Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Guitarist Pat Martino

Pat Martino at a KNKX Studio Session in 2013
Justin Steyer
Pat Martino at a KNKX Studio Session in 2013.

Pat Martino came back after a mid-career, life-altering experience to regain a new perspective and approach to playing the guitar. Carol Handley revisits his stellar career.

Pat Martino began playing professionally at the age of 15 after moving to New York. For a time, he lived with Les Paul and then began playing regularly at jazz clubs.

His career spanned six decades — starting with his formative years playing with a deep groove that he honed with various masters of the jazz organ, including Charles Earland, Don Patterson, Jack McDuff and, more recently, Joey DeFrancesco.

Whether he was playing Wes Montgomery-influenced hard bop in his early recordings or spiritual explorations in the '60s, he maintained impeccable clarity and could play at serious clip as demonstrated here on a visit to the KNKX studios in 2000 on the song "Seven Come Eleven."

In his early 20s, he released his first of many well-received albums. He drew comparisons to guitarists like Wes Montgomery, but by the 1970s fusion era, he was forging his own sound. Martino's work from the '70s is considered some of the most essential on the instrument and, like many great artists, his sound moved with the times and worldwide he was regarded with the best of six-string players.

What Les Paul said about hearing a teenage Pat Martino play: “What came out of that guitar was unbelievable. His dexterity and his picking style were absolutely unique. He held his pick as one would hold a demitasse … pinkie extended, very polite. The politeness disappeared when pick met string.”

Once, when George Benson was asked about Martino, he said, "I was thinking I had conquered New York. I saw this young kid … and this guitar leaped out of nowhere. And some of the most incredible lines I had ever heard. Everything in it. Great tone, great articulation.”

Jazz fans agreed when they chose Martino as Guitar Player of the Year in the Down Beat Readers' Poll of 2004.

Martino had been struggling with a respiratory condition since 2018 that led to him to stop playing. But more amazingly, in 1980, he had a near-fatal seizure following a hemorrhaged arteriovenous malformation. He had been born with the condition that had led him to suffer hallucinations and seizures since childhood but remained undiagnosed.

His hemorrhage left him with complete amnesia — no recollection or knowledge of his career or how to play the very instrument that made him successful. Martino says he learned to focus on the present and learned how to play the guitar from zero.

This is what Martino said about his experience after some recovery: "My relearning the instrument didn't really come from trying to reproduce my initial intentions when I was younger, which was for a successful career. My intention the second time through, after the neurosurgery, was to enjoy the instrument as a toy, which took place prior to my career; as a little boy, I used to enjoy the guitar as my favorite toy. And it brought me back to it, after all the experience of the neurosurgeries."

Martino was nominated for Grammy Awards for his albums Live at Yoshi’s and Think Tank.

When Martino was in for a KNKX Studio Session, what he said about his experience after his neurosurgery is a reminder for everybody: "I think that reality itself is a lesson that can't be questioned. It's something that takes place that you need to adjust for your own pleasure, to enjoy your life. You have to make a decision. I made a decision to enjoy the moment, and pay closer attention to everything in the moment."

Upon Martino's passing, Joey DeFrancesco said, "He’s gonna be missed — he certainly left us all an incredible legacy of music and will always be remembered as one of the greatest guitarists of all time."

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.