John Mayer & Martin Guitar: Chats With Chris Martin & Fred Greene, Plus Chatting With Alyssa Graham (Video Exclusives)

Here Fred Greene goes into Martin's new John Mayer Signature Guitar and explains what it is that separates it from all others.
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VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: John Mayer & Martin Guitar

Chatting with Martin Guitar's Fred Greene, Vice President Manufacturing and GM Custom Shop

MR: Can you go into your new John Mayer Signature Guitar? What is it about this guitar that separates it from all others?

FG: There were many "firsts" involved in the construction of the John Mayer 00-45SC Limited Edition. We used Cocobolo wood, which we have not done before for the 00-body size. We also utilized various pre-war construction techniques including using hide glue, another first to be implemented with a signature model in this body size. Another unique feature for this model is extending the fingerboard, which carried the rosette motif into 45-style blue Paua trim. John had suggested we continue the rosette pearl over the fingerboard, which was quite a challenge. The 00 model is a favorite amongst musicians such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Merle Haggard. John's concept with his new guitar model was to highlight the "cowboy" era, when the stagecoach was king and parlor guitar performances were the norm. John was interested in channeling a more simpler style of playing, with romantic, bell-like tones, which is what the 00-body style embodies.

MR: Are you a fan of John's music, and if so, what is your favorite song by him?

FG: Of course! "No Such Thing" from John's debut release Room For Squares will always be a classic. It was so fresh...a new talent taking the music scene by storm. And it goes without saying, seeing a real musician playing guitar instead of performing to a track always works for me.

MR: Which model guitar do you play?

FG: I mostly play a Martin D-18 Authentic and Martin 00-28VS. They are classics.

MR: What are some of your other models, not necessarily from the signature series, that you're especially proud of?

FG: The Custom Shop CS21-11 was a limited edition model for 2011. We did things to that model that were never done before like selecting wood based upon its weight and we also used a lot of historical construction techniques that resulted in a blend of modern aesthetic and traditional Martin construction. It became a cult hit for high-end collectors.

MR: What's coming down the pike for Martin that you can share?

FG: We will be introducing some new and exotic woods this year. Also we are working with several renowned music artists on Custom Signature models. Top Secret stuff. This message will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3, 2...

MG: What is the process in securing a Signature Artist model?

FG: There are a lot of factors involved. We may decide to honor an important artist that has historically played Martin guitars, like the recent The Mamas and The Papas Signature Artist model. Then we also like to feature music artists that have significance influence in today's music scene, as we did with the John Mayer 00-45SC Limited Edition model.

MG: Tell us more about the Martin Guitar Custom Shop

FG: Being a musician is a creative process to begin with. Changing something that exists feels less corporate. Buying a guitar straight off the shelf may not appeal to every artist/musician. The relationship between artists and instrument can be very personal. We recognize there is a large percentage of musicians who feel and need a more personal connection. Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers uses our Custom Shop guitars. He simply prefers that individual and personal connection you get from working with our Custom Shop team on a guitar that embodies pure creativity. The Custom Shop allows us to work on an intimate level with the musician to create something that is one of a kind, just like the song or music he/she wrote/created. That experience is priceless.

Chatting with Chris Martin, Chairman & CEO of Martin Guitar

MR: Hi Chris, how is Martin Guitar doing these days?

CM: We are doing fine. Last year we generated over $100 million in sales. Our guitar, strings and gear divisions all grew by 15%. 40% of our sales are exported out of the US. There seems to be a continuing interest in the acoustic guitar and our brand and reputation give us a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace.

MR: Chris, what is your day like at Martin?

CM: Today, I had a bank board meeting. I'm on the board of a local bank. Both my grandfather and his father were also on the bank's board. Tomorrow will be back at work meeting with senior managers to review our results at the NAMM show last week. We are just wrapping up our strategic plan for 2012 so I need to review the goals and budgets. One of my favorite jobs is to give a museum or factory tour. Often, I am recognized when I walk through the lobby and I am always honored when a visitor asks if they may have their picture taken with me!

MR: The NAMM show just happened. Were you excited about the show?

CM: Our results at the NAMM show were outstanding. It takes quite a while to construct a Martin Guitar and we work hard to help our dealers plan their orders for the rest of the year. Based on our preliminary results, we are going to be very busy this year.

MR: What's coming down the pike for Martin that you can share?

CM: One of our biggest challenges is going to be ensuring an ongoing supply of the traditional woods we use. Given the increased regulatory oversight, we are having to plan purchases further out. I am a firm believer in verifying the legality of the exotic timbers we use, but it does add extra paperwork and cost to comply with all the new regulations. We actually have another show in Frankfurt in March and then one in Nashville this summer. Stay tuned for news about those shows closer to then.

VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Alyssa Graham - "Til My Heart Quakes"


A Conversation with Alyssa Graham

Mike Ragogna: Alyssa, you were one of iTunes' "New & Noteworthy" singer-songwriters. What do you think it is about your music that iTunes picked up on?

Alyssa Graham: iTunes is such an amazing platform for independent artists like myself. I believe they truly love music over there and support artists of any level. They seem to give as much attention to the indie artist as they do to the major superstars, without discrimination. Obviously, I was thrilled to be chosen by such an industry giant as one of their new and noteworthy, but it is especially important to me that I was recognized for this record. I think, I hope, iTunes heard in this record my soul, honesty, intimacy and all the imperfections that make me unique. There's no light show, no pyrotechnics, no dancing girls and no bulls**t. We went into the studio and made music in the moment, live and raw. I guess that's rare these days. Maybe it doesn't sell millions of albums, but it's nice to know musicians can and do still make records that way.

MR: Your new album Lock, Stock & Soul is the full version of the EP you recently released, which was reviewed positively by many hipster trade magazines. How would Alyssa Graham review her own album?

AG: Wow, that's hard. First off, I'm very happy to hear that the "hipster" magazines are digging the album. I can see how the record could secure a place on the hipster radar--it's different and a little quirky and yet totally organic. At the same time, I think the album has a lot to offer music lovers from all walks of life. There is a great deal of depth and emotion that people can relate to if they take the time to listen. I would maybe review the album by saying, "LS&S is destined to be a sleeper hit." It's not a record someone is going to put on and instantly start tapping their foot to or singing aloud. However, after listening to the lyrics and allowing yourself to really feel the music, you're going to have some kind of reaction to the wide-open raw sentiment this album offers up. So, start telling your friends about it now, sleeper hits take a while to grow.

MR: In your single "'Til My Heart Quakes," I think you're saying you'll be fine until the challenge passes. Can that be hard for you sometimes?

AG: I think we often put on a brave face and take whatever comes our way. Sometimes, we have no choice and we face challenges head on and sometimes we just fall apart. I think "'Til My Heart Quakes" is about accepting the contradiction, allowing love to live and flourish in a space where it inevitably isn't going to last. We tend to think in black and white a lot but the area in between is actually where most of us spend our time, especially artists. So for me, "'Til My Heart Quakes" is about squeezing out every ounce of love and passion from a moment and living with the consequences knowing the moment was worth it. To answer your question, yes, it's always hard to close your eyes and withstand the challenge, to deal with love lost and disappointment, but I'm still gonna go for it every time.

MR: Did you script the video?

AG: We had a concept for the video. We wanted to invoke the vibe and the spirit of the sixties music scene in France--Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Francoise Hardy. It was such a beautiful and romantic time and visually, we felt it would capture the intimacy and the sensibility of "'Til My Heart Quakes." We also knew we wanted to do something in black & white because we are fans of film noir and old classic films. Our wonderful director, Greg Gold, loved the idea. It reminded him of the 1962 French film Jules and Jim. He did an amazing job developing a treatment that captured the essence of the French sixties while adapting it to a modern time and making it applicable to my life and love affair with guitarist/songwriter Doug Graham. We spent two days shooting in LA in and around Bronson Canyon with an incredible crew. Cinematically, the video is stunning and watching it is already, strangely, a very nostalgic experience. I think black & white can do that to you.

MR: "Exploded View" is an interesting take on relationships as well, and to me, it might have some of the smartest lyrics on the album.

AG: Well, thank you. Our dear friend and co-writer on this track, Bryan McCann, deserves most of the credit on this one. He sent me these vivid and amazingly clever lyrics. The more I read them the more depth and realism I found in them. This wasn't just a silly little metaphor. Actually, in it's simplicity, there was great insight into the human condition. I kept humming a melody to the words he sent me and when I sat down at the piano, the music just wrote itself. I naturally gravitated towards a sound that was a little quirky but still simple enough to let the lyrics stay the main focus. People seem to really understand what we are saying with this song. I was worried it would be written off as just a catchy pop song, but we get so many comments on the unexpected depth that people discover in this song. I think it's a new and interesting way for people to examine a broken heart, something most of us have experienced.

MR: On "He's A Lover," your performance carries the bulk of the communication, you don't rely heavily on production. Was your minimal approach to these recordings the result of specific arrangements or were they thinned out from bigger initial productions?

AG: "He's A Lover" didn't need anything else. It was a very personal song I wrote about Doug and the incredible way he loves me. It was the last song written for the album, and it was somewhat of a tribute to his wisdom and patience. I suppose it was my way of thanking him. We did two takes of that song live in the studio and it was done. It's not perfect, but it perfectly expresses what I wanted to say. As for the rest of the recording... I think many people actually ruin great songs by continuing to add rather than take away. I have recorded tracks on previous projects and spent numerous days layering on overdubs and extra parts. Lock, Stock & Soul was completely the opposite. We recorded with the full band--bass, drums or hand drums, two guitars, piano/keys and vocals--in a large circle. We had no isolation to protect from bleed. The drummer was sitting right next to me and his drums could be picked up in my mic. It was that close and intimate. We would record a few takes of each track, and then we picked the one that felt most authentic, relaxed and "in the pocket." We rarely altered the make up of an original take, either adding or subtracting. Craig was brilliant in choosing the right musicians for this music. He chose players based on their creative sensitivity and their ability to serve the music. There was no real need to add or subtract. When the song needed less, we played less and when the song needed more, we played more. Those choices were made in the moment and were set by the tone, mood and vibe of the song itself.

MR: Actually, every song on Lock, Stock & Soul is pretty intimate. Do you ever have second thoughts about presenting yourself so exposed, so confessional, maybe in live performances or as you're listening to your final mixes?

AG: Yes, of course! Putting yourself out there, and in my case, somewhat naked, is always frightening. As artists, we are sensitive and overcritical of ourselves. But at the end of the day, if you aren't offering the listener something real and personal, you aren't offering much. It was quite difficult for me to accept the imperfections on this recording. I am always listening for pitch and phrasing and striving for perfection, whatever that means. On Lock, Stock & Soul, Craig was really a big influence on me. He wanted me to accept my imperfections and embrace them, that's why he recorded the way he did. The first time I listened to the tracks, it was hard for me to look past the small imperfections I would hear when my voice would crack a little or my pitch would waver slightly. I felt too exposed. But, this is real life. We aren't perfect and at the end of the day, those imperfections are what make us all unique and beautiful. So, yes, it's hard to bare your soul to people in such, as you say, a confessional way. However, I believe if people are going to judge me as an artist or as a human being for that matter, at least they will have the real me to judge and not some creation from the industry.

MR: In "The Last Leaf," you sing, "If I could bend just like a branch, maybe I could find you." Might you see that as the secret to healthy relationships?

AG: What a nice question. Of course, I believe compromise, "bending" and growing is a key ingredient in a good relationship. As for the "secret" to a healthy relationship... I don't think anybody knows the answer to that or we would all be The Cleavers. Thank God we're not! I can only speak for my own relationship, which is somewhat like a damn fairy tale. Doug and I grew up together, childhood sweethearts you could say. We spend 24 hours a day together, we write and create music together, we perform together, we take lots of long walks together, we have a dog named Eloise and we are absolutely best friends. Yes, there is a lot of compromise, but mostly a lot of passion and good communication. I think every relationship is different, but for us, what works is respecting each other, supporting each other's dreams and having lots of fun! I always joke with people and say, "I probably would get a lot more media attention if I was a recovering heroin addict with a bad attitude in a violent torrid relationship." Fortunately for me, I share my life with a hopelessly romantic, creative and kind man... and I've never been addicted to heroin. Boring huh?

MR: No, of course not. (laughs) Alyssa, what's your favorite song on Lock, Stock & Soul and why?

AG: Too hard. I can tell you what song affects me the most, probably "I'll Stay With You." (It's) certainly not the single or the pop hit, but it's a song Doug wrote for me at a time when I really needed a love song. The song is like a dream and even though I sing it, I can hear Doug's voice and feel his vulnerability. It makes me feel calm and safe, like everything is going to be ok.

MR: Would the "Soul" of Lock, Stock & Soul mean the human soul?

AG: Absolutely. However, I love that people wonder if I made a "soul" record. Our dear friend and Austin Music Hall of Fame member, Davíd Garza, wrote this track for us and we loved it so much we named the record after it. It captures the true vibe and energy of the project. Here I am standing before you--no walls, no ga, no expectations and no boundaries. Here I am lock, stock & soul.

MR: What was it like working with producer Craig Street?

AG: How much time you got? Craig is a creative force. He has incredible instincts and a beautifully unique sensibility. His memory is unforgiving, his wit is sharp and his heart is big. Working with him on Lock, Stock & Soul was a surprising experience. I've worked with producers in the past, and you tend to expect the same things from a producer. All I expected from Craig was the unexpected. His methods were unpredictable but extremely effective. He takes the time--in our case, a luxurious three month pre-production--to find out what makes you special, what challenges you and gets you out of your comfort zone, and he draws you out from a place you never knew you were. That's his genius. With me, Craig knew that I held on to everything too preciously, it was hard for me to let go and be in the moment. So, when we recorded, he tricked me and told me we were just recording scratch vocals and I shouldn't worry about pitch or phrasing, that I should just relax and sing, as I was simply a guide for the band. Of course, at the end of the four-day session, he told me we were done, the vocals were done. I fought with him, but when I listened back to the tracks, I heard something I had never heard before in my voice... I heard my soul, raw and naked. It wasn't perfect but it was real. So, I can say the same about Craig Street, he's not perfect but he's real and that's what this project needed.

MR: Who plays with you on this album?

AG: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to praise the amazing musicians/friends who played on this record. Doug Graham on guitar, Meshell Ndegeocello on bass, Chris Bruce on guitar, Keefus Ciancia on keys, Michael Jerome on drums and Davíd Garza on backing vocals. We also had a few guests including Jesse Harris on guitar/vocals, David Piltch on acoustic bass and Steven Elliot on lap steel...such incredibly talented and generous players. This record wouldn't be what it is without each of their unique contributions. Also, in addition to the songs that Doug and I wrote, we had amazing contributions from David Garza, Bryan McCann and Jesse Harris.

MR: Who influenced you musically?

AG: Countless artists have influenced me musically--Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Francoise Hardy, Billie Holiday, The Beatles, Joao Gilberto, Carole King, The Kinks, Chet Baker, to name a few. However, my greatest influence musically is Neil Young. Songs like "On The Beach," "Motion Pictures," "Pardon My Heart," "Love In Mind..." they are part of my soul. It's hard to explain. I have a visceral reaction when I hear Neil's voice. No matter what I'm feeling, I can listen to Neil croon and know that I'm not alone. One of my "what to grab in a house fire" items is my 1974 bootleg of Neil at The Bottom Line. The recording includes "Citizen Kane Junior Blues," "Ambulance Blues," "Long May You Run," etc., but the filler track is a rare and beautiful recording called "The Ballad Of Peggy Grover." This song sort of changed my life. I continue to be influenced and challenged by many great musicians both past and present but I would never be the artist I am today without Neil Young.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

AG: If you can choose any other career path you should. I say that half in jest and half in all seriousness. It's not easy. You have to really want to dedicate yourself; I mean everything you've got emotionally, intellectually and physically to your chosen art form. You can't be afraid of being vulnerable or of exposing your inner most secrets to an audience of listeners that may or may not give a s**t. If you are ready and willing to do this and to commit to your art, then my advice is to always be true to yourself. Don't try to be what you weren't meant to be. Write, create and explore without apologies and without expectations. Don't create for others. Hopefully, when you have something to share with the world, people will have some kind of emotional response to it, but you can't worry about that until you put it out there. In other words, keep the creative process pure and untainted, worry about the industry and the listeners only after you're done.

MR: What do you think is your biggest growth as an artist since your 2005 album What Love Is?

AG: Embracing my imperfections. I think I mentioned this before in one of your previous questions. As artists, we are continuously growing, changing and adapting but until Lock, Stock & Soul, I was unable to also be accepting and appreciative of the things that make me different. I would spend hours obsessing about pitch, phrasing and melody choices. While these are important aspects of a recording, they are insignificant compared to the importance of authenticity and raw emotion. I'm not just a musician; obviously, I'm also a listener and music lover. However, I forgot for a long time what makes me fall in love with a piece of music, whether it's Neil Young or Miles Davis, it's not perfection but rather the ability to connect to the song and to believe the artist feels what they are sharing with you. I am constantly trying to improve my songwriting and my musicianship, I'm constantly challenging myself and looking to explore unfamiliar territory. However, what I learned during the experience of Lock, Stock & Soul is that it's most important to let go and allow yourself to be imperfect. Those imperfections are what make us all so beautiful.

MR: What's your immediate future look like?

AG: I like to be surprised so I try not to think too far into the future. For now, I'm focusing on the release, the upcoming national dates, the dates coming up in Japan and I'm continuing to write as much as I can. I hope the future includes The Giants winning the Super Bowl, Obama winning the White House, new fans and true music lovers really digging Lock, Stock & Soul. In the immediate future... Doug and I are going to take our dog Eloise to Central Park for an afternoon of "hide the ball in the snow."

MR: (laughs)Thanks so much for your time, Alyssa. All the best with the new album.

AG: Thank you Mike. Keep spreading the music; "Live Music is Better" bumper stickers should be issued. NY

1. 'Til My Heart Quakes
2. I Know
3. Exploded View
4. High Time
5. He's a Lover
6. Round & Round
7. The Last Leaf
8. Ain't My Kind of Boy
9. I'll Stay With You
10. You're the One
11. Lock, Stock & Soul
12. Tidal Wave

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