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How to Get James Taylor's Tone

Ted Drozdowski

James Taylor J-50Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma is irrelevant to most guitar aficionados. At least it was until this Tuesday, when James Taylor’s Other Covers became available.

The song opens Taylor’s new album, the sequel to last year’s successful Covers, which paid tribute to Elvis Presley, George Jones, Glenn Campbell and others.

This time Taylor is also applying his beautifully spare sensibility to gospel (“Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm”), doo-wop (“Get a Job”), early rock and roll (Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”) and R&B (“In the Midnight Hour,” “Knock on Wood”). But the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune in particular relies on Taylor’s strengths: his crystalline voice and his deft, unhurried finger picking on acoustic guitar.

When Paul McCartney signed Taylor to the Beatles’ Apple Records in ’68, McCartney remarked, “I just heard his voice and his guitar and I thought he was great.”

James Taylor J-50Although Taylor has always surrounded himself with crack bands, even for his eponymous 1968 debut that produced the hits “Fire and Rain” and “Carolina On My Mind,” he has, indeed, never needed anything more than a Gibson-style acoustic and his remarkable gift for vocal phrasing and tone to amaze.

Taylor is the sole star from the classic rock era whose career has continued to grow while exclusively employing the acoustic guitar.

Early on Taylor played a Gibson J-50, and through the decades he’s played a wide variety of instruments. Today he uses guitars custom made for him by Minnesota luthier James A. Olson, which Taylor has described in interviews as having Gibson-style necks. What unites all of Taylor’s acoustic guitar choices over the decades is highly responsive soundboards to accommodate the wide dynamic range of his light-touch picking. Taylor also frowns on finger picks, using his thumb and the nails of his first three fingers.

Whatever Taylor has played, his delicate, cleanly articulated sound has been instantly recognizable. Blues, especially the picking of Elizabeth Cotten, played a role in the development of his own style, but he’s also been influenced by jazz pianist Bill Evans, classical, Latin, Cuban and Brazilian musics, and, like everyone of the 61-year-old’s generation, the Beatles. From all that, Taylor developed a technique rippling with countermelodies and lines that balance bass and lead licks simultaneously.

Taylor plays primarily in standard tuning, and usually below the sixth fret of his guitar, adding to his music’s warmth. He has occasionally recorded in open G (“Love Has Brought Me Around”) and uses dropped D for “Country Road” and a handful of others. And he often employs a capo.

In his youth Taylor had a flirtation with electric guitar. He played a Silvertone and a Fender Duo-Sonic in his first rock bands. But starting with his first acoustic guitar, the J-50 he purchased in his teens, Taylor has had a love affair with natural tone generation that’s still in full bloom.

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