Martin Taylor - the global guitar instructor


The recent travel disruption due to volcanic ash left Martin Taylor stranded in Hong Kong. But that didn’t mean that the internationally regarded jazz guitarist had time on his hands. His unscheduled extended stay in the Far East coincided with the launch of his online guitar academy, a system of tuition that allows students to submit videos of their playing so that Taylor can respond to them individually, also by video.


Taylor didn’t absolutely have to be in his home studio in Perthshire when the website that hosts his academy went live and the queue of students began to register for lessons. But he did need access to filming and recording facilities and fortunately, Tom Lee, who has a chain of music shops all over China and Hong Kong, stepped in with the offer of a rehearsal studio. So, despite waiting on stand-by for an alternative to the flight he’d been promised that would get him home on May 13, at the earliest, Taylor was communicating with students in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Hong Kong, the US, and the UK.

“It’s really exciting,” says Taylor, who is due to be presented with an honorary doctorate by the RSAMD in July. “I’d never actually taught guitar before, although I’ve come up with a method that seems to work. What happens is that, instead of buying a DVD or a video that’s one-sided and gives no way of checking progress, students can learn from one of the 150 or so videos on the website. They then post videos of themselves, a bit like it is with YouTube, on the academy website and I respond, giving them pointers and showing ways of making improvements. It’s not a private lesson, because all the videos go online, but everyone learns from everyone else and you get a kind of community, and the lessons can be that bit deeper.”


Within minutes of launching, the Martin Taylor Guitar Academy had over forty students enrolled and that figure is now into the hundreds, something that has taken California-based Artist Works, who initiated the online learning platform, completely by surprise. The company, which is the brainchild of AOL founder David Butler, a self-confessed guitar nut and Taylor fan, has other high profile clients including harmonica master Howard Levy and virtuoso bluegrass banjo picker Tony Trischka and says that Taylor’s launch has smashed all previous records. Taylor’s target is 1000 students by the end of 2010. As to how many he can ultimately cope with, he says, “We’ll see.”


“The age range is amazing, from teenagers to our oldest student, who’s eighty-eight and lives in Canada,” he says. “It’s still a guy thing predominantly, which is something I’d like to change. We have a few women enrolled but with examples out there like Sheryl Bailey and Mimi Fox, who are both phenomenal players, it would be good to see a more even split between the genders.”


Taylor’s online guitar academy’s launch wasn’t the only reason for him hoping that his name would be called at Honk Kong airport’s departure lounge. He’d already had to cancel a festival appearance in Spain and was keen to get back to the UK in time for the release of his latest album, Last Train to Hauteville. He also had a date with Glasgow Jazz Festival to play at its official launch on Monday.


The first recording after a lengthy hiatus by Taylor’s Spirit of Django band, Last Train to Hauteville marks the centenary of Taylor’s hero and inspiration Django Reinhardt, whose shoes he filled during twelve years of touring and recording with Reinhardt’s musical partner and fellow pioneer of a European jazz style, Stephane Grappelli.


“Django’s centenary was a timely reason for reforming the band, of course,” says Taylor. “But the fact was that I’d really missed playing with these guys and playing that style of music. I felt ready to write some new music for us to play but at the same time, I felt oddly apprehensive about the tunes I was writing. I sent everyone their parts and suggested that, if they didn’t like the tunes, we’d just play some standards instead. But once we got into the studio, everything went reasonably smoothly.”


The unsmooth element was the zany Monsieur Jacques, which Taylor’s son and manager, James, who also plays drums in the band, felt was “a bit weird” and not perhaps ideal recording material. Written for a neighbour whom Taylor used to watch unicycling – not always successfully – the tune is a kind of Tom & Jerry cartoon soundtrack combined with touches of Jacques Tati humour.


“I always begin composing music by looking around me and thinking, if this was a film, what would the music sound like? And that’s what happened on Monsieur Jacques,” says Taylor. “I played it to everyone in the studio and they all looked at me as if I was completely mad. So I said, trust me, it’ll work, with maybe more confidence than I felt, and thank goodness, it did.”


Taylor never met Reinhardt, who died in 1953, but he has made friends with the Belgian guitarist’s family and feels comfortable taking the Reinhardt style into different areas such as the bossa nova-flavoured Rue de Dinan on the new album and the version of Pat Metheny’s James that appeared on Spirit of Django’s first album in 1994.


“Babik, Django’s son, was a big fan of Brazilian music and he reckoned that his dad would have loved playing in that style,” says Taylor. “The impression I’ve always had of Django is that he wouldn’t have stood still. He’d have appreciated all the new developments in guitar playing. It’s funny because I grew up with Django’s music and it was always totally uncool but now I meet guys who used to wear spandex trousers and play heavy metal and they’re into Django now. People thought his music was simple and yes, it sounds simple until you try to play it. It’s actually quite demanding trying make tricky music sound jolly but it’s also a lot of fun and ultimately it has a real feelgood factor.”


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