Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: legendary solo jazz guitarist Martin Taylor MBE
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
MT: I think of myself as a storyteller and have always been fascinated with communicating feelings and emotions through music. The first time I experienced that was as a kid hearing Django Reinhardt. His melodic improvisations made a very direct connection to me; it sounded to my young ears as if he was telling a story through the guitar, and that was what got me into wanting to play the guitar and instrumental music.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal can’t?
MT: I think we can compare vocal music and instrumental music in a similar way to radio versus television. TV is great, but there is something about not having visual images in front of you that sparks the imagination. That’s why I love radio. I also love vocal music, but music without lyrics can give us better opportunity to use our imaginations.
GT: Anything you embrace or avoid?
MT: I try to avoid the guitar dictating to me what I can and can’t create. That’s why I create all my music without the guitar in my hands. I create it in my mind first, then visualise how I could play it on the guitar, and finally pick up the guitar and bring the two together. Otherwise, we just end up just playing what we know and can’t move on from that. I teach all my students how to develop this creative process and break out of their technical limitations.
GT: Is a typical song structure still useful for instrumentals?
MT: A lot of the tunes I write have a 32-bar AABA structure like most songs from the Great American Songbook, but I’ve also written many songs that have a looser structure. The important things about writing anything is that it does have a structure, but it doesn’t have to have any of the typical structures. It helps if you set out where you want the song to go, it’s then up to you to find a route from beginning to end. Structure stops a song from just rambling on and gives it form.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
MT: I’ve learned such a lot from singers. When I play a melody I try to make it sing. As instrumentalists we have three basic elements that we work with: Melodic, Harmonic, Rhythmic. Singers have a fourth element of Lyrics. A good singer knows not just what to sing but how to interpret the lyrics. When I play a song instrumentally I learn the lyrics and phrase everything as if I was singing those lyrics.
GT: How do you start writing one?
MT: I usually start with the rhythmic element. What kind of feel do I want for this? Then come up with a harmonic structure and some kind of motif. The melody then seems to suggest itself. When I’ve brought all these elements together I then start finely adjusting everything right down to the tiniest detail and giving it the final buff and polish.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
MT: I play mostly solo concerts, so I use every musical mechanism I can muster to tell my stories. Every tune must flow into the next and there must be the element of surprise thrown in to keep the audience’s attention, just like a good story.
GT: Many vocal songs feature a solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this useful for instrumental writing?
MT: Two key works there: pace and dynamics. Even when improvising we must still have some kind of plan about how we’re going to pace that improvisation. We need to decide not only how we want to start it but where we want it to go. If we start with all guns blazing we really have nowhere to go from there except down, so we need to start positively but at a lower dynamic point.
GT: What tone do you prefer?
MT: I only have one guitar tone!
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
MT: Sharp keys (G-D-A-E) suit the guitar very well, but the flat keys (F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db)
can be great too as they have a slightly darker sound. When I’m writing a tune or playing a tune written by someone else, I spend time finding the best key. It’s mostly to do with pitch and range, and less to do with guitar playing.
GT: Minor or Major keys?
MT: They’re the same. I just choose whichever I feel is appropriate.
GT: Any favourite modes?
MT: I don’t know anything about modes. I know I must play them, but I don’t know what they are.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
MT: A good modulation is going up a Minor 3rd because it has a very uplifting effect on the listener. A good example would be E Major modulating up to G Major.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
MT: Subtle re-harmonisations are very effective. I always tell my students to harmonise an eight-bar section one way, then second time they repeat that section they should slightly alter the harmony. It doesn’t distract from the melody but gives another texture to it and makes it more interesting.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
MT: I’ll See You In My Dreams, Django Reinhardt; Parisienne Walkways, Gary Moore; Apache, Hank Marvin
WE CAN COMPARE VOCAL MUSIC AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN A SIMILAR WAY TO RADIO VERSUS TELEVISION
Martin Taylor MBE with one of his gorgeous Vanden guitars