Dr Martin Taylor MBE
The obvious impetus for playing fingerstyle guitar is the ability to combine bass lines, chords and melody simultaneously, effectively creating the impression of several musicians playing together. But unless you’ve already heard Martin Taylor, you’ve never experienced it quite like this. In Martin’s playing, the 3 elements are so well integrated that the music transcends the technique. But you won’t miss the details of his touch. Tight left-hand positions move with the precision of a servomotor; each digit appearing to have a mind of its own, but playing in perfect harmony with the others. Arrangements fly off his fingers in such a seemingly effortless manner that they create the illusion of accessibility.”
Scottish jazz guitarist Martin Taylor is a well-respected player in his own right, so much so that he’s collaborated with the likes of Stephane Grappelli, Chet Atkins, and David Grisman, as well as Steve Howe in the Scott Chinery Collection recording project. His perspective differs from a stereotypical guitarist from the British Isles, as does his playing.
Martin Taylor grew up in Harlow about 30 miles out of London, but lived a greater part of his life in Scotland. His mother is English, and comes from a musical family;; her grandfather was a violinist and her uncle a professional cellist. His father’s family was also musical; they were travelling folk from Ireland and Scotland and, like all the nomadic people of Europe, had a very strong musical tradition. His paternal grandmother and great-grandmother were very good singers, and his father, Buck Taylor, was quite a well-known jazz bass player in Britain.
He was brought up listening to jazz, primarily the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, and also American jazz musicians like Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Ben Webster. So he was obviously greatly influenced by the music his parents listened to, rather than the surroundings that he grew up in. The music of his childhood and youth was the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix; he enjoyed that music also, and had the great privilege of seeing Hendrix play in London when he was about 13. But the music that really moved him, and that had a musical language that he understood best, was jazz.
His father gave him a ukulele when he was about 3 or 4, and he showed him a few chords. He also played guitar, and he would strum away on his brand new 1959 Hofner President. His family were quite poor, but my dad wanted to encourage me to play, so he bought me a Russian classical guitar from a friend at a fairground. It was practically impossible to play; terrible action, but I fell in love with it and played it until my fingers started to bleed. If there was anything that should have put me off from playing, it was that awful guitar, but I loved playing from that moment on.
A few years later he got a German guitar called a Framus, then when he started to do gigs at around 12, he bought himself a Guild Starfire. He was playing in his dad’s band by that time, at weddings and village dances; music for dancing. It was a great experience and I look back at those days with a great deal of fondness. By the time he was 15, he had decided that I wanted to pursue a career in music, and at that time it was possible to leave school, so I took up an offer to go on the road with a band playing around England during the summer. Then, in the winter, we took up residency on the QE2, and sailed to New York. He had always dreamed of going to America, and it was a very exciting time sailing into New York at sunrise; he had never seen anything like it. One of the first things he did was to head down to 48th Street and buy a guitar. I bought a 1964 Gibson ES-175, the same year model as Steve Howe’, although it wasn’t as good as Steve’s. His guitar was amazing. He played on the cruise ships out of New York for a couple of years; we played a lot of jazz in the group, and on one Jazz Cruise he got to play with the Count Basie Orchestra. He got to hear a lot of great jazz musicians at places like the Village Vanguard, and in his mind there was no question that he should play anything but jazz.
After the ES-175, he bought a 1971 Gibson Johnny Smith, which he used for a long time, until British guitarist Ike Isaacs gave him a 1964 W.G. Barker for his 21st birthday. HeI used the Barker for many years; all of the tours and recordings he made with Stephane Grappelli were on the Barker.
His first album, Taylor Made, was recorded in London in 1978 for Wave Records. In 1981, He recorded Skyeboat for Concord Records out in San Francisco, and I did many records with Grappelli on various labels. I played on several of Stephane’s collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, and Stephane and I made a duo album in the early ’80s for EMI, called We’ve Got The World On A String.
He also recorded several albums in the early ’80s with clarinetist Buddy de Franco, and he had some success in the U.S. with an album called Sarabanda, which had John Patitucci on bass, Paulinho da Costa on percussion, and was produced by David Hungate, from Toto. He didn’t really enjoy recording in those early days; it’s only in recent years that he have felt at ease in the studio. I like recording now, and am reasonably happy with my newer recordings.
His 1st trip to the States was in 1972, but he didn’t spend much time; it wasn’t until 1979 when he made his first tour with Stephane Grappelli that he got to stay here for an extended visit. He did about 11 or 12 tours with Stephane, He played a couple on my own, and he also came over on 3 occasions to play duos with the late Emily Remler. She and Taylor played well together; he loved her playing and it was a great tragedy that her life was cut short.
It was very important for him to come to the U.S.; it’s the home of jazz and blues, and most of the musicians that have inspired me over the years were American. His career back home began to take off in the late ’80s, so his trips to the States became fewer. He was doing a lot of solo concert tours around Europe, the Far East and Australia, so all my time and energy was taken up with that. At home he’d play theatres; in concert settings it’s to quite large audiences, so it has been very important for me to pursue that area of my career, as I was getting a larger following and selling a lot of albums in the U.K. Recording Tone Poems II with David Grisman and collaborating with Steve on the Scott Chinery project has really whetted his appetite to play in the States again.
He was playing at a guitar festival in Israel a few years ago, and met Marcel Dadi, the French guitarist. He invited him to play at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society’s guitar festival at Issoudun, in France. He met a lot of great guitarists at Issoudun; Thom Bresch, Brad Jones, and the president of the Society in the U.S., Mark Pritcher, who invited me over to the Nashville Convention. He had already met Chet Atkins many years before in the States, and in fact they recorded a track together at Chet’s studio in 1987; the tune was “Here, There and Everywhere.” He put it on his latest solo album, Portraits, along with 2 new duets that Chet and he recorded in Nashville. He had been a Chet fan since he was a kid; it’s funny, Chet and I were both interviewed, and there was one moment where I suddenly felt overwhelmed by being on TV with the great man himself. I’ve seen a video of it since, and you can’t see it but for a moment; I just couldn’t believe I was on American TV with Chet. He is such a hero of his!
The guitar he used was the prototype of a guitar he designed, along with Martyn Booth, for Yamaha. It’s called the AEX1500; in the U.K. it’s known as the Yamaha Martin Taylor. It’s now available in the States and I am very proud of it; it came out well. He has been a Yamaha endorsee for 6 or 7 years. He has 2o AEX1500 production models; one blond, one sunburst. He also has 2 prototypes, the blond one you saw on TV and a black model. he has another Yamaha archtop guitar called an AES1200, an APX10 steel-string flat-top, a nylon string APX10, and an APX8C, which he uses with his band, Spirit of Django. Besides my Yamahas, I still have my father’s 1959 Hofner President; although I don’t play it, I could never part with it. I have the 1964 W.G. Barker from my Stephane Grappelli days, a Benedetto Cremona Bob made for him in 1988, and his newest addition to the “family” is a 1929 Martin 000-45, which Scott Chinery gifted to me from the Chinery Collection; a very generous gift, which I treasure.
His Gibson 175, the Johnny Smith, and a couple of other guitars were all sold at different moments of poverty! He regreted parting with them, but he had a family to feed at the time. He was given a Selmer Maccaferri “D-hole” guitar once at a Stephane Grappelli concert; the owner told me he liked my playing so much he wanted me to have it. I played it for several years, then when I met up with its owner again I talked him into taking up the guitar again and gave it back to him. He found it difficult to think of guitars in monetary terms; he could sell a couple of his guitars and buy himself another house or another Mercedes, he guesses, but money can’t replace the pleasure he got from these instruments.
He only travelled with his Yamahas. If something happened to my Barker I wouldn’t be able to replace it. The Yamahas are practical; they’re easy to play and they sound consistently good no matter where I’m playing. It’s true; that’s why he plays them.
David Grisman and he first met in 1979 in California; Stephane had told me about David. Stephane just loved David’s playing, and a Grisman gig was always the highlight of a U.S. tour for us. David and he became friends and always kept in touch; he played on some of his albums like Dawg Jazz/Dawg Grass and Acoustic Christmas.
David heard my solo album Artistry, which Steve produced, and wanted me to make a solo album for his Acoustic Disc label, but I was signed with Linn Records and he had a good relationship with them, so he didn’t want to rock the boat. He suggested that he record an archtop version of Tone Poems I; since it was to be so different from my recordings for Linn, they agreed to release me to make it.
When we talked about material, it was very easy to come up with the tunes, particularly for guitars and mandolins from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, as that was the Golden Age for American song writing. He liked to play a lot of that older material, which is probably why David thought it a good idea that he record the archtops.
Steve Howe and he first met around 1988, in London. Yamaha invited us both to look at a prototype MIDI guitar they were developing, because we had both had experience using guitar synths, and they wanted our opinion. Steve came along to a gig he was playing that night, and we just became friends and kept in touch in the same way that his friendship with “Dawg” developed over the years, through a mutual obsession with music. When Linn Records asked him to make a solo album, which ended up being titled Artistry, he asked Steve to produce it.
He was doing a lot of solo concerts at that time, and Steve was very interested in my thoughts and experiences on solo playing, as he was contemplating going out on the road solo himself. We exchanged a lot of ideas; He is proud that he managed to convince Steve to “take the plunge,” and he now does a lot of solo gigs. Steve introduced me to Scott Chinery. Scott had already approached Steve about recording the Chinery Collection, and apparently Steve suggested that he was the man for the job. he flew up from Nashville to meet Scott and Steve in New Jersey to discuss the recording project. Scott’s collection was staggering! When he walked into the guitar room, he couldn’t speak for about 30 minutes! He had never seen anything like it. D’Angelicos, D’Aquistos, Gibsons, Martins, Benedettos, you name it; the finest guitars in the world. Scott got me to play the D’Angelico Teardrop, and then, from what he remember, asked him about recording the guitars. He admitted he was in a bit of a daze being surrounded by those guitars!
In that he came from a jazz tradition which draws from the standard repertoire, he was very much at home in that environment. But as it turned out, he wrote a few tunes for the project, and Steve and he wrote a couple of tunes together. Steve even got me to play a tune where I showcased all of my country licks…all 3 of them! He really stretched out on that one!
With Tone Poems II, David and him decided that the “thread” linking the guitars together should be a piece of music written around the time that the instruments were made and were popular. The aim of the Chinery project was to play music that we felt was appropriate to each instrument, not necessarily because an instrument might be connected to a particular time period.
Tone Poems II was more jazz-oriented, although there are a lot of jazz tracks on the Chinery project. They are quite different recordings. On Tone Poems II he played a total of 23 guitars, and on the Chinery recordings, a total of 67 instruments, including baby guitars, mandolins, banjos, basses, pedal steel, etc. My favorite guitar on Tone Poems II was the Gibson Lloyd Loar, and on the Chinery project, a 1931 D’Angelico, a D’Angelico Excel, and the Martin 000-45.
Where he was recording a new album with his band, Spirit of Django; the album was called The Gypsy. Stephane Grappelli plays on 3 tracks, and they recreated the Hot Club of France version of “Undecided” from 1934; it was fun playing Django’s solo.