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more... ArtistsGuitaristsBluesJanuary 2013RockJoanne Shaw Taylor

Interview: Joanne Shaw Taylor - Voodoo Grooves and Guitarmageddon Tones

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Interview: Joanne Shaw Taylor - Voodoo Grooves and Guitarmageddon Tones

Taylor says her mother wasn’t too pleased that her teenage daughter played an Esquire with a pinup girl on it, but she softened a bit when Taylor played a gig with Annie Lennox for the Queen. Photo by Rob Stanley

Did you also try a different amp?
Yes. Though Billy [White] played bass on the album, his main instrument is guitar. He played with Don Dokken and in Watchtower, and he’s kind of a shred god. Anyway, he brought in his ’72 Marshall 50-watt head and 2x12 for me. At that point, with everything else being new and different, I thought, “Why not? Let’s go for a different sound.” The funny thing was, although I was going for Eric Johnson and Gary Moore, I think I still ended up sounding like me.

I have no qualms telling you I fell in love with that Marshall, and I’m hell-bent on getting one. A ’72 50-watt Marshall is really the holy grail—you put a nice Les Paul through it ... well, it’s perfect.

Any other amps?
Mike had an old ’60s Silvertone we used a lot for the rhythm. That and Billy’s Marshall for lead were the two main ones I used for everything. We had both amps in a separate room—a big space at the back of the studio. I could just about hear the Marshall from where we were situated, so I’m pretty sure it was on 11.

Is that a Stratocaster on “Lose Myself ”?
Actually that’s a Music Man. My boyfriend has a fine array of guitars and I stole it from him. It has a nice glassy tone that just seemed to work on that track. We used Mike’s Harmony Master—a 1960s hollowbody— a lot. I used a bunch of different stuff I’d never used before, whether just from not being comfortable with a piece of equipment or feeling there were rules I shouldn’t break. I think I only picked up the Telecaster once or twice, which was quite fun in a way—a busman’s holiday.

What sort of rules are you referring to?
Well, I didn’t want to upset fans who know me as a Tele player. But then I realized the sound is really in your hands, and there’s no harm in trying to inspire yourself with a new instrument or go for a slightly different tone. That was a fun lesson to learn.

Did you use an octave fuzz on the solo in “Soul Station”?
I did. Mike had a bunch of toys, so it was a time of experimentation. That octave fuzz is a Death By Audio pedal called the Octave Clang, which I love. When we cut that track Mike said, “What are you thinking of for the solo?” After hearing what J.J. did on the drums, I said, “I pretty much want it to sound like guitarmageddon.” He handed me the Octave Clang and told me to plug it in. After a few notes I said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

What about other effects?
Mike had an old Rat distortion pedal I used for “Maybe Tomorrow,” which has probably the weirdest solo on the album. We had a vintage Boss chorus pedal, a vintage MXR chorus pedal, and a Dimebag Darrell wah-wah—my favorite wah— hooked up for that. “Maybe Tomorrow” was interesting because I wrote it as a very up-tempo rock song and the lyrics were completely different. I took it to Mike and he said, “That’s not working for me.”


Joanne Shaw Taylor thwacks a 4th-string G while soloing on one of her Strats at a 2011 gig in Bilston, U.K. Photo by Rob Stanley

Ouch.
Yeah, exactly. So we got in with the band and Mike said, “J.J., what are you thinking of on this?” And J.J. slowed it down a lot and made it into what it is—that kind of Dr. John voodoo groove. It sounded really good, but the lyrics didn’t fit with the music anymore, so we left that to the very last minute. As we were finishing up recording, I wrote new lyrics that would fit the new feel. At that point, the whole song became a sort of improvisation. I put down that riff and thought, okay, what else can we add to it?

Out of all the songs, that was the one where we really didn’t know where we were headed. We just built it up by listening and seeing where it wanted to go. Mike had hooked up a Roland Space Echo and was making these weird sounds, and I basically decided I was going to play a couple of phrases and then intersperse strange noises from the Space Echo. We just went for some weird stuff, which was good fun. That song was very produced. Mike chopped and pasted guitar solos, and that makes it more of a piece than a guitar solo. It’s a jam song, all about the vibe.

“Army of One” sounds like you guys were all just jamming in a circle around a couple of mics.
We were, except we didn’t have the luxury of a couple of mics. I think we had one. When I wrote that song, I thought it was going to sound like “Going Home” off the first record and “Dead and Gone” off the second. Because I have this fetish about writing traditional blues lines I want to make modern, I always write these evil blues songs I’d want to hear in an episode of The Sopranos. Like you’re driving through the city late at night and you’ve got a body in your trunk. [Laughs.]

So this was another song like that, but Mike said, “Let’s make it acoustic.” And I said, “Really?” It was the last song we cut. We all went out together to dinner that last night and had a glass or two of wine, and then stopped by the liquor store on the way back to the studio and bought some tequila.

I see where this is going.
We all sat in this one little room. J.J. is on the marching drum, Billy is playing slide, David is on the mandolin, and then there’s me on a hollowbody. Mike came into the room—he’s the one you hear at the beginning of the song telling us what the tempo is because we’d all gotten so excited and unruly we weren’t quite doing the job.

He had to come straighten you out.
Exactly! Dad had to come in and ruin the fun. But we did the song in one take. It was very organic, very last minute—a late-night studio bonding experience. That song is one of my favorites for sentimental reasons.


Taylor bought her ‘66 Esquire on London’s historic Denmark Street when she was 15, and had a Seymour Duncan Jazz SH-2 placed in the neck. Photo by Rob Stanley

What guitar were you playing?
The hollowbody Harmony through a tiny little amp—some 5-watt model Mike picked up in Japan. We had it cranked but it just wasn’t putting out. Most people think it’s a resonator, actually. Half the time I tell them it’s not and half the time I let them believe it is because I don’t want to correct people. [Laughs.] That guitar ended up fitting the song quite well. I don’t think it sounds like an out-and-out electric. It’s a welcome break on the album, and I’ve never done an acoustic track before.

Tell us about the gear you use onstage.
I have my two staple guitars. One is a 1966 Esquire, which I’ve had for years and years—it’s my first guitar. When I was 15, I bought it in London on Denmark Street [a historic stretch of road known for its music shops and recording studios]. At the time I was real scared that my dad was going to beat the hell out of me for taking a train down to London at 15 and buying a ridiculously expensive guitar with all my pocket money. But I got it cheap because the previous owner had attacked it with a knife. It had a gaping hole near the neck, so I had a guitar tech dig it out and add a humbucker there. That made it kind of my dream Telecaster.

What humbucker?
A Seymour Duncan Jazz [SH-2].

Is this Esquire your guitar with the pinup girl on it? And if so, did you put that on or was that from the previous owner?
Yeah, that’s the one, and I added the pinup girl. My mother wasn’t very happy with that—in fact, she was a little worried. You know how moms are: “Why is my daughter putting a picture of a pinup girl on her guitar? And why is she playing guitar anyway?” Try being 15 and attempting to explain to your mom why there’s a half-naked lady on your guitar. It wasn’t her favorite part of my youth, but she’s used to it now. Moms just don’t get rock ’n’ roll, that’s what I’ve learned, but I think the Annie Lennox gig soothed mom’s issues. [In June 2012, Taylor played lead guitar in Lennox’s band for a huge televised Diamond Jubilee Concert in London honoring the Queen.]

Then there’s my Dave Stewart Telecaster, which I’ve had on permanent loan for a decade. It has a Warmoth Tele body, which has a belly cut like a Strat, and a ’55 Fender maple neck. That guitar is so heavy, it sounds like a cross between a Tele and Les Paul.

I’ve seen recent photos of you onstage with a Les Paul.
Yeah, that’s a new addition. It’s a 2008 Custom Shop model. A little bit lighter than most—about nine pounds—with a ’60s neck. With my teeny, tiny girl hands, I can’t play the big ol’ ’50s baseball-bat Les Paul necks.

Those are my main three guitars. I’ve got a bunch of odds and sods, the kinds of things I go into pawnshops to find. They’re dirt cheap and I like them. I’ve got a Squier 51—Fender’s answer to a Telecaster/Strat hybrid—that’s worth about 100 bucks. I installed a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates and pimped it out a little bit. Also a ’92 Tele and an ’88 Tele, which are both pawnshop finds, and then a couple of standard Strats, including one my grandmother bought me. They’re pretty standard, though I’ve replaced the pickups in most of them.

And stage amps?
Live, I’ve been using a Louis Electric KR-12 combo and a ’65 Bassman head driving a 2x12 Marshall cab with standard Celestion Greenback speakers. The Bassman has been modded to ’62 specs, and I use it for clean rhythm sounds like on “Beautifully Broken,” “Lose Myself to Loving You,” and “Diamonds in the Dirt.” I’ve always been a huge fan of Bassmans. I love the ’62 cream Tolex Bassmans—I just think there’s nothing more beautiful. Even if I ever have a child, I think I’d find the Bassman more beautiful.

What does your pedalboard look like?
At the beginning of this year, I decided to strip down my pedalboard. I’m a typical guitar player, so I’ve gone through a bunch of phases. I’ve had a pedalboard the size of a Hammond B3, and it’s not fun to tour with and lug around. So now I play through a little board. I keep one in Australia, one here in the U.S., and one in Europe, and they’re all pretty much carbon copies.

I use three pedals from Mojo Hand FX—a Recoil Delay, a Colossus Fuzz, and a Rook Overdrive, which has replaced my Tube Screamer. Other than that, I have a Way Huge Aqua Puss delay, which I use for slapback, and an MXR Dyna Comp, one of the old models. These pedals give me pretty much everything I need. I’ve also added a Death By Audio Octave Clang for the solo on “Soul Station.” Between the amps and different guitars, five or six pedals are all I need to get the tones I want. How about strings and picks? I’m a devoted fan of Ernie Ball strings— always have been. I use the Skinny Top Heavy Bottom sets, gauged .010–.052. I tune down a half-step—mostly for my voice, because I have a slightly lower register— and I used to play with .011s. But then I grew up and realized I have female hands and I’d have to stop playing in 10 years if I continued using big-boy strings. I don’t have Jimi Hendrix’s hands!

I’ve just started using the Dunlop Eric Johnson signature picks, the little jazz picks. I find those plectrums really help with righthand control. It’s not so much for speed, but for making sure the notes ring nicely.

Joanne Shaw Taylor’s Gear

Guitars
Customized 1966 Fender Esquire, Warmoth T-style with ’55 Fender Telecaster maple neck, 2008 Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul, Fender Squier 51, various production Fender Stratocasters

Amps
’65 Fender Bassman head and 2x12 Marshall cab with Celestion Greenback speakers, Louis Electric KR-12

Effects
MXR Dyna Comp, Way Huge Aqua Puss delay, Death By Audio Octave Clang, and Mojo Hand FX Recoil, Colossus, and Rook

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball Skinny Top Heavy Bottom sets, Eric Johnson Classic Jazz III picks

In the liner notes for Almost Always Never, you’re credited with all electric guitars and vocals, as well as playing something called Gordon on “Piece of the Sky” and “Lose Myself to Loving You.” What’s that?
Well, there’s some background to this story. Mike puts his name on everything—every microphone has “property of Mike McCarthy” on it, for example. When I took that first studio tour, I looked around and thought, okay, that’s the sign of a control freak. After I got to know Mike I teased him about it, saying it was like a child going to school for the first time and his mom puts his name in his underpants. Fortunately he took it well.

One day when Mike and I were going over the songs before the band came in, he said, “I’ve seen this 1960s Gibson acoustic in Guitar Center and I want to buy it. The only problem is, the previous owner was obviously a kid and he put giant orange letters on it to spell out his name. It’s a beautiful ’60s Gibson with these really gross, plastic letters spelling Gordon.” I said, “Well, buy it anyway.” And the next day he brings that guitar in.

Do you know what model Gibson?
I think it was a J-45. So that’s what I played on those two songs. It was just funny that he found his dream acoustic guitar and some kid had put his name across it in giant orange letters. Karma. So Gordon is just an acoustic guitar, but you have to call it by its proper name.

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