Andy Powers on 50 years of Taylor Guitars and running a company that’s hard-wired to do things differently

The Taylor CEO & President on the reason that Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug made their employees co-owners, why music is more essential than people think, and why he’s excited about a “monster” new guitar from the company’s Mexican factory…

Andy Powers, photo by Taylor Guitars

Andy Powers. Image: Taylor Guitars

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“There’s a stewardship element to it, and a responsibility that comes with it. But there’s also freedom…” Andy Powers is considering what it means to be the current and future steward of a guitar company that is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024. After an enjoyable few minutes chatting about weather patterns in Southern California as the breeze blows gently through the hotel room from the balcony, the CEO & President of Taylor Guitars is considering what it means to take the reins of a company that has for five decades been stewarded by its inspirational founders, Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug.

Powers is a man younger than the company he now leads, and the San Diego native admits that there’s something a little surreal about leading the celebrations when he’s never known a world without Taylor in it. For many the weight of such history would be a burden, but for Powers the way the company has always been run liberates him of such concerns.

“Bob and Kurt, I mean, they were barely out of their teenage years when they started the company,” Powers reflects. “And the goal was to make a living in the world of guitar. And so our history is to do something that’s different. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to try something new. If it’s well thought out, and it’s not irresponsible to go for, sure we can make a new body shape. Sure, we can make a neck that attaches in a different way. Sure, we can make a neck that is slim and easy to play. Sure, we can make a sound that’s different. Sure, we could try to build these in a different kind of context. You have permission to explore.

“But we’ve done some things in the last 50 years. We’ve built a lot of guitars, we’ve changed some things. We’ve changed the history of music, in a lot of ways. But even now, there’s some new things coming, there are new guitars coming. So even some of our commemorative 50th anniversary models go well, that’s great, but there’s other stuff here.”

Andy Powers Bob Taylor Kurt Listug
Bob Taylor, Andy Powers and Kurt Listug of Taylor Guitars. Image: Taylor Guitars

Happy Anniversary

The 50th Anniversary range is typical of what Powers has brought to the brand in the decade-plus he’s been in the Master Guitar Designer chair – there’s a huge variety of models, many of which are trying new things and introducing new innovations. And they’re also being offered across the Taylor range, from the humble GS-Mini through to core guitars like the 314ce, all the way up to the Builder’s Edition.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that reflects the breadth and variety that Powers has brought to the Taylor catalogue over the last few years – it’s also a reflection of his growing influence over the brand at all levels. As we sit and chat, in his hands is the 217e-SB Plus LTD 50th Anniversary guitar – a Mexico-made instrument that sounds genuinely spellbinding in the confines of the Anaheim Marriott. Despite designing the thing, it seems that Powers is equally impressed with what the Tecate factory has produced.

“I love making fancy guitars,” he observes. “That’s cool. It’s really fun, and I love the tradition of it, I love the art of it. But as a musician, I equally love this 217e – this is an awful lot of guitar for what this instrument costs. This is maybe the most guitar for the least amount of materials that we’ve ever done.

“I’m having so much fun playing this. This is a Grand Pacific guitar, the first time that we’ve done a Grand Pacific-shaped guitar out of our Tecate factory. This guitar is an absolute monster! And in some ways you can say, ‘Well it looks pretty traditional – it looks like an acoustic guitar, but the insides are completely different from any other guitar.

“It’s got this new C-Class architecture, which is an asymmetrical version of a V-Class, and the same sort of thought that led into it. It has a roasted spruce top, there’s all this new stuff going on. What a cool thing to be able to offer to musicians. This is a really inspiring guitar for me to play!”

Andy Powers, photo by Eleanor Jane
Andy Powers. Image: Eleanor Jane

String Theory

Another big change at Taylor in this 50th anniversary year has flown under the radar a little – NAMM 2024 saw the announcement that from now on Taylor guitars will ship from the factory using D’Addario’s XS strings. Taylor and Elixir have been inseparable for decades, so we couldn’t help but wonder what prompted this dramatic change?

“It’s not a decision I took lightly actually, because I love what Elixir makes,” Powers explains diplomatically. “They’re a great string company, and they’re building a very consistent string. It’s been a wonderful thing for our guitars for a lot of years. But I also have friends at D’Addario, and it’s a great family – they’re a very like-minded business. They have the same ethos behind what they want to do. They want to build a better string all the time.

“So they started seeing if they could up their game, and build an even better guitar string, and I was kind of part of that process. For years, they would send me samples, and I’d try them and go, ‘Nope!’ But they started developing this XS string, and I was like, ‘Hey, you guys are onto something – this is a thing.’

“And so it came down to what’s best for the musician, and those strings, they just feel a little bit more musical to me. It served the guitar very well. It’s a nice starting point for a musician to audition a guitar with. I love when a musician takes the guitar and then puts on the strings they love the most. That’s what I recommend – play the size you like, play the brand, alloy, whatever it is. But I thought these are simply great strings to use, so let’s do that.”

Andy Powers, photo by Eleanor Jane
Andy Powers. Image: Eleanor Jane

More Than One Careful Owner

Another significant change in the Taylor Guitars landscape in the last few years has been the decision by Taylor, Listug and Powers to transition the company to a ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) model – simply put, Taylor is now owned by its employees.

In an era where big guitar companies tend to be owned by investment funds, megacorps or some blend of both, it’s a bold and admirable move – and one that you can see has had a meaningful impact when you walk around the factory floor in El Cajon. It would likely have been more personally profitable for the founders to sell the brand to one of the above investment funds or megacorps when they decided to retire, so the question first and foremost is… why?

“There are a lot of reasons for it,” Powers explains. “One of them is to get to share with everybody who’s contributed to it. That’s a real practical thing to go, ‘Man we’re in the business of staying in business, so how about we share that with all of our employees?’ That’s great.

The second aspect is, we couldn’t find any other mechanism that would ensure the continuity of what we felt was important. Most of the time, we have a passionate owner, they get into that business, because they want to do it, they want to make their thing they want to create their whatever it is they’re creating, sell their service do their service there, they want to ply their trade, and they’re excited about it.

“But at a certain point, every business has to be sold. It’ll either close, or transitions ownership because nobody lives forever. So you’re gonna have to do something with it. And so, most of the time, what happens is you have a different company or financial institution or something who wants to come in and operate it profitably and get a return on their investment. Well, that means that part of the purpose of that company has shifted, the reason that you’re doing what you’re doing, won’t be the same. Well, that inevitably is seen in the product, and it’s inevitably seen in what you’re offering to your customer.

“A guitar maker gets into building guitars asking themselves, what can I give to these musicians? And most guitar companies end up later in life, looking at musicians and asking themselves what can I take from these musicians? I could not think of a more backwards turn of purpose. And so we want to continue with our purpose intact. Let’s keep going in the same direction. I want to always be asking, What can I build? What can I offer to these musicians? And so this was a way to be able to do that and have that same purpose intact for another generation.”

Andy Powers, photo by Eleanor Jane
Andy Powers. Image: Eleanor Jane

Important Unimportant Things

Hearing powers talk about Taylor and the future of the brand, it’s clear that he feels privileged to do what he does – and never underestimates how meaningful it is when he comes into work every day and tries to come up with ways to make more inspirational and musical instruments.

“I genuinely do feel privileged,” he enthuses. “My wife says that I lead a ‘rich thought life’… which means I probably spend too much time thinking about things! But music, if you look at the course of human history, is not essential. You are going to survive without it – it’s not food, it’s not shelter, it’s not protection, it’s not any of the real basic things.

“Except that somehow it is so unbelievably essential to our experience of living – the earliest artefacts of humankind are musical instruments. So the first time you had enough to eat, maybe a cave to live in and protect you from the weather and whatever might be trying to eat you… your first thought is ‘I need an instrument to play’. Well, there’s a really interesting lesson in that.

“We desire this creative spark, this little bit of inspiration, that allows us to express ourselves and provide some sort of motivation for living another day, to provide a little bit of something to enjoy the day, or to make sense of the day. Make sense of what you see going on around you. And I get to contribute to that. I get to take these materials and build an instrument and go here. Go inspire yourself.

“My dad’s a carpenter, and so one of the things he taught me was that one of the greatest gifts that you can have in life is to learn to love working – because life is a lot of working. So learn, find joy in whatever it is you’re doing, whether you’re digging ditches, paving a street, building a house, swinging a hammer, whatever it might be – learn to find something in it that gives you satisfaction.

“That’s a great lesson to learn, but as a guitar maker, it’s not hard to do. I’ve dug plenty of ditches, I’ve shovelled a lot of gravel – it can be a little bit of a stretch to learn to love shovelling gravel! And then you look at building a guitar, and it’s like, ‘I’m building a guitar!’ It’s basically a toy. But it’s a very meaningful toy for a person to use to tell their story, sing their songs, play their music – how lucky am I? I think that’s a really, really special thing to be part of.”

Find out more about Taylor’s 50th Anniversary range at taylorguitars.com


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