The Meeting” and my personal favorite, 2003’s “Stage Left.”

Barre is a musician’s musician, always striving to play better than the day before and getting the most feeling and melody from each note. spoke with Barre about guitar playing in Tull and outside the band and music in general.

The best guitarists have an instantly identifiable sound. It seems like you’ve have that from your earliest days with Tull.

Wow. I don’t know what to say, because I do change gear and guitars but I guess I’m still me [laughs] – same fingers, same brain. It’s a complex thing to me. I listen to other players, and I think it’s the same deal. Before I joined Tull I was doing a session for one of The Animals – Hilton Valentine, the guitar player for The Animals – and he had Jeff Beck coming in to do a solo. He didn’t bring anything with him. He just sort of picked up a guitar that was in the studio – he found an old amp – and there he was. It sounded like him. That was an early lesson – whatever you use, the sound is a physical, bodily thing. It’s an entity that comes from inside you – your fingers, the pressure you use – there are so many variables that produce the sound.

In a recent interview you said you’ve never learned guitar licks. How did you learn to play?

[Laughs] When I said I didn’t know guitar licks, I never sat down with B.B. King records or Albert King records or Freddie King – so many guitar players in England were copying these people. I just thought playing the same notes – they didn’t have the same feel, to me it just didn’t work. It was just a shadow of the original that they were trying to copy, so I didn’t go down that road. I like so much good guitar playing and different players, but I never tried to copy anybody, even people I listen to now. I’ve always found that to be sort a negative way to approach an instrument. I can be influenced by melody, by composition, by harmony, and I listen to a huge range of music, particularly classical. I listen to intervals and harmonies and the construction of melodies. I’ve always had a melodic approach to guitar.

 I think those who only know your work from Tull would be pleasantly surprised by your solo compositions. Stage Left is a particular favorite of mine. It has a very sunny feeling.

Thank you for the compliment. I was just in France doing concerts with a French guitar player named Pat O’May, who you probably haven’t hear of in America but is a very good player – Celtic, the same roots – but a heavy guitar player. We would play all of my music and a bit of his, and I had so much fun and it brought home to me how much playing I have to do with my own solo material and how little I have to play in the Jethro Tull arena. I think within Tull it’s changed – in the early days I had a lot to play and had a very central role. But I think as keyboard playing has entered Tull and there’s probably more leaning towards flute, because Ian tends to write a lot of flute solos and flute melodies into the songs and tries not to sing as much. So I have sort of a lesser role in Tull, and it was so nice just to play guitar. All night, I just played and played and had so much fun. And as you say, [Stage Left] is a very sunny, uplifting album – that’s brilliant, because I loved making it. I love arranging and the whole process of writing, bringing musicians together, and coming up with harmonies and guitar parts, sax parts and keyboard parts. It’s all something I really enjoy doing.

I know you’re a runner. Is there something comparable to a runner’s high you get when playing live or composing?

Yeah, there really is. It’s sort of an enveloping feeling of wellbeing. When I was doing this tour in France I was playing some of Pat’s music, which is quite complicated – he was playing some of my music and I doing some of his in return. In addition to what he put on the record I always try to find some harmonically interesting things to add, and he was so pleased with all these ideas – all these arranging ideas – and I might say let’s take this middle part and turn it upside down, whatever I did, and it was all serving the music. But I can’t just learn a piece of music and play it the same way somebody else has played it. I feel an obligation and a need and a want to put my own little stamp on it, through arranging it or harmony lines or interpreting what someone has already written. And when they like the end results, it’s a very nice feeling.

Mike Bloomfield said that Albert King approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player he ever heard. Do you take the same approach to soloing?

I like to be melodic. I don’t like to play – I’m not a sort of “fast” player. I like to be able to turn it on and then switch it off again – the accelerator pedal of guitar playing. That’s why I Iike players like Robben Ford, who is so understated and plays very selective notes that are very tasteful and really fit within the music. And certainly, when you press the accelerator it’s like, “Whoa!” It suddenly steps up three gears. That’s so effective. And then you change back again, back to the level that’s really pleasant to hear. I love contrast; I love space in music. I can’t stand to hear players just obliterate your ears with notes and technique – it’s just soulless. They really are missing the point.

Gary Moore represents the type of player you describe. You knew Gary. Tell me about him.
He was a good guy, really was. He used to come see Tull play quite a lot, because our bass player [Jonathan Noyce] played with Gary as well. And I met him lots of times. Gary hated Tull – he hated the music, and I didn’t know this until after he died. When he died, I called Jon and said I have terrible news, and we’re just talking for ages and ages – Jon was so devastated because he was working him at the time. And Jon said, “You do know that you were one of Gary’s favorite players?” And I was like, “Oh my god!” I never knew. He would never say anything.  It was just an incredible thing to hear, that he came to Tull to see me play. I couldn’t believe it, but it was very, very flattering, one of the nicest things I’ve known ever. I am a huge fan of his; his sound, his pitch – everything about the way he played. There’s never a note out of place. Every note – you could feel the pain; you could feel the pressure and physical entity of that note. What can I say? He was just one of the best players in that genre of music, ever.

You still practice guitar a lot. What keeps you inspired?

I strive to be better. There’s not a day where I don’t come into the studio and try to write a better bit of music. To me, everyday there’s something that I didn’t realize, I didn’t know – there’s a chord I never played before; there’s a sequence of notes that sounds different. It’s wonderful. You never know what’s going to happen when you pick up an instrument. I never tire of it and I’m sure I never will. I love instruments. I love music.

I interviewed Ian a few years back and he mentioned that everyone should play an instrument, regardless of ability. The important thing was just being able to make music. I’m sure you would agree?

Absolutely. And really the proof in that are the kids who have disabilities, whether they have physical or mental problems, and you introduce them to music, the change can be fantastic. Music is for everybody, everybody. When you’re fed up you can go in the back room and pick up a guitar and pluck away a few chords, and you can get so much out of it. I completely agree that music is for everybody, and there’s nothing special about being a professional musician because everybody can learn; everybody can reach a level so much higher than they think they can. It’s just like a carpenter who makes a beautiful cabinet, you just think, “I could never do that.” But you probably could. Whatever you look at, whether it’s a writer, an artist, a painter – those activities are for everybody. Whether you’re a professional, it doesn’t matter because there is pleasure to be had. For instance, you play guitar to yourself and then you play to a couple of friends, and they say, “Wow! That’s good,” and you’ve made two other people happy. It just multiplies.

Chris Lesley and Martin Barre

I wanted to get your thoughts on a few Tull songs that I think are guitar highlights: The first one goes way back, “We Used To Know,” from Stand Up.  That has a great solo.

I have to say that in the early days there was a certain naiveté in our approach to music. And I think that parallels to me some, I never learned anything on the guitar. I just sort of picked it up and played and tried to find my way around chords and melody. And that song was certainly one of those. It’s quite a different chord sequence, and I just went into the studio and played the solo. I had no idea what I was doing. I just listened to the chords and changes and try to do the right thing at the right time. In retrospect, when I listen to it, it is naive, but I’m a great fan of Neil Young, whose guitar style is very earthy. I love it – it’s not perfect – but I love it because it’s really grungy and the few notes make you go, “Whoa! That’s a strange note.” [laughs] But what the hell, go ahead and play that note. I love that about music. In theory, you can do whatever you want with it. If it sounds nice to the listener’s ear then it’s successful.

I love the electric guitar that comes in after the acoustic intro to “Minstrel In The Gallery.” That tone and riff are just savage.

Ian asked me to write a piece of music to go in front of it [the main verse]. Sometimes it’s, “Ignorance is bliss.” Some people who are strictly taught, such as classical and jazz players, they follow rules in music and find it very hard to play things that are abstract, like in rock music where anything goes. To another person it may not be musical, but it has a reason to be there.

You get a chance to stretch out on “Pibroch (Cap In Hand)” on Songs From The Wood

Yeah, when I sort of look back on the earlier days – I think I said it earlier that I had so much to do, on the earlier albums, because it was really just me and Ian. Any keyboards had a sort of background role. It was fantastic for me, because I’d be given the space to come up with an idea, and, hopefully, on most of those occasions I found something worthwhile. I think in the early ‘80s, when Peter-John Vettese joined, and Eddie Jobson before, the songs became more keyboard heavy. It changed. I still loved it – playing with Peter-John Vettese was absolutely wonderful. He’s a fabulous musician, and I learned a lot playing with him, but the focus changed.

 I really like your acoustic playing on “Winter Snowscape.” Do you have other acoustic recordings waiting for release?

[Laughs] I wish I did. I have a horrible little tape machine. Inevitably I go back through all these tapes and find the bits I really like and work on them. I do that with all the solo albums. I don’t get to play a lot of acoustic guitar, because back in the day Ian played all the acoustic [guitar parts], so I probably discovered that 15 years ago, but it was relatively later in my playing. And I really love acoustic instruments. Now I’ve got bouzoukis and mandolins.

What do you have planned for 2012?

My next thing to do in the studio – I’ve been working on it on and off for far too long – is an album of quiet Tull songs, things like “Requiem,” “From A Deadbeat To An Old Greaser,” “Moths” – some oddball, little-known Tull tracks that I’ll be doing acoustically. Then I’m going to mix in some bits of my own music with it. So I might play “Requiem” as an acoustic piece of music, maybe with bouzoukis and mandolins and so on; then I’d add a section of music that would segue between that and the next piece. That’s the plan.

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2 thoughts on “Martin Barre – Interview with Jethro Tull guitarist

  • bowiefan1970

    Excellent interview with one of the best guitarists in classic rock. Thanks!

  • TW

    Hi. Thanks for your comments and glad you liked the interview. I agree – Martin is one of the best rock guitarists, and he doesn’t get enough credit. Great guy, too, to chat with. Cheers and Happy Holidays!

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