Interview: Martin Taylor
From Django to Tony Bennett via Chet Atkins, the jazz guitar virtuoso tells us how he started out on the road to being a musician.
Martin Taylor’s obsession with gypsy jazz guitar started at a very early age. In fact, to hear the British jazz institution tell it, his interest began before he was even born: “My dad was a big Django Reinhardt fan, so I was listening to the Hot Club de France when I was still in my mother’s womb!” Taylor exclaims.
“Then, when I was four years old, I picked up my dad’s guitar and started to play it. Apparently I made very quick progress, so my father decided to buy himself a double bass and let me be the guitarist in the family.”
If that sounds like the prefect start for any budding musician to have, things didn’t go totally smoothly for Taylor at the start. “My first guitar was a Russian classical-style instrument that my father bought at Pettycoat Lane market for a pound,” he recalls. “It was almost impossible to play, and should have put me off guitar playing for life! My second was made by a friend of my dad’s out of some old pieces of wood and some salvaged bits of various guitars. He tried to make it look like a Strat… but it ended up like a cross between a small canoe and a chair leg!
It was almost unplayable. But worse than that, it made my fingers bleed! Then my father bought me a Framus electric from our local music shop. I played that for a while, but noticed that the action started getting higher and higher until one day I picked it up, played a chord, and the guitar exploded! The neck came away from the body with an almighty crash and I was left holding bits of broken wood!”
The youngest of three children, Taylor’s early musical influences unsurprisingly came from what he heard at home. “As a little kid I spent a lot of time at home on my own with my mum,” he explains. “She had a great love of music that also influenced me a lot.
She used to play all these Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett records. I remember that at the time thinking, ‘You’re playing that soppy music again!’ But I became fascinated by it and grew to love that music, and it’s one of the things that I listen to a lot now. I learned a lot from singers, but what really struck me was listening to the orchestras. I was fascinated by the combination of sounds.”
By the time he came to buy his own records, however, his father’s jazzy influence had started to take hold. “My dad told me about Wes Montgomery when I was about 11 or 12, and I think I saw Barney Kessel on TV,” Taylor remembers. “I really liked what I heard and I’d not heard anything like that before. To me, up to that moment in time Django was the jazz guitar player.
So I went up to our local newsagent that had a small record department and asked whether they had any records by Wes Montgomery. And they said: ‘We can order them’.” They had a list of these records and I just saw one and I picked it out. It was called California Dreamin’. It was one of his with strings, but I didn’t know that.”
In those days, however, ordering a new album was an endurance event. “Every week I used to go up there to see if it had come in and I think it took about six or seven weeks,” Taylor explains. “Eventually I went home with this double album – one of the more ‘commercial’ Creed Taylor-produced albums. But I really liked it, because there was a lot of strings on it and a lot of orchestral things going on.
It was the first time I’d heard octave playing. There were just a few times when he broke out and played some single-string lines, but even though there weren’t very many of them, it was enough. That’s all I needed. Just to hear that.
A lot of jazz aficionados said: ‘Oh, you don’t want to get that record, it’s just commercial rubbish’. And I said, ‘Well I think it’s really great. And anyway, I’m a complete sucker for strings’. Then other people who were hip to that said, ‘You’ve got to listen to Smokin’ At The Half Note’. The famous trio [Miles Davis’s Wynton Kelley Trio rhythm section]. And the two combined did it for me.”
Slow & Low
Listening to Montgomery and his band play was a revelation for Taylor, and he was soon sitting down with his guitar and attempting to learn the guitar lines for himself. “Our record player used to be able to run a 33 at half-speed – around 16,” he recalls. “I soon discovered that if you play an LP at 16, you play everything an octave lower and slower, and by doing that, you could pick tunes up. It was perfect for me as I couldn’t read music, so everything was done by ear.”
It wasn’t just Wes that captured a young Martin’s imagination however, and it wasn’t long before he was looking to incorporate the styles of other instruments into his guitar repertoire. “My dad also used to play a lot of Fats Waller and Art Tatum, and I became quite fascinated by that,” he says.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to play like that on the guitar?’ And of course I didn’t know that it was possible at the time – and I wouldn’t until I heard classical guitar players and then Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. Travis would be playing things such as a walking bass line while he was playing some chords and melody. However, I knew that I didn’t want to play classical guitar and I didn’t want to go country pickin’.
It’s not that I didn’t like all of that, but I came from a jazz background and I wanted to be able to improvise. So that was a big revelation for me, that it was actually technically possible to do these things. I had all these ideas in my mind about being able to play the guitar and having the same kind of effect as a piano player would have with the left hand and the right hand. The problem was that when I went to play, I realised that I couldn’t play the guitar well enough. My musicality was way beyond my ability!”
Martin plays Peerless signature models, but also more boutique offerings, such as this Vanden Artistry Caprice
For many of us, that first gig can be a moment of serious trepidation, but for Martin, there was an added pressure. “Talk about being thrown in at the deep end!” Martin chuckles. “One Saturday night when I was 11, my dad had gone out to do a gig with his dance band and then about half an hour later he came back and said to my mum: ‘Get out a bow tie and Martin’s going to put a suit on.
The guitar player hasn’t shown up.’ So I went to do the gig. The guitar player came back for a little while, but then eventually decided to pack it in. The guys from the band said: ‘why don’t you get your boy to do it?’ By this time I was just coming up to 12. So I started doing gigs with my dad and this was when I bought my first real guitar – a Guild Starfire Deluxe from Ivor Mairants for 90 guineas.”
Despite the hair-raising intro, Martin had caught the bug, and it was soon taking precedence over everything else, even his education. “I didn’t go to school very often!” he exclaims. “At school I didn’t tell anyone that I played the guitar. I remember once at music class I asked if I could bring my guitar and they said no.
They said it wasn’t a proper instrument. So I left when I was 15, ’cos I was already playing three or four gigs a week with the Lenny Hastings band. Then I went up to Morecambe to do a summer season, and by the time I was 17 I was playing in the Harry Bence band on the QE2 – I was the youngest musician ever to play on a Cunard liner.”
Taylor’s rise to a cruise ship maestro was rapid, but it was one that was couched in a few tall tales, and a fair bit of brass neck on the part of the young guitarist. “When I joined the band on the QE2 they asked me if I could read music and I told a bit of a lie and said yes,” he remembers. “I realised that they wouldn’t discover that I couldn’t read until we were in the middle of the Atlantic, and I was sure that they weren’t going to send me back! After a couple of days Harry [Bence] said, ‘You can’t read music very well, can you?’ So I said, ‘Well actually I can’t read music at all, I’m just busking it’. So he gave me some clarinet books with tablature – I learned on the gig.”
It was a gig that would expand Taylor’s horizons in a variety of ways. “We went to New York and I was based in that part of the world for two years,” he adds. “I used to go to the Village Vanguard to listen to all those fabulous jazz musicians and I also picked up a nice Gibson ES-175 from one of the guitar stores on 48th street.”
Taylor came back to UK shores when he was around 19 and he remembers playing an opening set at Oxford St’s famous 100 Club upon his return. “It was the first time I’d played the club and as luck would have it, the great jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs was there and Ike invited me round to his house,” he remembers. “I learnt so much from Ike, he was really my guitar mentor. I had this idea in my head about playing solo, so he helped me a lot with that. He was a fantastic solo player and turned me on to Lenny Breau – one of the greatest guitar players ever.
He really reinforced my belief that it was possible to achieve what I had going on in my head. Then I met Peter Boizot, who was the founder of Pizza Express. Peter was a big jazz fan and when he opened his first pizza place in London’s Wardour Street he made a point of always having jams on there.
Then he opened one called Pizza on the Park and he said, ‘I’m thinking of having music in there on a Thursday night – a duo’, and he said. I saw Ike later that day and told him about it and he said ‘Yes I’d love to – but we need to rehearse. We can’t just busk’. So I used to go round to his house a couple of times a week and we’d come up with arrangements. I never had lessons with Ike, but I learnt so much from him because we were rehearsing together – and these were lessons in themselves.”
These ‘lessons’ would be a turning point Martin’s developing guitar style. “Ike got such a beautiful semi-acoustic kind of sound, and I kind of followed that tradition.” Taylor continues. “I play fingerstyle, so there’s a lot of definition and separation between all the notes. If I had a sound that was too electric, all the notes kind of merge.
I think you need something that’s going to ring out a little bit more. That’s where my sound is different from most jazz guitar players. At first jazz critics thought that this was just a technical thing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The whole thing was led by the music. Unfortunately I just had rather complicated ideas. I learned by stripping everything down. I describe the way I play solo as a bit of a souffle – there’s a lot of space in the middle! It sounds a lot bigger than it really is.”
Box Of Tricks
While Martin’s first guitars were wounding – both physically and mentally – these days his choice is much more befitting for a man of his talents. “I’m playing Peerless Guitars made in Busan, South Korea,” he says of his signature squeezes. “I designed two models that Peerless manufacture for me, the Maestro and the Virtuoso. I designed them so that they have a greater dynamic range than most archtop guitars – a strong bass and more sparkling high frequencies, in contrast to most archtops, which have a lot of mids.”
With a 50-year career in music behind him, it’s no surprise that Taylor has owned some droolsome guitars. “I’ve had a 1935 Selmer Maccaferri ‘Grande Bouche’, a 1936 D’Angelico Deluxe, a 1929 Martin 000-45, and quite a few other vintage instruments,” he confirms. “I have about 20 guitars at the moment. Some are my working guitars, some are investments, and some have sentimental value, like my dad’s 1958 Hofner President.”
It’s not just his father’s guitar that Taylor holds dear – those early records that he’d hear him play remain touchstones, and none more so than Django Reinhardt. “I always remember that the first thing that struck me, and was really different from the other musicians that I heard, was the directness of his playing,” he enthuses. “It was as if his playing was talking directly to me and of course, as I grew up I realised what that was about. He was just a master of melodic improvisation – the most difficult form of improvisation. To improvise something on the spot and make it as good or maybe even better than the original melody. And taking it in different directions – it’s story telling.”
“I work a lot in America now and there has been a resurgence in what they now call ‘Gypsy jazz’ And there are a lot of great players, but a lot of them seem to miss the point of just how melodic Django was,” he observes as our conversation winds up. “Not all of them, but for the majority of them it’s all about whizzing around, very fast. But if you actually listen to Django, he didn’t do that.
When you go back to listen to a lot of the tracks, one of the things that is often very striking is just how slow the tempos were. He never played anything that was really fast. He played fast flurries, but always in a very melodic way. They always fitted into the melody. The music came first.”