Tal Farlow

Talmage Holt Farlow (June 7, 1921– July 25, 1998) was an American jazz guitarist. He was nicknamed “Octopus” because of how his large, quick hands spread over the fretboard.

Talmage Holt Farlow was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States. He taught himself how to play guitar, which he started when he was 22 years old. He learned chord melodies by playing a mandolin tuned like a ukulele. He said playing the ukulele was the reason he used the higher four strings on the guitar for the melody and chord structure, with the two bottom strings for bass counterpoint, which he played with his thumb. His only professional training was as an apprentice sign painter. He requested the night shift so he could listen to big band standards on the shop radio. He listened to Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie Lang. His career was influenced by hearing Charlie Christian playing electric guitar with the Benny Goodmanband. He said he made his own electric guitar because he could not afford to purchase one.

Farlow employed artificial harmonics and tapped his guitar for percussion, creating a flat, snare drum sound or a hollow backbeat like the bongos. His large, quick hands earned him the nickname “The Octopus”.

He caught the public’s attention in 1949 when he was in a trio with Red Norvo and Charles Mingus. In 1953, he was a member of the Gramercy Five led by Artie Shaw, and two years later he led his own trio with Vinnie Burke and Eddie Costa in New York City. After getting married in 1958, he partially retired and settled in Sea Bright, New Jersey, returning to a career as a sign painter.  He continued to play occasional dates in local clubs. In 1962 the Gibson Guitar Corporation, with Farlow’s participation, produced the “Tal Farlow” model. In 1976, Farlow started recording again. A documentary about him was released in 1981.

Later in his career Tal performed as a member of Great Guitars with a DVD released in 2005 after his death.

Farlow died of esophageal cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City on July 25, 1998, at the age of 77.

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