Player Profile: “The Octopus” Tal Farlow

Nicknamed “The Octopus” for his huge hands, Tal Farlow could provoke listeners’ ears with exciting, harmonically complex solos at extreme tempos. He also was a pioneer of false harmonics, a right-hand technique Farlow used to produce harmonics all over the fretboard. But “The Octopus” didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 21. Even though his father played mandolin, violin and guitar, and his mother played piano, Farlow’s parents viewed music as a hobby, not a profession, and for years he labored as a sign painter for a meager $2 a week.

Once he got started though, it wasn’t long before he was playing professionally with Marjorie Hyams’ band. His stint with the Red Norvo Trio, which originally included Charles Mingus, made Farlow famous in the jazz world. That gig lasted from 1949 to 1953.

In 1953, Farlow played briefly with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five. Shaw’s album I Can’t Get Started…, released in 1954, features Farlow on guitar as well as Hank Jones on piano and Tommy Potter on bass. On the title cut, “I Can’t Get Started...,” Farlow plays single-note phrases in unison with vibraphonist Joe Roland under Shaw’s melody. This was a cutting edge approach for its day.

The Tal Farlow Album was recorded in 1954 and originally was released on Norman Granz’s Norgran label. Shortly after, Granz would form Verve Records. Farlow was joined on this album by guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Red Mitchell, and drummer Joe Morello, with pianist Claude Williamson making an appearance on four tracks. An original cut on the album, entitled “Gibson Boy,” is a reference to another nickname Farlow picked up in the ‘50s, a Gibson ES-350 being his guitar of choice. The playing on “Gibson Boy” finds Farlow in top form. His solos are fluent, melodic and articulate. The arrangement is exceptional, with Galbraith comping under Farlow while occasionally harmonizing the melody. The cover art was beautifully illustrated by David Stone Martin.

The album Tal was released in 1956 on Verve. A stand out cut is “Isn’t it Romantic,” which features false harmonics played in the B section and first chorus of the solo giving a beautiful contrast to the song as a whole.

From 1954 to 1958, Farlow was leader on a string of albums, including: The Artistry of Tal Farlow, Swing Guitars, The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, A Recital by Tal Farlow and This is Tal Farlow.

Farlow moved to Seabright, New Jersey in 1958 and purposely stepped out of the media spotlight to devote more time to boating and sign painting. Not to say music wasn’t still a part of his life; Farlow occasionally played locally and taught guitar privately at home.

Gibson approached Farlow in 1960 to design a signature model and Farlow took an immediate hands-on approach, suggesting a pickup that could slide along a track for tonal variance. Gibson rejected the idea and instead opted for a routed two-pickup design with nickel hardware. The guitar resembles the ES-350 with its Venetian cutaway, 17-inch lower bout and maple top. Visually, it possesses several unique characteristics, such as reversed J200 inlays on the rosewood fretboard, double-crown inlay on the headstock and scroll in the horn of the bout. The scroll, which was designed by Farlow, appears on most models. The original Gibson Tal Farlow went into production in 1962 and was officially discontinued in 1971 after only 215 examples were produced. Gibson later reissued the Tal Farlow in 1993.

Gibson Tal Farlow Guitars

Farlow made only one record as a leader between 1960 and 1975, The Return of Tal Farlow in 1969. Farlow was backed by pianist John Scully, bassist Jack Six and drummer Alan Dawson. Farlow’s playing on Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream” puts to rest any rumours of faltering chops due to the lack of recorded output during this period.

In the mid ‘70s Farlow signed with Concord Records and between 1976 and 1984 recorded a series of albums: On Stage, A Sign of the Times, Tal Farlow ‘78, Chromatic Palette, Cooking on All Burners and The Legendary Tal Farlow.

The video Great Guitars of Jazz, with Farlow, Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, was recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen Guild in 1997. Byrd with his nylon string, classical approach and Ellis with his blues-based jazz are a complementary mix to Farlow’s one-of-a-kind style. I always get a kick out of Charlie Byrd’s introduction to Farlow’s solo piece from this concert:

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“Tal’s gonna play one now. You know, some people think Tal looks like Abe Lincoln; of course he was alive when Lincoln was president. Whad’ya got for us Tal, 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'?”

The audience chuckles.

Talmage Holt Farlow, born June 7, 1921 in Greensboro, NC, died of cancer on July 25, 1998 in New York, NY.

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