Tal Farlow

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Tal Farlow
Tal Farlow 5.jpg
Background information
Birth name Talmage Holt Farlow
Born (1921-06-07)June 7, 1921
Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
Died July 25, 1998(1998-07-25) (aged 77)
New York City, New York
United States
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Guitar
Labels Fantasy, Concord
Associated acts Red Norvo, Artie Shaw

Talmage Holt Farlow (June 7, 1921 – July 25, 1998) was an American jazz guitarist. Nicknamed the "Octopus" for his extremely large hands which spread over the fretboard as if they were tentacles, he is considered one of the all-time great jazz guitarists. Where other similar players of his day combined rhythmic chords with linear melodies, Farlow preferred placing single notes together in clusters, varying between harmonically enriched tones based on a startling new technique. As music critic Stuart Nicholson put it; "In terms of guitar prowess it was the equivalent of Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile." [1]


Farlow was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1921. Self-taught, he learned chord melodies by playing a mandolin tuned like a ukulele, listening to jazz records by greats such as Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie Lang. He said his playing the ukulele was the reason he used the higher four strings on the guitar for the melody and chord structure, with the extra two bottom strings for bass counterpoint, (which he played with his thumb). As he grew, his only professional training was as an apprentice sign painter. He requested the night shift so he could listen to the big band standards on the shop radio. He heard Charlie Christian playing electric guitar with the Benny Goodman band and his mind was set. He said he made his own electric guitar because he couldn't afford one. He had his own local version the Benny Goodman sextet, and grew in local reputation. By 1948 he was playing with Margie Hyams's band. Scooped up by Red Norvo, he made his mark on the musical world with the trio of the same name from 1949 to 1953. Unveiling virtuoso technique and original guitar mechanics - (such as harmonics and using the picking hand to play notes on the fret board), Tal Farlow became famous in the jazz world. His huge hands and ability to play rapid yet light lines earned him the nickname "Octopus", and made him one of the top guitarists of the era. After six months with Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five in 1953, Farlow put together his own group, which for a time included pianist Eddie Costa.

In 1958, Farlow retired from full-time performing and settled in Sea Bright, New Jersey, returning to a career as a sign painter. He continued to play occasional dates in local clubs, however.[2] In 1962 the Gibson Guitar Corporation, with Farlow's participation, produced the "Tal Farlow" model in their prestigious Artist Model line. The guitar seen in the picture at right being played by Farlow is a prototype model. The production model has a mandolin-style scroll at the top of the body.

Farlow made only one record as a leader during 1960–1975, but emerged more often during 1976–1984, recording for Concord fairly regularly before largely disappearing again. He was profiled in the documentary film, Talmage Farlow (1980/81). His recorded legacy includes records for Blue Note (a 10" LP in 1954), Norgran (later Verve, 1954–60), and Prestige (1969), as well as those for Concord. In 1991, Tal recorded in Paris "Standards Recital" (Elabeth) in duet with Philippe Petit, the French Jazz guitar player.

Farlow died of esophageal cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City on July 25, 1998, at the age of 77.[3]


With Sonny Criss

With the Metronome All-Stars

With Oscar Pettiford


  1. ^ Stuart Nicholson, "Axe of the Apostles," Wire, September 1990, p. 72
  2. ^ Talmage Farlow at the Internet Movie Database
  3. ^ Watrous, Peter (28 July 1998). "Tal Farlow, 77, Jazz Guitarist Rooted in Bop". The New York Times. 

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