Like many of the Jazz Guitarist I meet today, I stumbled upon Jacksonville resident Taylor Roberts on Facebook. I was very impressed with what I read, heard and witnessed via his live stream performances. Like all Jazz Guitar Life interviewees, I was delighted when he agreed to be featured on JGL.
In the interview below, Taylor speaks candidly about life as a working Jazz Guitar player, his commitment to the art of 7 string solo guitar, his influences (both past and present) and what he considers to be a low point in his musical journey. An insightful and candid read indeed.
“What I’ve found to be most helpful is to take care of basic needs first and foremost. Even if it means putting the guitar away for a while. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there is SO much more to life than just plucking strings. As Wayne Shorter so beautifully put it: ‘If all you have in life is music, then you don’t have music.’ I couldn’t agree more.”
JGL: Thank you Taylor for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?
TR: Jacksonville, FL area (It covers a large spot on the map!).
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Taylor Roberts is and then we’ll get into more detail as the interview unfolds.
TR: I am a 7-string guitarist, mainly known for playing solo instrumental music. While my heart is rooted in Jazz, that style and repertoire only constitutes a small portion of what I typically play. I suppose the best way to put it would be “pop music with a Jazz accent.” While most of what I do nowadays is solo guitar, I still jump at almost every opportunity I get to play with groups, ranging from duos to 20-piece big bands. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time playing in Top 40/Wedding bands. It’s still a lot of fun to play a Strat through a nice tube amp with the overdrive pedal kicked on. 🙂 In a nutshell, what seems to have carved out my niche in this particular region is versatility and diversity of repertoire.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
TR: I started playing guitar at 13, after about 8 years of piano lessons. Jazz was nowhere near my radar at the time, and I just wanted to play punk rock and ska for the rest of my life. Green Day had just hit the scene in a big way, and I originally wanted to be a drummer, but my parents made the smart decision of getting me an instrument that I could turn down when I practiced. I spent the first 2 to 3 years playing songs by Operation Ivy, NOFX, Rancid, Pennywise, Sublime, Less Than Jake, and of course Green Day. As I got into high school, I started getting into Hendrix, Zeppelin, Clapton, and some of the more traditional blues players. It wasn’t until my junior year that I started playing in the high school jazz band, and some friends introduced me to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Wes Montgomery. I fell in love. And as I mentioned before, that music is where my heart is, despite the multiple “detours” I tend to take.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
TR: In my early teens, I was determined. I simply KNEW that this was what I wanted to do. My parents were understandably hesitant, and I’m sure were praying that it would just be a hobby or a phase, but I showed no signs of giving up or lessening my dedication. While it did take some years, my father finally gave me his blessing, so to speak. I remember the conversation: his words were “Hell, it’s what you do. And it’s what you do best. So I’ll support you in any way I can.” He really was my biggest fan.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
TR: My first guitar was a Peavey Predator, essentially a Strat clone. Black with a while pick-guard. I put that poor thing through a LOT! Currently, and for the past 7+ years, I’ve been playing a Benedetto Bravo 7.
JGL: As a Jazz Guitar player, what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
TR: My practice routine ramped up considerably once I started college. I learned very quickly that being a music major at UNF wasn’t all just a laid back, jam session/party atmosphere. It was normal for me to spend 4-6 hours a day in the practice room, sometimes more. During my first year, my main focus was learning as many standards as I could. There were plenty of other areas that got my attention (scales/modes/chord voicings/transcription), but my main goal was to get as many tunes in my repertoire as possible so I could start gigging as much as I could. That’s still my main goal. I’ve found it easier to learn tunes as my repertoire grows, regardless of genre. The nuts and bolts of it all are so similar that most things nowadays become second nature. Today, my time has become much more limited, being that I drive 20+ hours a week just to get to and from gigs, have a family, and try my best to live a balanced life. When it comes to actual “shedding,” I honestly haven’t been able to do that for a while. Some of the best practice can happen on the gigs themselves, but it’s a different thing from sitting in isolation and really working things out. Still learning new tunes all the time though!
JGL: I am aware that you are a Benedetto Player and own a Custom Benedetto Bravo 7 (*see below), which as the 7 reflects, is a seven string guitar. How did your relationship with the Benedetto Company evolve and what is it that you find special about that guitar as opposed to another brand?
TR: I got my Bravo 7 back in 2010, through Jerry Sims at Sims Music in Columbia, SC. He’s a fantastic 7-string player himself and an overall great guy. I didn’t have much direct contact with the Benedetto company for a couple years until I needed some work done on the guitar. Bob (Benedetto) had already gone into semi-retirement, but he and his wife Cindy made the drive from Ocala, FL to Savannah to meet my family and I, and work on my guitar. His mastery was evident in how quickly he seemed to transform my instrument! It was playing better than ever in no time. We became fast friends, and have maintained a great friendship since. Soon after, I was asked if I wanted to be on the roster of Benedetto Players. I obviously had no objection. I’ve since become great friends with Howard Paul and the rest of the Benedetto family, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
What I love about the Bravo is how responsive it is! The tonal range is extremely wide, the overall balance from string to string is crystal clear, and the play-ability and comfort of it makes any other guitar I play feel stale by comparison. Of course, my guitar and I have a lot of history, so there’s a personal synergy that’s developed over time. I couldn’t imagine myself playing anything else.
JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?
TR: I recently got a Bose L1 Model II as a Christmas present to myself. It’s now my main go-to for just about any gig. Being a redheaded stepchild of the guitar world, no guitar amps are really built to cover the frequency spectrum that a 7-string requires. Most are made to sound best above 70 Hz. Since the low A string is right around 53 Hz, I needed something that would accurately and honestly represent those bass notes. The Bose has that in spades, while also managing to capture all the higher frequencies without anything getting swallowed up in the mix. I’m happier with my sound today than I’ve ever been.
For all the videos and livestreams I do on social media, I’m using a Henriksen Bud with a SansAmp Paradriver. It more than does the job, despite its small stature!
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
TR: As far as Jazz guitarists go, Wes Montgomery was my first. He is still #1 in my book, and likely always will be. Joe Pass and Tuck Andress have had an enormous influence on my solo playing. Beyond that, Charlie Parker had a profound impact on me, as is the case with many Jazz musicians. Lately, I’ve been loving Julian Lage, Charlie Hunter, Peter Bernstein, Lenny Breau, and Ted Greene. As far as non-guitarists go, Chris Thile currently tops my list.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
TR: Russell Malone, without a doubt. Talk about a truly “complete” musician! Not only is he a wonderful historian of the instrument, he dedicates so much time to honoring his predecessors and encouraging younger generations. I got to meet him a few months back, and while brief, it was an experience I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. He was very kind and encouraging, and we had a few good laughs. I was at a Jazz jam in Atlanta, and he happened to be in town. Despite his level of success and fame in the Jazz world, he just loves hanging out and playing music, however big or small, formal or informal the setting. I think that’s simply awesome.
As far as his playing goes, he has a command over the instrument I’ve simply never seen in anyone else. His technique and chops are frightening! And while he can burn out at the most breakneck tempos, his solo playing is some of the most soulful, heartfelt, and honest music I’ve ever heard. It’s immediately evident how much respect he has for every tune he plays. And he knows thousands and thousands of tunes. Another guy whose roots are in Jazz music, but is by no means confined by genre. My favorite type of player.
JGL: I know you primarily as a seven finger-style player – and before we get into that – do you ever venture into the land of the six string or you exclusively a seven stringer now?
TR: Outside of my occasional wedding band gig, it’s safe to say I’m exclusively a 7 string player. If I had a 7-string Tele or Strat, I’d use that!
JGL: LOL…so before we explore your 7 string life, how did you get into the 7 string?
TR: In 2009-2010, I’d started to do a lot more solo gigs and was accompanying singers and horn players regularly in a duo format. I figured it would be a logical decision to round out the sound a bit more, and I wasn’t wrong! Switching to 7 and choosing Benedetto was the best career decision I’ve ever made.
JGL: There are not too many seven string Jazz players around who I can think of off-hand apart from Bucky Pizzarelli and his son John, George Van Eps, Howard Alden, Charlie Hunter (although what’s he on now, 10 strings??), Montreal’s own Jon Geary and of course, you. Did you have to go searching far and wide – so to speak – when it came time to furthering your study on the seven string? Who – if anyone – did you study with?
TR: It’s a relatively small community, but there are monsters everywhere! Craig Wagner comes to mind immediately. Another great teacher and awesome human being is Steve Herberman. I bought some of his video lessons early on, and still manage to get something new every time I revisit them. I haven’t had any one-on-one lessons with either of these amazing players, but it is something I’d like to do very soon. Charlie Hunter switched from 8-string to 7-string right around the time I went from 6 to 7, so the timing worked out nicely! More often than not, I’ll listen to him on the way to gigs to get in a good head-space.
JGL: This may be an obvious question, but, what are the differences and challenges of adapting the six string concept to the seven string?
TR: They’re not quite as vast as one would think! Being that I use the George Van Eps tuning (all standard plus a low A), I feel like I got off easy, in a way. It’s like a “freebie” string! Obviously the world of guitar is an ever-expanding rabbit hole, but the initial learning curve of the extra string was not quite as steep as I was dreading. I’d challenge any guitar player to spend a few weeks with one and not fall in love!
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
TR: Charlie Parker would be my first choice. He’s my favourite improviser, and as is the case with most greats, did not limit himself by genre. He created an entire genre himself! And somehow, his language (at least when he played it) managed to sound incredible regardless of what type of tune he played.
As far as living players go, Brian Blade tops my list. His brilliance goes far beyond playing the drums, as anyone familiar with his work would admit. Martin Taylor has been tremendously influential to me, both musically and personally. We’ve been communicating a bit lately and I’m really hoping a collaboration will happen soon! Others would be Julian Lage, Russell Malone, Charlie Hunter, Chris Thile, Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau, Richard Smith, Tommy Emmanual, Branford Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, D’angelo, Doug Wamble….I love this question and could take up pages and pages with this!! Also Chris Martin from Coldplay. Seriously.
JGL: Apart from being a performer, you are also a teacher and have been so for many years. Do you teach privately and if so, what kind of students are you looking for?
TR: I teach at the Morris Music Academy in Jacksonville Beach, which is mostly youngsters. I get such joy out of seeing kids fall in love with the guitar and witnessing those “light bulb” moments. I also teach privately outside of the school via Skype and in-home visits. If someone seeks me out specifically, I find that to be not only a huge compliment but also hugely rewarding, because they’re interested in learning how I do what I do! It’s fun and easy for me to explain concepts I use regularly. My ideal student would have specific goals in mind and understand the “two-way street” concept of a teacher-student relationship.
JGL: What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components?
TR: Never stop learning tunes, and play with as many people as possible.
JGL: Do you have any memorable moments – good or bad – to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers as a player and/or teacher? What has been your high-point and what has been your low-point?
TR: High point: Having a mentor. Frank Sullivan is a piano player in the Gainesville, FL area. He took me under his wing back in 2003 and has become one of my dearest friends. He’s nearly 50 years my senior, but we experienced an incredible synergy the first time we played together. I haven’t felt anything comparable with anyone else. I’d spend hours with him just talking about life, drinking coffee, listening to music. He’s my favorite kind of teacher, because he talks about music, but teaches about life. And lives his lessons. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without his guidance and loving influence.
Low point: This experience was two-fold. I’d just moved to Jacksonville to start studying at UNF, and went to a club at the beach to check out some local musicians. I was 19 and really thought I was something special. These guys blew my mind. I introduced myself to the guitarist and asked to sit in. I called a Charlie Parker tune, and fell on my face. I kept trying to compensate by telling them I was having an “off night.” I sat back down and stuck around for the rest of the gig. At one point, the guitar player turned to me and asked “Do you know Summertime?” I dropped my head. I didn’t know it. Looking back, I got off easy, since they were encouraging and didn’t really vibe me about it. I’ve heard horror stories from others where they were laughed at and ridiculed. Thankfully these guys were cool and have since become some of my best friends. But that feeling of utter failure was overwhelming. After the gig was over, I walked up and down the beach for hours, contemplating my life, while making the fatal mistake of equating my musical ability to my own self-worth. I say this experience was two-fold because something positive came out of it. I vowed to learn a ton of tunes. And went home and learned about ten that night. I never wanted to feel like that again, despite the fact that all those feelings were self-imposed. I’m sure we all have had experiences like that, and however devastating they can be, they tend to yield positive results.
JGL: You seem to favor the solo guitar player route. What type of other musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, etc.) and is there something that you’d still like to do?
TR: The solo thing just seemed to evolve into a calling card for me, especially after switching to 7-string. But there’s nothing more rewarding than experiencing musical chemistry with other people. What I’d love to do is have a steady trio that I could work with at least once a week. However, it’s hard to find many places that would pay decently for something like that. Despite the current state of things, I’m of a mindset now that I’d be willing to just rent a space where I could get together with two other guys every week and just play. My favourite musical setting, while it’s hard to really pick just one, would be playing duo with an acoustic piano. I could very well be biased after having worked with Frank Sullivan for so many years, but there’s something really special about playing duo with a pianist who knows how to play with guitarists.
JGL: Conversely, almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
TR: The guitar never changes. The player always does, depending on the day in most cases. I’ve dealt with crippling, near career-halting bouts of anxiety over the years and that’s significantly affected my playing. I still struggle with thinking that everyone’s sick of hearing me, that they’re just in for more of the same, that I’m not a “real” jazz musician (whatever that means), etc. etc. What I’ve found to be most helpful is to take care of basic needs first and foremost. Even if it means putting the guitar away for a while. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there is SO much more to life than just plucking strings. As Wayne Shorter so beautifully put it: “If all you have in life is music, then you don’t have music.” I couldn’t agree more. I have a family now. I’m starting to develop hobbies. I’m eating healthily and cut out a number of destructive habits years ago. This isn’t to say I’m consistently in an uber-spiritual, worry-free mindframe, but there are lots of very simple measures that I can check off the list to prevent, or at least lessen, any detrimental symptoms that can affect my performance. Getting outside, eating healthy, going for walks, hanging out with friends, and developing a spiritual practice (at least for me) have all been extremely helpful.
JGL: Do you ever see a day when you would come out with an all original album? And if so would it still be a solo-guitar venture or would you consider playing with a group?
TR: My current album in the works is a solo guitar-only record. It’s a mix of originals, Jazz standards and pop tunes that I’ve loved playing over the years. And that’s a great question! My next album will be with at least a trio, and will be comprised of mostly (if not all) original songs.
JGL: What goes through your head when you are arranging a tune and where does the inspiration come from?
TR: Melody first. Always. Lyrics are very important to me, too. Not just for accurately phrasing the melody, but to hopefully capture the mood that the story tells. Once I’ve got a good sense of those two concepts, I’ll try to add the bass voice in the most logical manner possible. Beyond that is the really fun part, because there’s an endless variety of choices to make in regards to making the arrangement my own.
JGL: From watching a view of your performance videos I’ve noticed that you incorporate both plectrum style and finger-style into the workings of the tunes you are playing, and sometimes there’s a touch of Flamenco. Was this a conscious choice or did it just come naturally?
TR: I’d say it evolved naturally, nearly 100%. I love Flamenco guitar, though I’d never consider myself to even have a cursory understanding of it. I think that adding certain elements of it, though, can really bring out crucial aspects of certain tunes. There are some songs I play with no pick, and still some on which I only use a pick. Most of the time I incorporate just about every technique. I love all of it, and I’ve found that certain approaches lend themselves to certain tunes.
JGL: Since this is Jazz Guitar LIFE, how difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?
TR: If there’s one thing that’s helped me make a living, it’s carving out my own niche in my area. In my case, it happens to be solo guitar. And the fact that most tunes I play these days are more popular than straight-ahead Jazz standards, my audience and demand seem to be growing more and more. I can’t say I know many solo 7-string archtop players who will play songs by Louis Armstrong, John Mayer, D’angelo, Lady Gaga, Black Sabbath and Queen in the same set! 🙂 And I don’t say that to toot my own horn; I just believe that diversity is a key selling point. Since discovering this, I thankfully haven’t had to struggle much. It was the years I spent as a Jazz snob that were the worst. I believed this horrible lie that all other music was inferior, meanwhile wondering why my phone wasn’t ringing. This isn’t to say that playing Jazz exclusively is a dead-end career choice, but it was my attitude that prevented me from growing as an artist.
JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs or do they come to you now that you have a reputation as a jazz guitarist? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?
TR: Thankfully I’ve developed a good reputation in my area, and outside of my steady 4 gigs a week, I’m not actively searching for more work. It’s been coming to me quite a bit lately. But initially, there was a lot of pavement pounding. Making calls, knocking on doors, playing some less-than-glamorous gigs, networking etc. That’s going to always be a requirement when relocating to a new area. Finding a steady gig 5 or 6 years ago felt like the height of my career, and it really was at the time, but today I wouldn’t even open my front door for many of the ones I used to play. I hope it stays that way, since there’s never any guarantee!!
JGL: And speaking of gigs…how do you handle the sometimes anonymous identity of a player sitting on a stool playing tunes you’ve worked hard on while the “audience” tries to talk over the “annoying music”. Is it then a “job” like any other, or is there a mindset that one can adopt to work through the din of an “uncaring” group of loud patrons (I realize I’m probably being a tad harsh here).
TR: Not harsh at all! It’s easy to fall into the pit of righteous indignance, especially when fresh out of school and after thousands of hours of practice. All the passion, dedication, and focus required to become a good musician can fall on deaf ears in many situations. I used to get upset when people don’t clap or try to talk over me. Sometimes the place will be packed and so loud that I can barely hear myself. But I need to remember that most of the gigs I play are not concert hall performances, and typically there are tons of other reasons for people to be at any particular venue, especially restaurants. Most attendees don’t even expect there to be live music. Worst-case scenario, I’m getting paid to practice. I’ll take it!
JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
TR: I believe it’s grossly overlooked. Thankfully the importance of handling business seems to have gotten more attention over the past few years, but it can’t be emphasized enough. All the memes floating around about how many things go into it are true. Things that require ZERO talent. Showing up on time, having a good attitude, playing the right music for the right audience, etc. are infinitely more important than playing some killer chord sub! And again, after getting out of school, I was sitting here wondering why I wasn’t getting hired. I had this destructively elitist attitude, and resented people who were playing “lesser” forms of music while experiencing huge degrees of success. You know, I don’t love Kenny G’s music, but he found something that works for him. And that, to me, is inspiring.
JGL: What – if any – technology – social or otherwise (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…) do you incorporate into your looking to find gigs?
TR: I’m a Facebook junkie! Any of my friends would attest to that. I recently had the opportunity to fly up to Columbus, OH and do clinics for the Jazz program at Capital University. I got to meet and hang with some of the coolest, most talented cats I’ve ever come across, and get inspired by all the students there. Everyone had such a great attitude. It was possibly the most uplifting guitar hang I’ve ever experienced. And had it not been for Facebook, I’d have never met these guys or gotten this gig. Additionally, I’ve gotten endorsement deals, students, and other gig/travel opportunities through nothing more than posting videos and staying active on social media. It’s a huge spoke in the wheel of my career.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar? What would you have liked to have been told “back in the day”?
TR: Be easy to get along with. Have a good attitude. Always remain teachable. Everyone knows something you don’t. And to sound borderline harsh here, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s about the music. And how that music affects those listening and those you’re playing with.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
TR: Thankfully no! Not yet, anyway. As a kid, I had typical aspirations of being an astronaut, a marine biologist, a vet….I love animals. As an adult, I’ve often considered getting into the field of addiction counseling. I may even venture into that field as a part-time thing one day.
JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
TR: School. During those years, I was so hopelessly addicted to the practice room. And I didn’t practice in a very effective manner. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t spend hours a day practicing; quite the opposite. That’s what music school is there for. But the mistake I made was that I took it to such an extreme that it became all that I was, at least in my mind. I neglected everything else there was to life, and my life suffered as a result. And subsequently, my playing. I got to a point where I just didn’t like music anymore, and found myself in an existential freefall, because I didn’t think there was anything more to my life. Finding ways to practice smarter helped me tremendously. And even though I haven’t done a “marathon shed” in many years, I’ve had many people tell me that my playing has improved significantly in that time. I’d attribute that to the fact that I have a LIFE now.
JGL: What does the future hold for Taylor Roberts?
TR: I’ve developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for travel lately. I had such a great time up in Ohio, and have had many offers to do more travel gigs over the past couple years. What I’m hoping is that I can start booking tours. Small, regional ones at first, but I hope to expand that concept over time. When I see guys like Martin Taylor, Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Smith, and Russell Malone, that’s where I’d like to be in 5-10 years.
JGL: And now…the most important of ALL the questions…who is better…you or Jake Reichbart!!?? Just kidding of course…:)
TR: He knows WAAAY more tunes than I do, but my wardrobe is light years ahead of his. 🙂
JGL: Thanks Taylor for taking the time to hang out with Jazz Guitar Life.
TR: Thanks for the interview, Lyle!
For more info about Taylor, check out his website at http://taylorroberts.info/
*From Howard Paul, President and CEO of Benedetto Guitars Inc.
Taylor Roberts plays a standard version of our Bravo 7-String model, as I recall. Bob Benedetto built a handful of laminated archtops in the 80’s and 90’s to meet the needs of some of his top artists who needed the feedback protection and stability of a laminate, and were willing to sacrifice the acoustic character of their carved Benedetto guitars.
The Bravo 7 model was born from a design Bob had initially made for Bucky Pizzarelli in about 2000 for Fender, called the Bucky Pizzarelli Model. It had a 2-1/16 nut, 25” scale, and 16” lower bout with a 3” depth. Separately, Bob had launched the Bravo Model, all with similar appointments, but with a 6 string neck and a 2-1/2” body depth.
In 2006 when Bob and I opened our new workshop in Savannah, we discontinued the Bucky Model as a production guitar, instead offering all of our models – laminate or carved – with a 7-string option for a $500 upcharge. The Bravo Model became the Bravo 7.
Today’s version is unchanged with a 16” x 2-1/2” laminated spruce top and maple back, solid maple sides, maple neck, single B7 pickup, and all ebony appointments.. The Bravo 7 sells for $5,500 including case.
A Bravo Deluxe version with a more deluxe binding and bound F-holes, and more highly flamed woods sells for $7,000.
(ed. note) Thanks Howard!