Jethro Tull Guitarist Martin Barre Talks Guitars, Jimi Hendrix and "Aqualung"
He’s a first-rate prog-rock guitarist who plays second fiddle to a flute. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is...
Have you ever heard Iron Maiden’s rendition of the Tull classic “Cross-Eyed Mary”? — Michael Felton
I’ve heard it, and I like it. I met the guys in Maiden when they came to one of our concerts. They told me they are very big Tull fans. I said to them, “Please don’t do another Tull track without asking me to play on it.” They were quite surprised I said that. So many famous bands and musicians love Tull, which is a great honor to me.
I read that you studied architecture at school in the late Sixties just prior to joining Jethro Tull. Tell me about that, and did you design anything during your studies? — Jimmy Geraghty
I never completed my studies. I did three years of a seven-year university course. It was so complex that I failed Spanish and atomic science, two subjects which, in my mind, had little to do with designing buildings. But I did, in fact, design a road junction in Birmingham, England. I realized early on that it was a boring career and got out of it, and opted for music instead.
Your guitar solo in “Aqualung” is among rock’s most recognizable lead breaks. How did it come together, and why do you think Aqualung is probably Tull’s most beloved and iconic album? — Billy Teasle
That guitar solo was totally improvised, and I did it in one take. Luckily for me, that solo turned out well, because if it didn’t there would’ve been a flute solo in its place. The fact that Aqualung would become one of Tull’s most popular albums is entirely coincidental. It was a difficult album to make. We had a hard time recording it because things kept breaking down in the studio, which led to tension among the band members. It wasn’t a feel-good album, and if anything its ensuing popularity was in part due to the image of Aqualung as a person. People latched onto the lyrical side of the album as well as the diversity of songs on it. We spent a long time recording it.
You’ve been a member of Jethro Tull for more than 40 years, having played on every album since the band’s second LP, Stand Up, in 1969. You and Ian Anderson obviously have great chemistry, since you’ve lasted in the band for so long. What makes you guys click, and why does he get the songwriting credits on the albums? — Larry Sacchetillo
The music of Jethro Tull for the most part belongs to Ian and myself, since he and I have pretty much composed all of the band’s music. Since Ian and I have been playing together for many years, we have a mutual respect for one another both as people and as musicians. It’s a marriage of understanding and giving the other person space, and knowing that the history and catalog of Jethro Tull’s music was of our making.
Ian got the songwriting credits because the legal bottom line is that he writes the lyrics and has the basic ideas for a song, and then I, or someone else in the band, contribute parts to it. On Thick as a Brick, for example, so much of that music came from [keyboardist] John Evan.
Back in those days no one thought of all the legalities and the way that songwriting and royalties were split and who would earn what. We were just a band making music, and we tried to make it to the best of our abilities. We all sat in a room and worked out songs together from the beginning. It might not be fair that Ian gets the songwriting credits, but I know I’m an important part of Jethro Tull’s music, even though my contributions are not on paper, which is not an issue with me. I’ve made a great career out of music, and I have no complaints or regrets.
What were your thoughts when you heard that Tull beat out Metallica to win a Grammy for best hard rock/metal performance for the band’s 1987 album, Crest of a Knave? — Nick Tedesco
The feeling was slightly unreal, almost as if a mistake had been made. A lot of people complained when we won the award, which was fair, because we certainly didn’t belong in the same category as a band such as Metallica, who should’ve won it, nor is Tull in any way heavy metal. Our record company didn’t fly us to the Grammys because they didn’t think we would win. I put it to the back of my mind, and then I received a phone call saying that we won the award. I was quite upset that we weren’t in the audience to accept it.
I understand that Jethro Tull opened some shows for Jimi Hendrix on your first tour with the band. What was it like to tour with him, and what are your thoughts about his playing? — Mike Miranda
My very first gigs with Tull were opening for Hendrix on tour in Scandinavia. I was petrified, since I was so new to touring. Hendrix was a masterful guitarist, a genuinely humble person, and he was always very nice to me. Within the first two years of my joining Tull, we shared the bill with most of the major guitar heroes and bands of the day, including Jeff Beck, Joe Cocker, Chicago, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and the Who, to name a few. You name the band in 1969 and ’70, and we probably played with them. I think the only major guitarist that we weren’t on the same bill with at the time was Eric Clapton.
Back in those days, the PA systems were rubbish, the venues were horrible, and amps would often blow up. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong. There was never a guarantee you’d have a good gig because you were at the mercy of different variables that would affect your performance. The tour that broke us was when we opened for Zeppelin during an extensive tour in the U.S., because we got a huge amount of exposure. Subsequently, we headlined our next tour, which was following the release of Aqualung.
Do you ever feel like your guitar work in Jethro Tull gets overshadowed by Ian’s flute playing, since the flute is the most distinguishing characteristic of Tull’s sound? — Sidney Rosen
Jethro Tull is first and foremost a band. It’s not a guitar band or a flute band. But during the past few years there has been more flute playing than in the early days because Ian’s vocals have been getting weaker. Over the last 18 months, since I’ve begun touring with my own band, I’m getting a big window to play lots of guitar, and it’s quite fulfilling.
That said, the supportive nature of the guitar is very important. I’m a team player. I’m a great believer in giving other musicians space, and I always play for the song. My approach to guitar is like dentistry: if there’s a hole, I’ll fill it. I’m sort of like the George Harrison of Jethro Tull. If I have a nice rhythm part to play, I put a lot of care and attention into it. I get a great deal of enjoyment playing supportively and knowing lots of great chords and knowing how to play behind solos, whether it’s a flute, keyboard or another instrument.
You’ve played various guitars and amps over the years. What are you using these days? — Anthony Fragnito
I’ve been playing Paul Reed Smith guitars for the past 10 years. They are among the world’s best-made guitars. I never have to mess with them; they are perfect right out of the box. I use Soldano amps and GHS strings. Once you have a setup that you’re really happy with, your playing gets better. I just plug in and my sound is there.
What have you been up to lately, and do you plan to record another Jethro Tull album? — Ira Goldner
Tull is on hiatus. Ian and I are both currently working on individual solo projects. I have a new album available on my web site, a double-CD simply called Martin Barre, and I plan to record an acoustic album this winter. I’m touring with my band in England and Europe this year, and I hope to tour in the U.S. next year. I’m living a great life as a guitarist again, and there’s nothing I’m missing at all.
What are some of your favorite guitar solos in Tull? — Andrew Polito
I wouldn’t know, because I don’t listen to anything I’ve done other than my solo albums. When recording a solo album, I have the freedom to do what I want. So if I spend a whole day recording a track and then decide to chuck it, it’s my choice. If I played a Tull album, I’d listen to a solo and say, “I could’ve done that better.” However, I’m quite pleased with my playing on Crest of a Knave, which was basically me, Ian and [bassist] Dave Pegg working in the studio for two months, so I had ample time to put a lot of myself into that album.