James Taylor

Taylor looks up to his Olson

In 1989 James Taylor bought three Olsons: An SJ, an SJ cutaway, and a Dreadnaught. James prominently displays one of his Olsons both on the cover of a 1992 issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and in the artwork of his album, New Moon Shine, the first to feature his Olsons. This publicity resulted in a surge of interest in Olson guitars among performing songwriters such as David Wilcox, Patty Larkin, and Cheryl Wheeler. Jim Olson later built a fourth guitar for Taylor.

JT's two main performance guitars are both cedar-top SJs with rosewood back and sides. The specs for both are given below. You can find a review of the non-cutaway "JT model" Olson on our Guitarist Review page. The James Taylor Signature Models supplement this design with selected appointments.

JT's main guitar:

SJ with cedar top and rosewood back and sides
Abalone sound hole rosette
Abalone top edge
Abalone back center strip
Abalone butt wedge joint
Dove fretboard inlays (pointed toward peghead)
Ebony tuner buttons
L. R. Baggs LB6 bridge pick up

JT's alternate guitar:

SJ with cedar top and rosewood back and sides
Abalone sound hole rosette
Dove fretboard inlays (pointed toward peghead)
Gold Schaller tuners
Ebony tuner buttons
L. R. Baggs LB6 bridge pick up

See the Soundbites page for some examples of JT's playing on these instruments (we provide bites from both a studio and a live recording).

JT's 1992 Acoustic Guitar Magazine cover story by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers describes his first three Olsons:

James Taylor plays three guitars by James Olson. Two have an SJ body shape, one with a cutaway (because Taylor likes the sound, not because he plays up high on the neck), one without. The guitar pictured on the cover of this issue [July/August 1992] has East Indian rosewood back and sides, a cedar top, an a neck more like a Gibson than a Martin, Taylor says. The third is a dreadnought, which he says he likes a lot, but he adds, "I find as a member of a band that dreadnoughts get in the way of the bass and conflict with the piano. It's nice to have a narrower range of sound, so I like a slightly higher pitched guitar—not tuned up high, a little thinner body, a little narrower range, so that it's not stomping over all kinds of other things...."

Taylor holds forth on the differences between handmade and factory guitars: Individual luthiers "are not varying the structure of the guitar that much, but they can shave the ribs down where they meet the body of the guitar, because they're doing it by hand, to extremely fine tolerances. They pay close attention to the grain of every piece of wood that goes into it, so they get very strong, reliable, and consistent bracing. They pay a lot of attention to the pieces of wood that go into the top, and they can take it down—make it really thin. They're working for your guitar style, what gauge of strings you will put on it, how hard you are going to hammer on the thing, what kind of temperature differences it will go through in its lifetime, what kind of hell you're going to put it through under the lights or sweating all over it, or getting it wet, or traveling in a cold truck or whatever. They know these things and they know what the tolerances are.... That's what you get when you buy a $2,000 custom-made guitar, and that's what you should be getting."

...The Olsons have L.R. Baggs pickups. Taylor does not mike his guitar on stage. He runs the pickup output through a Pendulum preamp, and he says that the preamp's notch filter helps hit get the best results from the piezo pickup; he can zero in on and cut the worst-sounding parts of the midrange, then add "crispies" and a little bit of bass....

Taylor used to play with strings made by Phil Petillo. Petillo makes great strings, Taylor says, but his travel schedule necessitated finding a standard, widely available brand, and Kaman Adamas light phosphor bronze strings fit the bill. His guitar tech on the road prefers those strings for their tuning accuracy.

When recording his guitar, Taylor says, "We use two very directional mikes, with the heads together and the barrels going off at right angles—that phase-cancels a lot of the vocal that would otherwise be in those mikes." (He usually sings and plays at the same time in the studio.) Taylor likes a little doubling on the guitar part to give it a sense of space, plus a hint of chorusing. He also records the direct feed from the pickup in the studio and often puts effects on that output rather than on the mike output.

In May 2002, Acoustic Guitar Magazine featured JT's non-cutaway SJ in it's monthly "Great Acoustics" series on historic acoustic guitars. The accompanying article provides further details about JT's various Olsons. See "Great Acoustics: James Taylor's Olson SJ" at the AG web site for the full text and photo.

JT's Olsons appear prominently in his two recent video productions, Squibnocket and James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater. A JT-owned SJ even appeared (in cartoon form) on The Simpsons! JT was a "guest" on the show, one of whose executives happens to be a guitarist and Olson owner himself. That ensured that the animators got the guitar right—even down to the "O" on the headstock!

Squibnocket JT Live at the Beacon

Here are some web sites devoted to James and his music:

JT visited Jim's home and shop in Summer 2001.

A pair of Jameses.
James and Jim