Martin Barre, the underrated guitar master

Written on the 26th of October 2014

Well, I wasn’t planning to write about this man, at least not now. However, I’ll see him play live in about three weeks and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to write a tiny bit about him. By the way, I’m talking about Martin Barre, longtime Jethro Tull guitarist, no longer with the band (or should I just say the band is no more?). I saw Ian Anderson perform Thick as a Brick and Thick as a Brick 2 in 2012 and, while I loved the concert, it almost hurt not to see Martin at his side (no offence to Florian Opahle, it’s just that I would have loved to see the classic thing). But now I’ll see Martin live, and while it’s on his own (I doubt it’ll be as good as Tull), I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s a dream come true.

Monsieur Barre is not a young lad anymore. He’ll be 68 in barely a month, and he has been on the road for decades. He wasn’t with Tull from the beginning, but he did play for their second album, Stand Up. I’ve read online (which means this may be true, or not) that in his first audition to get in the band, he forgot the pick for his guitar; in his second one, he was so nervous he could barely play. He was finally successful in his third attempt.

I can’t help liking the guy. It’s not only that he’s an extremely underrated guitarist (Mark Knopfler called his guitar work with Tull “magical”), but from what I’ve read and heard, he also seems to be a really shy and humble person. Ok, shy is not necessarily good, but I find it almost cute that someone who has played in front of thousands of people and who was part of one of the biggest rock bands in the early seventies can be that shy. Maybe it’s also that I like shy people because I’m a bit shy too, no idea. The only thing I don’t like about him is that, apparently, his favourite Tull album is Under Wraps. Sure, sure, it’s a matter of taste and stuff, but Under Wraps is an atrocity compared to 98% of the Tull catalogue. Well, I guess I’ll be kind enough to forgive him.

It makes no sense talking about his time with Tull, at least not much. This blog has plenty of other posts for that. I will say, however, that while Ian Anderson is credited for 99% of the stuff Tull did, Martin made apparently some “additional contributions” to Songs from the Wood, and collaborated more than usual in the Grammy-awarded Crest of a Knave. Anyway, here are a few solos from his time with Tull  (update: a few of them have been deleted recently so I had to add others).

I’d talk about his solo albums, although there’s not that much to say. They’re good, but not that good. There are six of them; I haven’t listened to the last one (Order of Pay), to the 2013 one (Away With Words) and to A Summer Band (even if I do have that one in my laptop); I have barely listened to The Meeting (it hasn’t really hooked me); finally, there’s Stage Left, and most of all, A Trick of Memory, which are the two albums by him I really like. Check his guitar playing in stuff like Empty Cafe or I Be Thank You… Martin is like wine, the older he gets, the better. Sure, not as loud, rocking and cocky as Aqualung, for example (his solo there was ranked the 25th best of all time by the Guitar Player magazine, by the way), but classier. If you listen to the stuff he does in The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, from 2003, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Songs like Pavane, We Five Kings and A Winter Snowscape (which is also featured on his album Stage Left) show you don’t have to play loud and fast to play well. Also, it’s interesting to note how his solo albums are more of a team effort than a vehicle to showcase himself, he doesn’t seem to be really interested in soloing.

One can’t be a member of Tull for decades and play only one instrument, so Martin Barre doesn’t play only the guitar (which may count as two, as he plays acoustic and electric); he also plays the flute (check out Stage Fright), bouzouki, mandolin, sax (which he played before joining Tull) and clarinet (which he apparently played on his last album).

Another little fun fact. I’m almost, almost sure that I read how he met his wife in an Ian Anderson interview. I think, for some reason, it was during the Minstrel in the Gallery tour, or at least not too far away in time. The band was, I believe, at an airport, and Ian was surprised when Martin, in a very un-Martin-ish way, crushed his shyness and offered a young woman who was there a ticket for the concerts, not without chivalrously assuring her that his intentions were not dangerous at all. The rest is history.

So this is Martin Lancelot Barre, the man I’ll see in concert the 15th of November. I don’t really know what happened with Tull and why he and Ian split up, but he looks to be doing very fine on his own. A true guitar master who keeps on rocking after more than four decades of touring, with Tull or on his own.


One thought on “Martin Barre, the underrated guitar master

  1. Great post. Martin is a truly wonderful guitarist. You may have already heard it, but if not, check out Maddy Prior’s “Woman in the Wings”. Martin, Ian Anderson, and assorted other Tull members are her backing band.


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