“Acoustic Guitar” Vol. 2, No. 5. March / April 1992
OUT ON A LIMB: The adventurous musical mind of British folk pioneer Martin Carthy
by Niles Hokkanen
Martin Carthy has been one of the leading figures of the English folk music scene, both as a vocalist and a guitarist, for over 25 years. He has performed and recorded in a multitude of musical settings ranging from solo acoustic to electric folk-rock bands. From 1966-69, Carthy performed with monster fiddler Dave Swarbrick as a duo until Swarb joined up with Fairport Convention. After a year of solo gigging, Carthy himself joined an electric-folk band, Steeleye Span, a more traditional spin-off of Fairport. After another year of plating solo, Carthy again found himself playing electric, this time with the acclaimed though financially unsuccessful Albion Country Band, which was started by Steeleye founder and ex-Fairport bassist Ashley Hutchings to concentrate on English music.
When the Albion Country Band disbanded, Carthy went back to the folk clubs both as a soloist and as a member of the vocal group the Watersons. In the meantime, Steeleye Span had crossed over into mainstream, but a decision was made to fold the band, and Carthy and accordionist John Kirkpatrick (an Albion Country Band mate) joined up to fill the year’s remaining gigs.
Afterward, Carthy and Kirkpatrick continued to play continued to play together. With the addition of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone, they became Brass Monkey , a group that performed intermittently for seven years and recorded two fine albums.
These days Carthy performs solo, with the Watersons, or with his wife, Norma Waterson, and his daughter, Liza. He has also teamed up again (part-time) with Dave Swarbrick, with whom he has a new album, Life and Limb.
During his varied career, Carthy has forged his own personal and unusual approach to guitar (and mandolin), developing his own tunings along the way to enable him to play the sounds he hears in his head. It’s English Folk music played with the heavy percussive of an old bluesman and the gritty rhythm of a diatonic accordion player, but with a unique sense of phrasing that breaks out of 4/4 time in order to follow the accents of the song lyrics. As Richard Thompson has said of Carthy, “His sources are very peculiar; that’s why he’s so good.”
Though your reputation revolves around English folk music, I understand that your early inspirations were American bluesmen.
I first heard Big Bill Broonzy when I was 17, and it rang bells all over the place. It was his highly melodic, rhythmic way of playing. I got hold of every record I could and tried to learn it. Lightnin’ Hopkins, too – he seemed to be out of the same mold. When I first heard Brownie McGee (he was fancier), I quite liked him for a while, but I went back to Broonzy. There’s something straight to the point about Broonzy. Actually I could do a fairly passable Broonzy imitation at one time, but I could never really sing his stuff.
The song interests I had always veered towards English, or, if you like, British Isles music. So I stuck in normal tuning for a long time and played the usual folk accompaniment. Then I got interested in what we in England called clawhammer guitar playing, which is actually Travis picking. The reason I now play with three fingers and the thumb is because that’s the way I was taught Travis picking. I started doing that to English songs and it worked passably well with some of the songs.
What’s the right-hand attack technique?
Metal thumbpick, three fingers. This guitar and I have grown together over the years, and the agreement we’ve come to is that flesh across onto the nail is the bast way to get the right sound out. With just the nail it’s too clicky and too thin.
Let’s get to the development of the tunings you’ve used.
I got interested in tuning the guitar differently, funnily enough, through meeting some American old-time musicians who used to tune the banjo in a weird way. I accompanied them on guitar by playing a sort of D11 chord and adding the melody with the other fingers just as it came. All of this gave a really peculiar ring to the guitar. And that D11 chord is DADGAD, the sound everyone was trying to get to. And the person who got to that first was Davey Graham; he invented DADGAD.
Let’s talk a minute about him, since many young players may not know about him. He was revolutionary.
There isn’t a guitarist in England who wasn’t influenced by Davey Graham. John Renbourn certainly. A lot of John’s early repertoire is taken straight from Davey. Bert [Jansch] was. I was. Well, any guitarist who is our age was. He put out an album called Folk, Blues, and Beyond and another called Guitar Man, and they are the albums. But here and now, I have to say that they sound a little tame, and that’s a shame because they don’t give you a sense of the excitement they used to generate when he stood up and played. He was someone who took the most alarming chances. He’s still around. I think Davey was wonderful. Unfortunately, he’s not just underrated, he’s forgotten.
The great breakthrough for people like me was Davey Graham and DADGAD. Even though I couldn’t use DADGAD, I sat down one night to try to work what I did want and realized that DADGAD made me work on the top three strings all the time and left the bottom three (bass) redundant. I love working in the middle four strings, and DADGAD was always in the wrong key for me. So I took the ADGAD bit, dropped it a fourth, and shifted it over one string [lower] so you end up with EADEA. So then I, like a good folkie, dropped the bottom E to D and put an E up on top, so I was left with DADEAE (bass to treble).
DADEAE immediately had the advantage over DADGAD in that, without any difficulty, you could play in two keys: D and A. I think I got there in about 1965. But then, I couldn’t sing in the key of D, so I dropped the whole thing down a semitone to C#. When Dave Swarbrick and I used to go out on the road he used to tune everything down a semitone and grumble like mad; he used to hate it for the fiddle.
I finally decided to drop it down to C (CGCDGD) in 1978 because I wanted to play a song called “Lovely Joan” [see transcription below]. Having Having that top string up to D just didn’t allow it, so in frustration I just dropped it a fourth to A, and there I was with this lovely open ninth chord to start, and I knew it would sound great if I played it in D but actually rooted it on G. So the tuning evolved into CGCDGA.
It was then that the whole thing started to open up, ’cause then I could play in C and in G, and then I suddenly discovered playing in F. The first thing I tried in F was “I Sowed Some Seeds”, which is a 5/4 song. But the best key of all is D, even though the guitar is pitched in C. You get this wonderful sound, and I think the reason is that you’re actually working the strings. When you’ve got an open string, there’s nothing you can do with it; you’ve got to leave it open to ring. I, as a player, have got on much better since I’ve really started trying to work the strings and not let the open ones do all the work. It’s curious – when tuned in C, you’ve got to work that little bit harder when you play in D, but the rewards are so much greater.
And you can play in E minor, though I’ve not figured that out yet. But you can do it. And I think you could also probably play in A minor. Again, I’ve not really figured that out, but it should be possible. You’ll probably lose a bit of the ring you get with open strings.
Do you play out of chord positions and shapes in CGCDGA?
The chord positions aren’t really important. The great thing about this tuning is actually to get away from chord positions so that you can play as much melody as possible. You will naturally fall into certain chord positions, but I would want to avoid thinking in chord positions first.
If you have to sing in the key of E, where would you put the capo?
These days I would work out of the D shape with the capo on the second fret, but I still have one or two songs in repertoire which are in the C shape with the capo on the fourth fret, like a thing I used to do with the Albion Country Band called “The Gallant Poacher”. Later on I learned “The Foxhunt” which again is in E, but I did that as a D shape with the capo on the second fret.
I sort of have this rule with myself, that if I have to have the capo to the fourth fret, then I might as well try to do it a semitone higher and play it pen. I feel it’s OK at the second fret, sort of OK on the third; I start to feel I’m cheating at the fourth, but at the fifth, I feel I’ve cheated and will play a different way. I seems a shame to cut off that part of the guitar [the first five frets].
I used to play a thing called “The Devil and the Feathery Wife” in CGCDGA, in E, capoed on the fourth fret. Then I thought, “Go on just for fun, see if you can sing it in F, then you can take the capo off and work it out in a different way”, which I did [after the album version]. But I actually lost the original punchy tuning characteristic and found another more linear way of playing it. So, bend a few strings, you get a different character.
It’s just having to think a bit and make yourself extend. A lot of English dance music is in F. Irish music tends to be, for the sake of argument, in D, A, and G, while English music tends to be in C, F, and G. You’ll find English fiddle players playing things in C.
How do you go about putting the guitar to your vocals?
I tend to learn the song first and think about the guitar very hard indeed, and, with a few exceptions, if I think about it hard enough I can walk up to the guitar and just play it. And that’s what I prefer to do, if possible. If it’s a song, I feel as though I’ve got to be able to play it standing on my head, without thinking about it. If I can do that, I can concentrate on the song because that’s the important thing. But with instrumental tunes, it’s different. I tend to try and stretch a little bit, but not as much as I would like. I find that progress is very slow.
When Dave and I split up [in 1969], I actually made a conscious rule that if I didn’t have to play the guitar on something, I was not going to play, which meant for a while about 60 percent of my repertoire was unaccompanied. I was more interested in the textures you got when you sang unaccompanied and the sort of things you had to do to vary pulse and the melody, so I stopped playing on certain kinds of songs. Then I concentrated on trying to learn to play the guitar. Before I settled into this way of playing, I played differently.
There was a song about a mining disaster on the Sweet Wivelsfield album that had a real dronal, Appalachian dulcimer-type backup.
“The Trimdon Grange Explosion”. Totally different tuning. Two E’s on the bottom – the normal sixth and fifth strings tuned down making a flapping E-type noise, then the fourth tuned up to E, the third tuned down to E, and the second and top left at B and E – EEEEBE.
You’ve mentioned before, and so has Richard Thompson, that there’s a lot of melodeon (the English term for diatonic accordion) influence in your playing.
Well, it’s that hufing and puffing sound. English melodeon imparts a particular kind of rhythm to the music, and that’s what I try to get. It’s a very “dirty” instrument – you can hear all the squeaks and grunts and the bellows, and all the buttons clacking. So the dirtier I play, the more melodeon there is in there! [Laughs.]
How do you improvise within the tunes?
Within a Morris tune like “The Quaker” [see transcription below] or “Fishes and Taters”, it’s pretty much straightforward, because my ideal is to be playing for dancers, and I see my job as making absolutely sure I supply the thing that makes six pairs of feet move at the same time.
I don’t do that much spontaneous improvisation, except as accompaniment when Swarb is playing. There are certain tunes he plays to which you can do anything. And there are a lot of them where I haven’t actually worked out what I’m going to do. But it’s nothing particularly startling – varying the bass line a lot, varying the accompaniment, trying to keep it interesting. If you do it the same way every night, it boring. Whether you could call that spontaneous improvisation… I think that’s a bit of a grand word for it, don’t you?
Behind the vocal tunes, I would assume it’s more of a shifting of emphasis, of leaving things out.
Yeah. You get a variation of accent, you’ll leave something out and maybe occasionally put something extra in. If I’ve known the song for a very long time, such as “Sovay” on Life and Limb, I’ll actually feel like I know it well enough to be able to vary it quite a lot. But that’s all relative; there’s not a startling difference. If you listen, the accent comes in a different place every now and again. And when Dave and I are right on top of it, that can be quite exciting. In the course of searching for a way to accompany a song, Dave will go through every variation you can imagine – he’s extraordinary. I’m continually astounded by his capacities.
Playing with John Kirkpatrick is equally exciting, but in a different way. When you’re playing with a melodeon, or [Anglo or diatonic] concertina, there’s a different kind of rhythm. When I’m accompanying John, if he’s singing, the more I extemporize, the more he loves it – even if it’s full of mistakes. Anything I can produce, he can play off, which is fabulous. And the more I extemporize, the better Dave likes it too. Playing with John and Dave has been the greatest musical learning experience of my life.
You’ve also done some stuff on electric guitar, with the folk-rock band Steeleye Span. Was that in conventional tuning?
No. I played DADEAD. The first time in the band (1970-1971), I basically got hold of a telecaster and strung it with medium-gauge strings and played it like a loud acoustic guitar. Only that experience taught me to play less. When I went back to playing acoustic, I found that I wanted to play less on that as well. I’d obviously play more than I had on electric, but less than before. I was far less busy as a guitarist when I came out of Steeleye the first time.
The second time when I joined Steeleye in 1977, I was only in for nine months. Steeleye had gigs left over, and Maddy [Prior] said, “Come help us finish the gig. How about John [Kirkpatrick] joining too?” That time I actually learned to play the electric guitar as an electric guitar. I got much lighter gauge strings, tried to use vibrato and more control, string bending, and stuff I’d never tried before. I’ve never practiced as much as I did when I was on the road with Steeleye the second time ’round.
I used to take the guitar back from the gig every night and sit for about four hours playing, and fall asleep and wake up the next morning with the guitar still on! Absolutely ludicrous, but I had to learn to play the thing. And if I was going to treat it as a different instrument, then by God, I’d better get it.
I never actually got to the point where I could play electric and acoustic. There were some tunes every night where I’d have to go acoustic, and it was a very odd thing. Totally different. I’m full of admiration for someone like Richard [Thompson], who can do both. I certainly found it very difficult. After Steeleye broke up (they re-formed two-and-a-half years later), I carried on playing the electric at home a good while after that. Then I just put it in the case, and I haven’t taken it out in years.
Who are some of the guitar players you like to listen to?
I like people like Charlie Christian. I like some of these rembetika guitar players – old Greek music from the ’20s and ’30s – who played these crummy old guitars, but they get some real heart in their playing. There was a guy called Krostis and another called Katsaros.
John Martin. I think he’s sensational. Until he made “Big Muff” on One World, he’d never done on a record anything that came up to what I’d seen him do live.
Buddy Guy. There’s an album of his called Stone Crazy on Alligator, done in France about 1980, and it’s breathtaking. David Lindley – such a sound that man can get out of an electric bottleneck guitar. The sound is magic; when I hear him, I wish I could play electric.
Richard Thompson. Big Bill Broonzy. Jody Stecher. Joseph Spence is the world’s weirdest guitar player – wild, brilliant. Jody Stecher said that he’d give Spence a guitar that was perfectly in tune, and Spence would find it unplayable and would retune it “out of tune”, and then he would play it and it would be right. The rhythms that man coaxes out of a guitar – extraordinary.
Let’s talk about shifting the accents and the way you carve up the time signatures into sections of odd meter phrasing.
Well, there are different ways of doing it. You can throw the time signature right out of the window and do it “one beat to the bar”, which is what I like to do quite a lot. On the other hand, you can be super disciplined and take, say, 16 16 beats and divide them in a stupid way, and that can be quite fun. If you’ve got a vocal phrase, you can knock one beat out of a measure and stick it back on a later one. Or add a beat and knock it off later. That’s one simple way of doing it.
It’s treating the words as a series of accents, using the words to dictate where the musical accents are going to be. It may not follow the 4/4 exactly, but it ends with the right number of beats. It can be a conversational way of singing it. Generally speaking, I like to throw away the 4/4 and decide that it is in 1/4. You take each lyrical phrase and decide how you want to phrase it, how it could possibly be done conversationally, and then bend the tune and make it accommodate the words, the way you want it. If you can actually break into this, it’s quite amazing the sort of freedoms you find yourself with. You find yourself free for the first time in your life to sing a song exactly the way you want and make the instrument follow. The first time it happened to me, it just blew me away.
There’s a song called “The Foxhunt”, and you can actually count this 7-6-5-4 [in measures of 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, 4/8]:
And thats the way the bloke who sang it, sang it. It’s got its own integrity. You make life difficult for yourself – I make life difficult for myself – by counting 7-6-5-4, but it so happens you can have a bit of fun and it works.
Give us some other examples of the things you might do.
There’s a tune called “Byker Hill” (it’s not actually traditional) which is 9/8, divided 2-2-2-3. One rhythmic variations is to go 3-2-2-2 / 2-3-2-2 / 2-2-3-2 / 2-2-2-3. A cycle of 32 beats, and you are shifting the group of three along within each measure. That’s a bit wild – that’s doing it for the hell of doing it – but I don’t see why you can’t do whatever you want.
But if you’re working with someone else, it’s quite fun to really carve the rhythm about, to see what happens. It can be very exciting. Working with Dave Swarbrick, we do “Byker Hill”. At times, instead of me playing four 9s, I’ll play 9-9-7-11. It actually does work! In that case, what you’ve done is dropped two eighth notes and added them somewhere else. I can’t really sing across this bit.
I love the idea of shifting the accents of a tune. If you’re building a heavy riff around a tune, you get the most interesting riffs by going to the obscure corners of the tune. The trick is to find a melody on all the off-beats of a tune, on all the funny corners. Try to make up a counter-melody and then see what chord actually fits with both melody and counter-melody. That’s an interesting way of building up a riff, and you are actually carving up the rhythm all over the place. The most interesting thing is, you find out about gaps; gaps are the business. You’ll find that you get a really busy thing going, and gradually you start to drop bits out, and you’re left with something that overlays the top of the song, something really beautiful, which brings out a totally different aspect of the tune. And the more you carve away, the better it gets. You eventually end up working like a horn section.
Photographs: Mark Crabtree