Taylor’s Andy Powers on the future of guitar: “The fresh paths that musicians take compel makers to respond to their needs”
Speaking exclusively to Guitar.com, the Taylor Master Guitar Designer shares his thoughts on the last decade of guitar building, and what the next decade might bring.
All images: Eleanor Jane
Since Andy Powers joined Taylor Guitars in 2011, the laid-back Californian has become the creative fulcrum of one of the world’s biggest guitar companies. In the years since, Powers has overseen a gradual evolution of the Taylor recipe, as the company has earned anew its reputation as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking brands around.
As the dawn rises on the 2020s, we asked the man who became a partner at Taylor in 2019 what he thinks the future will hold for the company and the wider industry.
How important is it for a company like Taylor to keep pushing the instrument forward in terms of design?
“The reality is we love instruments and musicians, and are passionate about furthering our craft. I feel making guitars is a lot like playing music in that you can’t maintain a steady state for very long without growing stale. As a builder or musician, you need to continue developing and refining, having fresh thoughts and executing with ever-improving ability, or else you’ll slowly sink into a state of atrophy. For Taylor Guitars, our love of the instrument compels us to keep practising so that we continually have more to offer.
“While Taylor can be described as a guitar manufacturer, I’ve always thought of guitar making as a practice in the way that a doctor might practise medicine. The implication is you continue to develop and learn, and incorporate ever-deepening understanding into what you make in order to offer more to a musician than you were able to before.”
Taylor has been at the forefront of promoting conservation and the use of sustainable woods in guitar building, how do you imagine this will evolve as we move into the 2020s?
“We’re both deeply in love with wood and committed to it. We’re committed to using it, planting it, conserving it, and not wasting it carelessly. In my view, of all the things that can be made from wood, a musical instrument is possibly the highest value. We’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure healthy forests and wood farms, and healthy, efficient use of those materials. In the last several years, we’ve seen a shift away from the ultra-exotic, super-rare species that in many cases should be left alone, toward musicians having an appetite for guitars made from woods that sound, look and feel great and are managed in ways that ensure a healthy long-term outlook.
“Often, when folks ask about the future of wood use, there is a common assumption that the future of guitars will incorporate more composites or plastics to conserve timber resources. The reality is most synthetic materials have a far more damaging environmental impact than timbers. Sure, there are wood species that need careful control so as to not overburden the forests they come from, but there are many opportunities to build great instruments from woods that are carefully and deliberately sourced, and that represent a healthier future.”
Is it an exciting challenge for someone like yourself, to work out how to use these new timbers in a way that sounds and plays well?
“It’s genuinely thrilling to work with both the familiar woods and the new ingredients we discover. At times, we feel like chefs wandering through a farmer’s market and seeing a new ingredient laid on the table next to the familiar ones. These new flavours always bring fresh excitement into the shop – how does it work? What does it smell like? What does it do best? What should it turn into? Where does it best fit in the recipe, or on the menu?
“Some woods we come across can be challenging to learn how best to use them, or whether to use them at all, but this is certainly part of the guitar-making process, which keeps us growing. It’s especially rewarding when you start working with a previously unconsidered wood that turns out to be surprisingly wonderful for making guitars. It’s like discovering a new food group you didn’t know existed.”
Do you see innovations that you’ve brought in to the higher-end Taylor guitars in recent years trickling down to the more affordable options in the near future?
“We like to make a full range of guitars – from the modest ones to the luxurious ones. Often, the guitars with a premium price have a high cost because they require more work to build in the first place. In both material cost and construction, more goes into those designs. Those are obviously difficult to bring into a more modest price level unless we can develop new working methods that bring higher efficiency.
“While some designs simply can’t translate to less costly instruments without further technological breakthroughs, we are always looking to make every guitar better, no matter what the price of the instrument. We want musicians to enjoy the best guitar we can offer them, and hopefully, we can meet them at whatever price works for them.”
You’ve innovated a lot with body shapes since you joined Taylor, is that something you want to continue to explore in the coming years?
“There will be both development of new shapes and more refining of current outlines. As far as an acoustic guitar goes, the perimeter shape is a significant part of both the sonic response, and the very character of an instrument. The outline will directly influence the sound the guitar is making, as well as indirectly influence the way a musician holds and plays the guitar. We’ll continue to refine and develop our existing portfolio of instruments and add to them as we develop new voices to offer to the musical landscape.
“In some cases, it might come in the form of redesigning an existing model around our V-Class internal architecture; in other cases, we’ll create entirely new designs. In simple words, we’re interested in making instruments that have a reason to be made. Each needs to bring something of musical value to the musicians. In pursuit of this purpose, we are completely open to altering current designs in subtle or significant ways, or creating entirely new designs.”
Taylor has been keen to embrace new digital technology in the past, is that something that you see continuing in the future?
“Opportunities to incorporate digital technologies into acoustic instruments certainly exist, and we’ve closely investigated some of them. That said, I notice that musicians often gravitate toward an acoustic instrument as a counterpoint to the technologies which seem to govern so much of our daily existence. There is a beautiful directness – a sense of realism – in the experience of playing an acoustic instrument that feels to me like a ballast to balance out the detachment I sense with digital technologies. The two seem to maintain an experiential contrast in so many ways, and I’m not sure they should be incorporated.
“One practical example is to consider the lifespan of an acoustic guitar in contrast to the lifespan of an average digital device. An acoustic guitar made of woods that took decades, even centuries, to grow has a lifespan that will enable it to remain every bit as musically viable in a hundred years as it is today. The useful lifespan of most digital devices ranges from months to a few short years. It seems like adapting a guitar to accommodate the latest digital technology is needlessly imposing an artificially short lifespan on an instrument. Once the technology moves on, or the electronic components fail, what is to become of the guitar that could have gone on making music?”
The acoustic guitar world is perhaps a broader church than ever before, with the internet enabling smaller brands to punch far above their weight – how do you feel that will change things for the big guns such as Taylor?
“A small guitar shop has the benefit of being able to make discoveries and quickly incorporate new ideas into their next guitar. Conventionally, a larger manufacturer has a far more difficult time responding. As for Taylor, we work best when we operate on both levels. We’re fortunate to develop instruments in a very small and dynamic shop environment, then quickly gain enough momentum to create all the necessary aspects to introduce those fresh thoughts into a larger production environment.
“We’re dedicated to a path of improving our guitars because we like to, and we love to be in the company of fellow craftspeople who share a similar approach to their work. This environment of many makers striving to create ever-better work is great both for our industry, and ultimately, for musicians.”
The last decade was a period of rejuvenation for the acoustic guitar in popular music – how do builders respond to that, and foster that connection with new players to ensure it continues?
“It seems to me that guitars will always have a place in the musical landscape for a wide variety of reasons: accessibility, portability, functionality and directness of playing experience, to name only a few. On the other hand, musical influences are like tides – always coming and going, carrying in new treasures, and drifting off with familiar ones.
“As makers, we understand the relationship between musicians and their instruments is a two-way street. The instruments we create will influence the sounds and music that creative players make, and the fresh paths that musicians take compel makers to respond to their needs. Guitar makers need to offer inspiring instruments to musicians so they can create the art. I see that as the path to contribute to the guitar’s enduring popularity.”
When you look at the industry in 2019, what trends and innovations do you think are going to shape the guitar world over the next decade?
“The path forward rarely appears very clear, so I have a tough time detailing any one aspect. One larger trend I’ve seen, and expect to continue, is that it seems we are currently experiencing a dynamic era of development in the guitar world for a variety of reasons – from details in guitar construction, new architectures, all the way to the forests and the woods we are using.
“All of these exciting developments are resulting in ever more expressive instruments that musicians are using to create an ever-wider landscape of music. This trend doesn’t appear to show any signs of slowing down, or any signal of direction change. How could it? Since the music that today’s players are making is heading in every direction. I expect to see more development in the years to come. This is a fantastic era to be a builder and a musician, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
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