Ian Anderson’s Guitar Playing – Part 1

While your average person will probably remember Jethro Tull as primarily a Hard Rock outfit due to big hits such as Aqualung and Locomotive Breath, those more familiar with the band  know of the large variety of acoustic songs they have released on various albums throughout the years. The acoustic guitar, of course, most often played by front man Ian Anderson. Because he has kept the talented Martin Barre serving as lead guitarist in the band since he first joined over forty years ago, Ian’s guitar work is often overlooked, or passed off as mere singer-songwriter strumming (which it often times is), but there is real talent to be found in the guitar playing of Ian–a unique sound with gentle subtleties, crisp, and delicate.

Ian Anderson with his trusty guitar at the LA Forum in 1972 (obviously displaying an invisible joint to his fans)

The first Jethro Tull album, This Wasfeatured absolutely no stringed instrument playing by Ian. He was strictly vocals, flute, mouth harp. After original guitarist Mick Abrahams left, Ian started picking up stringed instruments and writing songs by himself for the first time. In fact the first song he ever wrote after the departure of Abrahams was the some what well known “A Christmas Song”, the first of what was to become many criticisms of society’s bigotry and disregard for the less fortunate. A clever tune that features some swiftly strummed chords on the mandolin, but both the instrumentation and lyrics would pale in comparison to what was to come.

It wasn’t until their third album that Ian started to get ambitious with the acoustic guitar. He even played a small jazzy solo on his acoustic guitar in the song “Alive and Well and Living In”, but the real treat is the last song on the album, “Sossity, You’re a Woman” which featured Ian and Martin weaving fairly complex guitar licks together in a style reminiscent of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn‘s early work together.

The next album was the all-famous Aqualung, on which Ian’s guitar playing really bloomed. Songs like “Cheap Day Return”, “Slipstream”, and “Mother Goose” (the links of which will be provided at the end of this post) all showcased fairly creative, carefully crafted, and somewhat complex accents and runs on the guitar. It showed that Ian was starting to take his guitar playing seriously, giving him an independence musically from his talented bandmates.

Ian Anderson at the LA Forum 1973

The next two studio albums, Thick as a Brick and Passion Play featured bits of entertaining and sometimes haunting acoustic bits in between “Progressive” rock sections of music played by the band. Various singles, b-sides, and unreleased material was featured on the compilation album “Living in the Past”(a wonderful collection of songs by the way–essential to any Tull album collection) which made available many acoustic songs such as “Life’s a Long Song” and “Nursie” (links below) which, again, was reminiscent of British folk guitarists such as John Renbourn. The difference being most British folk guitarists were finger-pickers, while Ian was a flat-picker–and a good one at that.

Over the next decade Ian’s guitar playing was showcased quite a bit, especially on the albums Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock and Roll, but was never featured as lead guitar, only as a support to the melodies and vocals of the songs themselves. Even so, there are some very impressive acoustic playing on songs like Baker Street Muse (from Minstrel) and Salamander (from Too Old) which is a masterful texturing of swift and whimsical licks. The so called “Folk Trilogy” of the late seventies did have a few daring guitar guitar parts such the ones in “Dun Ringill” and “Velvet Green” but the albums were mostly a feat of songwriting and composition (and overall imagination) on Ian’s part.

This marks the end of Part 1. To be continued…

Acoustic Tull YouTube Links:


2 responses to “Ian Anderson’s Guitar Playing – Part 1

  1. I am so happy I found you.
    I spent my childhood with a mother who had an 8 track player and a huge wooden stereo cabinet. She played Aqualung none stop, and it seeped into me; at the ripe age of twenty, on my own, I began collecting more Tull, widening my Jethro-like horizon. I saw them twice in my life, both times in Philly, and remember it as a holy experience.

    Thank you for the blog!

    • Thank you so much! There really is something special about Tull. Sort of like you, my dad used to play the Songs From the Wood album when I was a kid, I never learned their name until I was older, and when I found the album, I was really amazed.

      There are some great Tull sites under the links on the menu if you want to check it out. Otherwise I will continue to update this blog with cool Tull stuff.

      Again, thanks so much for the comment, it means a lot.

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