Q&A: Otis Taylor on Guitars

Otis Taylor collaborated with the Santa Cruz Guitar Company on a signature model in 2008. We spoke with Otis while he was in the process of recording Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs and had recently completed Recapturing the Banjo with fellow blues heavyweights Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Keb’ Mo’ and others. You can also read the review of the Santa Cruz Otis Taylor Signature guitar here.

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So we hear a new album is in the works.

Yeah, it’s called Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, sort of like rewriting love songs, pretty stuff—sort of a jazzy, trance thing on it.

Is it more acoustic or electric?
I’m playing acoustic guitar on the whole thing except for one song, on which I’m just playing a slide thing. It’s with Santa Cruz guitars.

So you’re playing the Otis Taylor Signature?
Yeah, I play that on 11 songs. One song’s a slide guitar, and the other song’s a Santa Cruz, cool wood one. Eleven songs—that’s a lot.

How did the Santa Cruz relationship start?
It was just a fluke, I just went out to the NAMM show, because they did the Otis banjo, and I was just walking around, and Willie [Carter, of Santa Cruz Guitar Company at the time] suddenly goes “Otis, Otis—I’m a big fan of yours,” and started talking to me. You know, sort of like hey, we would like to get you involved with the Santa Cruz family. And you know the end of that story.

Did you help design that guitar?
The neck, I was involved with the neck.

The neck is fretless towards the sound-hole, it only has 14 frets.
I never play past there; if it’s not a cutaway I’m not going there at all, so why waste the metal? And saving that little bit of metal really helps. People are making a lot of guitars that you don’t need metal for. I think people need to sit back and get a little green on their guitars. That’s an easy way to get green. If you talk to 100 guys, one or two guys will say, “Oh yeah, I play up there,” but it’s very hard to get your hands up there. If you really want to get up there, you get a cutaway. So, everybody just did it because that’s what they did. Nobody thought, “I should stop doing this.” I was in Seattle, looking at some old guitars, and one guitar didn’t have any frets into the body, just a couple lines that went across it— two frets, actually into the wood. It didn’t have it on the fingerboard, you know?

So, to me, the guitar is very green in some ways. Hey, it’s pretty, and why should we waste the frets. So I think it’s important that people start doing that; we’ll save a lot of metal. They make a lot of guitars every year. All over the world guitars get sold. And it takes energy to make metal. A lot of guys think they need it, but I think it is overkill. If you want to get up there, go to a cutaway. Plus, you can still play up there if you really want to. You can just play fretless.

I had sort of a chauvinistic comment about it: it’s like a blonde that can high jump, you know? It isn’t just a pretty thing, it sounds good too. I talked to a friend, Harry Tuft. He said we should get Madagascar rosewood, give an African twist to it. So that was his idea.

And you play mandolin too. Do you write specifically for certain instruments?
One thing is that I like to buy new instruments, because they help me write songs, by playing new guitars a lot of times.

So, for example, a song like “Black Mandolin” off of Definition of a Circle, was that a song you wrote on mandolin?
I think so. Well man, let me tell you—I must’ve. I don’t really remember.

It’s very mandolin-driven.
Well there’re some times I write on other instruments, and I’ll play it on a different instrument, but that’s ten percent, maybe.

Is your Santa Cruz guitar going to go on tour as well, or is it mainly for the studio?
Already went on tour. Gary Moore has a Santa Cruz. We went on a tour in Germany, so I went to the German guitar show and got the servers to give us a guitar to hang out with for a week while we were in the tour bus. So when it was time to give it up, Gary said… “Oh, ok, I’ll buy it,” because he knows I got it in sight. We have this thing, we buy— Gary buys a lot of guitars. Everyday he goes “what guitar did you buy last week?” “Oh, I bought this.” We’re guitar freaks.

I read that you dropped out of the music business for a while and were doing antiques. Does the guitar fetish tie into that?
A little bit, yeah. I was buying guitars from George Gruhn in the ‘70s. It’s a hunt, gives you something to do on tour, you know?

So do you pick up a lot of guitars when you’re on the road?
Sometimes—I bought one in Milwaukee the last tour. Just gives you something to do. It’s like, you have a band and you try to do things together to keep sort of a family attitude, you know? Everybody’s up for going to the guitar store. You don’t have to worry about going to the guitar store by yourself, you can always get somebody to go. It’s an easier one to get people to go to. It’s tough, some of the museums, you know. But you can always get someone to go the guitar store.

How does such a high-end guitar hold up during the travel?
I tend to carry it on, and I ship my banjoes underneath. I mean, my guitar is the first one made, so it’s pretty valuable to me, historically, you know. So I tend to kind of watch over it, physically. I’m rough on guitars, but physically I watch over it…I love my guitar. I mean, I’m really just honored to have it. It’s a beautiful sounding guitar—it records really well too.


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