Peach Guitars | Martin Harley Interview
Martin Harley is one of the UK’s most important guitarists and songwriters. Rising to the top of the blues roots and Americana scene with a duo of Nashville recorded albums, his latest album, “Roll With The Punches”, pushes his songwriting to a new level. Gritty, raw and electric, it’s a real powerhouse record.
We’re massive fan’s of Martin and it was a pleasure to chat to him earlier in the year, thankfully, he’s got a lengthy tour booked up now and you guys can catch him on the road shortly! Ticket links are at the bottom of the interview, make sure you grab one!
We’ve seen you perform solo and with your band, how does your stage set up change between the two? What is your go to rig for each arrangement?
When I work solo and fly often, I try and keep my pedal board small. First in line is a TU3 boss tuner because it doesn't pop when I'm using hot acoustic pickups, most other tuners I've tried do. A Hall of fame mini reverb and a small A/B box are on the travel board too. Recently I've been playing a National Style O live and I have two pickups in that, a Mojo Dynasonic magnetic and a highlander IP-1X. Both run into a stereo radial +48DI. The radials are great. You can use the stereo one as two mono channels saving space. Cuntz Bodyneck/Weissenborn with a LR Baggs active M1, 1970 Martin D18 with a K&K pure Mini and the 2000 National style 0 are my main acoustic guitars.
For band shows I have a Patrick Eggle custom Coodercaster named the green machine as it's painted in the same 1978 BMW sparkle green as my BMW R100 mototrcycle. It has Mojo string through lap steel and gold foil pickups which sound spectacular. I'd been playing a bits and pieces Coodercaster for a while but decided a better made and more reliable instrument was needed for live work . A 52 reissue tele and a Cuntz lap steel complete the electric line up. In the Amp department there's a Fender 57 Custom Deluxe which I bought from Peach and a DRZ MAZ 18 as it runs pedals so well. I've got a sweet little 8" Swart Space Tone 5 Watt that I use for recording. Again, the pedal board is simple. EHX Soul food. Great for slide, with a nice mid-range push. TC mini tuner. MXR carbon copy and either HOF mini or a Strymon flint.
How has your set up evolved over the years? We’ve seen some incredible bits of gear on your Instagram page, do you have a core of equipment you use or do you let the song dictate the gear used?
The song dictates the gear. Sometimes, ratty car boot sale guitars get the part because they provide the relevant sonic texture. For years I played a clapped out 12 string converted to lap steel directly into a peavy classic 30. That set up was great and had a certain charm but when the stages got bigger the feedback got in the way. My Neumann KSM 105 vocal mic has been with me a long time. Buying that was wise decision as the sound and build quality are great. I've used LR bags active M1s in many guitars over time. I've always tried to keep my set ups compact and simple. I want to be focused on delivering songs in the right frame of mind when I'm playing live and feel that an overcomplicated set up might compromise that. Getting your attitude right and keeping your mind on the delivery will make you sound better than any piece of gear.
Your Andreas Cuntz Weissenborn seems to be your go to now, what is it about this instrument that really speaks to you?
If the house was on fire, I'd be running back for this after I got the kids out. It was love at first sight to be honest. I like the Weissenborn style, but this has a bone saddle and sounds a little different in the right direction for my taste. It's warm and dynamic with great separation, It's indestructible, beautifully made and the dimensions suit the way I play perfectly. The pickup is an LR bags M1. It works well in that instrument which has plenty of 80/100hz to help accentuate the alternate picking technique I use. Andreas Cuntz in a great friend and we've worked together for around 14 years now. He's an extremely skilled and dedicated acoustic luthier and is currently rebuilding my guild 1980 JF30 that Virgin Airlines decided to smash into kindling.
What’s on your pedalboard currently?
It's lockdown so everything.....
Hall of Fame
MXR carbon copy
TC hall of fame 2 (new to me)
Radial + 48 Stereo
Who inspired you to be a slide guitarist? What was your musical journey?
Kelly Joe Phelps was the single most impacting musician on my style. A wonderful vocalist and mesmerising guitarist. He really casts a spell when playing live, his shows are unpretentious and transformative. I'd recommend listening to the album Shine Eyed Mr Zen for the breath-taking guitar playing and singing without being showy.
Ry Cooder and Robert Johnson were the some of the guys I heard in my teens. Ry has always been inspiring on account of his laid-back recognisable style and those excellent collaborations with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Ali Farka Touré and the Buena Vista Social Club. Taj Mahal is a man who knows were all the good notes are, a force of nature with beautifully economical phrasing. I'm a huge Nina Simone fan and her vocal phrasing also influences my slide style. John Martyn, JJ Cale and Davey Graham are in there too. Blind Willie Johnson is the deepest cut when it comes to the conveyance of emotion which, for me, is what music is all about. Sol Hoopi was pioneer of the new Hawaiian guitar style and I've been diving into his recordings recently as I'm been working on a song about a cowboy emigrating to Hawaii in the 1930s.
Which guitarist(s) were you influenced by the most and why?
Josh Homme it right up there , like Cooder his style is instantly recognisable but coming from the left field. Peter Green was always right on the money. His playing is distinctive and emotionally charged. John Martyn introduced me to open turnings and his conversational interactions with Danny Thompson on bass inspired me to work with Daniel Kimbro on numerous recordings. Snooks Eaglin has always been a very exciting acoustic player to me. His groove and feel cover all the bases for a solo performer. His album New Orleans Street Performer was a game changer.
What music gets you excited and why?
It changes all the time. I go through long periods of getting bored with what I know and circling back to it a few years later. I'm forever returning to JJ Cale records and that Tulsa sound, but it could just as easily be Rodger Miller, Buddy Holly, Delta Blues, Django or Little Feet. Music is obviously very personal thing and I'm drawn to players and song writers who I feel are unpretentious and soulful. I like to be moved by music and it's my intension to move people when I play.
Desert rockers like Kyuss also influenced me. I (hazily) remember going out of my mind listening to them live on the Blues for the Red Sun tour at Camden underworld in the 90's. They hit the nerve that serves the blues part of my brain but added tuned down Sabbath style riffs and wonderful low desert drones reminiscent of Indian classical music.
We’ve been following the construction of your new PJE Coodercaster on Instagram, can you run us down the specs, how did you come to work with Pat?
Pat's wife Nicole was involved in a charity event I played in their neck for the woods. The day afterwards I went to visit Pat at the workshop for a cuppa and a look around. Since then, I've have always wanted to get a guitar made by him. Team Eggle are a dedicated bunch and extremely attentive to player preference and detail. Monk like patience was required with this build as it's not a run of the mill guitar. The action for slide is key, I like to fret notes and slide at the same time and that's hard to get just right. The string gauge is (14 - 56) and body is larger than the Eggle strats which have a smaller body. It has a toasted maple medium V neck with 12" radius which Pat recommended when I went to the workshop to discuss the build. It has BMW Nurburg green sparkle metallic paint on an Alder body with matching headstock, aged nitro finish with wonderful liner breaks, Gotoh vintage tuners, handmade tortoiseshell pickguard (not real tortoise I'm assured). The pickup's and wiring harness I'd bought from Marc at Mojo Pickups with a view to dropping them in the parts caster I'd been using for slide. Then I started to feel like I should invest in a high quality build to go with the pickups. This guitar absolutely sings, and I'm really pleased that I invested in something that will outlast me and get better with age and use. It's worth noting that the coodercaster wiring needs to correct a phasing issue. The Mojo loom solves this.
Have you had any nightmare experiences whilst gigging? How has the industry changed since you hit the scene?
I started out busking and playing in pubs and bars, always trying to play primarily original music. There are often nightmare scenarios when you begin your musical journey. It can be terrifying when you're learning to share something deeply personal with an audience you may be lacking the communication skills of confidence to do so. Of course, not everyone is going to like what you do and it's and accepting that is important. Bob might want to enjoy a quiet pint after work in his local without someone attempting to channel long dead bluesmen on a Tuesday night in Woking. Starting small and growing steadily was good for me. Aside from a few guitars falling off stands, lightening hitting a suspended stage over the Atlantic Ocean and setting it on fire, I've not had too many disasters that couldn't be laughed off.
The industry has changed since I started out. In the "old days' it wasn't unusual to sell a lot of CD's every night which really helped. Even if the door charge was free or low everyone got paid. There are great benefits to the DIY options new musicians have now, inexpensive distribution, easy build websites and tech that has reduced the cost of recording. It's much easier to self-release and manage yourself.
How has lockdown affected you and your workload, have you found it difficult to stay creative?
The first lockdown was refreshing for me. I hadn't been stationary for more than two months in the last two decades and was much more tired than I realized. Spending time with my family has been great and I'm even enjoying most of the home schooling. Creatively I haven't had much time or headspace. I certainly haven't been able to play a much as I'd like, having said that, when I pick up the guitar there is a sense of useful unfamiliarity that pushes me to do new things. It's refreshing not to have my whole gigging set list rehearsed and that's allowing new growth.
Live work has disappeared for the moment of course. I miss the thrill, communication, joy and challenges that touring involves.
Have you had to diversify, try new things or find new ways to push your music? Did lockdown open up any new opportunities? Has your writing process changed during lockdown?
Online shows have been hit and miss. I'm thankful that my audience have patience for my general lack of technical understanding and pathological dislike for my laptop and all the wires attached to it. If it's adapt or die I fear my days are numbered. The online shows I've enjoyed the most have had a communication element to them where I've been able to interact with the audience. I particularly enjoyed this one at White Noise Studios on the Weissenborn.
Do you see live music returning in the same way or will this pave the way for a new style of live performance?
It seems probable that some form of online shows will be knitted into the fabric of the live music industry from now on. Perhaps, in future, for a fiver, you'll get to drop in on the Foo Fighters doing an acoustic warm up online before they play their main show. There are a lot of interesting opportunities in the online arena for sure. Not everyone can get to live shows so I can see the benefits. Physically going to a venue with friends is ingrained in me and a huge part of the gig experience. It's about getting together and getting lost in something bigger than yourself for a few hours. Hopefully interactive platforms will evolve and combine some of those elements.
Should streaming services like Spotify use this as an opportunity to right some wrongs, pay fairly and help rebuild the industry that they rely on?
That would be nice! It's embarrassing how much musicians don't earn from Spotify but at the same time they offer a global digital platform where you can release your own music without a record company. Radio is not the force it used to be and playlisting on Spotify has had some positives in terms of ticket sales and online record sales for me. I've said before that for an emerging or independent artist this tool can be very helpful to get your music out there. Is it fair? No, but I'd say the music industry seldom is. Spotify doesn't however help musicians develop skills, stage craft or build the confidence required to successfully take thier music to a live environment. In these difficult times the musician union and PRS have put together some much needed grants for struggling musicians. Spotify could and should follow suit.
Get your copy of "Roll With The Punches" here - https://www.martinharley.com/store
Grab tickets to Martin's tour here - https://www.martinharley.com/
Check out Martin's youtube here - https://tinyurl.com/4rkbyddw