Performance Friday, May 6, 2011 | 9:30 PM

James Taylor: Guitar Conversations

Zankel Hall
Don’t miss a night of conversation and performance devoted to popular music’s instrument of choice when James Taylor invites a few of his friends to join him.
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The Program

“I’m a bass player second and a guitar player first,” James Taylor explained. It was a curious declaration, given that Taylor has never played the bass. He was talking about his signature style as a guitarist. Never a straight strummer, Taylor picks out a bass pattern on the low strings of his Gibson with his right hand while chording on the high strings with his left.

“My bass line is really where I start and end,” Taylor went on. “That presents a real problem for bass players because they have to deal with the fact that I’m playing the bass line, too. They have to either play around me or play with me and that’s very hard to do. It presents a real challenge. It takes a really good player to be able to have that going on and still have any freedom.”

Did that battle for the low end ever cause fistfights in the rehearsal room?

“No, it never did,” Taylor said with a smile. “Not really. Some of my best friends are bass players.”

It was telling that Taylor also referred to himself as “the pianist” in his first band, The Flying Machine. But he did not mean he tickled the ivories. Instead, he meant that he played chords and set the tempo and left the soloing to others. Taylor’s one-man-band approach to his instrument came out of his devising a way to approximate the sound of full accompaniment after he left his teenage rock groups and set out as a solo troubadour.

“Had I been one of four guys in a group, I would probably have played differently,” he said. “I started off just accompanying myself, so my style was reinforced.”

A couple generations of aspiring guitarists have tried to decipher James Taylor’s style. He invites them behind the curtain on May 6, when he hosts Guitar Conversations, the third of four evenings Taylor has put together as part of his Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall.

The evening promises to be an appreciation of the guitar, an explication of Taylor’s style, and a public extension of the guitar lessons he has been posting on his website in recent months. More than the usual here’s-how-you-play format, his online lessons represent something of a master class, with tiny cameras that show chording from Taylor’s perspective looking down at the guitar neck and picking from inside the sound hole.

“I think we will use the technology that has been developed for the website in Guitar Conversations,” Taylor said. “We have a camera in the guitar that shows what the right hand is doing better than any camera on the outside can do. You can choose an outside shot of the right hand or you can choose the inside shot. And then the string lights up when you play it. You can see it vibrating. We’ll probably have a large screen behind us to show what’s going on.”

That’s a lot of modern technology to bring to bear on an acoustic instrument. Taylor said it’s all part of figuring out how to cast fresh eyes on an old-fashioned undertaking.

“The lessons aren’t what I thought they would be,” Taylor said. “One lesson will be a song like ‘Country Road,’ and then the next one will be about suspended fourths. It was a surprise that I needed to actually come up with new things to offer each time. We also make little side films. The first one was about how to prepare your nails if you’re going to fingerpick. The second one was about how you can set up a guitar so you can capo it and it doesn’t go out of tune. It’s giving me a bed of stuff that I can use in the guitar evening.”

Taylor has had some setbacks in his picking career. In 1969, he broke both his hands in a motorcycle accident; when the casts came off, many of the songs on what became the Sweet Baby James album poured out. In the ’80s, he sliced his hand open with a machete while attempting to open a coconut. It took some time for him to regain dexterity.

“I also broke this thumb and didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks,” Taylor said, offering his left hand. “It’s always the left hand, too—the one you don’t want to hurt.”

Asked which guitarists influenced him, Taylor first mentioned his childhood friend and long-time collaborator Danny Kortchmar. Others? “Ry Cooder is the best fingerpicker. He and Mark Knopfler. I put Ry in the same bag as a guy named Joseph Spence, who had an album called Music of the Bahamas: Bahaman Folk Guitar. That record influenced a lot of us.”

Taylor said of his guitar style, “It’s been a very slowly evolving thing. Because I was self-taught, I rarely studied any particular technique or learned anything other than wandering my own way through the instrument and trying to emulate other people.”

Taylor looks back on his own compositions as representing different periods in his guitar explorations.

“There was a D period and there was a E-minor–ninth period. ‘Only a Dream in Rio’ is an E-minor–ninth song. ‘Song for You Far Away’ is both D and E-minor–ninth. There are A songs. ‘Sunny Skies’ and ‘Fire and Rain’ are A songs.”

A lucrative period?

“A was an excellent period,” Taylor agreed. “G songs like ‘You’ve Got a Friend’—those were capoed, so the fingering was D. ‘Blossom’ is a good essential D song. ‘Blossom’ is actually in F, but its capoed up to the third fret, so you’re playing like it’s in D. ‘Country Road’ is a drop-D song.”

Taylor was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’m really committed to the key of D. Miles Davis once told me, ‘James, D is your key.’ That’s all I needed to hear!”

Taylor’s first instrument, as a child, was the cello. In recent years he has returned to it.

“I go on and off it,” he said of the cello. “Sometimes I’ll go for a couple of weeks playing every day, and then I’ll let it slip again. So far, I’m approaching it like a folk instrument. I’m just sitting down in my barn and playing. It’s nice to get together with it again. I did a little bit of work with Yo-Yo Ma. Kim (James’s wife) was the connection there. She knows Yo-Yo well. The cello has come back into my life in a major way.”

Does going to a new instrument change the way Taylor looks at the guitar?

“Yeah, it does a little bit,” he said. “Although it’s funny. My brother Livingston is a music educator now. He picked up the piano, went at it straight on, learned to play in five years, and then learned to read in another five years. But I was amazed to see that it did not produce a sea of change in his harmonic sense. I thought it would. It stretched him, and there were definitely some areas he expanded, but he still tended to prefer the same type of harmonic stuff that he does on the guitar.”

The lesson seems to be that we are who we are. The personality shapes the music, not the other way around. It would be hard to think of a better example of the merging of instrument and personality than that of the guitar and James Taylor.

—Bill Flanagan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

James Taylor's Perspectives series is made possible, in part, by The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.
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