Duran Duran’s John Taylor
By Marco Passarelli | December, 2007
When Duran Duran enlisted hip-hop producers for Red Carpet Massacre, John Taylor found his regular bass seat filled by pre-programmed loops. Here’s how the flexible pop star stretched to fit.
Ego—strange that such a funny little word stands for something so dangerous that it has killed more rock bands than plane crashes and drug overdoses combined. After spending years in the pop spotlight, Duran Duran’s John Taylor has concocted a very simple antidote to the crippling disease: humility. “I’ve got friends who are darn better players than I who have moved into different lines of work, so I consider myself very fortunate,” says the 47-year-old. “I’m no virtuoso, but I am an honest and sincere person who takes performing very seriously. That’s what it’s all about. I take my work seriously because I take my life seriously.”
Pairing club-approved dancefloor rhythms with penetrating pop hooks, Duran Duran ruled the ’80s with its stylish look and sound, sending hits like “Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” and “View to a Kill” straight up the pop charts. The band has always had a knack for blending pop melodicism with contemporary dance rhythms, something Duran Duran continues to flaunt on its latest, Red Carpet Massacre. The band turned to hip-hop heavies Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills to handle production, and the result is a supremely dynamic collaboration.
Following last year’s departure of longtime Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, who exited during pre-production for Red Carpet Massacre, John and the band were faced with a new set of challenges. As Timbaland and “Danja” Hills brought fresh flavor to the table, they also pushed John beyond his comfort zone and into an unfamiliar world of pre-programmed bass lines. Filling the void left by guitar, Taylor adjusted his style to fit, laying down guitar-like funk lines to complement the meaty bass tracks. That such a key player in the band—and no slouch as a bassist—would be asked to make space might sound like a slap in the face, but John remains philosophical about it all: “You’ve got to be able to tap dance, because no gig is sacred.”
“Whenever I play with this band, I feel empowered,” Taylor continues. “I never have a sense of being ‘over it,’ or of our best work being behind us. I always feel optimistic, positive about possibilities. Playing music awakens the best of me, and that part of me is a believer.”
Past producers you’ve worked with include Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards from Chic. How was it different working with a hip-hop producer like Timbaland?
For the players—myself, Roger [Taylor, drums], and Nick [Rhodes, keys]—the first couple days were an exercise in laying out. A producer like Timbaland is used to building the whole sound; it’s very unusual for these guys to work with bands. And every night I’d be saying to him, “Dude we’re a band—we express ourselves in terms of our instruments.” After a few days, we finally jammed and started our writing process. That was for “Skin Divers,” the first tune where I really got to assert myself as a player on these sessions.
After doing a few songs with Timbaland, the band began working with his programmer, Nate “Danja” Hills. How did that relationship work?
Nate was looking to get involved in production, so he came over to London. I didn’t have to tell him once that we were a band—he got it straight away. Nate comes from a very different background; the dude learned to play in church, and we were turning him onto Beatles tracks and David Bowie. But what this kid’s got inside him was tremendously exciting. The first thing I thought was, Damn—this is amazing! But the next thing for me was, What do I play?
How were those sessions structured?
We’d decide a tempo, and Nate would fire off these deep, funky grooves that we’d all play along with. I had to put a stake down and find a part quickly, and I had to get really resourceful, because a lot of his tracks already had bass lines. Still, I needed to have a way of expressing myself. I didn’t want to just sync up with whatever bass line was there—I don’t see the point in matching. It was more about finding something that could work against his parts. Since we didn’t have a guitar player, I started playing these high, Nile Rodgers- or Steve Cropper-esque parts that could sit in that harmonic range where a rhythm guitar would usually sit. Then we’d decide how the two bass parts could interact. It was an exercise in open-mindedness.
Did it feel strange making room for someone else’s bass lines?
I am a bass player, but I’m also a writer, a producer, and a sound designer, so I asked myself a lot of questions as a player. Lots of times I’ve played everything I possibly could before realizing a track is working best without my bass guitar. In the kind of music Timbaland and Danja make, there is no room for anything that’s not essential. It was interesting to learn what we needed to hold onto and what we didn’t.
How do you like to track your bass parts?
I like playing in the control room, because then there’s no barrier between the producer and the band, and because communication is key.
What do you look for in an instrument?
Particularly when I’m playing live, I have to find my home within the band’s sound, which is quite big. I have to occupy a very narrow, deep place, which I find the Peavey Cirrus does very well. If I try to play my Music Man or Gibson onstage, they’re too big, putting out too much air. Every six months I say, “Now I want to play a Gibson and use Ampeg heads,” but it always ends up sounding too big and round.
Peavey has come out with a John Taylor signature bass, the Liberator JT-84. Are there any other special instruments in the works?
They’re building me a double-neck—a 6-string guitar with a 4-string bass. There are songs on the record where I played both bass and rhythm guitar, so I thought I’d like to try playing that live.
Are there any new acquisitions in your instrument collection?
I’ve got two of Bernard Edwards’s old bass guitars now—the Music Man and the B.C. Rich that he played on Chic’s “Le Freak.” When I went to record “Falling Down,” a song we wrote with Justin Timberlake, I had just acquired the B.C Rich. So I used that bass.
How has your playing style changed throughout the years?
I can tell where my head was at any given point by listening to the way I played on Duran Duran records. The way I used to play seemed to say, “Check me out”—I was very conscious of being heard and recognized. Then, for a few years I was practically in hiding; you could barely hear the bass, and I didn’t mind that it was low. Now, it’s more about the greater good—trying to be a worker amongst workers. Because at the end of the day, the musician inside each of us has to take a back seat to the producer inside each of us.
Peavey Cirrus 4MFB 4-string & 5MFB 5-string; Bernard Edwards’s ’77 Music Man StingRay and B.C. Rich; Bass Centre Elites Stainless Steel Stadium Series strings (.045–.130)
’80s & ’90s Basses
Aria Pro II SB600, Aria Pro II SB1000; Kubicki Factor; Yamaha and Washburn acoustic bass guitars; Steinberger XM-4; Warwick Thumb 5-string; Carruthers electric upright bass; Gibson Les Paul Basses
Peavey Pro Bass 500, Peavey 8x10 cabinets
Samson UR-5 wireless, Mike Hill Switcher, Voodoo Labs GCX Ground Control system, Countryman DI (to house), Maxon FL-9 Flanger, Ibanez CS-9 Stereo Chorus, Pro Co Rat distortion, T.C. Electronic D-Two Digital Delay, DigiTech Whammy Pedal, EBS BassIQ envelope filter
For songs like “Planet Earth,” John grabs orange Dunlop Tortex .60mm picks and applies Vaseline to his right hand thumb and forefinger.
Thanks to tech Beetmol Troy for the details of John’s rig.
In August 1985, as John Taylor shifted his efforts from Duran Duran to Power Station, he spoke with Guitar Player. Here’s what he had to say.
On building bass lines “There are some melodic progressions that don’t need any more movement than the melody itself, but if there’s a song that’s more groove- than melody-oriented, maybe I’ll pick up on the syncopation and put the focus more on the rhythm.”
On “lead bass” “I don’t like the bass as a lead instrument. It’s okay to feature occasionally, but I’ve always thought the best bass players you shouldn’t hear—you should feel.”
On fretless bass “The only person I can think of who’s doing it right is Pino Palladino—he took a sort of slap-funk thing and adapted it to fretless. Between him and Mick Karn of Japan, I think they’ve done everything with it that I could have in the genre of music we play.”
On slapping & popping “There was one point where everybody was trying to do it to be hip. I made a vain attempt and found I didn’t like it that much anyway.”
On playing with effects “Recently, I’ve been triggering my delay with the snare drum, so that the bass sound bounces back on the beat.”
On working things out on the road “When I get out on the road and gig for a while, my lines usually get better because they get easier to play. The bass on ‘Rio’ is one of my favorites because I had played it for eight months before we recorded it. I was also able to live with [Power Station’s] ‘Some Like It Hot’ for a while before we recorded it, and I think that bass line one of the best things I’ve done.”
On making the switch from guitar to bass “Once I got over the fact that I had to stand at the back of the stage and be the boring one, I rather liked it. And I found that teen pinups can be good bass players—like Sting with the Police and Martin Kemp with Spandau Ballet. I think we made the bass a little more fashionable.”
Duran Duran’s “Rio”
While many other new-wave bassists took their musical cues from punk rock, John Taylor tapped a different inspiration source for his early bass lines: disco and funk. Much like Bernard Edwards of Chic, Taylor packed his lines with dense syncopation and tight articulation. No song better illustrates this side of John’s style than the title track from 1982’s Rio [Capitol].
Under the verse’s coasting vocal melody and howling chord stabs (on the “and” of two), Taylor takes flight with soaring chromatic ascents and rocking root-5 motion, goosing the rhythm with a gaggle of ghost-notes (Ex. 1, overleaf). The tune modulates from E minor to E major at the chorus (Ex. 2), where John deploys a few choice octaves jumps in the 1st and 3rd endings. Locking with drummer Roger Taylor, the Taylor-made rhythm section shifts the feel in the breakdown (Ex. 3), anticipating each downbeat before returning to the tune’s principal rhythmic pattern in bars 17 through 24.
Nate “Danja” Hills On Producing Red Carpet Massacre
For acclaimed R&B producer Nate “Danja” Hills, whose resumé includes building tracks for pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, working with a live band for Red Carpet Massacre was a real treat. “It was great being in the room with musicians, rather than having to come up tracks by myself. On most of the tracks, I’d already have a bass line. Then John would come in and play around it. I never had to tell him what to play—he just felt the vibe and found his way. His sense of rhythm is incredible, and he was able to create new bass melodies on top of existing bass lines. He was even playing guitar-like parts with his bass. He knows his way around!”
Sly & the Family Stone Catalog [Epic Legacy]
“That’s an amazing body of work. I love taking journeys, going album-by-album and getting into the ebb and flow of one artist’s creative work.”
With Duran Duran (on Capitol, except where noted)
Red Carpet Massacre, Epic, 2007
Astronaut, Epic, 2004
Planet Heart, 1991
Arena (Live), 1984
Seven and the Ragged Tiger, 1983
Duran Duran, 1981
With the Power Station
Power Station, Capitol, 1985
Courtesy Bass Player Magazine