MARTIN TAYLOR IS ARGUABLY THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED SOLO JAZZ guitarist in the world. Although relatively unrecognized in the U.S., Taylor’s praises have been sung by fans ranging from Pat Metheny—who described him as “one of the most awesome solo-guitar players in the history of the instrument”—to Queen Elizabeth II of England, who made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for Service to Jazz Music.
Highlights of Taylor’s lengthy resume include 11 years performing and recording with violinist Stéphane Grappelli (Django Reinhardt’s former gig), playing alongside Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd in the Great Guitars, trading licks with Albert Lee as a member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, holding down his corner of Martins4 (with Juan Martin, Martin Carthy, and Martin Simpson), and collaborating with David Grisman, Chet Atkins, and Steve Howe. All told, Taylor has recorded or appeared on nearly 100 albums.
Last year’s superb Freternity [P3] presents Taylor’s interpretive and compositional talents in the context of a smoking jazz sextet, whereas the recently released Double Standards [P3], comprises a dozen “solo duets” featuring Taylor accompanying himself on classics such as Jobim’s “Triste,” Ellington’s “Drop Me Off at Harlem,” and Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The virtuoso guitarist’s humor-filled autobiography, Martin Taylor—Autobiography of a Traveling Musician, is available from Bobcat Books.
Is it true that you are self-taught?
In saying that I am self-taught, I mean as self-taught as anybody can be, because it all has to come from somewhere. I was fortunate to have been given a guitar when I was about four years old, and to have watched my dad and his friends play, so that I could copy them. And some of my older friends who played guitar were better than I was, and they let me watch and listen. Later, the great Ike Isaacs took me under his wing, and I absorbed as much about playing solo guitar from him as I could. His idol was George Van Eps, so he had all these marvelous moving lines going on within the chords. Playing the guitar is the only thing in my life that’s ever come easy to me. When I would go to school, I never knew what they were talking about. But show me a chord chart, or play a record and tell me to copy the guitar part, and I could do it.
In fact, you have the musical equivalent of a photographic memory.
I can play whole records in my mind. I remember talking to a bunch of my friends once when I was in my late teens. I said, “You know what its like when you think about a record that you heard, and you play it back in your head?” I was shocked to discover that they didn’t. There’s always music going around in my head. And if I relax my mind, suddenly whole symphonies come bursting in.
That’s also why I tend to compose and arrange in my head. Whenever you try to work something out with a guitar in your hands, you fall into playing things that you know. We all have our little things that we play. But if you haven’t got the guitar in your hands, you can just think about the music.
Django Reinhardt was a huge influence when you were young. What were the most important things that you took away from his playing?
The most important things were his lyricism and passion. When Django played it was like somebody was talking and telling you a story. That’s what I really liked. And that’s what I try to do when I’m playing. Most guitarists talk about his incredible technical ability, but I didn’t really think about that. Everything just seemed so perfect in his playing. And it made me feel like I wanted to try it.
Didn’t you also go through a brief Hendrix phase?
My brother took me to see Jimi Hendrix at the Albert Hall when I was about 12 years old, and it was an amazing concert. He was like Charlie Parker, in that he came along and took things out to another area. The trio with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell was like a jazz trio in the way that they improvised, and having been brought up with jazz, I understood that. It was basically the same language, but in a different accent. That was a real eye-opener.
Did you try to play like Hendrix?
A friend of mine had a Strat, and I’d try to play bits of Hendrix, but I was never very good at it.
Were there other eye-opening moments when you were young?
I saw Segovia a few years after seeing Hendrix. There were no microphones, just a piano stool and a footstool. His playing was incredibly quiet, but after a while your ears just acclimated, and it really drew you in. By that time, he was past his best, but it really was magical, and I got as much from that as I did from the Hendrix gig. That sowed a seed in my mind that I would like to be able to just go on the stage and sit down and play all on my own.
What inspired the solo duet approach on Double Standards?
I’d recorded a few guitar duets before on other albums, and when Steve Howe and I recorded Masterpiece Guitars, I did some overdubbing that I really enjoyed. So, when I considered doing another solo album—and this is essentially a solo album—I thought that working this way might free me up a bit. I could still have elements of solo guitar while playing the melody in octaves or whatever at the same time.
What was the recording process like?
Sometimes I’d record one guitar part, then I’d play something on the second part and think, “Oh, it would have been nice if the first guitar had played this,” so I would go back and rerecord the first part. And that sometimes made me think of other things for the second part, so I’d do another second part, and so on. Also, sometimes I would get a bit stir crazy in the studio, and I’d take a walk into the village and stop in at a little pub and have a beer. Then I’d walk back and think, “Yep, I know how to do that now.”
Describe your Vanden Martin Taylor Artistry archtop guitars.
They are small guitars with15-inch bodies. I don’t see the necessity for large bodies, as they don’t always produce the biggest acoustic sound, anyway. The bodies and necks are constructed of maple, but the guitars have spruce tops, which give them more bite and directness than maple tops. There’s a beautiful, woody sound to these instruments that I really like. And although these are jazz guitars, they have a brightness and depth that is different than the traditional jazz guitar sound. The pickup system is called the Mimesis Archtop Jazz Blend. There’s a small custom Mimesis humbucker and preamp mounted on the pickguard, which can be combined with a Fishman Archtop Guitar piezo pickup in the bridge.
Do you play through an amp?
Usually when I play solo I use a DI. But when I’m playing with a band I use an AER Alpha, which is an excellent amplifier.
Do you ever use effects?
I ask the house engineer for a fairly long reverb when I perform. I like it to be under the surface, so that if I really bear down, the reverb will pop out.
What type of strings do you use?
Elixir .012s. I’m one of these people that can sweat battery acid, so I used to go through strings like crazy. The Elixirs are absolutely perfect for me, and they last for a month or two.
Describe your fingerstyle technique.
I mostly fret with my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers, rather than the 1st finger—which I reserve for playing barre chords and bass notes. As for my plucking hand, a lot of the time my thumb is closer to the bridge than my index finger. If I want to get a really round sound, the thumb will be further forward, and for more of a percussive sound, the thumb moves back and claws around a little. Also, I like to keep my nails trimmed so that I can get a bit of the flesh. You get the center of the note with the nail, but when the flesh touches first, it’s a lot like when a saxophone player plays—the note doesn’t just go straight out. There’s that point where the air starts, and then they hit the center of the note. I also anchor my pinky on the scratch plate, which is a habit I’ve had my entire life.
When do you use a pick, and do you have a favorite?
I always played with a pick until I was in my 20s, but, since then, whenever I play solo it’s all fingerstyle. When I am playing with a pick, and I switch to fingerstyle, I put the pick between my forefinger and middle finger, and play with it stuck in there. I can just quickly flick the pick up, play some singleline things, and put it back again. I use David Grisman Dawg mandolin picks—which are big and thick. I play with the rounded end, holding the pick at a slight angle rather than full on, because it produces a thicker sound.
Do you use any specific picking technique?
People have asked me whether I use alternate picking or sweep picking or whatever, and I don’t know because I’ve never actually studied what goes on. My technique is just something that has developed over the years, and it comes naturally to me—though I know that sounds kind of flippant. What I should do is get somebody who knows about these things to watch me play and tell me what I’m doing [laughs].
Is there any particular method that you tend to employ when arranging someone else’s song?
There isn’t really a rule or plan, but one of the first things I do when starting on something new is to find the key that works best for the guitar. There’s a big thing in the jazz world that you must always play something in the key in which it was written. But, sometimes, the original key might not work well with the guitar. Sharp keys such as G major, D major, A major, and E major have a bright, open sound about them—particularly with the guitar and the open strings—whereas flat keys such as F major, Bb major, Eb major, and Ab major have a darker sound to them.
Didn’t you play with Jeff Beck?
Yes. I met him when I was working with Bill Wyman. Ronnie Wood said that “Jeff” wanted to meet me, and I said, “Jeff who?” And he said Jeff Beck, and I said, “Oh God, my hero!” So we got together, and we were like old buddies. He invited me to his house, and we had a great evening playing guitar and drinking champagne. Then, he came and played a tune at a solo gig I had. We planned to record together, but, unfortunately, shortly after that was when my son died, so I lost contact. I am going to track him down some time, though, because he is such a phenomenal player. I think we could come up with something really good.
What was the biggest challenge playing with Stéphane Grappelli?
You had to be a jazz musician to play with Stéphane, but, at the same time, a lot of things weren’t as spontaneous as they sounded. He had his little safety things—I used to call them “lighthouses”—and he would expect me to play these funny nuances at certain times. Nothing was written down, but there might be a little rhythmic phrase at the end of a chorus, and he kind of needed that. There was a hell of a lot to remember.
Also, while he never said, “Play like this,” he would make suggestions. Sometimes, they could be funny, or quite superficial. He’d say, “You know the end of that solo you played? Right at the end, just do a big cadenza of chords, and you’ll get more applause.” At the time, I thought that was a bit much. I was an artiste. But he was perfectly right, of course, because he was also a fantastic entertainer.
What’s the best Django story that Grappelli ever told you?
There were a lot of them, but here’s one. Stéphane loved Django, but there was a bit of jealousy. Stéphane had his recording deal with Decca when he lived in London. I’ve got some old 78s that say “Stéphane Grappelly’s Hot Five”—Grappelly with a “y,” because he wanted it to look more English— and, in small type, “featuring Django Reinhardt.” And if it wasn’t for the fact that Stéphane was pretty organized, the group wouldn’t have happened, because Django didn’t even turn up for the first recording session. He said that recording was never going to catch on. But Stéphane managed to go and get him out of a billiard hall, and they sat down and played. Django wasn’t very interested, but when they played it back to him he was absolutely mesmerized. He fell in love with recording then and there.