BURN THE MANUAL
Infinity in Four Strings
Idaho’s Jeff Martin has opened up a world of possibilities for his songwriting and sound by limiting his guitars. Bill Broun examines how four-string guitars guided This Way Out.
Next time you tweak your guitar’s tuning pegs, you may want to pause a moment. You could be permanently tweaking the course of your career.
That’s something like what happened to Jeff Martin, Los Angeles band Idaho’s leader and reluctant, self-styled maestro of bizarre tunings. As Martin and company gear up for a European micro tour, Idaho’s third understated Caroline release, This Way Out, has cruised low-beam through a fog of critical adoration, and perhaps some stupefaction. Martin is getting lots of questions, especially about his guitar’s unique shadings.
Idaho might get some justice, too. Early comparisons to an imaginary trend called “depression music” (stomping Codeine, Red House Painters, and joy Division into one unrecognizable black pulp) are becoming increasingly easy to live down.
It’s clear that Idaho are just a lot different, more indebted to, say, David Sylvian, John Coltrane or Brian Eno than lan Curtis. Martin is far more complex than “depressed.” He’s made an entirely new sort of music on This Way Out, a sort of feedback jazz.
Emotionally, it offers brisk, impulsive releases from expectations, not struggles to capture or confess them.
Martin’s nonstandard guitar tunings are key to this. They’re all about hues and tints, literally thousands of them. Where depression magnifies one all-consuming feeling, usually guilt, Martin multiplies sad feelings, gives them new corners, walls and ledges. This Way Out is the most delicate of labors. It’s no wonder Martin says he would “give away a limb” to work with Eno.
If much of Idaho’s intricacy comes from the nonstandard tunings, it’s because they’re more than tools; they’re a whole methodology for
Martin, and deeply tied up with his composition practices. Onstage, he trades off between four custom-built four-strings crafted by Carruthers Guitars in Venice, California. For those of you who think your issue of AP has just been taken over by the staff of Guitar Player, rest assured Martin is a consummate guitar cretin, but also a songwriting genius. He seems almost-ashamed to talk about his guitars.
He considers himself exceptionally lucky to be able to afford the custom jobs, and insists “anyone” can assume a love affair with strange guitars and detuned orchestrations without a custom-made axe. Before Idaho’s success and the extra lunch money, he simply messed around with strings and tunings on standard over-the-counter models.
Please thyself: That’s where Martin’s advice starts when it comes to experimenting with odd tunings and learning how to play them.
”lt’s all ear, moving your hands around,” he says. “Through repetition and random movements you begin to choose what is appealing to you.” Be willing to pick up anything and coax euphony out of it. An out-of-tune instrument is, in Martin’s cosmos, rather perfectly .”tuned.”
“Wherever it [the guitar] happens to be at, if I feel it’s been run dry, I just tweak a couple notes. I try not to overextend the tuning. Really any tuning that’s practically possible would work.”
In a way, it’s had to work that way for Martin. He’s never really known normal. He says his parents in Brentwood, California got him into piano lessons at age 8, and by his later teens, he’d trained himself on synthesizers and bass. But guitars always were, and to some extent remain, exotic to him.
“Sometimes I think six strings is just too many strings,” he says.
He wasn’t introduced to the guitar until the mid-‘8os, when he started playing around with a friend’s “very sterile-looking” Fender Squire abandoned in a corner like a Christmas toy. It was ugly, missing two strings, and immeasurably uncool. But Martin didn’t mind. It was something weird.
“It was out of tune,” he recalls. “I tuned it up to something that sounded nice to me. It had a nice ring to it.”
And that’s essentially Martin’s system today: Screw around until something clicks. He also likes to limit himself. One tuning change, after all could offer vast new prospects. Plus, you have to “learn” the tuning. So he also emphasizes the handicaps of nonstandard tunings and stringings, from the self-schooling process itself to damaged necks and live-performance nightmares.
“The instant you chop off a string or pull your low E to kingdom come”, he says, “you enter the sneered-at world of high physics, where torque ratios, tolerances, and tension values can do wonders toward fucking up your guitar”. But, he urges, “Be cautious about it and prepared to bite off a big responsibility.”
He suggests considering first the radical freedoms offered by taking off just one or two strings before becoming ‘” a tuning terrorist. Unless you’re Sonic Youth, you probably don’t have enough wealth to let several guitars “live” perpetually at nonstandard tuning. And that’s almost a necessity, especially under performance conditions. A detuned instrument is a shocked immigrant to a new country. It undergoes a kind of adjustment period, says Martin, and it will continually readjust itself.
Martin likes to stress, then, that the most functional and lovely tunings are often the simplest.
“Take a standard tuning and do it very subtly. Just change a few strings. It’s amazing what you can do.”
This Way Out was constructed principally . with two kinds of non-standardly tuned four-strings: a high- and low-register species. One of his favorite low-register strains is a modest EBEB tuning. You flatten your A and G strings and then considerably sharpen your G. This gives the song “Forever,” for example, an almost unhealthy, congested feel—torpid jazz played in an attic. It all produces this immense, sad universe of lavish, dark tones. If it sounds pretty far out, hang on. Martin says with EBEB you can also “just do bonehead-ed barre chords really well.”
Another favorite Idaho tuning. BF#BE, involves the higher registers, using what normally count as D, G, B, and E strings. Martin calls it “a very friendly tuning,” and one with which he often writes. “Drive It” and “Crawling Out” both use this tuning, and they’re noticeably brighter, faster songs. (A note about the strings: On Martin’s low-register guitars, he takes a standard set of strings and tosses out the high B and E. On the high-register guitars, he saves the D, G, B, and high E.)
Martin also says that those interested in making a serious pledge to nonstandard tunings might do well to consider a custom-built guitar. It’s not as expensive as you might think, and could save your Stratocaster some costly repairs. About two years ago, Martin started going to John Carruthers of Carruthers Guitars for his four-string hybrids. But Carruthers is not cheap. He spends his spare time selling original designs to companies like Ibanez when he’s not working for the heavies. Joni Mitchell, for instance, plays a Carruthers.
Nevertheless, he’ll take your business, and gladly.
“If they can draw it, and it’s practical, we’ll make it,” Carruthers says. “There are some cases when people don’t have an understanding of physics and they want the impossible.”
He says guitars similar to Martin’s special four-stringers cost between one- and two-thousand dollars. That’s a lot of beer. But Carruthers isn’t just a good guitar maker, he’s also a sly sales rep: “Hey, you can pay $1200 for a new Stratocaster these days.”
It would be easy to make too much of Martin’s long and troubled relationship with the standard six-stringed guitar—you know, the one tuned at EADGBE-- the one that established rock and roll. Bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Low all depend on nonstandard tunings. But Martin’s never known anything else; he never took a guitar lesson, and never looked back.
He’s very grateful for stumbling into that ugly Squire. He believes Idaho probably wouldn’t exist if not for freaky-tuned four-strings. He credits them with having “changed the grid” of musical textures available to Idaho, and made a band which operates comfortably on totally uncharted terrain.
“Four strings have been very good to me.”