“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
“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
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
“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
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.