James Taylor was the definitive singer-songwriter of the 1970s. Responsible for sparking a huge surge in acoustic guitar-wielding troubadours, his name was, for a time, synonymous with authenticity and hard-won success. Here, he demonstrates his celebrated finger-style technique and explains how he gives chords more colour.
Taylor grew up in a wealthy middle-class North Carolina household. As a child, he took Cello lessons before picking up the guitar in 1960. Like Dylan, he was a big fan of Woody Guthrie, whose records came to influence his playing style greatly. However, his early interaction with the cello and other classical instruments also found its way into his style. In Long Ago and Far Away, Taylor explains, “My style was a finger-picking style that was meant to be like a piano, as if my thumb were my left hand, and my first, second, and third fingers were my right hand.”
As a teenager, Taylor voluntarily check into a psychiatric hospital in Boston after becoming depressed. He would later return to a separate institution to overcome his heroin addiction. It was experiences like these that informed the maturity and vulnerability of his songwriting. Around the time of his first treatment period, he began playing in bands with his brother Alex and friend Danny Kortchmar. Soon enough, he was on his way to London, where, in 1968, he released his first album on The Beatles Apple label.
Talking to Guitar World, Taylor recalled how the “arrogance of youth” allowed him the courage to audition for Paul McCartney and George Harrison: “I had some kind of competence and the arrogance of youth, without which nobody would ever do anything, because you’d hedge your bets,” he said. “There’s a stage in our development where you’re allowed to do impossible things, which is why the military looks to people about that age. You can talk people into doing things that if you were asked when you were 35, you’d say, ‘No thanks, I’ll pass on that.'”
Taylor added: “I also knew that it was somehow good. It worked for me, and I was a music connoisseur. I thought, ‘This stuff could go somewhere. I want somebody to hear this.’ I’ve had that feeling a few times, at different points in my life.”
The audition was a success and Taylor suddenly found himself at the centre of it all: “It was just otherworldly, because I was a huge Beatles fan. And they were at the very height of their powers. They just kept going, kept growing. So, to be in London, the first person signed to their label in 1968, was really like catching the big wave. It was unbelievable”.