Martin Barre: Running Free - Jethro Tull's Guitarist Rocks on the Run

Jethro Tull, now in its fifth decade of performing, continues to thrill audiences with an extensive set that includes the timeless classics “Bouree” and “Aqualung." After more than 40 years with Jethro Tull, you might expect the band’s lead guitarist to be a little less than excited about the downside of touring, going here, there and everywhere.

Not necessarily so, it turns out. Not if you’re a runner, like Martin Lancelot Barre.

The Runner

 “A run before the show can be the best part of my day,” insists Barre.

He’s a veteran of three marathons, including a 3:47 personal best at the London Marathon. But he hastens to add that he’s not a competitive runner. Barre runs for enjoyment; finish times in marathons are the least of his concerns.

“I like to run about 5 to 6 miles per day,” says the runner. While he’ll admit that if he really pushes the pace, he can run a sub-seven minute miles, speed isn’t important to him. It’s just that if he doesn’t run on a given day, especially before a concert, he notes, “I just don’t feel like myself.”

Fellow runners know exactly how he feels. Except they don’t get to go on stage and play “Locomotive Breath” as an encore after a successful day at the office. 

The Rocker

Which brings us to Martin’s day, or rather, evening job. He’s been the rock of Jethro Tull since joining the band in 1968, to play on the band’s second album, “Stand Up.”

“Stand Up” features Ian Anderson’s adventurous rearrangement of J. S. Bach’s “Bouree.” The song is instantly recognizable, carried along by Anderson’s unique lead flute playing, backed by the foundation of Glenn Cornick on bass, Clive Bunker on drums, and Martin Lancelot Barre, the runner of the group, on guitar. But there’s more: listen to the first few measures and you’ll hear an accompanying flute – that’s Martin playing, a sort of second flute to Ian’s.

In 1970, Tull recorded the classic album “Aqualung,” highlighted by the fury of Martin’s solo, played on a Les Paul Junior guitar, that was recently named on of the top solos of all time by Guitar Player magazine.

In the four decades that have followed, Barre has been on Tull’s Stage Left, the anchor of the band, quietly but forcefully driving home the notes, arpeggios and chords that, along with Anderson’s inimitable flute playing, make Jethro Tull’s sound both unmistakable and timeless.

In concert, it can be said that Martin’s playing is perhaps best realized on the songs “Budapest,” which features several minutes of guitar artistry, “Hunting Girl,” a power chord clinic that occasionally seems to tip its hat to Mountain’sMississippi Queen,” and the rarely played “Wind Up,” in which Martin’s playing is nothing short of stunning (see/hear what I mean: get Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung Live” CD).

Stage Left

When the band takes the stage, you can always expect to see Barre buried somewhat on Stage Left, while Ian Anderson, Tull’s iconic leader, owns the spotlight and theatrics. Barre will be there, to one side, playing a setup that will likely include his custom-made PRS 513 guitar, Soldano amplifiers, various and assorted guitar effects through a Marshall 2x12 cabinet.

Barre has been known to stick with a single guitar for most performances, but he's got a large collection to choose from. His arsenal of guitars on recent tours include the Line 6 Variax sound modeling guitar (“it’s amazing, on-board effects make this one guitar sound like so many others”), black and white Fender Stratocasters and his Hamer guitar (custom-built by Paul Hamer, who once ran a guitar shop in Wilmette, IL).  He also plays the Bouzouki or mandolin when the song calls for it, and of course, the flute.

A complete showcase of Martin’s guitars, styles and sounds are found on his recent solo CD, appropriately named Stage Left.  His catalog also includes previous solo CDs A Trick of Memory, The Meeting, and the rare recording A Summer Band. Recently he took part in the production of Excalibur, a new rock opera which premiered in 2009 at Europe’s medieval festival Kaltenberger Ritturnier.

The Road

It’s natural to assume, with his musical talent and success, that playing guitar would be considered his greatest achievement. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s not exactly so.

“I am more proud of my running than anything else, really,” Martin told me, almost without hesitation.  Why, I asked. “Because when I’m having a good time, running is a reward, and when I’m having bad times, running is the medicine that keeps me going.”

As we talked further, the reason for this point of view became obvious. Sure, he can bring audiences to their feet night after night with his signature guitar solo in the song Aqualung, but Barre is relatively shy and retiring on stage. He leaves the attention to Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson.

But off-stage, Barre will -- in his own words – “become alive when I run.”

And touring with the band, he seeks that feeling in the beauty of a great running route whether it’s along Chicago’s lakefront, in New York’s Central Park, or among the machine-gun toting soldiers in Lima, Peru.

A New Day Yesterday

Consider this, said Martin, setting up the story: September 2006; El Paso, Costa Rica yesterday, Quito, Ecuador tomorrow, and on a bus today to Lima Peru.  And this is just the middle of a multi-week travelcade tour of fun. 

As the van traveled the long and winding road to Lima, he was once again – he’d been there before -- struck with the beauty of the area. Martin sensed an opportunity for a magnificent run through the picturesque terrain.

That run was exactly what he needed to clear the cobwebs of the road, exactly what he needed to approach the evening’s concert fresh, ready and raring to go. The van arrived at the hotel, a pretty nice one at that. And time to spare before the evening concert. “Perfect,” Martin said to himself. “Plenty of time for a run.”

Go ahead, admit it: that’s what you’d be thinking. That’s what you’d be wishing for, if it were you were a runner, if you were on that trip to Lima with Martin.   But it wasn’t going to be that simple.

It was September 2, 2006, and it wasn’t necessarily a great time to be a tourist in Lima.  Slightly less than three weeks since a complete government restructuring scattered any semblance of civility to the wind, to be replaced by near State of Emergency conditions.

Martin appeared in the hotel lobby, ready for a brisk run. Or so he thought. “Not so fast,” hotel security snapped, stopping him in his tracks, or, well, running shoes.


“We were ordered not to leave our hotel. It was a time of political and social unrest, they told us,” Martin explained.  “Soldiers standing watch over parts of town with guns at the ready. But I saw a clear path to a great run, just out the door.”

What would you do? You might not be as bold as Martin.  He was to have none of it. His mind was made upHe was going to run that day, no matter what. So Martin shrugged, looked both ways, and he was off, into the streets of Lima. 

Why did he ignore security?  “No matter where I am in the world, the minute I step out of the hotel lobby, I feel free,” he emphasized. “I couldn’t stay in, I just had to get out and run.”

What was it like when he got out into the menacing streets of Lima? “Even with all the machine guns around, there I was, just with shorts and a watch on the beach, leaving the turmoil and turbulence behind.”

Was it worth it? “Absolutely . . . it was actually a quite beautiful day for a run.” Did anyone point a gun at you? “Do you think they thought I was a threat? In running shorts?” He laughed at the reminiscence.

Such is life on this rocker's running road. At every stop, the potential for an exceptional, if not a little risky at times, run.

Martin notes that he makes a point of running along the banks of Lake Titicaca when in the area, even if it’s a bit more than dangerous. It’s a hair-raising bus trip to get there, he says, and the area is also often under machine-gun toting military guard, but Martin sees past that. “It’s a truly beautiful place to run. You have to try it sometime.” OK, I said. “No, really,” he insisted. “It’s amazing.”

In the US, Martin’s favorite running cities are Chicago, along the lake, and New York’s Central Park. What he appreciates in these two cities is the embrace of the community of runners, while also allowing an escape from the role of adored rock star.

Being out on the running road is what matters. For Martin, the point of running is not the destination, but it is the journey, the path, the sights, the experiences and the stories.

Running Free

In the US, Martin’s favorite running cities are Chicago, where he has taken 90-minute runs along the lake, and New York’s Central Park, especially running around the reservoir.

In these two cities, and others, he particularly appreciates what he calls a temporary state of “anonymity tantamount to being a traveling salesperson.” Because of that, “I’m truly running free.”

At the same time, in that freedom of anonymity, he welcomes the feeling an almost immediate kinship with local runners. “I feel a sort of unspoken bond with them, like we’re all part of this silent community of runners, nodding as we pass, sharing the fresh air on a beautiful afternoon run.”

Rocks on the Run

Every time Jethro Tull plays, Martin is far from anonymous, stage left, laying the foundation for Jethro Tull’s catalog of songs. But before the concert, in whatever city the band is playing that evening,  if you’re running or cycling in the area, keep an eye out for Martin. He’ll be there, a fellow runner, sharing the path, sharing the experience, sharing all the city has to offer.

Among the legions of runners heading north and south, east or west, at the shore or in the hills, in the middle of that community of athletes, you may just run into one very passionate runner, one Martin Lancelot Barre.

And if you do happen upon him running his daily 5 to 6 miles, just nod and enjoy the run of a lifetime. Martin certainly will. Because that’s how Martin rocks: on the run.