When I catch up with Eagle Rock–based instrumental rock guitarist Felix Martin, he is three days away from flying to the East Coast for a two-week tour.
“I travel light. I don’t pack at all. I just grab my guitar and go,” Martin says.
Martin's brand of guitar playing mixes classic instrumental prog-rock of the sort practiced by guitar gods like Joe Satriani with modern heavy metal touches akin to current greats Animals as Leaders and traditional Latin music influences inspired by his upbringing in Venezuela. Still, packing light does mean something a bit more intricate for Martin than it does for most guitarists, as all of his musical output is generated through his use of custom-built 14- and 16-string guitars.
“You don’t see my guitars in music stores,” Martin says. “I need to have special cases built. I’m only bringing one for this tour, though, so it won’t be that bad. “
The stereotypical image of guitarists slinging Frankensteinian guitar creations is that of over-indulgent rock & roll excess. Martin’s guitars, however, grew out of a practical need to deliver the self-taught tapping style he developed upon first picking up the instrument in the mid-2000s as a teenager in Venezuela, emulating his rock guitar heroes such as Steve Vai and Metallica.
For those not familiar, tapping as a guitar style involves only playing notes through the neck of the guitar, rather than using the instrument's body.
“I grew up in a small town in Venezuela,” Martin says. “I didn’t have guitar teachers. I started tapping because I was really bad at playing finger-style classical guitar. It was easier for me to play by tapping with my two hands like a piano. That was really natural for me.”
Once Martin developed his approach to playing guitar, he began experimenting with playing two separate guitar necks at the same time to explore new ways to compose his music. “The way I see it,” Martin explains, “if you play two chords at the same time, you get a new chord for guitar.”
After moving to the United States in 2008 to attend Boston's Berklee College of Music, Martin began designing his own guitars and researching companies that would build 14- and 16-string custom instruments to his specs. This presented an additional challenge to manufacturers since Martin is left-handed. Martin currently commissions his guitars from multiple manufacturers throughout North America.
“I spent a lot of years playing two guitars at the same time,” Martin says, “but it got very difficult over the years to get each guitar to sound exactly the same. I wanted to have two guitars with the same sound in one neck. My main guitar is a headless 16-string guitar that is basically two eight-string guitars put together. It’s a similar concept to a Chapman Stick, but everything is guitar-based; plus it’s much easier to play than two separate ones at the same time.”
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Martin put the time and effort spent on his custom guitars to good use by prominently and proudly displaying his very clean, distortion-free yet intricate tapping guitar sound on his new solo record, Mechanical Nations, released in February. The album’s 15 tracks are a whirlwind tour through everything that has influenced his guitar sound so far, with a stronger emphasis on South American sounds than his previous work.
Since finishing his program at Berklee in 2012, Martin has bounced around the world, returning to his homeland briefly and then networking with musicians in Scandinavia before returning to the United States and settling in Eagle Rock in 2014. Though he enjoys touring and playing wherever he can, he regrets that the current political climate in his native Venezuela is not conducive to doing a homecoming tour.
“I go back to visit my family, but I haven’t played there yet," Martin says. “It’s a harsh situation. The economy is very bad. There are no international musicians coming to Venezuela. Every band that tours South America skips Venezuela. I’m hoping everything will get better in the next few years, but not right now.”
To hear more of Felix Martin's music, visit felixmartin.net.