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This article was originally published in issue #47
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Dr Martin Taylor, MBE is, quite simply, one of the most astonishing fingerstyle guitarists in the world.
Dr Martin Taylor, MBE is, quite simply, one of the most astonishing fingerstyle guitarists in the world. You could say he is a Jazz player, or you could just say he is a composer, musician and all-round musical genius. It's a genius that has led to collaborations with a list that includes Jeff Beck, Tommy Emmanuel, Bill Wyman, Chet Atkins, Stephane Grappelli, David Grisman, George Harrison, Jamie Cullum, Bryn Terfel, Dianne Schuur and Gary Burton. Levi Clay interviews one of the world's greatest guitarists.
There are very few Jazz guitarists that have come along since 1950 that can honestly say they've brought something new to the table. Even fewer can say they've developed a style so idiosyncratic that it's influenced many generations of musicians all over the world, but Martin Taylor can claim this, along with so much more, including being a Member of the Order of the British Empire!
Born in 1956 in Harlow, Essex, Martin Taylor was exposed to music at a young age. His family had a rich musical history, with his father being a Jazz bass player, particularly fond of the manouche Gypsy swing music
At the age of four Martin was given his first guitar, and over the next 11 years he would hone his craft before leaving school at the age of 15 to become a full time professional musician. Learning music, (and especially Jazz) in the '50s was a very different thing to the way many players experience it today. When he was a child the new and exciting Jazz music being released was by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and those other names that in 2017 we consider the pillars of the genre, - legends even. It's hard to imagine a time where Miles began to pioneer modal Jazz with Kind of Blue. Trane hadn't even composed Giant Steps, and Rollins was many years off releasing his defining Bridge album. The world was a very different place and the era’s music reflected that.
When Martin was learning, it was the music of 10, 20, or even 30 years earlier that were considered the “standards”, and learning them was a social experience rather than an intellectual one. The music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington still had a huge influence, and Jazz songs were still that: songs. Today the idea of going to school to learn Jazz is a common one, but in the late '50s, the idea would have been laughed at. You'd learn your chords, and learn songs, then go out and play them with people. In doing so you'd meet better musicians, and they'd show you new things and over time your playing would evolve naturally.
This is exactly how it worked for Taylor, who played in local Jazz groups (even playing regularly in his father's band at the age of eight!), social events, and cruise ships. While these might not be thought of as the best way to learn all the advanced theoretical concepts associated with Jazz today, there's still no better way to learn the repertoire than going out and playing like this.
The other benefit of going out and playing is the networks you build as you meet new people, and proving that it's not just what you know, but who you know, it was these gigs that would open the doors to a career spanning over 50 years.
Eventually Martin would meet and become close friends with Ike Isaacs, a wonderful guitarist with a long history of playing with many greats of the day. While Martin would learn from, and play with, Ike for a long time, it was his introduction to Django Reinhardt's partner, and Jazz violin pioneer Stéphane Grappelli, that would change Martin's life forever.
Touring the world and recording with one of the most important names in Jazz for 11 years brought instant gravitas to Martin's brand, and being one of the most exciting players around certainly didn't hurt! This combination of things would grab the attention of players and labels alike, from Chet Atkins to Sony, so in his downtime he decided to play more solo guitar to showcase his unique sound and stop having to rely on other musicians.
As a solo artist, Martin's output is something to behold with well over 20 releases to his name. Some of the notable recordings that showcase his incredible playing include, 1995's Portraits (with Chet Atkins), 1999's Kiss & Tell, 2002's Solo, 2006's Sketches: A Tribute To Art Tatum, and (my personal highlight) 2008's Double Standards. Double Standards sees Martin playing his favourite repertoire as duet arrangements with himself, it's a real treat to hear how Martin would work play material if he had four hands, and the results are perfect!
With such an incredible fingerstyle technique comprised of well defined bass lines, melodies and chordal work between, it would be fair to say that much of Martin's sound comes from his fingers. While he has many guitars and signature models over the years from brands including Yamaha, Vanden, and Peerless, you're going to be able to sound like Martin with any decent Jazz hollow body though a clean amp...assuming you have some of the best technique in the world.
And if you're wanting to develop some of these skills, Martin does have a long history as an educator as well as a performer. In book form there is The Martin Taylor Guitar Method, and there's a series of videos with Steffan Grossman, along with his own online music school where members are able to watch hundreds of hours of great content, along with submitting their own assignments for Martin to personally respond to on video. There are no guarantees, but it's probably the only chance you'll have to play like the man himself.
Outside of his incredible solo playing, Martin also fronts the popular Gypsy tribute act, Spirit of Django which showcases a completely different side to his playing that's inspired by the late great Django, but still very much his own thing.
Continuing to push boundaries in music and business, Martin's latest outing sees him adopting the crowd funding model on the Patreon scheme, where fans pledge a small monthly (as little as $1) in exchange for new content, be it recordings, insider info, videos, or much more. While this is a relatively new model that's been great for some musicians, it's yet to be adopted by the public in full, but it's a great concept. It allows an artist to cut out any middle man when making music (record companies etc) meaning the artist can take a bigger chunk of the pie, and the fans get content they never would have had access to 15 years ago – for less than the cost of a CD each year. It's genuinely encouraging to see someone of Martin's calibre adopt such a modern idea, demonstrating once again that he's still pushing boundaries all these years on. But it needs to be stressed that this is just one way of interacting with him. The Martin Taylor website offers some extremely enterprising tuition opportunities, for example, a retreat in a Scottish castle, alternatively in Singapore, or perhaps you'd prefer the Catskill Mountains in the USA?