INTERVIEWING OTIS TAYLOR IS A LOT LIKE A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE. Ask the 61-year-old Denver, Colorado, native how
he developed his singular style—a blend
of droning, mesmerizing “trance blues”
guitar and gritty, sonorous vocals—and
he’s either evasive or claims ignorance.
And when you move on to how he captures
the supreme vibes on albums such
as this year’s Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs
[Telarc]—which features cameos by Gary
Moore, the sensual vocals of Taylor’s
daughter Cassie, and free-jazz jams from
pianist Jason Moran and cornet player
Ron Miles—he practically boxes your ears.
But perhaps that’s to be expected.
After all, Taylor has made a career out
of being unpredictable and tackling such
difficult subjects as race relations and
the lynching of his great grandfather. He
regularly hires fiddlers, tuba players, and
djembe drummers he happens to run
into on the street or at a gig. And on his
last album, 2008’s Recapturing the Banjo,
he didn’t think twice about wandering
outside the confines of his presumed
genre to record an album chock-full of
music on the misunderstood African
In the end, though, Taylor lets you live
after he’s playfully batted you around.
And though you feel a little disoriented,
you can’t help but feel it was worth it.
For, even in his cryptic answers and philosophical
disavowals, he reveals something
of the magic that has won him 11 Blues
Music Awards over the years.
How do you prepare for a new album and tour?
I don’t prepare. All I worry about is my concept.
I’m like the anti-perfectionist, the
anti-Dylan: Hardly any lyrics, hardly any
preparation. I just do it—that’s why it sounds
organic and emotional.
What was your concept this time?
I wanted to do prettier songs, love songs.
And then I kind of twisted it into kind of
trance jazz, and then it went more traditional,
melodically, in the finale. The first
few songs, if you didn’t hear the lyrics, you’d
just think they’re pretty songs. And they are
pretty songs, but without the lyrics you
wouldn’t know that some of them are Otis
How long does it take before you know you
want to build an entire song around one of your
Well, that’s what I do. I’m a producer, so
I just build them up. People forget that I produce
Do those grooves come to you in your head or
after jamming for a while?
There are these things called outtakes
that no one talks about. Cut and paste. I have
a basic idea, and then I just see what happens
in the studio. I’m more interested in
emotion than mistakes. I think mistakes help
to make great songs. They take you to a different
place that you haven’t thought of. It
sounds crazy, but I work with mistakes.
So, does this “cut and paste” idea involve digital
editing and loops?
Not so much. You want me to tell you all
my secrets, but I’m not going to do it.
I’m just trying to get a few.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t think anybody
makes records like I do.
Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs has a very
organic, analog vibe.
That’s because it is. I can say that—we
use tapes and stuff.
What instruments did you use for this album?
I used my OME Otis Taylor banjo and
my Santa Cruz signature guitar. To show
you how un-technical I am, that guitar only
has two frets past the neck-body joint—
because I don’t use those frets. It has an
Italian spruce top and Madagascar rosewood
back and sides. On “Dagger by My Side” I
used a bigger Santa Cruz model made of koa
wood. On “Maybe Yeah,” I played electric
slide on an old Gibson that was like a Les
Paul Junior through a Category 5 Ivan amp.
Those humbucking pickups gave me good
Do you mic your acoustic guitars and banjos
with close mics, or room mics, or both?
You keep asking those questions. I’m
looking to do this interview with Guitar
Player—I think you put me through to the
Come on—you don’t want me to ask you what
scales you use, right?
Scales? I don’t use any scales. I don’t know
if I could play a scale. Maybe if I think about
it really hard. I think somebody showed me
once, but I didn’t give a [expletive].
Did you ever take lessons or buy chord books
No. And I have a hard time fretting, too.
That’s why I play in so many open tunings.
That’s why I had to stop playing the mandolin.
Fretting is hard in what way?
My hands don’t do it very well—it’s hard
to change. It’s hard to move really quickly,
and I can’t barre at all. So when you have a
problem with something, you create something
else. It’s like Django Reinhardt. I guess
that’s where my droning grooves come from.
That tune definitely proves you're striving to push the envelope.
Well, you’re getting it. That’s what I’m
trying to do. If you listen to all my records,
it’s a journey. That’s why I just worry about
the concept, so the whole thing comes
together as an album. Concept is where the
real work comes in. Like Below the Fold was
a really heavy concept. I had all these
Appalachian fiddle and cello players play
with me to give it this really strange sound
that nobody had ever heard before. People
say they like to go to the edge, but I believe
you have to go to the edge and fall off,
because if you don’t fall off, you will not
know where the edge is. I have to take it to
where it falls apart and then bring it back
in. Every album I do, I take a certain risk
that it could be a flop. But I guess because
I take the risk people get excited about my
music. This ain’t no ’60s rap—if you’re trying
to be avant-garde, you’ve got to just fall
of the edge. You can’t be creative and conservative
at the same time.