Interview: Jazz Guitarist Pat Martino

Pat Martino’s contribution to jazz guitar is profound. His harmonic approach and fluid phrasing have had a far-reaching influence on many of today’s post-bop players.

Born Pat Azzara in 1944, Martino first became interested in guitar at age 12 and by 15, he was playing professionally in local clubs around his hometown of Philadelphia. His first road gig was with organist and high school friend Charles Earland, nicknamed “The Mighty Burner.” This set the background for future collaborations with organists Jack Mcduff, Don Patterson and Joey DeFrancesco.

Martino’s discography as a leader is extensive, with 25 albums to date. He cut El Hombre, his first album as leader, on the Prestige label in 1967 at age 22, which he followed with Strings!, East!, Baiyina and Desperado. His 1972 album Consciousness gained widespread recognition with absolutely burning versions of “Impressions” and “Along Came Betty,” and a beautiful solo guitar interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

At age 71, and having survived a near-fatal brain aneurysm and the subsequent surgical removal of most of his left temporal lobe, Martino hasn’t slowed much. In fact, his playing is still fluent and articulate, astonishing fans and neurosurgeons alike. Currently, Martino is touring with a trio comprised of Pat Bianchi, on B-3 organ, and Carmen Intorre on drums.

Reverb caught up with him between show dates to talk collaborations, musical influences and, of course, his favorite gear.

If you want to learn more about Martino's unique guitar theory, be sure to check out his video lesson on Reverb Sync.

What are some memorable live performances that come to mind?

It’s difficult to recall the memories of the past after the neurosurgery in 1979 removing 70% of my left temporal lobe. Of course there are fragments, but since then I’ve only had the ability to momentarily recall the closest event to the present moment, for a brief period, then it fades and what’s left is my concentration upon the only reality that’s real: now.

You’ve been playing with organist Pat Bianchi for the last several years. How did that come about?

Pat Bianchi was introduced to me by Joey DeFrancesco, who at that time was performing with me at Birdland in NYC. It just so happened to be Pat’s birthday that evening. At a later date, when seeking new personnel for upcoming engagements, Pat Bianchi joined with me, along with Carmen Intorre to make up my current organ trio.

What do you like about the organ trio format? Any drawbacks?

The organ trio format is, and always was, a unique experience. There’s something about it that makes it a different instrument in itself. Unlike a normal rhythm section with keyboard, bass and drums, the use of organ unifies two separate functions into one identity, and there’s a strength in that that’s unlike any other instrumentation. As far as drawbacks, there are none, as long as that particular format isn’t compared to another.

Tell us about your collaboration with Bob Benedetto and the Pat Martino Signature Model.

Gibson Pat Martino Custom

Gibson Pat Martino Custom

My interaction with Bob Benedetto came about after a number of years with Gibson. Gibson was already producing a PM model. There’s the need to reduce cost as efficiently as possible for compatibility with a larger marketing system, placing a hamper on one’s range of features. There’s quite a difference when compared to a custom instrument that’s the result of an interaction of only two artists: the maker and the player. There’s something very special about a personal relationship when compared to a corporate one.

I saw you on tour several years ago, and you were playing a Benedetto Benny. How does the Pat Martino Signature Model differ in tone and structure?

At that time, the Benedetto model that I was using was an alternative until the PM [Pat Martino Signature] model was completed. As to any difference, there are alterations in the size of the fingerboard as well as a number of other changes. Regarding tone, I think that’s something that can be controlled by artists themselves through the application of changes in touch as well as amplification.

I understand some of your first guitars were Gibson Les Pauls. Please tell us about those and why you choose them.

At the age of 12, the first guitar my father got for me was a standard Les Paul, gold in color, to be precise. Then, as my facility progressed, he provided me with better models, like birthday gifts, the black Les Paul Custom or that same model with three pickups.

Have you considered or played large archtops, like the Gibson Super 400 or the more scaled down L5 or Johnny Smith models?

Martino and the Gibson L-5S on Guitar Player Magazine June 1977

Martino and the Gibson L-5S on
Guitar Player Magazine, June 1977

Not until approximately 1966. While on tour with Jack McDuff, after our final performance at a major jazz club in Philadelphia called The Showboat. All of the instruments in Jack’s van were stolen, along with the van itself. Our next engagement was in Chicago, where Jack got me a cheap guitar in a pawnshop to use for the first night of the engagement. The following morning we went and got my first archtop, which was a Gibson ES-175.

Since my original Les Paul Custom was my closest friend, I didn’t even try to find another to replace my memory of it. In time it went on to become a Johnny Smith model, and then an L-5, until 1976, while I was touring with my fusion group Joyous Lake. Gibson contacted me to see if I’d be interested in endorsing a new model that they were getting ready to release called an L-5S, which finally brought me back to something similar to the original type of instrument that I started with. In fact, there’s a photo of that endorsement on the cover of a Guitar Player magazine released at that time.

For a brief period you were playing a Gibson ES 335-12. That’s an interesting choice; please elaborate.

Around that time, my wife bought me a cheap $90.00 12-string guitar as a birthday gift. In fact, in my response, I used it on the recording of an album of mine called Desperado. Following the release of that session, I got a Gibson ES-335 12-string to replace it with; something a little more serious.

Do you still own your custom Koontz guitar?

I no longer have the beautiful instrument that Sam Koontz built for me. After Sam passed away, I chose to move on to new interactions.

What kind of amplification do you prefer?

I’ve used various amplifications. I used Gibson, Fender, Ampeg, etc. One of the first unique ones was a stereo reverb amplifier released by Gibson. It was a 2 x 12 spring reverb amplifier that caused me to include reverb in my overall sound from then on, to this very day. Although I’ve used various systems of amplification since then, including Polytone, Lexicon and Roland, for the last 15 years or more I’ve been using and endorsing systems that have been provided by Acoustic Image.

Pat Martino in Barcelona

Pat Martino in Barcelona (Photo by Alterna2)

Getting back to music, who are some of your biggest musical influences?

Wow, that’s hard to begin to answer because there have been so many. It seems that at first, being addicted to the guitar alone, my strongest influences in sequential order were Les Paul, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Howard Roberts and Hank Garland. Within the ongoing evolution of my interests, I began to become influenced by arrangers such as Gil Evans, Gerald Wilson, Don Ellis, Charles Mingus, etc. Then came my shift into classical composers, like Ravel, Debussy, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, etc., as well as virtuosos like Ravi Shankar, Anouar Brahem, Hariprasad Chaurasia and others like them found in world music. I’m also stimulated by today’s currently recorded guitarists, players like Ralph Towner, Nelson Veras, Ian Ethan Case and many others. It’s never ending!

You’ve made so many great albums, any favorites?

It’s difficult for me to specifically respond to that question. When it comes to certain elements, such as personnel, the events surrounding the project, including touring that was coupled with the recorded project, I’d have to say Joyous Lake and Stone Blue, as well as We’ll Be Together Again.

Is the audience for jazz expanding or diminishing?

As far as comparing the past with the present or the future, again, it’s more realistic to consider the current moment instead of what was and what we’d like it to be. Jazz is worldwide and unlike what took place in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s in this country, its current manifestation is more abundant in Europe, the Netherlands and Asia than it is here in the United States. I’m sure that as it continues to evolve it will take on a different global appearance when the time comes.

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