Most guitarists find playing just one fretboard at a time to be plenty to keep their hands full. But then you have others like Michael Angelo Batio, Steve Vai and Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen who utilize multi-necked guitars to achieve the sound they're going for. Count artist Felix Martin among the latter.
Martin, who will self-release his second studio album, Mechanical Nations, on Feb. 24, started teaching himself guitar around the age of 11 because there were no music schools or internet access in the small Venezuelan town where he grew up. He began with a regular guitar, but found it difficult to play finger style (when the strings are plucked with the fingers or a pick), so he began employing a tapping method, like playing a piano. Eddie Van Halen is famed for using a similar technique when he performs his "Eruption" solo by tapping out notes on the fretboard with both hands, but Martin says his personal style is closer to that of jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan since Martin simultaneously plays melodies and chords.
"It was more natural for me to play tapping like a piano, so the way I grew up playing was like that, two guitars at a time," explains Martin. "I started playing with a regular guitar, and six months after, I started playing two guitars at a time: one [hanging on me] with straps and the other one on a table."
Although it was hard to do, Martin is grateful for the experience. "It was a painful process," he recalls, "but it was helpful for my creativity." He adds, "I'm still developing the whole idea. This is something really new, that's why I have many guitars and still try out some ideas on the guitar."
Martin now works with instrument makers to design the equipment he needs — the guitars have one body and two extra-wide fretboards — to play his blend of progressive metal and jazz fusion. For Mechanical Nations, one of his goals was that he tried "to put together a different sound for the guitar that's really digestible" and make it sound not like a guitar, "but more like a band."
Billboard has the exclusive premiere of the video for the album track "Flashback," where Martin's inspiration was to play with a percussive sound. "I also wanted to make a song for guitar that would be heavy but very different at the same time. If you listen to that track, that specific sound is really different than other guitar players."
Martin and his bassist Kilian Duarte came up with the Mechanical Nations title since Martin wrote the music in Venezuela and he wanted the album's concept to pay tribute to South America. "The whole of South America is huge, but it feels like one country," he explains. "When I travel the world with a Colombian guy and a Brazilian guy, we feel like we're from the same town." He notes that the album art, which contains a photo of the continent, has a mechanical feel, partially to reflect the working-class existence of citizens who work at a trade and the hard-scrabble life they lead. "For people in South America, we have to work harder for our things … like, struggle a little more in those countries. Not like here in the U.S., [where] everything is so easy [compared to Venezuela]. In Venezuela, you can get kidnapped any day or you can get robbed. They steal your car. You always worry about things you don't worry about here."
Martin moved to the United States when he began attending Boston's Berklee College of Music around the age of 17. He remained in the country on an artist visa once he started working as a professional musician, and he obtained his green card in 2016. As someone who has been through the visa process and regularly crosses U.S. borders as a touring musician, Martin relates that it's stressful to deal with the paperwork and expense of becoming a permanent resident and with border guards, who he says are very serious about their task of questioning travelers before granting them permission to enter the country.
"If you come to the U.S., they can reject you, even if you have everything in order … you always have that feeling," says Martin. Even though he never had any problems, he says friends of his have been turned away at the border and had to sit out working for about a year. He adds, "I think the vetting process [for visas] is perfectly fine in the U.S. I've been through that like nine times in nine years. Maybe some people don't believe in the vetting process, but I guarantee you, it works."
Martin also notes that aside from the usual struggles of making a living as a musician, being an immigrant has additional challenges. "There are a lot of people who see you here with a guitar, but they don't know that backstory, all the suffering you have to do. And if I'm international in this country, it's cool, but at the same time your family's not here. You're alone." He feels that much of what fueled President Donald Trump's attempt to enact a temporary travel ban is a lack of awareness of how much people suffer as immigrants. "They don't see, they just don't care about it, because they haven't suffered," he says. "I feel like if you haven't suffered, then you don't understand, then you don't care. That's what's happening right now in politics."
Mechanical Nations is available at Amazon.com, iTunes and Martin's website. He will embark on a U.S. tour in March with Middle Eastern fusion trio Consider the Source.