Taylor Johnson & Tim Nienhuis talking guitars and production
So I'm planning on doing a few fun interviews with friends of mine and the first one happens to be my buddy Taylor Johnson. Taylor is known for his work as a guitarist with Phil Wickham...but he has a pretty extensive list of artists he's recorded with as well (listed below). He's a great guitar player and gives some good tips and advice. I recently had Taylor come out and do a workshop on his approach to guitars and production. We did this interview after so i wanted to post....
Check out the interview and feel free to comment below
So you’ve played on some amazing projects…What have you been working on lately?
Yea! Im grateful to have been asked to be a part of some pretty cool projects throughout my career. I’m mainly doing sessions these days and writing quite a bit. The most recent session I did was for an LA band called LANY, and wrote a few songs with a band called Johnnyswim a few days later.
How did you start out playing guitar?
I was a drummer first, and we were storing a family friend’s drum set in our garage while they were between homes. I dug into Weezer and Nirvana, but eventually had to give the kit back to them once they moved into their new house and my dad signed me up for group guitar lessons the summer I turned 14. I was a new kid in town and guitar quickly became my closest friend. I was heavy into competitive club soccer at that point and I think once I learned how to play “basketcase” by Green Day my focus quickly shifted to music.
At what point was it something you knew you wanted to pursue longterm professionally?
When I was 18 I was in my senior year of high school and was yet again the new kid in town. I got plugged in at a youth group in The Woodlands, Texas that my brother interned for. I would attend this service on Tuesday nights called “Fresh Vibe” (rad name right?!) and played the first couple of them that year for fun with the local worship leader. I started attending even when I wasn't playing and Chris Tomlin was the worship leader. This must have been 2001? Definitely before he was on a big label and touring the world. He had this young guitar player named Daniel (who is still with him today) that sounded SO much better than me! It was the first time I stopped focusing on playing guitar as an athletic event (shredding and impressing my friends) and started diving into how to actually sound good playing with singers. We got to talking the first time I heard him and he told me he was heading out of town the next day flying somewhere to play with Chris. My mind was blown! This 19 year old dude from Texarkana, Texas was playing music full time, traveling the country, and getting paid to do it! SOLD! He was such a sweet guy and really gave me the confidence and a rough template on how to be a stand out player behind a great leader/singer. We are still friends to this day and Im completely humbled when I get a text from him asking ME about tones and parts?!
Are you more of an ear guy or do you read music?
I am definitely more of an ear guy, but can also read. I started on piano for a few years as a 7 year old taking lessons, moved to drums at 12 and took lessons, and then guitar at 14 and right into lessons. My dad is a professional musician with a degree in piano performance so he always valued me taking lessons with trained musicians. He started training my ear as a kid though before I ever played guitar. He would ask me to call out the 1 4 5 6m of songs we were listening to at home or on the radio. At first I’m sure I thought it was like homework or a chore but it quickly turned into a fun game and surely pushed my ear to hear changes and melody at a very young age. I had no clue that I had known the Nashville Number System since I was 7 until I got into college ear training and was like “wait I got this”! Thanks dad!
I think the first few I remember trying to tackle were the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and the theme from the movie “That Thing You Do”. My dad always had me in lessons with teachers who had graduated from the University of North Texas which has a world renown Jazz program. That helped me with reading on guitar (which isn't the most fun instrument to read on) and pushed me to attend Berklee College of Music.
Do you still have time to practice guitar…
I still warm up and find new things to play for fun (Django Reinhardt, Jerry Garcia currently) but at the moment I'm stoked on becoming a better producer. I love playing guitar and that definitely informs my writing, but Im trying to expand with other approaches outside of the guitar so my time is currently spent investing into that.
What was the best guitar tip or lesson anyone ever taught you?
There are a few. The first was being turn your amp up. That’s a tough one because more often than not you are being told to TURN DOWN! I rely on a good tube amp turned up to do what I like it to do and it helps me play with a variety of dynamic and tone. The more you hit those tubes the better that amp is gonna sound! It also cuts down on a few pedals which is good for your signal.
Hybrid picking. Im fortunate enough to have grown up learning guitar in the great state of Texas. It is absolutely the guitar state. There is no shortage of Blues, Country, and Western Swing (Jazz and Country combined). You have to know how to play like Stevie Ray and also like Brent Mason. I didn't know that I played so much with my left thumb to bar chords and so much with my middle and ring finger on my right hand to hybrid pick. I didn't know it was called hybrid picking until a professor in Boston told me. He called me out actually “you must be the kid from Texas”! For those who don't know, hybrid picking is using a pick and fingers together simultaneously. It’s very effective but a deep dive at first to get everything working together at once. I highly recommend it.
Ive heard you mention Dave Grissom and Andy Summers as influences. For guys who don’t know about them, what would be key albums to check out or influential songs for you?
Every Police album. Andy Summers is my biggest influence.
David Grissom is a Texas hero of mine who taught me a lot about dynamics and phrasing while playing with attitude. Check out the Joe Ely album “Live at Liberty Lunch”.
David was probably in his late 20s at that point and it’s Texas blues/rock bar music but he was on fire that night and his playing on that record still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up!
Besides those two, what other players were a big influence on you?
Noel Gallagher from Oasis! He was once quoted saying “Im average at best at guitar” but it’s not true. He’s one of the ultimate rhythm guitar players and I’ve taken so many cues from him about how to stand down at times and when to stand out while having attitude at all times. Plus, he’s one of the best living songwriters.
Talk about the role that relationships play into what you do…and for an introvert?
My parents play a huge role into what I do and my faith also keeps me creating music even when there are days or weeks in a row I want to quit. I am actually an extrovert and can really only speak into that personally. I have an insatiable personality and need to chase something down until I get it. I also grew up under coaching in soccer until I was in college so I know what it’s like to be critiqued and how to move on from disappointments and how to celebrate victories. Both very important. Most musicians I know are introverted. They are shy about their work and their playing and have a hard time hearing criticism. I can understand that, but I heard some advice years ago that shaped the way I view myself and can help encourage others. “Know who you are and be proud of it”. I don't think I fully stepped into who I am as a player until my mid twenties, but I know that most of my work is people hiring me to play/write/or produce. If I walk into a session with a timid approach Im not going to get very far or likely get called back. A big part of creating is knowing what it takes to tell the beginning, middle, and end of a story and doing what it takes to get there with honesty and craft. If you’ve been gifted with musical ability own it! Own it with humility and encouragement to others, but be proud of the gift God’s given you. I know He surely blesses me the more I put into my gift.
Ok now for some of the gear nerds I have some gear questions. ;-)
Whats your current favorite guitar right now….for live and recording and why?
I really love my strat for the studio. It’s the Andy Summers influence that Im still biting off of! Does the punchy, single coil chime thing like nothing else.
I’ve been playing my SG a lot live the past few years because I approach that instrument in the mindset of it being a fatter sounding telecaster. It can bite but is also thick. It cleans up nicely as well.
I know some guys like lighter guitars, some guys like certain necks, some guys look for the most resonant body….what do you look for in a good guitar?
I look for playability and tone. I want the neck position to sound clear and chimey, and the back to have bite while also retaining width and thickness. Of course there are guitars that play horribly that sound incredible recorded. I tracked an acoustic the other day where the action must have been 3 inches off the board, but it sounded so good that you just gotta buck up and play!
You have a different philosophy on getting your sound than most guys. How do you go about dialing in your amp, pedals etc for you sound?
Like I mentioned earlier, I like to dial my amps in pretty hot and then clean up using the volume on the guitar or a volume pedal. I learned it at an early age and have never deviated. It comes in handy when you’re playing a big stage and your pedalboard goes down! All you’re left with is your hands and a driven amplifer. It’s a good feeling. Having your amp run hot also allows for more dynamics and can save you some cash on those expensive overdrive pedals. When I record I almost never use drive pedals. No boost, gain, overdrive, distortion pedal will ever sound as good as a tube amp turned up. A tele through a Plexi or and AC30 on 10 is one of the best guitar sounds you'll ever hear. Turn your volume knob down a few notches and it can turn into the best clean sound you'll ever hear.
Any go to pedals that are a constant on your pedalboard(s)?
For sure. For live stuff I love the RC booster and I always have the Strymon El Capistan and Boss VB2 with me. Other than that it’s pretty standard stuff (drive, trem, chorus,delay, verb, etc…)
Tell us about your rig…amp of choice, pedalboard etc
Right now I use a mid 90s Matchless SC30 that I will never part with. It’s such a great amp and impresses me all the time. My pedals are usually the RC Booster, whatever overdrive Im into at the time (could be anything honestly because I rarely use overdrive). From there it goes into some mod which is always a Boss VB2 and then into this stereo chorus flange I have by TC Electronics. Then into a Diamond Tremolo and into the Strymon El Cap and Timeline then into a Boss RV5.
You’ve written alot of guitar lines that guitar players all over the world are playing….whats your process for coming up with a great line or hook for a song?
Think of a melody in your head that sounds great and doesn't get in the way of the vocals! Vocals are #1, hooks are #2. It’s a fun craft to try to find new lines and fresh ways to play them over pretty standard chord changes. Im definitely influenced and a product of everything I’ve been listening to up to the day that Im coming up with a part on my own songs or someone else’s. Don’t rip someone off, but surely welcome being influenced and making something you like your own.
What would you say to a young guitar player wanting to get into the business/record/tour etc.
Play a lot and learn to play like other people you admire. Learn to play like so many other people that you turn into your own voice. That’s a constantly evolving scenario so embrace it. Love God and love people. Being a cool, honest, hard working, humble person of your word will get you very far and it lines up with loving God and loving people! Don't be afraid of “no”. Take “no” as a challenge to get better and put into perspective what you really want.
You do alot of recording at your home studio, how did you get started doing that?
I started getting asked by people if I can send them tracks from home. I never wanted to say I couldn't so I went out and bought some pro gear and started hacking away! I owned a lot at first and now it’s come down to a few channels of good preamps and conversion with a 57 on the cone and there’s the secret that every engineer in the industry goes to. SM57 into on the cone into a nice pre. Play a good part with good tone and feel and you’re there.
Im loving the Wild Pony project you did….Any more solo projects?
Thanks! I don't have any more solo original stuff, but am planning on releasing a full length by next year!
I know you just got married, congrats! Whats in store for this year…Tours? Records?
Im concentrated on being married! I married an angel and will not be touring! I will record and write at home.
Pro Tools or Logic? Logic for writing, Pro Tools for editing
Coffee or Tea? Tea
Tele or Les Paul? Les Paul
Vox or Marshall? Both!
Favorite plugins? UAD Neve 1073 is rad, Valhalla Vintage Verb, Waves SSL G Channel is cool too. All the Sound Toys stuff is ridiculous.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions man…! Where can people go to find out more about you and your music?
For sure! I always enjoy hanging and talking with you!
I usually just post stuff on Instagram of stuff that I’m up to and proud of. @WildPonyTJ
Listen to Wild Pony on Spotify
Guitar Workshop Crew at @HarvestOC ... (some of my favorite peeps right here)
Taylors Smaller Travel Pedalboard
Taylors main pedalboard
Taylor Johnson recording credits:
(Phil Wickham, Robbie Seay, Lorde, Andrew Belle, Frank Ocean, Crowder, Bethel Music, Leagues, All Sons & Daughters, Avril Lavigne, Shane & Shane, Rooney, Audrey Assad)
Feel free to leave a comment below