Jethro Tull’s flutist-leader Ian Anderson was quoted once in Downbeat as calling his lead guitarist, Martin Barre, a “born loser who gets tea over his shirt, trips over things, and gets electrical shocks from door handles.” All of which may be true of this impish-looking musician. But he also plays a whole lot of guitar. A GP Canadian correspondent caught Martin during one oft he English group’s North American tours. After some general conversation about Tull’s philosophies, audience psychology, and Anderson’s inability to write music, the talk began to turn to the subject of Martin Barre in general and his guitaring in particular. —Martin K. Webb
What started you as a musician?
English musicians are completely different than American musicians in that the reasons they start always seem to be different and embarrassing. I just liked the guitar, like somebody will like a sports car. And to me, having a red Stratocaster was like having a Mercedes or something. It was just a nice thing to have at home and be able to say you played guitar. Definitely for the wrong reasons, definitely not for musical reasons. I used to shine it up all the time and everything. But in England, music has only become really serious in the last three or four years. Before that it was a joke. Jazz was sort of poor man’s music. It was called “trad jazz,” and it was a farce. There was one place called Ronnie Scott’s where you could hear really good jazz. But it wasn’t a young person’s music in England. I was never interested in jazz, and I don’t think many other young people were either. Young peoples’ music was the chart, top-20, that stuff. The music that was good was the music on the charts, like pop music today. Whereas in America, I think the young people tended to listen to better things and better musicians than in England. What I mean is, where I am today stems out of what started as a joke about five years ago. I played as a hobby. I tried to play music, tried to learn to read.
That’s probably a case of everybody always thinking that it’s better some place else.
I really don’t know that much about America. I only know what it’s like in England. It’s really hard to play in good places there, because there aren’t many of them. And to do a concert tour you’ve got to be a name. I mean you can’t become well known through doing a concert tour, because the “well known” has to come first. And being well known depends on playing in the few places that really matter, and they are very few. Even less now. There’s no money in England.
I’ve heard that there are a lot of places in England where you are allowed to develop your own music without being relegated to the status of a human jukebox. This isn’t true?
It never happened that way to me. I can take you back four years ago. I was a professional musician, and in England you just couldn’t play what you wanted to. But I didn’t know what I wanted to play anyway. I wasn’t a good musician. I really can’t say, though, that I was an underprivileged musician, or say that I wanted to play the blues but I couldn’t. That would be a lot of rubbish. But to earn your 10 quid a night, you had to play really danceable music, soul music. Even when blues came to be played in England, a lot of people didn’t realize that it was still the same as playing music that you could dance to, because blues became the groovy thing to play, and everybody wanted blues groups, so everybody started playing blues. There were very few places four years ago where people would just sort of stand and listen, and just be concerned about what they heard. The Marquee was one, though. It was a kind of focal point for the good bands. If you played there and went down well, it was really good. Money didn’t matter there, because it was a prestige gig, because you knew that people were going to go and talk about you if you were good. A kind of word-of-mouth thing. I’m so far removed now from the old days that it’s hard to even think about it. It’s hard to remember how it was. I can’t relate to it because the difference between now and then is so vast, it’s like a different world. The band I was in before Jethro was all right and we played what we wanted to, and we had a small chance of being well known if we played long enough and well enough, and had an LP.
Has the English scene changed?
There are so few big groups coming out of England since Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, and Joe Cocker. All of the groups that have made it big, made it a few years ago in England. And since then there has been very little. And there have been good bands in England. I don’t know, maybe it was just a phase of music. Like there was a phase of soul music, and blues and progressive. Maybe it was just a phase of having monster big pop star underground groups. I remember when we got a record on the charts, there was kind of a thing about an underground group having a single on the charts. It didn’t mean anything. I mean, why not? The record sounded good and people liked it so they bought it. It didn’t make any difference who it was. They just liked the song. The song made it, not the group. There was just kind of this big monster thing, and Ten Years After had a hit, and Fleetwood Mac had a hit. And then there’s the game of everyone saying you’ve gone commercial, and your underground audience deserts you. And now it’s all over, and it seems as if it was just a fad. Now it’s all kind of nothing much happening at all. I read the papers and it seems as if everyone’s just sitting around waiting for something else to make a big thing about. There’s a big issue about American groups, like Santana and Flock. A group that I think is really good is Mountain.
But that’s kind of an obvious feedback thing, because it all stems from Cream.
Oh yeah. But I don’t care. I realize that, but it’s exciting, and it’s great. It’s heavy. I love to revel in it. I’m biased, though. It’s not that I particularly like that type of music. If somebody else played it I’d hate it. But I just love the way they do it, because it’s so exciting. They’re the only exciting American band that I’ve ever heard.
Turning to you, personally, what kind of amplifier do you use?
Hiwatt, with the usual two 4x12 cabinets with a 100-watt top. I don’t use anything else with it. On stage I just run a straight amp. You can get amplifier distortion and speaker distortion, you know. You get a preamp switch on the amplifier, and you can turn the amplifier up full volume but turn the normal volume down so that you get an amp distortion at a low volume, a really quiet distortion sound. I don’t like fuzz boxes and all that. Other people use them and get a great sound, but I don’t like them. I must have about 25 things that I get the most incredible sounds out of—pedals, Leslie pedals, fuzz boxes, wah-wahs, echoes and things. I like different sounds, but on stage at that volume you can’t afford to have any messiness that you don’t need. If you can get a good sound with just an amp, keep it at that, and you can use your echo with the P.A., which is good.
Does Jethro Tull bring its own sound system on the road?
We don’t use our own sound system because it’s never loud enough. To carry your own system with you would take a ton of equipment, or something. And in flying it gets smashed to bits, so you have to drive it everywhere, which is impossible. The most important thing is your own sound engineer, because you must have a guy who knows every break and every part of the music. He has to be almost like a sixth member of the band.
What kind of strings, picks and guitars do you use?
I use Ernie Ball strings. The gauges are .010, .013, .017, .024, .032, and .042. I use specially made Gibson picks that are fairly heavy but are the normal shape. The plastic is weird, though, and they usually wear down after one night’s playing. I play Gibson Les Pauls because they are the only ones that work on stage at those high volumes. I’ve tried other guitars, but it always comes down to either a Les Paul or a Gibson SG. I also like the necks because I can’t play a Fender. I have trouble working their top string. Actually, you can get used to playing one neck or the other.