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volume 3
november 2000

Ian Anderson's acoustic guitar in the early recordings of Jethro Tull

Index of the journal Tracking  

  by Roger L. Anderson Spring, 1988
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

Ian Anderson's flute is widely regarded as the element that made Jethro Tull unique as a rock band. More instruments, however, contributed to the group's specific sound. One of those was Anderson's acoustic guitar, which — unlike his flute — gradually rose to a position of importance. The instrument was markedly used for dramatic contrast, a device much in evidence throughout Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972). Analyzing some examples of Ian Anderson's strumming and fingerpicking patterns from these albums ("Aqualung", "Thick As A Brick" and "My God"), Roger L. Anderson shows how the acoustic guitar was put to use.

1 Several years ago, some musician friends of mine were playing a club date on the road somewhere in the Midwest. Between songs, someone in the audience shouted, "Hey! Play some Jethro Tull!" The keyboard player replied that the lead singer would do his best Ian Anderson imitation, but the voice shouted back, "No, not Ian Anderson . . . Jethro Tull!" We have recalled this incident with amusement from time to time, for it underscores the fact that many casual fans confuse Ian Anderson, the band leader, with Jethro Tull, the band. Although the name has caused some confusion, Jethro Tull is a well-known group, and I am happy to see that the all-important early albums are still popular (most record stores carry the LPs, and the first five albums are available on CD), yet I feel that many listeners overlook some of the fundamental components of a group's sound.
2 Like many rock bands of its era, Jethro Tull featured a single lead vocalist backed by an instrumental ensemble of guitar-bass-drums and sometimes keyboard. Ian Anderson's flute is widely regarded as the element that made the band unique, and rightly so, but other instruments played important roles, too. In this article, I will discuss the importance of the steel-stringed acoustic guitar. Not only does Ian Anderson have a colorful playing style, his extensive use of the instrument is a major component of the early Jethro Tull sound.
3 By way of a general introduction, it is worth noting that acoustic instruments, in general, are prominent in Jethro Tull recordings. In addition to the flute and guitar, we can hear the grand piano, mandolin, balalaika, harmonica, saxophone, horn and string sections, and a variety of percussion instruments. The extensive use of such traditional instruments is noteworthy because the other progressive rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s were implementing and emphasizing two aspects of electronic technology: (1) high energy amplification and effects pedals, and (2) portable synthesizers. On one hand you could find heavy rock bands using distorted solid-body guitars, blended with thunderous percussion and screaming vocals; on the other hand you could mark the emergence of keyboardists (as opposed to pianists or organists) in groups capable of sounding like orchestras. In relation to these trends, it is fair to say that Jethro Tull was and is a Blues-influenced heavy band, but it didn't rely entirely on intensity and distortion, and in its formative years it was not a synthesizer group at all.
4 With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the main subject. Unlike the flute, which is a prominent part of the ensemble from the very beginning, the acoustic guitar gradually rises to a position of importance. The following list shows the number of songs in which it appears on the first four albums:
  • This Was (1968): acoustic guitar not used;
  • Stand Up (1969): 3 out of 10 songs;
  • Benefit (1970): 5 out of 10 songs;
  • Aqualung (1971): 9 out of 11 songs.
5 The statistics only begin to tell the story because the instrument is used in a more substantial way beginning with Aqualung. Several songs contain two highly contrasting sections: one makes use of the full rock band, and the other features only a solo voice with guitar — and sometimes piano. Anderson's guitar works beautifully to maintain continuity during the shift between sections, and it expresses a feeling of solitude and simplicity that would be difficult to elicit from an electronic instrument. Let me clarify this concept of contrast by using as an example the title track, which is in sonata-allegro form — Exposition / Theme and Variation / Recapitulation — rather than typical song form. The subject of the song is the character, Aqualung. In Part I, we see him as a dark, disturbing figure lurking on the fringes of society. In a snarling voice, Ian Anderson sings: "Snot running down his nose . . . eyeing little girls with bad intent." The musical backing to these words is appropriately agitating and intense. The distorted electric guitar plays an extended riff in parallel major thirds, supported by bass and piano also working in parallel motion. The drummer adds to the tension with cymbal crashes.
6 The tumultuous opening section ends abruptly, and in its place we hear the singer's soft, distant voice, accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar. Now, in Part II, Aqualung appears in a different light, not as an ugly, malevolent tramp, but as a homeless, unfortunate old man: "Sun streaking cold, an old man wand'ring lonely." The sympathetic treatment of the character continues as other instruments appear in the accompaniment. A short transitional section with instrumental breaks begins with the words, "Do you still remember December's foggy freeze?" The entire middle section is repeated, but this time with the variation of a rock arrangement, followed by an electric guitar lead. The acoustic guitar and solo voice appear again briefly. Then suddenly, the electric guitar plays the opening theme, and the full band plays the Recapitulation, Part III. The use of the acoustic guitar for dramatic contrast is a device much in evidence throughout the Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) albums.
7 Having looked at the role of the acoustic guitar in Jethro Tull music, I would now like to describe Anderson's style of playing. It seems appropriate in an analysis of this nature to present some brief examples of guitar passages in order to clarify the points I make. Since the sheet music for rock songs is generally no more than an arrangement for solo piano, I have found it necessary to write out my own transcriptions of guitar parts. Note that the regular music notation is paired with a six-lined guitar tablature staff: the music staff indicates the duration and pitch of a note or chord, while the tablature staff shows where the notes are played on a guitar fingerboard. Each line represents a string, with the first string (the highest in pitch) at the top and the sixth string (the lowest) at the bottom. A number on a line indicates which fret is held down on that string. "O" indicates open string; "H" and "S" are for left-hand finger movements, a hammer-on and slide, respectively. Note also that Ian Anderson frequently plays with a capo, and in the first two selections, I have transposed down a step-and-a-half from the actual key so that what appears to be an open string note on both staffs is actually the capo'd third fret.
8 Like many other rock artists, Ian Anderson at times uses a simple strumming pattern on the acoustic guitar to fill out the arrangement of a song dominated by electric instruments. A strummed acoustic guitar provides a pleasant percussive quality that an electric guitar lacks. You can hear this effect on "We Used To Know" from the Stand Up album (1969) and "With You There To Help Me" and "Nothing To Say" on Benefit (1970).
  Figure 1: Excerpt of "Aqualung"
10 More often than not, Anderson goes beyond simple strumming. He seems inclined to make use of the guitar's unique properties, responding creatively to the natural movement of fingers on strings and frets. One example of this tendency is the technique of lifting off or adding fingers to open position chords during the course of a strumming pattern. Many guitarists do the same thing, forming suspended seconds and fourths out of major chords, but Anderson takes the idea further, lifting off two or more fingers on occasion to form embellishment that would likely not occur to musicians improvising on other instruments, such as keyboards. The entrance of the acoustic guitar in the middle section of "Aqualung" provides an example (figure 1). In six out of eight measures, there is some movement, normally affecting the third of the chord. The A chord of the fourth measure, however, is subjected to whole tone alterations of an entire triad: A, C#, and E.
  Figure 2: Excerpt of "Thick As A Brick" (lines 1-2)
12 You can observe the same technique in the Bridge section of the "Thick As A Brick" excerpt (figure 3). The embellishments of the D chord in the third and fourth measures form a melodic line identical to that of the vocal, so it is tempting to speculate that the former inspired the latter.
  Figure 3: Excerpt of "Thick As A Brick" (lines 3-4)
14 Another stylistic tendency which illustrates Anderson's adaptation to the instrument is in his formation of chords, usually arpeggios, that combine open strings and notes fingered up the neck beyond the fourth fret. For the sake of convenience, many guitarists will rely almost exclusively on either open chords played in the first position or moveable position (bar) chords that make no use of open strings. But this simplified approach limits the combinations of notes a guitarist can use, and, to some extent, it restricts the order of appearance of notes as they are played with a strum or arpeggio pattern. A chord which mixes middle-position fretted notes with open strings overcomes these limitations. In addition, the instrument will deliver a particularly spacious sound, partially because the range of notes is extended, and also because open strings vibrate more freely than held ones, and the combination of the two types creates a natural "phasing" effect.
  Figure 4: Excerpt of "Thick As A Brick" (line 5)
16 As you look at my guitar transcriptions and listen to the recordings, pay particular attention to line one, measure three of "Thick As A Brick" (figure 2) and the last few measures of Section I (figure 5) and Section II (figure 6) of "My God" to get an idea of this technique's effectiveness. Listen, as well, to Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "From The Beginning" and the ending of Jim Croce's "Time In A Bottle".
17 There is one stylistic tendency that appears most often in Anderson's guitar work. He integrates strums with arpeggios, single note runs, riffs, and harmonic figures to create complex yet flowing accompaniment parts to vocal lines. It is impossible to describe this as an exact technique because of the many variations Anderson employs, but when you listen to the guitar on "Wond'ring Aloud" on Aqualung (1971) or "Just Trying To Be" on Living in the Past (1972), you will notice that a continual pattern is never established: the accompaniment is a mixture of unlike elements. You will hear strumming, but rarely by itself. The first two measures of "Thick As A Brick" provide an example of arpeggios mixed with strums (figure 2). This short section appears in the Introduction, Verse, and Bridge of the album's first musical segment, and it also serves as a connecting motif for the entire work. Another strum arpeggio combination is at the beginning of the Verse.
18 If you listen carefully to "Look Into The Sun" on Stand Up (1969), you'll hear paired, successive octaves at the end of cadences, which I think of as a form of musical punctuation. Octaves frequently appear in Anderson's playing, but nowhere more notably than in the introduction of "My God" on Aqualung (1971), where they are the foundation of a musical idea (figure 5). I have omitted time signatures and tempo markings from the transcription because their inclusion would make the music unnecessarily difficult to read. The bar lines represent logical divisions between groups of notes, and up to the 6/4 measure at the end of line three, all of the note values are relative to major tempo changes.
  Figure 5: Excerpt of "My God" (lines 1-2)
20 Anderson uses alternating octaves, offset at intervals by the G to A hammer-on, to build tension up to a point of climax. The tension results from an increase in tempo and this division of octave series into progressively shorter units, as indicated below:
  • Section I octave units: 5, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2;
  • Section II octave units: 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2.
  Figure 6: Excerpt of "My God" (lines 3-4)
22 The buildup of Section II is abbreviated, but the climax in the form of an arpeggio is extended. In both sections, a held ending chord appears after the arpeggio to dissipate the tension. The chord ending of Section II is less resolved than its counterpart, and it directs the listener forward to the Transition, which connects the Introduction to the body of the song. "My God" develops through the first verse and bridge with Anderson's solo voice backed only by acoustic guitar and piano. The full band enters in the middle of the next verse with a remarkable effect: once again, we hear the juxtaposition of acoustic and electric accompaniment sections.
23 Many are the pleasant hours I have spent listening to the recordings of Jethro Tull. I hope that this brief article will help you, the reader, to uncover a few of the many treasures in that body of work, and, most certainly, there are more to be found.
  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1988)
  1997 © IASPM / USA