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
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,
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!