A founding member of the legendary Kentucky Headhunters, Martin has spent decades dazzling listeners with one of the most distinctive guitar styles—and tones--in contemporary music. Had the Headhunters done nothing more than record Pickin’ On Nashville, one of the most important albums of the ‘90s, their place in music history would be assured. Fact is, however, the band continues to produce great music to this day.
This past year, Martin worked hand-in-hand with Gibson to reproduce his iconic 1958 Les Paul, as part of Gibson Custom’s Collector’s Choice™ series. As longstanding Headhunters fans know, the instrument has been Martin’s go-to guitar for nearly 25 years. Recently Martin spoke with us about the Headhunters, his influences and what makes his ’58 Les Paul so distinctive.
What’s the current status of the Headhunters?
We just finished another year of touring, wrapping up two weeks ago in Minnesota. We’re still doing 75 to 80 dates each year. Early next year we’ll begin writing for a new album, starting in the winter or spring. Hopefully in 2014 there will be a new Headhunters CD, a follow up to our 2011 album, Dixie Lullabies.
Let’s go back in history a bit. What was it like when the Headhunters had their breakthrough success with Pickin’ On Nashville, back at the turn of the ‘90s?
That was like jumping on a wild horse and hanging on for dear life. When we signed with Mercury records in early 1989, [bassist] Doug Phelps and I were still playing with Ronnie McDowell. [Fellow Headhunters] Richard Young and Fred Young and Ricky Lee Phelps were doing various things within the music industry. It was our dream to sign our own deal and have our own band, so I quit my steady gig with Ronnie, with whom I’d been playing for 8-1/2 years. Part of me was scared to death, but when the single “Walk Softly” hit CMT, the reaction was amazing. People started buying the album, and by spring of 1990 it was going through the roof. And then, when [the next single] “Dumas Walker” hit, it was like a snowball going down a hill. It caught us by surprise, but on the other hand, since we had been in the music in industry for several years, we weren’t totally unprepared. We hung in there and we learned a lot
You experienced some near breakthroughs with your early band, Itchy Brother. Is it true you nearly signed with Swan Song Records, Led Zeppelin’s imprint?
That’s right. That was really strange. Itchy Brother’s manager was Mitchell Fox, who was an employee for Led Zeppelin. He was one of the guys who ran their office in New York. He saw us play in 1978, and he actually took a tape of ours to England, to talk with Peter Grant. We were actually going to be on the roster, but then John Bonham died and things went into a tailspin. That was it—the deal didn’t work out.
Let’s talk guitars. Do you remember the first time you held a guitar?
Oh, sure. I first start messing around with the guitars in ’63, and became really infatuated. My older brother had a Strat, and my cousin, who was living with us at the time, had a really nice ES-335. Guitars were always around the house. Whenever my brother and cousin went to work, I would go upstairs and play their guitars. I was really drawn to it. Everyone has a calling in life—mine was to be a guitar player. I never wanted to be a star—I just wanted to play guitar.
How did you go about learning?
Mostly by ear. That’s another funny thing. My younger brother had a 6-string plastic guitar with nylon strings, and I actually learned a lot of chords on that guitar, until my brother got mad at me one day and busted it. (laughs) We had a Mel Bay book that showed you the basics: C, D, G, A and B chords. A schoolmate might have shown me a lick or two, or a Barre chord, but I was lucky that I could kind of pick up things my ear.
So you learned by listening to 45s?
Absolutely. Forty-five rpm records were my teacher. We had a 45 of The Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down,” with “Jeff’s Boogie” on the flipside. “Jeff’s Boogie” was an amazing lesson in guitar playing. The Lovin’ Spoonful was also a huge influence. We had the Do You Believe in Magic album and the Daydream album, and I learned to play a lot of those songs. In fact, the first concert I went to was The Lovin’ Spoonful, in 1966, and lo and behold John Sebastian was playing a ’59 Les Paul. I was smitten by that guitar at that very moment. Strangely enough, just a week ago I went back and watched an old instructional video by Sebastian. I had him on my radio show and got to thinking about all those Lovin’ Spoonful tunes. We also had some Ventures albums—and some Beatles and Stones—and I would sit and try to copy those songs. AM radio was also huge in those days.
What was your first real guitar?
For a while I had an old Stella guitar. And then, when the bug really took hold of me around ‘68, my brother Gary gave me a mid ‘50s Gretsch Silver Jet. He hated the finish so much he had painted it black. I spent a weekend on my aunt’s porch scraping off the paint and bringing back the original finish. That was my first real guitar. After that I got a Baldwin Bison, and then in early ’69 Dad somehow got me a ‘50s yellow Les Paul Special. I had that for a long time. That was a great guitar.
How did your famous ’58 Les Paul fall into your hands?
We’re not sure who had it first. We think a gospel group originally owned the guitar, because on the case there’s a crown--the type of crown you might see in a painting of Jesus. At some point in the ‘80s, [Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist] Ed King ended up with the guitar, in a trade. Since he already had a ’59 Les Paul, he took it to George Gruhn’s, in Nashville, and sold it. Hank Williams Jr. came in and bought it, along with five other guitars. When the Headhunters went on the road with Hank Jr. in 1990 … he ended up loaning me the guitar to do the video for “Oh Lonesome Me.” The moment I plugged that guitar into an old Marshall, I thought, “Okay, this is what I’ve been looking for all my life.” When I finally returned it to him, in the summer of 1991, I said, “Hank, I brought your guitar back. I love it.” He said, “Surely you can afford one of those now,” and I said, “Well, they always seem to be just out of reach, money-wise.” Finally he just said, “Keep it.” I was like, “Really?” And I’ve had it ever since then.
What makes it so distinctive?
Well, first of all, I’ve never played a bad Les Paul—they all sound great. But there’s just something about this guitar. It has this beautiful rounded tone that’s amazing. It’s almost as if it has a built-in compression. Until a guitar’s wood ages a bit, sometimes there’s a harsh top end, at times. That goes away as the guitar and the wood get older. This guitar is like fine wine. It’s developed a tone all its own, that’s beautiful. And it’s also as if it plays itself. I can’t explain it. Almost anything I want to attempt to do, I can achieve it on this guitar. It’s like a muse.
Tell us about the Collector’s Choice signature model.
The seeds were sown around 1994. I was at the Dallas Guitar Show at the Gibson booth talking with Tom Murphy, the master craftsman for Gibson. I had the ’58 with me, and Tom said, “You know, Gibson should do a signature model of that guitar.” It became a conversation Tom and I would have every couple of years. And then around 2009, Dave Rogers at Dave’s Guitar Shop and I were talking, and he said he felt it would be a great reissue. He started talking to the folks at Gibson as well. In the spring of 2010 I got a call from Gibson’s Pat Foley, asking me to bring the Les Paul to the Custom Shop for scanning and pictures. Edwin Wilson did all the documentation for the guitar, and a year later they gave me Prototype #1—a wonderful, wonderful guitar. That’s another guitar I’ll never let go of. From 2011 to early 2013 there wasn’t much else said, but this past summer I messaged Rick Gembar—head of the Custom Shop---and he immediately said, “We need to do this guitar. Can you come down in July or August and bring your guitar again? We need to re-scan it.” Evidently there was some new equipment to re-scan the neck and so forth. By this time the Collector’s Choice program was intact, and Gibson wanted it to be a part of that.
Does the Collector’s Choice model capture all the characteristics of the original?
It’s really close. You could set them in a corner and people would have trouble figuring out which was which. And of course that great top-end tone will continue to get better with age, as the wood seasons. Just think about it—back in ’68 and ’69, when guys like Eric Clapton and Peter Green were making beautiful albums with their Sunburst Les Pauls, those guitars were only around 10 years old. A new guitar generally takes about eight to 10 years to come into its own. After that, it just keeps getting better and better.
What’s the rest of your setup like?
When I play live I basically plug my prototype #1 ’58 Les Paul straight into an old Marshall, nothing else. I have a 1974 100-watt head, with no master volume. I have two of the EL-34s pulled, and that makes it more or less like a heavy 50-watt-er. I have a 412 Mojo cabinet--which is a Marshall-style cabinet--with Celestion and Eminence speakers. And that’s pretty much it. I play straight into that.
What other Gibsons do you own?
I have a 1962 SG, a 1955 Les Paul Gold Top with P-90s, a 1963 ES-335, and a 1955 yellow Les Paul Special. I also have four Les Paul Juniors from the ‘50s. Three of them are single-cutaway sunbursts, and one of them is a ’59 or ’60 double-cutaway Junior. I’ve also got a nice 1980 Les Paul Heritage 80—a great guitar, one of the first reissues Gibson made. That’s the guitar I used on the first Headhunters album.
And there’s one Gibson you keep tuned to open D?
Actually that varies. When I’m out on the road with the Headhunters I take the ’55 Les Paul. Early on, because of the title track to Dixie Lullabies, I used open D tuning, but now I keep it in open E. And I have a ’64 Melody Maker with a humbucker, that’s tuned to open A. I take that on the road as well.
Tell us about your radio show.
I do a blues/roots radio show called the “Lowdown Hoedown” every Monday night, from 7 to 10 Central Standard Time. It airs on WDNS in Bowling Green on terrestrial radio, and also streams on the internet. People all over the world can hear it on www.wdnsfm.com. I’ve had Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, Peter Frampton, Glenn Hughes, Steve Cropper, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie, Marty Stuart and others do call-in interviews. John Sebastian was on just two weeks ago. It’s a treat for me to get to pick these guys’ brains. With Peter Frampton, for example, I wanted to focus more on Humble Pie than on something like Frampton Comes Alive! Peter was really open to doing that.
Any final thoughts?
It’s been quite a journey. This thing with Gibson has been a blessing. When I first saw John Sebastian’s guitar, with the Lovin’ Spoonful, I fell in love with the Les Paul. My dream in the ‘70s was to own a ’58 Les Paul, mainly because I’d read that the British cats loved them. Hank Williams Jr. took care of that dream, and I thank him for it. What’s cool is that Gibson has done both my guitar and the John Sebastian guitar as well, as part of the Collector’s Choice series. It’s an honor to be in that sort of company.
Click here to learn more about the Collector’s Choice™ #15 Greg Martin 1958 Les Paul.
Pics: Rick Phipps