Mix Interview: James Taylor

Jan 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Gregory DeTogne


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Secrets of JT’s Guitar: Chords in Reverse

Ever wonder what it is exactly that makes James Taylor sound like James Taylor? His front-of-house engineer David Morgan did, and pinpointed at least one source of the artist’s singular sonic signature shortly after meeting him in 2005.

“I was watching him play and noticed he used inverse fingering techniques on some chords,” Morgan recalls. “Most specifically, while playing A and D chords, he’d have his index finger on the first string and his middle finger on the third—just the opposite of what most players would traditionally do. If you think about it, this goes a long way in defining the James Taylor sound.”

For his part, Taylor mostly shrugs off the importance of Morgan’s revelation, responding that that’s the way he learned to play those chords. “My way does allow me to really hammer off that third string, though,” he admits. “I can really pull hard, and I guess you could call that a signature thing for me.”

Now go listen to “Country Road” or “Fire and Rain” again. Yes, that’s where that little fill on the third comes from. “The technique frees up his pinkie to help run the bass lines he’s known for, too,” Morgan adds. “I can’t help but wonder how many other people wondered how he did these things all these years. Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag.”

On Monitors…
Onstage, the JT show is a mixed bag of sonic sources. “Despite the diversity of how the performers listen to their stage mixes, this show is very straightforward from a monitoring perspective,” says monitor engineer Rachel Adkins. “In terms of stage volume and consistency, it may indeed be true that the ideal situation would be one with everyone on ears. But reality dictates that my aural palette is one that draws from both ears and wedges.”

Drummer Steve Gadd likes wedges. Ditto Larry Goldings on keys and Mike Landau on guitar. Taylor has been known to take a combined approach, at one point using a powered monitor on his right side and a single, mono-fed earbud on his left—a habit first established while doing shows with a small rhythm section and a symphony orchestra.

Giving guidance to the whole affair from behind an Avid D-Show desk, Adkins takes it all in stride with professional panache, making the task sound much easier than it actually is. “I just make a few adjustments here and there,” she says, downplaying the importance of her efforts. “The stage dynamics are fantastic. Even the finest chefs still have to choose the right ingredients to make their food taste great. It’s a similar situation in my world. But with musicians like this onstage, the substance of my role gains a huge amount of integrity before I even power-up my console.”

Guitar Tech Jon Prince
Jon “JP” Prince first met James Taylor in 2001 during technical rehearsals for the Pullover Tour in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hired-on as a carpenter/rigger, JP was 30 feet up in the air lying belly-down in a truss, finishing up some last-minute airborne details. “Don’t drop anything on me now,” Taylor told the high-flying JP good naturedly from below as he inspected the stage. JP didn’t, of course, a fact which in terms of career moves translated thereafter into landing the job as Taylor’s trusted guitar tech.

As with every member of the Taylor crew, JP is a master of multitasking. During a show, if he’s not stealthily handing-off a guitar to Taylor onstage, he’s probably tuning another, plus doing a lot more. “I listen to the same mix as James does, so I know immediately if there’s a problem,” JP relates on jamestaylor.com. “I’m also watching to make sure [bassist] Jimmy Johnson and [guitarist] Mike Landau are comfortable and have everything they need. Along with my own specific duties, I’m one of the many sets of eyes and ears on the road crew working to keep things running smoothly.”

JT's Road Gear
Guitars found within Taylor’s road inventory include Olson SJ and SJ Cutaway and Dreadnought models. His main guitar is an SJ with a cedar top and rosewood back and sides. Each of the Olsons is outfitted with LB6 Series pickups from L.R. Baggs. A mainstay among performers playing large halls, the unitary pickups/saddles are used with Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre preamplification leading into a Fishman Aura acoustic imaging blender.

“Gains are formidable with this combination,” FOH engineer David Morgan notes. “The strings sound as if they are resonating in wood, not across a crystal. Making an acoustic guitar sound real is a major sound reinforcement challenge James has long addressed.”

Turning to the electric side of things, when he uses his Telecaster, JT plays through a Line 6 PODxt guitar effects unit programmed by Michael Landau. For vocals, he uses an Earthworks SR40V cardioid condenser. “We first used the SR40V when James and Carole King played the Hollywood Bowl last year on the Troubadour Reunion Tour,” Morgan recalls. “We had tried the original prototype earlier in rehearsals and knew it had all the characteristics we were looking for in a high-end vocal mic. The SR40V perfectly complements the natural sound of James’ voice. Implementing the first working model was an easy choice, and partnering with Earthworks on the development of this exceptional product has yielded outstanding results.”

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