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Beat Instrumental, November 1978 by Gary Cooper

Martin Turner's Saucy Secret


There’s a particular sort of bass player bred in Britain. He’s not the ultra-flash Stanley Clarke type, more of a melodic and tuneful player epitomised, perhaps, by McCartney and Squire. One more candidate for the ‘British Bass Player’s Award’ is Wishbone Ash’s Martin Turner.


Although the band may have turned more American during their past few albums, Martin has retained a peculiarly English-ness about his playing which has resisted the changes imposed by a period of exile in New England where, until this month, the band had its home. Ash have now returned to Britain with a new album, a full tour and, thankfully, a desire to stay here. Like McCartney, whom he admires immensely, Martin is also a singer and it was singing which we first talked about when 1 met him in the office of John Sherry, their one-time agent and now full-time manager. “I’ve always been into singing, although I’m not recognised as a singer and I don’t think that I’m a particularly good one.


I have to confess that when I was a boy I belonged to a church choir and I’d also have to say that if any particular type of music makes me respond it’s classical music of the type that I was exposed to then; hymns, anthems, psalms, fugues, Land of Hope and Glory, that sort of thing. In fact it would almost constitute an ambition for me to write that sort of song now, something which would become a real classic song. “From there I got to be head choir boy and I actually had a very good voice.


As soon as I started singing Rock and Roll, though, that went completely. I absolutely destroyed my voice by singing loudly. I actually have nodes on my vocal chords now and it’s a direct result of the unnatural process of trying to sing against 100 watt amps. I suppose it’s just one of the prices that you have to pay. I could have a minor operation to have them removed, in fact. They have to shave the tiny nodes of the vocal chords but they’re so small that they have to do it under a microscope — sounds horrendous doesn’t it? I’d have visions of the guy’s hand slipping and me ending up sounding like Rod Stewart. Mind you, that might not be so bad!” One of the things that’s always interested me is how a bass player manages to split his brain well enough to manage to do both things at once.


It’s all right to play a few chords and keep it together but people like Martin, McCartney and Bruce seem to be able to do both at the same time, with neither suffering. “It is tricky learning how to do it. Once you’ve actually mastered the technique though it becomes quite easy. You have to learn to switch either one of the two functions onto automatic and it’s like having your brain split into two, handling one of the functions on auto. I think the principle is called negative feedback which is what I wrote that song from “Front Page News” called “Surface to Air” about. It’s a corrective impulse which tells you what not to do, like you can only go somewhere by knowing where not to go, I think it a form of binary logic.” 

As usual, it’s worth delving into Martin’s musical past to find out what pushed him into the direction which he’s since taken. On the equipment front his first choice was classic combination “My first bass was a horrible blue Futurama. Actually it only looked horrible, I had a lot of fun with it and wish I still had it in some ways. I think I paid about £33 for it at the time. I used to put that through a Vox AC 30 which was asking a bit much of an open backed enclosure with two 12” speakers.” Having left the “Wild West” (the band was based in Torquay, Devon), Martin eventually found his way to London to form Wishbone Ash in 1970. Before that, however, he’d managed to progress beyond the Futurama onto a home-made job which he bought for £6.


‘‘It was a pretty terrible guitar really, it had this thin neck, bit like a Framus. Still it looked good and was unusual. I had that right up until the first album came out. In fact I seem to remember that the very first photographs of us that appeared showed me using it. The very first pro guitar that I had was a Rickenbacker. That was in 1970. I wasn’t actually that crazy mad on it. It had a really good percussive effect on the treble pickup but the bass pickup was very woolly and indistinct. I also experimented with a six string bass for a while but couldn’t get very far with it. Part of the trouble with the six string was that it was very hard to get decent strings for it. All I could get were horrible flatwounds and I couldn’t get on with them at all.” 


Regular listeners to Ash and those who’ve followed the band’s fortunes will know that Martin is one of that legendary band of bass players who’ve locked themselves into the Gibson Thunderbirds, beloved of many of us, me especially! “Yeah, I’ve used Thunderbirds off and on for years although I tend to use my Hamer on stage most of the time these days. The very first T’bird I had was picked-up somewhere in America and I hadn’t really had the chance to get into it before it was stolen, which cut me up a bit. Then we were on tour with Mott in America and Pete Watts was using one. I asked him if he’d sell me one but he really didn’t want to. He did offer to lend me one which was really great of him — he’s a great guy in fact, I really like all of that Mott crowd. Possibly because it was just a borrowed guitar I really started getting into it and in the end I forced him into selling it to me — I just had to have it! I still use Thunderbirds on stage because I need two guitars.


Another bass I have started getting into lately is an old battered Rickenbacker we found in New York. It’s an ancient one with proper pearl dot position markers rather than those horrible plastic wedges they use these days. In fact it was so old that I don’t even think they’d varnished the fingerboard although I can’t quite be sure about that. Anyway, it only had one pickup so we put a DiMarzio on it. Then we put on a Badass bridge, a heavy chromed one, and generally messed around with it. For a while I had visions of us really messing it up and I suppose that chopping around an old guitar like that is a bit sacrilegious isn’t it? “When we were doing “Front Page News” I wasn’t quite getting the sound I wanted and almost in desperation I pulled out this old Rickenbacker to use. It sounded fantastic. I used it on Surface to Air, which was one of the last tracks we did on the sessions for that album and have used it almost all the way through the new one. Mind you, the new album’s so long that the bass has ended up way back in the cut. That’s one of the problems with long albums, you have to loose quite a lot of bass end to get all the tracks.


As he’d already mentioned that he mainly used a Hamer on stage I asked what he thought of these American made instruments which seem to be becoming so popular across the other side of the Atlantic. “Well it’s hard to say really because mine is serial number 0001. It was made in the very early days, before they’d even got the measurements sorted out. What I wanted was a sort of Gibson Explorer bass copy and that’s what they made me. We didn’t even know what pickups to put on it but I eventually took some off an old Thunderbird of mine and it’s great now. “The best thing about it for me is the balance. It’s very top heavy, a bit like a Thunderbird, and I love that as it lets me get very physical with it and start moving around with it. I like to have to fight a bass and for that reason I tend to set mine up with a very high action so that the strings really eat into the ends of my fingers. I like to feel really vicious with it. That’s one of the differences between playing bass and playing guitar I suppose. I do play guitar as a matter of fact and I love it but I just wouldn’t feel at all right with a guitar on stage. I need to have something to fight.”


Perhaps the most unique aspect of Martin’s playing, however, is that he actually uses a form of open tuning on some numbers. In all my years spent playing, interviewing, reading and generally absorbing myself in bass playing, I’ve never come across anyone who actually used open tunings on a bass before, and I don’t suppose you have either. An explanation was obviously called for. 


“Well, it all came about by accident really. I just picked up a bass one day and found that the E had somehow got itself tuned down a tone to D. I just started playing it and found that I really liked it. That’s why I have two basses on stage these days. I have the Hamer tuned normally and a Thunderbird with the E tuned to D. “The first time I think I used it was on “The King Will Come” and I’ve used it on several tracks since then. I used it on that track to get a very low octave and I also used it on “Surface to Air”, “Come in From the Rain”, and a few others, maybe about four or five songs. It’s really incredibly easy to play in that tuning because whatever you do normally on the string you can also do on the E in exactly the same way which leads to all sorts of octave possibilities. It’s very good to play in D and also in A and G, I’ve even used it in E. It’s cropped up in several places like “Runaway” and “In All Of My Dreams You Rescue Me”. 


“I suppose that’s part of the reason it’s easy for me is because I don’t play thinking notes. I tend to learn a part, memorise it and improvise around it. Maybe if I was a ‘proper’ musician and thought notes then I’d find it difficult but I actually believe in cultivating unorthodoxy as it tends to set you apart from everyone else and make you recognisably you.” Another aspect of his unorthodox approach to bass playing is Martin’s use of a pick. Like me, he’s felt that the traditional disregard of players who prefer this approach, rather than the more orthodox fingerstyle way, is unjust. “I suppose that I just never learned to play with my fingers but you’d be surprised at the sound you can get just by varying the way in which you hold and use a pick.


I place a lot of emphasis on trying to be ambidextrous and I can do almost anything with either hand except write and brush my teeth! That led me to concentrate on playing with both up and down strokes. The difference between up and down strokes is quite remarkable.” This is a point of view which I’ve heard expressed quite a bit over the years and asked Martin to explain, if he could, why there is this noticeable difference. “Well, look at it this way. If you ever find that a thread which you’ve done up with one hand can’t be undone, try undoing it with the other hand. Because the angle of leverage is the same you’ll find that nine times out of ten you can do it.


It’s the same principle behind why the up and down strokes sound different.’’ Just for the record, by the way, strings used are Rotosound wirewound, but deliberately left on until they are almost dead in sound. “I don’t like roundwounds when they’re new, they sound too bright for me. Actually I was in a studio in Miami and was complaining about a new set of strings that I’d put on when our sound guy said ‘Oh, you should do what Steve Stills does - put barbecue sauce on them then rub it off again, that’ll deaden them.’ I tried it and it works! Actually you can do anything to deaden them and get that sort of Beatle-Gretsch deadened sound.” Perhaps I should point out here that Martin, by his own admission, likes to, er, extract the urine from time to time (an interview in Guitar Player being a notable case in point). I couldn’t swear that he wasn’t taking the mickey. Think carefully about it before you try it anyway!


Having gone onto Orange amps for many years (which are still used by Andy Powell and Laurie Wisefield by the way) Martin has now gone the way of many modern bass players and opted for a split system using one of the American massive powered ‘killer amps’. “Yes, these days I use BGW’s to drive my speakers and have an Alembic stereo pre-amp. One BGW drives two 2 x 12’s which were made by an American company called Heil. They’re sort of front loaded jobs with a slight horn. I’m not absolutely sure what speakers I have in them but I think they’re Electrovoice. I’ve tried most speakers from time to time. I tried J.B.L.’s but I’m not crazy mad over them. They sound a bit too harsh for my ears. I also used Gauss which seem very good indeed. They’re a bit too expensive though and they seem to blow up with me just as often as anything else. 


I tend to like a warm sound” (he uses Tannoy Golds for his Hi-Fi at home which should give you the clue to his tastes) “and find that Electrovoice are about right. As well as the two 2 x 12’s I also have two 2x 15’s. Again, I’m never sure what speakers are being used at any one time because our sound guy keeps a stock of them and replaces things as they blow. They’re probably Electrovoice again or they could in fact be J.B.L.’s. My general principles where sound equipment is concerned are never to load anything above more than about half it’s capacity.” As a bass player Martin is, as I said at the opening of this article, one of those very melodic English players. It’s, as he admits, what he aimed to be.


“I tend to play in such a way as to constitute a melody so that I’m either actually singing it or playing against it. I think that is a very un-American way of playing. I have a tendency when I am playing someone else’s song, say one of Laurie’s, to not even want to know what the chords are. Quite often the question arises as to whether that causes a clash musically, but if it sounds good to me then I’d rather go with it and stay with it. “I’d go back to that question of unorthodoxy. Look at Hendrix; he played his guitar upside down and didn’t even bother to change his strings over. It was totally unorthodox but it sounded good didn’t it, and you can’t argue with that!” What’s more, you can’t argue with a man who plays open tuned bass with barbecue sauce on his strings? Seriously, though, Martin Turner deserves listening to. Think I’ll try that open tuning idea myself and, while I’m at it, where’s that bottle of tomato ketchup’

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