James Taylor Gives Guitar Lessons, Teaching You How to Play Classic Songs Like “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road” & “Carolina in My Mind”

The Amer­i­can folk revival of the 1950s and 60s paid div­i­dends in the 1970s, a decade we usu­al­ly asso­ciate with prog rock, dis­co, funk, and punk. These were the years of some of Cros­by, Stills & Nash and Neil Young’s best acoustic folk, and the finest work of Joni Mitchell and James Tay­lor, both of whom had such unique takes on folk gui­tar that they rede­fined the instru­ment for gen­er­a­tions. Mitchell drew from her teenage appre­ci­a­tion for jazz gui­tar, which she taught her­self to play while still in high school. Tay­lor picked up his unusu­al voic­ings and arrange­ments from a num­ber of Amer­i­can sources.

His influ­ences, he told Adam Gop­nik on The New York­er Radio Hour, came from his ear­ly study of the cel­lo (he played “bad­ly, reluc­tant­ly,” he says); ear­ly expo­sure to Broad­way show tunes and “light clas­sics”, thanks to par­ents who shut­tled him by train from North Car­oli­na to New York City, and his admi­ra­tion for Elvis, the Bea­t­les, and Ray Charles.

Through a mix of child­hood train­ing, ado­les­cent obses­sions, and a mature fin­ger­style honed by hours and hours of patient prac­tice, Tay­lor came to dom­i­nate the charts with songs like 1970’s “Fire and Rain” and “Coun­try Road,” bring­ing his acoustic folk and coun­try sen­si­bil­i­ties to soft rock sta­tions every­where.

Taylor’s song­writ­ing, for all its lyri­cal dra­ma and melan­choly, begins with the gui­tar. Through pure tech­nique, he makes the instru­ment sing, pulling his melodies from chord pat­terns and pick­ing styles. As befits such a thought­ful play­er, he is also a teacher of the instru­ment, offer­ing a free series of lessons for play­ing his most beloved songs. Here you can see his “Fire and Rain” les­son fur­ther up, “Coun­try Road” above, and at the top, a brief intro to the series from Tay­lor him­self.

Note that these lessons are for inter­me­di­ate play­ers, at least, and assume pri­or famil­iar­i­ty with the chord changes in the songs. The videos were orig­i­nal­ly avail­able on Taylor’s web­site, and required a sign-in, he says, some­what apolo­get­i­cal­ly. Since 2011, they are all—8 lessons total—available on his offi­cial YouTube chan­nel. See les­son num­ber 6, “Car­oli­na in My Mind,” just below, and watch all the rest for free here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Tay­lor and Joni Mitchell, Live and Togeth­er (1970)

James Tay­lor Per­forms Live in 1970, Thanks to a Lit­tle Help from His Friends, The Bea­t­les

For Joni Mitchell’s 70th Birth­day, Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances of “Both Sides Now” & “The Cir­cle Game” (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Robert Parks says:

    Fire and Rain was the rea­son I bought my first vinyl record Sweet Baby James. This is the rea­son I start­ed to sing and play the gui­tar. Oh man, James Tay­lor and Open Culture…Thank you!!! What a treat!

  • Else Bright says:

    Thank you James. Thanks for shar­ing your gui­tar style. You remain my hero after 40+ years of gui­tar play­ing. I’m back play­ing more again after my kids have moved out and I can spend more alone time, well, not so alone as I also have my gui­tars. Xxx

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