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.
In a recent conversation with Vintage Guitar, Taylor detailed his love of jazz and the reasons he chose to play it. The interviewer had noted that Taylor was from Scotland, and opted to base his first inquiry on that country, only to be set straight by Taylor at the outset:
Vintage Guitar: Did growing up in Scotland mean that your musical inspirations would have been different from someone growing up in England or Ireland?
Martin Taylor: Well, actually I grew up in a small town about 30 miles out of London, but I’ve lived a greater part of my life in Scotland. My mother is English, and comes from a musical family; her grandfather was a violinist and her uncle a professional cellist. My father’s family was also musical; they were traveling folk from Ireland and Scotland and, like all the nomadic people of Europe, had a very strong musical tradition. My paternal grandmother and great-grandmother were very good singers, and my father, Buck Taylor, was quite a well-known jazz bass player in Britain.
I 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 I was obviously greatly influenced by the music my parents listened to, rather than the surroundings that I grew up in. The music of my childhood and youth was the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix; I enjoyed that music also, and had the great privilege of seeing Hendrix play in London when I was about 13. But the music that really moved me, and that had a musical language that I understood best, was jazz.
What about your earliest instruments and experiences?
My father gave me a ukulele when I was about three or four, and he showed me a few chords. He also played guitar, and I would strum away on his brand new 1959 Hofner President. My family was 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 I got a German guitar called a Framus, then when I started to do gigs at around 12, I bought myself a Guild Starfire. I was playing in my 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 I was 15, I had decided that I wanted to pursue a career in music, and at that time it was possible to leave school at 15, 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 Q.E. 2, and sailed to New York. I’d always dreamed of going to America, and it was a very exciting time sailing into New York at sunrise; I had never seen anything like it. One of the first things I 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’s [Howe], although it wasn’t as good as Steve’s. His guitar is amazing.
I 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 I got to play with the Count Basie Orchestra. I got to hear a lot of great jazz musicians at places like the Village Vanguard, and in my mind there was no question that I should play anything but jazz.
Once there was “no question” that you’d be a jazz player, what other instruments did you acquire?
After the ES-175, I bought a 1971 Gibson Johnny Smith, which I used for a long time, until British guitarist Ike Isaacs gave me a 1964 W.G. Barker for my 21st birthday. I used the Barker for many years; all of the tours and recordings I made with Stephane Grappelli were on the Barker.
My first album, Taylor Made, was recorded in London in 1978 for Wave Records. In 1981, I 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.
I also recorded several albums in the early ’80s with clarinetist Buddy de Franco, and I 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. I didn’t really enjoy recording in those early days; it’s only in recent years that I have felt at ease in the studio. I like recording now, and am reasonably happy with my newer recordings.
How and why did you first come to the U.S. to record and further your career here?
My first trip to the States was in 1972, but I didn’t spend much time; it wasn’t until 1979 when I made my first tour with Stephane Grappelli that I got to stay here for an extended visit. I did about 11 or 12 tours with Stephane, I played a couple on my own, and I also came over on three occasions to play duos with the late Emily Remler. She and I played well together; I loved her playing and it was a great tragedy that her life was cut short.
It was very important for me 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. My career back home began to take off in the late ’80s, so my trips to the States became fewer. I 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 I 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 my appetite to play in the States again; I plan to make regular visits again.
You’ve also been associated with Chet Atkins; I saw you on a Nashville Network program with Mr. Atkins and Vince Gill, among others.
I was playing at a guitar festival in Israel a few years ago, and met Marcel Dadi, the French guitarist. He invited me to play at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society’s guitar festival at Issoudun, in France. I 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. I had already met Chet many years before in the States, and in fact we recorded a track together at Chet’s studio in 1987; the tune was “Here, There and Everywhere.” I put it on my latest solo album, Portraits, along with two new duets that Chet and I recorded last year in Nashville.
I’ve been a Chet fan since I was a kid; it’s funny, because on that TV show, 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’s such a hero of mine!
On that show you were playing a large, blond archtop. What was the make and model?
The guitar I used was the prototype of a guitar I 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.
I’ve been a Yamaha endorsee for six or seven years. I have two AEX1500 production models; one blond, one sunburst. I also have two prototypes, the blond one you saw on TV and a black model. I have another Yamaha archtop guitar called an AES1200, an APX10 steel-string flat-top, a nylon string APX10, and an APX8C, which I use with my band, Spirit of Django. Yamaha has been very good to me!
What other guitars are in your current “arsenal”?
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 me in 1988, and my 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.
My Gibson 175, the Johnny Smith, and a couple of other guitars were all sold at different moments of poverty! I regret parting with them, but I had a family to feed at the time. I 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.
I find it difficult to think of guitars in monetary terms; I could sell a couple of my guitars and buy myself another house or another Mercedes, I guess, but money can’t replace the pleasure I get from these instruments.
Which instruments do you take on the road?
I only travel with my 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. I know that sounds like an ad, but it’s true; that’s why I play them.
How did the Tone Poems II collaboration with Grisman transpire?
David Grisman and I 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 I became friends and always kept in touch; I 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 I have a good relationship with them, so I didn’t want to rock the boat. I suggested that I 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 songwriting. I like to play a lot of that older material, which is probably why David thought it a good idea that I record the archtops. I loved Tone Poems I; I’m a big fan of Tony Rice.
How far back does your acquaintance with Steve Howe go, and how did the Chinery Collection effort come about?
Steve and I 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 I was playing that night, and we just became friends and kept in touch in the same way that my friendship with “Dawg” developed over the years, through a mutual obsession with music. When Linn Records asked me to make a solo album, which ended up being titled Artistry, I asked Steve to produce it.
I 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; I’m proud that I managed to convince Steve to “take the plunge,” and he now does a lot of solo gigs.
Last year Steve introduced me to Scott Chinery. Scott had already approached Steve about recording the Chinery Collection, and apparently Steve suggested that I was the man for the job. I flew up from Nashville to meet Scott and Steve in New Jersey to discuss the recording project. Scott’s collection is staggering! When I walked into the guitar room, I couldn’t speak for about 30 minutes! I’ve 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 I remember, asked me about recording the guitars. I must admit I was in a bit of a daze being surrounded by those guitars!
Howe said, in his interview, that he wanted you in on this project because you were more into “standards,” whereas Howe has his “own” repertoire. Comment?
I guess that’s correct, in that I come from a jazz tradition which draws from the standard repertoire, so I am very much at home in that environment. But as it turned out, I wrote a few tunes for the project, and Steve and I wrote a couple of tunes together. Steve even got me to play a tune where I showcased all of my country licks…all three of them! He really stretched me out on that one!
I’ve written a fair amount of music for TV over the past few years, and I enjoy being given a brief to write to. In this case, the “brief” was the guitar collection, writing music that suits each instrument. I found that to be interesting and challenging.
How did the Chinery recording differ from Tone Poems II?
With Tone Poems II, David and I 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, I guess, although there are a lot of jazz tracks on the Chinery project. They are quite different recordings. On Tone Poems II I 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.
As we’re doing this interview, the recording utilizing the “blue guitars” Chinery commissioned is still pending; what song or songs will you be doing?
We’re still having thoughts about that. We need to find a way of recording the guitars so that they are all heard equally at their best; I have some ideas, and so do Steve and Scott.
I’ve just returned from Paris, where I was recording a new album with my band, Spirit of Django; the album will be called The Gypsy. Stephane Grappelli plays on three tracks, and we recreated the Hot Club of France version of “Undecided” from 1934; it was fun playing Django’s solo.
I’m still playing a lot of solo concerts and my last solo album for Linn Records is selling well. I’ll be recording the Chinery “blue guitars” soon, and a U.S. tour with David Grisman is scheduled for November of this year. I’ll also be making my annual trip to Chet’s convention in Nashville in July.
Next year, Linn will be releasing a compilation CD to mark my 25th year as a professional musician, and I’m searching my attic for any of my old recordings to go on the CD.
In general, life is treating me well; I am very lucky to be involved with such great musicians as Steve, David, and Chet, and as I approach my 40th birthday, I feel as if my life has only just begun.
It’s always gratifying when someone as eloquent on the fretboard as Martin Taylor is also eloquent when he/she does an interview. Taylor’s reputation is international, and his effort on the Chinery Collection guitars will simply add to his stature, around the globe, as a gifted guitarist.
Photo Courtesy of Linn Records
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’96 issue.