Taylor preaches his distinctive take on roots music at Colorado’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival with his signature Blue Star Hot Rod Model T Banjoblaster hanging from his shoulders.
Let’s talk about your guitar and banjo technique.
It’s all in the right hand. If you watch a great lead guitar player, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix—they’re also killer rhythm guitar players. I played with Tommy Bolin, so I know he was a killer rhythm guitar player. And it’s all in the right hand.
Do you frail or use claw-hammer technique on banjo?
Most of the time, I play it like I play my guitar. I can kick ass on frailing and clawhammer—do it like a white boy! But my approach is more African.
How did you arrive at that?
One day I was sitting around playing, like, a John Lee Hooker thing on banjo. And I realized I had to play a certain beat and not sing that beat. That’s why people don’t do his slow songs: He sings in one meter and plays in another. It makes the slow stuff so eerie, and that’s what I’m interested in. People say I sound like John Lee Hooker, but I don’t sing anything like him. I think that rhythmic contrast is what they mean. Some of my songs have very strange chord changes, but I sing the chord changes instead of playing them.
And sometimes your songs don’t have any chord changes?
Yeah, and they don’t have bridges or choruses—although some do. Howlin’ Wolf did that, too. That approach is African. Everyone who is into blues stops at Robert Johnson or Son House, but who were they listening to? Who played music when they were little kids? Somebody who might have been a slave.
How did you know Tommy Bolin?
Tommy was a Folklore Center baby. There was a whole circle of musicians who grew up there. The Folklore Center influenced a lot of people. Bill Frisell took lessons there. Lothar and the Hand People came out of the Folklore Center.
How do you build songs in the studio?
This time I was supposed to do an acoustic album, so I was going to track with the electric and go back over my parts with an acoustic. I got in there and started doing some stuff, and I got the best electric sound I ever got. I said, “This is fucking great! I ain’t changin’ this.” The sound was so great I had a flashback of Howlin’ Wolf—funky, simple, and powerful.
How do you get your guitar sound?
I tell the engineer to give me a little amp that sounds good, and maybe put a pedal on it. I used to do all my recordings with a car stereo amp.
What about your tracking methodology?
Most of it’s a trio with some overdubbing. I often track first, by myself, and when I sing nobody else in the band is there. I start with guitar or banjo, drums, and bass. On the first albums, it would be just me and Kenny [Passarelli] on bass, and later Cassie [Taylor, his daughter] on bass. This time we tracked drums with the guitar and bass, too.
Space is such an important element of your sound.
For this one, I had Larry Thompson lay off the cymbals. It opens things up. You listen to African bands and they’re not hitting the cymbals all the time. All the songs I made all my money off of, like “Nasty Letter” and “Ten Million Slaves” … no drums on those cuts. I got 2-and-a-half-million hits on “Ten Million Slaves” on YouTube. No drums.
For years now, you’ve been producing your own albums. Why?
I started after my fourth album, because the guy who was my producer [Passarelli, who also played bass with Joe Walsh, Elton John, and others] left the band. He asked for a raise and said if he didn’t get one he wasn’t going to play bass and he wasn’t going to produce. I had already gone to the Sundance Institute and had learned about film composing and arranging, so I was ready to go.
I always act like I’m sleeping, but I was really paying attention to what he was doing. And my music is simple—not with complicated horns or string sections. The first album I produced was [2004’s] Double V and it won DownBeat blues album of the year. It had a few little cello parts, but it was really stripped down. As a producer, you find the musicians, you find the songwriters. Well, I was the musician and the songwriter, so I didn’t have to find much.
What’s hard when you produce yourself is if you mess something up, you have to go, “Oh, let me fix this,” right in front of the guys. That’s why I never sing in front of the guys. I don’t feel like a natural-born singer. I feel like a storyteller—like a black Bob Dylan, when it comes to my voice.
I don’t think I do anything really great. I just do Otis really good. I’m not a great guitar player. I’m not a great banjo player. I’m not a great harmonica player. But I’m an interesting songwriter.
Let’s talk about your tunings.
In banjo, most of the time I’m in G minor [G–D–G–C–D], called “mountain minor,” too, where the B [in open G] becomes a C. And sometimes I’ll play in open G [G–D–G–B–D]. On guitar I play in regular tuning and in open G. Dick Weissman showed me my other tuning: D–G–D–G–D–G. He showed it to me on banjo and I put it on guitar. He was in a band called the Journeymen.
Delay is an important part of your guitar and banjo sound. How did you get into it?
[Guitarist] Eddie Turner, when he was in my band, told me, “Oh, you should try delay.” So I got a Boss DD-5 and the first time I put it in this setting, the sound blew me away. The setting is 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 12 o’clock, and 5 o’clock. And I can’t get that thing on other delays—only on a DD-5. I have a really good sense of timing. I control the accents and intensity with my right hand.
Do you use the same amp for electric guitar and electric banjo?
In the studio, I play the banjo acoustically. But live I use Fender amps. I like Hot Rod DeVilles, so I can get a little distortion without taking an extra pedal. I like to steer away from pedals. I just use a delay and a tuner. If I don’t have a Hot Rod, I bring a Rook pedal. But I don’t really think about amps technically. In the studio, I just say, “Give me an amp,” and if I don’t like it, it’s, “Fuck this one. Get me another one.” But if it sounds right I don’t say anything. I’m easy until somebody puts something I don’t like in front of me. And it’s always small amps. For this album, they gave me a small amp and put a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster on it, and I was like, “Whoa, this is it!”