One of the most influential guitarists of the late ’60s English blues-rock scene was Mick Taylor. His dazzling slide and searing lead playing propelled him to success at a young age. By the time he turned 18, he had already opened for Cream and had joined the legendary John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, taking the place of the departing Peter Green. Taylor played with the Bluesbreakers from 1966-69, at which time he joined “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” – The Rolling Stones. Taylor’s tenure in the Stones is often hailed as a creative high-point for the band, with the recording of the seminal albums Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. Taylor also played on the definitive Rolling Stones live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! He left the band in 1974, and embarked on a series of critically acclaimed solo projects and occasional high-profile gigs with the likes of Jack Bruce and Bob Dylan. Taylor still dazzles audiences around the world with the melodic grace and lightning dexterity that was integral to the magic of now-classic tracks, like “Sway” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
Gibson.com recently caught up with Taylor by phone from his London office, in between European shows. Ever the performer, the guitarist seems keen to get back on the road after having to cancel dates earlier in the year because of an illness.
How are you feeling? I understand you had pneumonia this past year.
I had pneumonia and a lot of nasty things, which is why I couldn’t fulfill my obligations and finish the tour I was booked to do. But I’m over that now. I’m still recovering and getting my strength back, but I’m over the worst of that.
And you’re back on the road now, right?
Well, not entirely. A couple of weeks ago, we did a show in Poland and we did three shows in Italy and we came home. And then a week later, we did a show in France and then a show in Suffolk, which is in England. And then we did a show two days later in France. So I’m keeping busy, but I’m not doing any major tours, yet. No, not ready to do that yet.
What guitars are you playing these days?
I’m playing a Les Paul, a vintage reissue. I’ve got two Les Pauls at the moment, neither of them are of that much intrinsic value, like the ones I used to play when I was with John Mayall and with the Stones, but they’re nice guitars. I’m most interested in trying to acquire an SG like the one I used to have in my last year with John Mayall and I used throughout my 1969 tour with The Rolling Stones. That I [used on] Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
What do you remember about that original guitar?
Well, I just remember loving that guitar – because I must have loved it a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t have forsaken a Les Paul to play that. I played both, but I think I preferred that SG because it had a very wide neck, and a very flat neck, and the action was absolutely superb. And the sound was good, too. And it had a Bigsby arm on it, which I didn’t use a great deal in those days, but I like that kind of effect, as well.
What made you eventually switch to a Les Paul?
I don’t really know. I used to play both. I mean, to be honest, when I was in the studio with the Stones, I used to use a whole variety of guitars. I used to use a Gibson Firebird and, on a lot of the tracks, I used to use a Fender Stratocaster, as well. And a Telecaster. But my main two guitars for doing live shows, both with John Mayall and with the Stones, were either a Gibson Les Paul or a Gibson SG. But I can’t tell you the exact years. [My manager] can tell you the exact year of the Les Paul that I bought from Keith Richards in the three years before I even joined the Rolling Stones. It was a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul with a Bigsby arm. But I guess the SG that I played, ’cause this was ’68 that I got it, must have been the early ’60s or a late ’50s. I don’t know when they started making SGs with Bigsby arms.
SGs debuted in 1961. Not sure if they were adding Bigsbys at that point…
I don’t think it was a really early one, but [it] was a very good one and I really loved it a lot. I played it during my last tour with John Mayall in ’68-’69. I played it onstage at Hyde Park with the Stones and I played it throughout my very first American tour with the Stones in 1969.
You mentioned John Mayall. Do you mind sharing with us the story of how you hooked up with him originally?
By the time I was about 15, 16 years old, I was very much heavily influenced by blues music. I used to listen to the same kind of rootsy American black rhythm-and-blues music that the Stones used to listen to. For example, Chuck Berry. But I used to concentrate more on the guitar players, like B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Buddy Guy. Otis Rush was a favorite of mine, too. And so, I started to go and see John Mayall, because in the early ’60s there was this big blues scene in England, for some reason. The Rolling Stones tapped into it. So did John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. So did Eric Clapton and Cream and Jeff Beck and Peter Green, Jimmy Page – a whole host of guitar players that are now associated with Led Zeppelin or, in my case, John Mayall and The Rolling Stones. And we all used to love that music. And so, there was a club scene in England and blues was very popular, for some reason. In some ways, it was more popular in England than in America at the time. And that’s where it comes from, really.
So you were 16 or so, and Clapton hadn’t shown up for a gig…
I think I’d just turned 16. Yeah, he didn’t show up for a gig, but his guitar was there, which was a Les Paul. So I just went backstage and asked John Mayall if I could do the second part of the show with him. And he said, “Yeah, if you think you can handle it.” I said, “Well, I know all the songs on your ‘Beano’ album, so I’m sure it will sound better with a guitar player than without one.” And he said, “OK, well, Eric’s guitar is here. So sit in with us.” So I plugged into a little 50-watt Marshall combo amp, used Eric’s Les Paul – which sounded great – and I remember doing “Steppin’ Out” and “All Your Love” and all the songs that Eric Clapton and John Mayall were associated with at that time. That’s exactly how it happened. I went to see a John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers show with Eric Clapton and, when Eric Clapton didn’t show up, I sat in for him.
That was pretty cool of John Mayall to, basically, meet a kid and say, “Yeah, kid. Come on up and play Eric’s guitar and take his place.”
Yeah, it was. Yes. I mean, the worst thing he could have said was “no,” but because I was in his dressing room and I knew all the songs, I think he could see that I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t get the call to replace Eric Clapton, though. Peter Green did. But when Peter Green left John Mayall, that was when John Mayall got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to join the band.
He must have been a little taken aback when you got up onstage and he realized, “Hey, this kid can play.”
I could play a little bit. Yeah. But I couldn’t play like I’d learned to play a few years later after being on the road with John Mayall five or six days a week.
Between the time you got up on stage with him as a 16-year-old and the time Peter Green left, how much had you developed as a player?
I used to practice a lot in those days, all the time. All the time. And not just blues music, but jazz… all kinds of stuff. I’d try anything, but my main focus was trying to reproduce a kind of sound that the legendary American blues guitarists got.
What did John Mayall teach you?
Oh, he taught me lots of things. I mean, I guess the most important thing was he gave me the opportunity to travel all over Europe. More importantly, I traveled to America. I did two tours in America with John Mayall. The first one, I think, was in ’67. One of my most vivid memories is standing with Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles, who were both playing on the same bill at the Winterland auditorium in San Francisco. And we were listening to Albert King playing, because the bill for that show was: Jimi Hendrix was top of the bill, and then it was Albert King, and then it was me and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. We were third on the bill. I used to have a poster of that gig somewhere, but that’s long gone. But that wasn’t the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix play. The first time I saw Jimi Hendrix play was in Europe, when I was with John Mayall. I knew him quite well.
Check out Part 2 of The Gibson Interview with Mick Taylor, featuring an in-depth look at Mick’s Rolling Stones years, including the recording of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., and his reasons for leaving the band.