Joanne Shaw Taylor

October 1, 2009

JOANNE SHAWTAYLOR’S SOMEWHAT DEMURE image stands in stark contrast to her bold and aggressive singing and guitar playing. Hailing from Birmingham, England— the steel town that spawned the likes of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and half of Led Zeppelin—there is an industrial toughness to the 23-year-old guitarist’s sound, and a rhythmic and percussive force that calls to mind her heroes Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert Collins. The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart was so blown away by the depth and passion of Taylor’s playing when she was just 16 that he asked her to join his band for a 2002 European tour.

Taylor’s debut album, White Sugar [Ruf], was produced by Nashville legend Jim Gaines, who has worked with Carlos Santana, Johnny Lang, and SRV himself. The ten mostly original songs on the record span several shades of blues, from the swampy Delta styling of “Going Home” to the fuzzed-out heaviness of “Watch ’Em Burn” to the Hendrix- like chordal majesty of “Just Another Word” to the rhythmic quirkiness of the instrumental title track. And the strippeddown trio format—featuring veteran Memphis session men bassist Dave Smith and drummer Steve Potts—allows her dusky voice and commanding riffs to come through loud and clear.

Were you always drawn to playing the blues?

I started playing classical guitar at school when I was eight, and that experience gave me my love for the instrument. But classical guitar was very disciplined and formal and I couldn’t relate to the music, so I had decided to switch to the electric, and literally the very next day I saw Live From Austin, Texas, and bought a Japanese Fender Telecaster Thinline. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the perfect introduction to the blues for someone my age, and all of a sudden I went from my formal background to getting into a genre of music that was hugely reliant on feel and soul and passion, and that encouraged me to put my own personality into my playing.

Mick Taylor once said that you have to sing if you are going to play blues, and that finding his voice as a singer helped him redefine his guitar style. Have you found that to be true?

Definitely. I can’t imagine what I’d be like as a guitar player if I hadn’t started singing. It has made me think more about the notes I choose in building solos instead of just trying to show off. The main thing Dave Stewart did for me was to encourage me to be a good singer and songwriter and to understand that blues music didn’t have to just be about a big guitar solo. I think of myself more as a blues artist than just a blues guitar player.

Did Jim Gaines help you more fully realize your musical vision?

I had actually spoken to Jim quite a few times years ago, and I specifically wanted him to produce the album. The first reason was that he had produced all my favorite blues albums, and the second was that I trusted him. In terms of getting a good sound, Jim had worked with Albert Collins, and Albert’s technique for setting up an amplifier was to run his fingers across the top of the knobs so that everything was turned up to ten, and then back the reverb down to four. That’s what we did, and I can tell you that besides sounding good, it was loud.

The record has a very live feel.

“Time Has Come”, “Blackest Day,” and “White Sugar” were all recorded completely live. We recorded at Bessie Blue Studios, which is in this little house in Tennessee. Steve Potts was set up in the dining room and then David Smith and Jim and I were set up in the control room, which was actually the living room. One nice thing was that we could work anytime we wanted, so, for example, on “Blackest Day” we recorded at midnight with all the lights turned off.

What guitars did you use on the album?

I played a ’66 Fender Esquire on everything. My guitar has a humbucker in the neck position and a stock pickup that has been rewound a few times in the bridge position, with a 5-way pickup selector like a Stratocaster. The Esquire also has a very thin neck so it’s easy to grip, which is important because I have small hands, and I do a lot of “Pride and Joy”-style raking with my thumb over the neck for muting.

What amps did you play through?

I used a reissue Fender Bassman that’s a couple years old, a 1988 red knob Fender Twin Reverb, and some Fender Custom Shop amp that a local guitar player lent to me. We ran them all together.

How about effects pedals?

I have a ’90s Ibanez TS9 and an Ibanez TS808 modified by Robert Keeley that I use as a boost. I also used a Jim Dunlop Crybaby wah on “Heavy Heart” and a T-Rex Tremster tremolo on “Going Home.” I don’t use a lot of effects, mostly because no matter how many different things I try, I always come out sounding the same. That’s partly to do with the guitar I’m playing—I rarely play a different guitar unless I really have to—and partly because hitting the guitar as hard as I do shapes the sound so much anyway.

What kind of strings and picks do you prefer?

I use GHS sets gauged .011-.058, which work well because I tune down a half step. My picks are Jim Dunlop mediums.

You play with your fingers as well as a pick, right?

Yes. Coming from a classical background, my fingers are probably quicker than my picking, so sometimes I’ll flick the pick up into my palm and do the classical-style twofinger picking with my thumb and index finger. I do that on “Going Home,” which was my attempt at country blues. I’ve never been able to do the Big Bill Broonzy style of country blues, so I approach it from a classical perspective, which usually means that the bass-string rhythm part is more in time with the lead line than it is with an accompanying drum beat. As far as my picking goes, there’s the Albert Collins influence where I pick a string with all my might to help get that “ice pick” tone, and SRV and Luther Allison, who both picked very aggressively, also influenced me.

Your rhythm playing is also quite aggressive.

The biggest influence on my rhythm playing was probably Hendrix, especially when it comes to the very melodic and full sound you need when playing in a three-piece— like on “Castles Made of Sand,” where he plays a chord and then uses hammer-ons to add some little riffs and embellishments to it before moving to the next chord.

What’s the next step?

The main thing for me is just trying to improve my playing and singing and songwriting, and to keep going—because getting to play the blues for a living is not a bad life!

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