How to play guitar like Hank Marvin

Posted on 20th May 2021

Hank Marvin is marvellous. I remember in my early days of guitar wonderment being obsessed with Buddy Holly. My parents got me a tape of ‘Hank Plays Holly’ which featured instrumental, guitar lead versions of Buddy Holly’s most favoured tracks. My parents didn’t dig it, but for me it provided a spark that started a flame which is still burning now in my playing.

Hank is a famous British guitarist who became incredibly popular in the early 60s with his group ‘The Shadows’; they would play guitar centric instrumental music and back up Cliff Richard. It was around this time that Fender produced the Stratocaster, a guitar with 3 single coil pickups, a ‘tremolo bar’ (a whammy bar in today’s language) with awesome paint jobs. The guitar was often described as a futuristic spaceship compared to other electric instruments of the time.

The Gear

Hank loved using Strats, he loved using the whammy bar. His phrasing is so crisp and articulate, and a lot of it is down to his musicianship and fingers, but it’s safe to say the Strat enabled him to create a sound that had never before been explored and still remains instantly recognisable today.

The tone Mr Marvin uses is clean, very clean. He’s known for using Vox AC15 and AC30 amps – a British clean(ish!) amp with a unique mid-range compared to the American amps Fender made which were more scooped and a little more clinical. Often this clean tone was embellished with a lush reverb and various echo effects. Hank liked tape echo style delays; this gave him a classic slap back sound. Often the reverb, or another longer delay, would be used on top of this core tone to create more space and sustain for the clean melodic single note lines he was playing. Reverb is like ‘gain’ for a clean sound, it gives the note a ‘memory’.

So, the setup is quite simple… get a Strat style guitar with a nice whammy bar/trem. Single coils will get you the right character. Nice clean amp and a simple reverb (spring will work nicely) and tape echo. There are tonnes of both cheap and expensive options available for these bits of gear, you can’t go to wrong. The most important thing to work on is the delivery. Let’s look at the key elements of Hank’s style.

The Technique

Hank knows the fretboard. Often his melodies are based around triads fitting around each chord. Good knowledge of the CAGED system and how the Pentatonic & Major scale lay out within it will help. He very rarely bends more than a half step, but when he does, it’s very in tune and accurate. Vibrato is almost always articulated with the whammy bar or very subtlety with the fretting hand. He’s a master of the bar. Adding subtle and extreme effects to the pitch, often mimicking a pedal steel player or slide guitar, gives his melodies a much more vocal like phrasing. His attention to detail in phrasing is immense, every note gets attention. Check out his cover of the Beatles ‘Michelle’ on his 2017 album ‘Without a Word’. Not too much, not too little. It’s a beautiful and haunting sound.

His pick attack is also very dynamic and subtle. It sounds like he’s picking with the pick tip at a fairly parallel angle to the string, this gives a thicker and more blunt attack. It’s also possible he uses classic picks and fairly heavy strings. Mixing this with a sensitive touch gives the notes a nice bloom. It also often sounds like he’s using the bridge pickup on the Strat for his single note leads, he may also be playing with the tone control on the guitar to get rid of some of the ‘shrill’ top end that the bridge pickup can add. But it’s equally possible he’s EQing from the amp end and most likely mic placement is a big part of the mix, creating warmth and clarity in his more modern tones.

One more thing…

One more thing to add, it’s noticeable at points that Hank is also really handy with the volume control, subtlety controlling the attack of each note with the volume. This may be done with a volume pedal or with the volume control on the guitar itself. It’s likely that he originally did it with the volume on the guitar. This became one of the many selling points of the Fender Strat when it first came out, the volume control is quite close to where the picking hand little finger might be hanging out. Making it easy to reach for volume swells and picking switching.

So there we have it, in a nutshell. A quick how to guide on the amazing Hank Marvin and how to get his sound with gear, technique, and theory.  Hank certainly put the Strat on the map and is a master musician. I’m off to buy a jacket, some wayfarer glasses and a fiesta red Strat, see ya later!

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by Sam Bell
Sam Bell is a leading UK session guitarist and educator. He first picked up a guitar aged just 5, after watching The Buddy Holly Story in the West End. At the age of 18, he was featured in Guitar Player magazine’s up-and-coming section. Sam works mainly as a session guitarist, playing for soul singer and X-Factor vocal coach Lloyd Wade, and other various dance production shows around the UK. He is a contributor to Guitar Interactive magazine, Premier Guitar magazine and Lick Library. He’s featured in many DVDs including ‘Learn to Play Paul Gilbert’, ‘7 String Secrets’ and ‘Paganini’s 16th Caprice’. He’s also the main songwriter for UK Tech Metal band Mask of Judas, with whom he writes his own melodic instrumental material. Sam is also currently working on a full debut solo album.
View all posts by Sam Bell

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