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This article was originally published in issue #25
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Established in 1974 by Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug, Taylor Guitars has evolved into one of the world's leading manufacturers of premier guitars. Over the years, the company was won itself a tremendous reputation, first based on the tremendous playability of Bob Taylor's designs. Here, at last, was an acoustic guitar that could rival a Martin or a Gibson for tone and yet play so easily that an electric player wouldn't struggle with it.
Time moves on, of course, and other manufacturers have learned about playability from Taylor, so the evolutionary process come into play and it's now time for Taylor to move on - which brings us to the new 800 series and its development.
The 800 series is Taylor's flagship model and was the first that Bob Taylor designed. Taylor has made a tradition of celebrating milestone years and this year, its 40th anniversary, it has decided to reinvent the 800 series, for many the rock on which the company made its name. That was never going to be easy. Major changes like these can be downright dangerous for a company, so Bob Taylor brought in the expertise of master builder Andy Powers, a renowned luthier and, probably more importantly, an excellent guitarist who knows what a great acoustic guitar should sound like.
This is the important part of the new series. Playability and consistency have always been a done deal with Taylors, but this new series is said to be all about the sound. That's not to say that sound and tone have never been important in the past but this was apparently the main focus for improving a much-loved series.
So what changes have they made? Well, some fairly small ones, and some major ones, all adding up to make a big difference. As a player himself, Andy Powers says he was looking for a more musical guitar with more volume, more sustain and more uniform character over the whole guitar, and this is how he went about achieving it.
I'm going to look in some detail at what Powers has done here, so first please check the video to hear for yourself what this new guitar sounds like, then we can go through the details of how it has evolved.
Talk to any acoustic guitar maker and the odds are that pretty soon he will start talking about bracing. Though guitarists never see it (hopefully!) an acoustic guitar's bracing pattern has to handle the huge tensions put on the instrument's top by the strings and the bracing thus dictates how it moves. The search for the perfect bracing pattern could be the subject of a decent sized book but suffice it to say that Taylor has made significant internal changes to the 800 series, including the use of side bracing and a slanted arrangement for the back. The company says the result is most noticeable in the mid-range response.
Another change has been in the thickness of wood used. In short, the company has decided: “the smaller the guitar, the thinner the wood.” This seems to make logical sense as the thinner wood, the more flexible it will be and thus the louder it will sound - always something you want from a smaller instrument.
As I say, some of the changes, like the bracing and the thickness of the woods, are quite major but some are so slight that you'd never notice them - like the use of protein glue in its construction. Animal based glues were what the original guitar makers used and that tradition continued into the 20th century, when modern adhesives were invented and began to replace them. They were a lot easier to work with and soon supplanted traditional hide-derived glues, but some real 'golden ears' types believe the change was to the detriment of tone. Andy Powers has taken the bold step back in this case - using a fish protein glue on the 800 series. This will delight traditionalists and tone hounds alike, we suspect.
One other tone thief, many believe, is the material used to finish a guitar. Apparently, Taylor’s standard gloss finish has had a maximum thickness of 6 mils (1 mil = .001 inch), which is the industry standard for a high-quality gloss-finish guitar. You get a better tone, however, from a thinner finish and Taylor has found a way of reducing the finish of the 800 series models to just 40 per cent of what it used to be. Taylor says there is no loss of lustre or strength and that tone will benefit. We shall see!
So does that about wrap-up the changes? Actually, no. Thinking about what makes a guitar's sound, what about strings? Taylor has had a long association with Elixir and between them the two companies have developed a new set, named HD Light, which blends Elixir light and medium gauge strings with a custom .025 gauge third string (a standard light-gauge G string is a .024; the medium is a .026). The specific gauges are: .013, .017, .025, .032, .042, .053. According to Taylor, the custom gauging complements the construction of the Grand Concert and Grand Auditorium and yields “bolder highs and fuller lows”. These new strings are going to be reviewed separately at a later date here in Guitar Interactive's Quiet Room, as Elixir says they are equally suited to other guitars too and we want to put that to the test.
Finally, to the electronics. Taylor's Expression system has long been regarded as pretty much a benchmark but even that has undergone changes. The company says that: “The industry’s prevailing understanding had been that the top and string vibration cause the saddle to “bounce” up and down. This has long been the basis for the placement of a piezo-electric transducer under the saddle.” However, Taylor's pickup designer, David Hosler, says that isn't ideal and he has discovered that the synthetic tone often produced by piezo transducers is caused by the way the string's pressure on the saddle forces it down and restricts its movements. By moving the piezo-electric crystals to a position behind the saddle, he feels they can move more naturally in harmony with the energy produced during playing. Interestingly, this new ES2 design allows for the three pickup sensors to be individually adjusted to calibrate their pressure against the saddle.
So there we have it, some major changes, such as the electronics, and some smaller ones that most people would never have thought of, like the type of glue. But how does it all affect the guitar in real life and most importantly, what has it done to the sound?
Our review sample was an 816CE, slightly bigger than Taylor’s Grand Auditorium body style and certainly an impressive looking instrument. The Grand Symphony shape joined the line in 2006 and delivers, Taylor says, a rich, powerful acoustic voice. Think of it as a Grand Auditorium with a turbo boost, thanks to expanded physical dimensions, including a slightly wider waist and a bigger lower bout.
Wood wise, the neck is tropical mahogany with an ebony fretboard, while a Sitka spruce top complements Indian rosewood sack and sides - very traditional and for a good reason: it's a classic way of producing the typical sound most acoustic players want. There's a cutaway for easy access to the top frets.
Of course, you can own the best acoustic guitar in the world, but the problem has always been amplifying them. Taylor believes its new Expression Series 2 is a major improvement over the well liked original version. I played our sample 816CE with it plugged direct into our studio speakers with the monitors very close in front. I had no issues with feedback, and the tone was much warmer and fuller than I normally expect from a plugged in acoustic. Taylor seems to have hit the nail on the head with this new ES2 system. It is very, very good.
What is it like to play? Well, the finish and attention to detail on the 816CE is immaculate throughout, it's just a shame the back of the guitar is hidden from view as it's one of the most beautiful parts! The playability of our sample was just exceptional, with perfect action, intonation and neck comfort. These are of course things you would expect from a top of the range guitar made by a world class manufacturer, but trust me this is not always the case! With the 816, however, the whole instrument oozes quality - even the case it comes in is a thing of beauty.
Taylor has always been known as a great acoustic guitar manufacturer and it has been a brave move for them to have taken the flagship 800 series and change it, in some senses quite drastically, but I'm happy to report that all the changes really have made a significant difference: an already fantastic guitar has been made even better. Listen to the video and try one as soon as you can if you are in the market for the finest quality.
It would be easy to object that it's an expensive instrument, but I think that would be totally missing the point. The 816CE is a top end guitar and if you want the very best then you have to be prepared to part with some cash. If you do decide to take the plunge I can confidently say you won't be disappointed. I'm also confident that as time goes by and the wood matures, it will only continue to sound better every year. This is, simply, an amazing instrument and despite the price, we actually think it is excellent value for money. It's a connoisseur's guitar that will provide a lifetime's fulfilment.