14-string(!) Technical Prog Metal: Felix Martin
If ever you happened to be at a Felix Martin gig, you’d know something was… different. Even if when you first walked in you didn’t immediately notice Felix was playing a 14-string instrument, one couldn’t help notice the complexity of the music, as well as the level of technique displayed. Not just by Felix but his whole band. Most apparent, however, is when you notice the fact that Felix is deftly switching between clean and distorted strummed and finger-picked passages, and pulling off stunningly complex eight-fingered tapping workouts with equal aplomb. He shows an incredible level of skill, musicality, dexterity and dedication. Martin never misses a beat, and makes his dizzying skill level seem effortless. Check it out:
See? I wasn’t kidding! Felix was born in Venezuela and moved to the US after high school to study at Berklee via a performance scholarship, where he studied theory, composition, sound engineering and production. He has also composed music for video games in addition to self-producing his album. I recently had a chance to chat with Felix about his music, his approach to the instrument, his gear and how Seymour Duncan pickups help shape his tone.
Anyone who listens to your music can’t help but instantly notice the technical level of it and your playing, and it’s quite impressive. Tell us a little bit about your musical background and growing up in Venezuela. Did you start on a traditional 6-string guitar, and how long before the 14-string concept developed? Did you have any piano training or anything that aided your two-handed approach?
Thank you! About 70% of my tapping techniques where developed while adapting Venezuelan music to my instrument, specially the percussive sounding tapping, chord-melody, arpeggios, etc. I played bass and regular guitar for about 6 years, them I got the 14-string guitar. I used to play a lot of two-handed tapping on a regular guitar and two guitars at the same time, including classical counterpoint like Bach, etc. For some reason, I’m really bad at playing piano; the concept of my technique is similar, but the actual performance is completely different, that might be because I’m left-handed.
Are you playing strictly with your left hand fingers at all times when strumming as opposed to tapping, or do you ever alternate w/using a pick for palm-muting and your interspersed single-note lead lines?
I haven’t touch a pick in 5 months actually! This is my own personal record. I have been strumming and playing power chords with my nails, hitting the strings with my “picking” hand or using my fingers like a bass. It’s really weird but it seems to be working. More on that soon, still developing the idea of not using picking when playing standard guitar.
Your music seems to draw from a wide range of genres, from progressive metal, jazz, fusion, world music and beyond. Who are your original and current influences?
I have a extremely wide musical influences. Just to give you an example. Today I transcribed Derek Roddy’s blast beats (Straight Death metal drumming) for about 5 hours and I listened to Maria Carey’s Christmas album all for about 4 hours while doing other stuff in the studio, then to Ziggy Marley when I was in the car. I really appreciate and transcribe all styles. They influence my playing and compositional skills. What inspires me? My home country Venezuela, my family, people I meet around the world (the good ones) and my passion for innovation.
Tell us a little bit about going to Berklee and getting your degree. Besides the obvious tremendous educational benefit, in what various other ways has it helped your musical career?
It helped tremendously. When I started Berklee, I basically wrote down my own plan in order to achieve everything I wanted to be after I graduated. Between many other projects, I wrote and produced 3 albums, studied music production as well as music theory. I didn’t study guitar at all, but I had to audition a lot for several classes, that gave me a lot of experience playing in front of “smart” people. Also, meeting great musicians, basically all the guys that played on my albums and live performances were Berklee students.
Please give us a full breakdown of your guitar’s set up, pickups and electronics; it’s rather fascinating. At first glimpse I thought it was some variation of a Chapman Stick, but it’s not. Who makes it?
My guitar’s setup is actually simple, it just looks really crazy. The magic of all of this are the techniques you use when you have two EXACT sounding fretboards in one wide neck. Simple as that.
-14-string guitar: two 7-string guitars in one wide neck
-Standard tuning (BEADGBE BEADGBE)
-Knobs are tone, volume and piezo
-Velcro string mute.
-Bob Mason from Florida made it for me. He’s very nice. The neck through part of the neck is quarter sawn Honduras mahogany bought many years ago, with a quarter inch strip of birds eye maple glued to the mahogany under the fingerboards. The fingerboards are quarter sawn east Indies rosewood. The back of the body is cedar, the top of the body is figured maple. The headstock has a strip of .030 inch strip of dyed black wood then a thin strip of flame veneer on top. The guitar is painted with satin pre catalyzed lacquer.
You mentioned it’s stereo, and you have different amp/effect chains for each neck? Tell us about your amp rig, and are you running two chains on a single pedal board, or do you have full boards for each neck and amp?
Yes, in fact, I used to have two pedal boards, one for each neck, but I haven’t done this in a quite long time. I’m re-taking this concept using the (Fractal Audio Systems) Axe-FX II, where I can have different effects for each fretboard in the same machine. Right now during my last tour in the US, I only used an Egnater amp, that’s it. The model is called Armageddon. Really beautiful sounding amp, for every style. It really depends on what I want to do when I’m performing live. Sometimes I use like 15 pedals, sometimes just the Axe FX II, or sometimes just an amplifier. I’m a simple guy when it comes to gear actually.
I noticed you were using a string damper on the top 7-string neck, and in some of the videos it seems you’re altering its position and the strings it is used for on the fly mid-song. Can you give us a little insight into what you’re using, and how, where and when it is applied?
It looks really simple, but it took me about 5 years to choose that damper after trying so many kinds of materials (pony tails, newspaper, towels, etc, etc) I have been trying that since many years before I got the 14-string guitar. It is actually a simple velcro, you can get it at Home Depot. It’s just magic, believe me, this is better than anything you can try out there. The reason why I often move it around because I like to use open strings in certain parts during a song. Can this be more beautiful?
Open strings rule! You use same model Seymour Duncan pickups for both of your guitar’s necks, what do you like about them? What do they contribute to your tone?
I use two SH-2 Jazz 7-String Pickup (Neck) and two SH5 Duncan Custom 7-String Pickup (Bridge). I used them both (middle position) like 90% when I’m playing tapping. I really like that combination of the rock sounding SH-5 pickup with the Jazzy SH-2 one on the neck. It gives me LOTS of attack with bottom, that’s one of the biggest things I need when playing tapping. For the very distorted parts played as a “standard guitar” I often use the bridge position only. For my next guitar, I wanna try the Blackouts, which are active, let’s see how they work on my situation!
That will be interesting to hear. So tell us about your band, its members, where you’re playing, where your music is available, etc.
I have played my music with several musicians around around the world, depending on my location. The principals I had the pleasure to play so far were Mario Rodriguez and Jorge Rojas (Venezuela) JP Bouvet and Kilian Duarte (US) and Joao Colaco and Tiago Gomes (Europe.) I’m working with some killer guys from L.A., more on that soon. I’m currently scheduling shows in CA. My music is available all over the internet.
What projects are you currently working on?
I just finished my book for the 14-string guitar and tapping techniques. I’m writing it mostly to organize my ideas, techniques and do tapping clinics next year. I’m also working on two really crazy projects, I will tell you more about those next year!
What can we expect from Felix Martin in the future?
Innovation and creativity!