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COLLECTION BLUES: Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin may not own as many vintage guitars as he used to, but these days he’s focused more on quality than quantity.
By Alan di Perna | Photography by Keith Leman
It’s not unusual for a guitarist to consolidate his assets and downsize wisely after a lifetime of guitar and amp collecting. That was the case for Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin. Since starting his career in the Sixties, Martin had amassed a collection that was the envy of many vintage guitar connoisseurs, but lately he’s been paring down his collection while focusing on a handful of absolute gems.
“Over the years, I’ve had to strip back a little,” he says. “My brother always taught me to trade up. When you trade a guitar, add some money to it and get yourself a better guitar. Over the years I’ve tried to do that. I don’t have as many guitars as I used to, but I’ve got some really good ones.”
While Martin once brought a slew of vintage guitars and amps into the studio for Headhunters album projects, he kept things simple for the group’s new release, On Safari. Normally more of a Marshall man, Martin relied instead on a Fifties-era tweed Fender Twin and 1950 tweed Champ this time out. “I’ve done a few sessions with the tweed amps, and I said, ‘Man these guys sound pretty good for that,’ ” he explains.
His principal guitar for the sessions was the 1958 Les Paul Standard that is the prize of his collection, supplemented by a 1964 Gibson Melody Maker for slide parts. With these select few instruments and amps, he was able to endow On Safari with a glorious range of classic guitar sounds—from creamy slide timbres to crisp brown-tone leads that blend crunch with clarity in all the right proportions.
“The whole album was recorded live in the studio with very few overdubs,” he says of On Safari. “The only solo that wasn’t done live was ‘Jukebox Full of Blues,’ the little shuffle at the end. That was originally recorded with just a straight guitar solo. But after we cut it, I said, ‘I’d like to try that with slide.’ The song is in C, though, and that’s a really crazy key to play slide in. I could have played it in standard 440 tuning, but I like to have the open strings you get with an open tuning. In the end, I put it in either open A or G tuning with a capo and did the solo that way. Open G is my favorite tuning for slide. When you play in open G or A, you’re getting into the more country-blues realm, whereas when you do open D or open E, you get into Duane Allman territory.”
Slide playing is one of Martin’s many strong suits. Like any good aspiring bluesman, he started off with Coricidin glass bottle slides. Later, he gravitated to a Swamp Frog from Rocky Mountain Slides and now has his own signature-model Rocky Mountain slide. “What I do on slide ends up sounding like a lap steel a lot of times,” he says, “because I grew up listening to a lot of country music. An element of that slips in there.”
Rock music was at top of the playlist back in 1968 in Glasgow, Kentucky, when Martin and the Young Brothers joined forces in a band called Itchy Brother. At first, they did what every psychedelicized garage band did in 1968. “We started playing covers—Steppenwolf, Cream, Iron Butterfly, Beatles, Stones, ” Martin says. “But you could not help be influenced by the country roots of the area—people like Merle Travis, Merle Haggard, Chet Atkins, George Jones.”
The Headhunters’ seamless blend of country and rock is part of a broader American roots-music palette that also embraces blues, R&B, southern boogie, and even a bit of gospel. What other group could cover Alice Cooper (“Caught in a Dream”) and Charlie Daniels (“Way Down Yonder”) on the same album and do equal justice to both? Great guitar playing is the common denominator that links these styles, and the Headhunters stand proud in the grand tradition of two-guitar bands. Powered by his 1952 and 1960 Telecasters and a Les Paul Junior, Richard Young’s sparkling rhythm work provides the perfect complement to Martin’s Gibson-centric tone.