When people think of Jethro Tull, the first image that comes
to mind is that of an ungainly and disheveled man, with a long coat, playing a
flute resting on a single foot. But for anyone who is familiar with the music
of Ian Anderson there is another
thing that makes this mythical band, and that is the powerful riffs and the
melodic solos of Martin Barre. A man
Knopfler said was "magic", that Joe
Bonamassa describes as a direct influence, and that Geddy Lee of Rush does not tire of praising. And this is because Barre created a
special sound thanks to a difficult and complicated style, in which the blues
shakes hands with folk and classical music, and produces some totally unique melodies.
Barre was born on November 17, 1946 in Kings Heath, England. His father was an amateur musician who had sought to play the clarinet professionally. The first instrument that he bought for his son therefore was a flute, an instrument that Barre mastered perfectly. But the young Barre began playing in bands in high school and opted for the guitar. His father, always willing to help in the vocation of his son, bought him a Dallas Tuxedo. It was not exactly the guitar of his son’s dreams but it was a beginning. After leaving University Barre moved to London in 1966 where he got a position in a band as a saxophonist, although he had not played that instrument before. The musical scene at that time was full of R & B and Soul groups. With his first pay packet he bought the guitar most similar to that of his dreams (which was a Gibson 335 red), a Gibson 330. When in 1967 the boom of blues rock took place in the United Kingdom, Barre went on to play his favorite instrument, besides the flute, in a band called Gethsemane.
When they opened for Jethro Tull in a pub in Plymouth on August 31, 1968, there was a connection between the members of the two bands, mainly due to the fact that they had two guys capable of playing the flute in the style of the great Roland Kirk; Ian Anderson and Martin Barre. Soon after, with Gethsemane on the verge of break up, an advertisement appeared in the press in which Jethro Tull was looking for a guitarist. Anderson, the leader of the band, had argued with the guitarist Mick Abrahams, who only wanted to play blues, and was looking for a guitarist with whom to expand horizons. Barre had been his first choice but they were not able to find him. When he appeared for the test, with his 330 and a Laney amplifier, he was terrified. There were dozens of guitarists and the test was in front of all of them, to top it all his semi-hollow began to squealed and whistled. In the end the job went to a certain Tony Iommi who came from a band called Earth. Even so Barre approached Anderson and told him that if there was another opportunity, he could count on him.
On December 11, Jethro Tull appeared in the Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus next to some of the leading musicians of British rock at the time. But Iommi missed his Earth bandmates, who responded to the names of Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne. Together they would change their name to Black Sabbath and mark time, with Iommi applying the iron discipline of work he had learned from Anderson. For his part the singer and flutist decided to call Barre again for a second test. This time the guitarist borrowed an SG from a friend and got the job. He would spend the Christmas of 1968 learning the songs that would be part of Stand Up, the second album by the band. He also bought himself a very special gift, a Gibson Les Paul Special and a Hiwatt amplifier.
With that equipment he recorded his first song for the band, Living In The Past, one of the great hymns of Jethro Tull with its unusual tempo of 5/4. The group was willing to expand its horizons but Stand Up was still strongly rooted in blues/rock. When it appeared they became stars in their own country, quickly climbing to number one in the charts. Blues/rock was still the base, although the influence of other styles was noticeable, in particular the British folk of which Anderson was passionate, as well as classical music, with Bourée. Of course, Barre is noticable from the beginning on A New Day Yesterday, one of the blues numbers that benefits from the heavy riffs of the guitarist, making it clear that he would be fundamental for the band. On that album was also We Used To Know, a song that for Anderson was clearly the inspiration for Hotel California by the Eagles, a group with which they shared stages at the beginning of the 70s. It is true that the chord progression is similar, and the moment that both stand out is when the guitar solo arrives. Of course, when they shared the stage with the Eagles, Don Felder, responsible for composing the mythical song, wasn't still a member of the band...
That same year they coincided in the US with Mountain and Barre was captivated by the skill and tone of Leslie West, so he decided to buy a Les Paul Junior, which would become his main instrument. His admitted weakness for West’s guitar playing is a rarity since Barre had always said that he tried not to listen to other guitarists in order to sound more unique. So much so that he has said that he never received a guitar class in his life.
At the beginning of the 70s the single The Witch's Promise arrived, in which folk influences could be clearly perceived, and later the third album, Benefit, came, the first in which appeared the keyboardist John Evan and the last of the bass player Glenn Cornick, being habitual changes in the band’s line-up, with Anderson and Barre remaining the only fixed members. The album was much darker than Stand Up and was more based on Barre’s powerful riffs. On To Cry You A Song, Anderson plays the SG of Barre and Barre gives a lesson with his Les Paul. Teacher is another of his best songs, Son is pure hard rock and For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me anticipates new sounds.
However the definitive step of Jethro Tull arrived in 1971 with the appearance of Aqualung, their absolute masterpiece and the album that finally opened the doors to the USA. The album starts with the title song, on which we find the best features of the band, and an excellent riff by Barre opens the way to a great rock song but, suddenly, from minute one, the song turns into an acoustic wonder with the best melodic moments of the band, who then join the two parts. As a curiosity, despite the fact that in the end there is a great solo by Barre, Aqualung does not have the most characteristic sound of the group, Ian Anderson's flute. But let's go back to Barre's solo, probably the most celebrated of his career. Jethro Tull was recording the album in the same studio, and at the same time, as Led Zeppelin were recording their memorable fourth album. The two bands got along well after the Tulls opened for Zeppelin in 1969. Anyway, both were embarking on the creation of their most memorable albums and there was little time for social relationships. Barre had not seen Jimmy Page in more than a month of sharing the studio but, while he was recording Aqualung's solo, Page decided to say hello. Barre was in the cabin with his Les Paul Junior connected directly to a Hiwatt, without any other effect, and there was the creator of Whole Lotta Love waving at him; Barre wanted to say hello back but he knew that if he did he would have to repeat his piece so he put an apologetic smile on his face and kept playing. That was the take that was used on the record.
But Aqualung goes far beyond its first song, containing gems such as Hymn 43, Cross Eyed Mary, two of the most direct rock songs of their discography, and the essential Locomotive Breath, in which a long piano introduction gives way to a powerful riff courtesy of Barre. At the time it was seen as a conceptual disc in which the distinction between "religion and God" was spoken about, but Anderson, who did not see it like that decided to make a satire about it with Thick As a Brick. Influenced by Monty Python, Anderson declared that the album was the musical equivalent of Airplane. If the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker movie parodied the catastrophe films, he would do the same for the bombastic albums of people like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Many missed the joke because musicallyThick As a Brick was pure progressive rock, but, of course, it is one of the albums from that era that has stood the test of time. Much responsibility for this lies in the work of a Barre in a state of grace. It is worth noting that for this album he used a Les Paul sunburst.
A Passion Play did not reach the musical heights of the two previous albums but gave the band its second number one in the US charts. War Child showed that the band was going through a musical blip that would be recovered with Minstrel in the Gallery, released in 1975. The title song begins in the best vein of British folk, inherited from Fairport Convention, with acoustic guitar, flute and the voice of Anderson. Suddenly at two minutes Martin Barre adds one of the heaviest riffs that the band has done and then comes a long instrumental passage in the progressive line of a King Crimson. By the time Anderson's voice re-enters the song it has become a hard rock number in the style of Free/Bad Company.
After Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! would come the folk trilogy composed of Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. It was at this time when Barre started playing Hamer guitars. Then came a new lineup change and one of the biggest curiosities of the band’s career when they beat Metallica in the 1988 Grammys as the best Hard Rock/Metal performance of the year for their album Crest of a Knave, in which Barre's guitar sounded strongly influenced by Mark Knopfler and his Dire Straits.
Barre and Anderson would continue together until 2011, the year in which the latter decided to stop. Barre formed Martin Barre's New Day in 2012 and went on the road doing a lot of songs from the Tull, and he has released four albums since then. Anderson recently reformed the band but this time he did not invite Barre. Despite not being an original member it is difficult to think about Jethro Tull without him. We all know that Ian Anderson is the cornerstone that supports the entire Tull edifice but that does not mean that the incredible guitar of this man is not an essential part of the band's DNA.