Andy Powers has certainly come a long way since, at the age of just 15, he ran into Bob Taylor at a Harvey Reid concert and showed Bob a ukulele he’d built. Impressed with the quality of the workmanship, Taylor famously told the teenager, “If you ever need a job come look me up.”
A couple of decades later, Andy was recruited by Bob to lead guitar design for Taylor Guitars, freeing up the company’s co-founder to spend more time on forestry and sustainability projects in Cameroon and Hawaii. If it all seems fated already, what if we told you that Andy’s middle-name is Taylor? True story…
Powers’ recent achievements at Taylor include reinventing the internal architecture of the flat-top acoustic, introducing an elegant new round-shouldered dreadnought into the catalogue in the shape of the vintage-flavoured Grand Pacific, designing the most in-tune 12-string acoustic we’ve ever heard and much more besides. And 2019 also saw Andy join founders Kurt Listug and Bob Taylor as the company’s third partner.
Two years after we came here to play instruments equipped with V-Class bracing for the first time, we’re back at the Powers homestead in Carlsbad, 40-something miles north of Taylor’s El Cajon headquarters. Renovated by Andy and his carpenter/musician father, the property was once the site of a flower farm and is now part of a sleepy coastal suburb. The barn adjacent to the family home contains an impressively orderly workshop, and it’s here where much of the early prototyping and experimentation happens.
Part of what makes Powers unique isn’t just his ability to translate the drawings in his notebook into fully realised instruments – it’s the scalability of his designs, his ability to work with Taylor’s engineering team in devising methods and even new tooling in order to produce them in significant numbers, and the way in which his ideas create a platform for further innovation.
Take V-Class bracing as a case in point. Sure, the musical possibilities of a flat-top acoustic guitar that’s in tune all over the neck are significantly expanded, and that’s impressive in its own right. Likewise the enhanced projection and sustain offered by Powers’ longitudinal bracing pattern. But the concept also allows him to reimagine what’s possible within Taylor’s acoustic guitar family.
Taylor describes the Builder’s Edition Collection as being Andy’s ‘director’s cut’ – the sweet spot where innovation, player comfort and the sonic advantages of the V-Class idea coalesce, without the usual constraints imposed on a guitar-maker when designing a production line instrument. Although there’s no doubting the premium status of these instruments, there’s also a sense of clarity that’s the result of the designer’s intentions being undiluted.
“The Builder’s Edition idea was a way to make sense of wanting to build stuff that just was outside of our normal,” Powers explains. “What do you do when you have a guitar that doesn’t fit anything else you are doing? It’s not really the same wood, not really the same internals, not really the same anything. But you still wanna make it because it’s fun to play.”
Despite his deep understanding of the anatomy and science of musical instruments, fun and approachability are always at the forefront of Powers’ mind. “More than anything that’s my criteria,” he insists. “Whether or not a guitar is good. Is it fun to play or not fun to play? That’s what it comes down to, right?
“There are some guitars, you pick it up and go, there’s no reason why this should sound this good, but I can’t put it down because something is right about it. Other guitars you look at should be good but they just aren’t. So I always thought a great instrument was one that you had fun playing.”
All that said, when bringing new guitar designs to market, there needs to be more to the message than that. Powers admits that prior to its launch at Winter NAMM 2018, Taylor Guitars wrestled with the best way to introduce V-Class bracing to the world. Ultimately the decision was made to eschew any kind of Trojan Horse approach.
“We tried to figure out how you even introduce an idea like this,” he recalls. “Will people even see it? You can’t see it… it’s inside. So we came up with the K14ce Builder’s Edition guitar – here’s a way to make something that looks and feels radically different to what we’ve done, as a way to introduce this totally different idea inside. It worked out pretty good.
“We used that same kind of mentality for the Grand Pacific guitars that you saw last year. Something totally different, totally outside the normal for what Taylor does. Totally different shape, different vibe, different feel. A whole different personality.”
As the conversation turns to what’s coming next, it’s quickly apparent that there’s no sign of the V-Class well running dry any time soon. “This year we are finally getting to make good on something we’ve mentioned in the past couple of years: there are a lot of other cool guitars coming,” says Powers.
“One of the beautiful things about the V-Class idea is that it allows for a much wider range of guitars that what we’ve been able to do in the past. A lot of these different personalities that we’re building into instruments are more significantly different than they would have been in the past. Which I think is a good thing, because I’ve never heard two guitar players play the same way before.
“We don’t use the same sounds when we make songs. So the last several years, I’ve been working on a bunch of different guitars that all go in deliberately different directions.
“Now that we’ve introduced our V-Class idea throughout most of our line, we get to start introducing some of these other new instruments that have interesting stories and personalities by themselves. We’ve done more this year than we have ever tried to do in the past. And more complex things than ever before.”
Rather than one main platform, for 2020, Taylor is unleashing four new guitar designs in the Builder’s Edition Collection. Powers grins when he admits that 2019 was “a little busy,” but also says he’s “excited for all of these guitars.” Although each instrument is based on a body shape that has appeared previously in the Taylor catalogue, each of the four guitars comes loaded with ergonomic, structural and sonic refinements that steer them into uncharted waters for the brand.
The 912ce (£6,479) and 12-string 652ce (£4,319) are the first Grand Concert models in the Builder’s Edition collection, while the 816ce (£4,799) reinvents the Grand Symphony body, incorporating an innovative soundport cutaway, which required a bespoke tooling solution in order to go into production.
As Powers ably demonstrates, the 816ce’s spectral qualities make it a stunning instrument for solo fingerstyle performance, but the “lung power” he pinpoints as inherent in the body architecture make it a glorious strummer, too.
We’ve already heard how impressive V-Class architecture is in the context of that traditional problem child – the 12-string – but the 652ce provides a further twist. Reverse-strung in the style of a Rickenbacker electric 12, you hear more of the fundamental and the guitar’s tone inhabits a space somewhere between an acoustic and an electric. Powers notes that there’s definitely a hint of The Beatles and Tom Petty in its sonic DNA and we have to agree.
The other Builder’s Edition Grand Concert model – the 912ce – is another instrument that shares some characteristics with an electric guitar, and its fast attack and compact dimensions will surely appeal to fleet-fingered players looking to exploit the upper-fret access afforded by its bevelled cutaway.
The 324ce Grand Auditorium model (£3,239) rounds out the quartet and is perhaps the most interesting proposition of all. While Taylor leads the way in the guitar industry when it comes to long-term sustainability projects, the 324ce’s tonewood selection sees the company thinking more locally and using Shamel ash for the first time as part of an urban forest initiative in collaboration with West Coast Arborists, a company that provides tree maintenance and management services to cities throughout California.
Shamel ash – which Taylor is calling ‘Urban Ash’ – is found growing in municipal areas and on roadsides in metropolitan areas of Southern California. When trees have reached the end of their lifespan or have become unsafe, they are often removed and turned to mulch, but it turns out that Shamel ash can be great for making guitars, too. Powers compares its tonal properties to those of Honduran mahogany and the sections used on the back and sides of the 324ce have an attractive figure.
“This particular species happens to be a great mix of the right weight, density, dimensional stability and drying attributes, and responds well to sawing, sanding and finishing,” Andy says.
“One of the practical guitar-building benefits is that as these trees grow, especially those near a road, they’re pruned for roadway clearance early in life. That means you end up with a round branch and knot-free trunk, which yields the clean and clear slices we look for to make guitars.”
In the context of a climate emergency, finding a way to turn trees you pass on your way to work into great-sounding guitars can only be applauded. Here’s hoping other mainstream instrument brands follow suit.
Meanwhile, with the winter sun streaming through the windows, it’s time to head home. As we leave Andy’s workshop behind, we wonder how many more Builder’s Edition models are already in the works. One thing’s for certain, the future of Taylor Guitars is in safe hands.
Read the Guitar.com review of Taylor’s 2020 Builder’s Edition Collection instruments here.