Taylor Made: Andy Powers on designing guitars for the next generation
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With recent data suggesting that there are 16 million more guitar players in North America today than there were prior to the pandemic, it’s clear that our beloved instrument is enjoying something of a moment. What’s also apparent is that playing behaviours have shifted too, with more and more guitarists spending the majority of their playing time in a seated position. Social media, meanwhile, has become for many the most viable concert stage. So what impact, if any, is this having on guitar design?
The desire to round over the hard edges of instruments in order to create more approachable guitars is something that we’ve discussed with Taylor’s Master Guitar Designer Andy Powers on numerous occasions – and long before Covid. “It’s actually a theme that was at the forefront of my mind when I was first working on what became the Academy Series guitars,” says Powers. “We launched those back in 2017. One of the central ideas behind that guitar was, if you can make the interaction between the player and the instrument a more comfortable one, the inevitable result is more playing, for longer periods. It’s easier and friendlier to pick up and, for a player who is first coming to the instrument, it’s not a turn-off.”
Indeed, many fledgling players never get past those early hurdles and end up abandoning the instrument altogether. “Let’s face it,” says Andy, “the first 20 minutes of a guitar player’s life are the worst! The thing basically hurts! It’s hard to press strings down, it’s hard to make a sound, it’s awkward to hold. It just feels weird. A person is trying to figure out how they interact with this instrument, so if we can make that a more comfortable experience, inevitably it’s going to work better.
“It’s interesting because, speaking broadly, there’s an awareness that this is important in almost every aspect of design. Whether it’s an automobile, clothing, a guitar – there’s a huge push towards making something comfortable because if it feels good, if it’s a pleasant experience, you tend to enjoy it more. So I think that’s one of the reasons that you tend to see this migration towards more comfortable clothing or fashion styles, you see a migration towards ergonomics in automobiles, you see a migration towards ergonomics in guitar design.”
Ask any experienced guitarist and they’ll likely share horror stories of their first guitar’s intimidatingly high action. But if you think the beginner instruments of the 80s or 90s were tough going, spare a thought for the juvenile guitarists of the 1920s. “I remember reading about guitar strings from the late teens or early 20s, when steel strings were first being adopted for guitars,” says Andy. “Those string sets offered the player the option of a wound or a plain B string! You consider that for a minute and you go, ‘Woah!’
The bevelled armrest on a Taylor Academy Series instrument being machined inside the company’s Tecate facility in Baja California, Mexico. All images in this article: Eleanor Jane
“I got a chance some years ago to play a guitar that Eddie Lang had owned, the famous jazz player from back in the 20s. He had this Gibson L-5 and one of the strings that was still on the guitar, the low E string, was a string that he had last played on. It had been on there for decades and, I kid you not, it looked like it belonged on a baritone guitar. That thing had giant strings on it. And man, it was a workout to play. It sounded pretty good but I don’t think I sounded very good playing it because it was just so dang tough.
“Hats off to someone like Eddie Lang who could play a guitar like that! But, on the other hand, how much more music could be made if people didn’t have to work quite so hard at this thing, or if it wasn’t so uncomfortable to hold and it was easier to play? Today, there are a lot more guitar players who are fresh to the instrument than ever before. I suppose it breeds in a certain amount of determination but instead of that hazing process of saying, ‘Well I learned on a guitar with the strings that far away from the neck’, if you can make it a more comfortable experience right off the bat, I think a player would enjoy it and stay with it a lot more easily.”
Given the generational shifts towards lighter strings among electric players, and modern advancements in string technology, does Powers think it’s possible to make acoustic strings even lighter and still maintain the physical properties required to produce a satisfying tone?
The finished armrest bevel provides Academy Series players with a smoother ride
“Yes, but there is a diminishing return that you’ll experience,” he cautions. “Because, if you are looking at the acoustic guitar as a mechanical amplifier, there are physical limits as to what materials will allow you to do. The smaller and smaller the string is, the less mass it has, less inertia it has, to convert the player’s input energy into a mechanical vibration that can actually set that body in motion. In a theoretical world, you could make the top just a few percent of a millimetre thick. The thickness of a piece of paper. And you build the right structure so it’s like a paper airplane – just the lightest, thinnest, most delicate structure you could ever make. Well theoretically you could use a tiny little thread of a string and make a good sound. Except that, practically, it’s going to be so delicate, so fragile, that you’d never be able to play it without breaking it. One misplaced pick is going to destroy the thing. So, there are practical limitations as to what you can do.
“In a theoretical world, you could make the top just a few percent of a millimetre thick”
“We really love the sound of wooden guitars. We love the organic character that will give a sound. And, working with natural materials like that, there are limits as to how delicate you could make the instrument and have structural stability, environmental stability and really serve the player in those regards. So, I don’t think you can just go smaller and smaller with strings and build a guitar lighter and lighter and thinner and thinner. There’s only so far you want to go before it becomes a problem.”
In which case, is there more that can be done with conventional string gauges to improve the way they feel? “There are ways that the interaction between the string and the instrument, I believe, can be made even more player-friendly,” Andy says. “There are myriad variables in how a string gets made and, when you think about a guitar string, you realise what actually goes into it. It seems simple. Let’s say a wound string. It’s a wire down the middle and then another one wrapped over it. That’s simple in theory but, in practice, it’s unbelievable the number of factors that go into that.
Andy Powers in his home workshop – where the prototyping magic happens
“Aside from the alloys themselves and the wire drawing, you have the work hardening, the annealing, you have the tensioning and re-tensioning, how tight do you hold the core wire as the winding is wrapped? How much metal do you smash in there? What’s the composition? What’s the relationship between the parts? There’s any number of different variables just with the metalworking, before you ever delve into the world of coatings. So I do think there are further developments that can be made in both the instrument and the string.”
Powers-designed Taylor instruments such as the GT and Builder’s Edition 324ce have already taken giant steps toward maximising player comfort. But he still believes that there’s scope to do more. “I do think that we can go even further,” he says. “But again there are limiting factors – it’s a mechanical amplifier so, if you make the thing tiny, it’s relatively difficult to make the kind of big sound we’d want out of it.
“It’s always a balancing act. Let’s say we built a very small, thin guitar. Maybe it was the size of an electric guitar but totally hollow. Well, you can make some sound with that. It’ll make a sound. But it isn’t going to be comparable to a GT, where you have a relatively lightweight body that still is enclosing a fairly large air mass. The thing’s pretty responsive and resonant and that bracing pattern was designed to make a bigger sound than should naturally come out of a guitar that size. But it’s still got air inside that body and it’s still built to be an acoustic guitar.
“Its relatively short scale length doesn’t have quite as much string tension, so the strings actually function as if they are smaller than they are, but you still have the weight of a larger string, and that can be used to help drive the body. There are little tricks that live on the margins of that guitar that make it work. But it’s still functioning as a pretty cool acoustic guitar. Let’s say I made it much thinner, like a 335 or something – it’s not going to work the same way because it doesn’t have enough lung capacity inside that body any more.”
As well as form factor, the texture of a guitar’s finish, and the wood beneath it, can impact greatly on the playing experience. “Some finishes look like a beautiful high-gloss,” says Powers. “It’s wonderful to look at. It looks great. It looks like a piece of glass. But when you pick it up and touch it, it’ll always have this kind of cold texture, because of the sheen. And once you start playing on a neck that’s been polished out like that it starts to feel kind of sticky or not as sleek as that smooth finish would suggest. In some cases that’s ok, but in others it’s totally off-putting and it’s not what I like. And if the finish is rough or gritty, that’s not really pleasant either.
“On a number of the guitars we’ve been building in the last 18 months, we’ve been transitioning to a water-based finish”
“Some woods feel amazing when they’re raw. And others that have a larger pore structure, a larger, coarser grain… even if you were to prep that surface in the exact same way – the same sandpaper and burnishings or polishings or whatever – it just never feels good. It doesn’t have that smooth texture. A hard maple neck on an old Fender, when you wear through all the original lacquer and that maple neck gets burnished down with playing? It feels really good. It feels amazing. But on maybe a mahogany neck, it’s not quite so good. Mahogany has an inherently coarser texture than the maple. A lot of materials are like that, and that holds true with the finish that you put over them as well.”
Another consideration that’s become important to many modern guitarists is the environmental impact of their purchases. Taylor is rightly lauded for its flagship initiatives in Cameroon and Hawaii centred around ebony and koa respectively, and its recent forays into Urban Ash. However, the company’s commitment to sustainability also extends to the way its instruments are finished.
Taylor’s compact GT model debuted in Urban Ash – a sustainable and locally harvested wood source
“On a number of the guitars we’ve been building in the last 18 months, we’ve been transitioning to a water-based finish,” says Andy. “I love the version we are using right now. It has great acoustic properties, but unlike a lot of the predecessors of these water-based finishes, it doesn’t get chalky and sticky feeling, and it doesn’t have some of the undesirable tactile elements that I haven’t liked in the past.”
Since the 1990s, Taylor’s gloss polyester and satin polyurethane finishes have been providing an alternative to nitrocellulose with a much less destructive footprint. “Some of what we think of as traditional finishes, you look at the environmental impact of those finishes and it’s not great,” Andy says. “That’s something we’re very aware of, so we started using UV-cured finishes that don’t rely on solvents evaporating into the atmosphere. We’ve been doing that for decades now, and those finishes work very well for us. We can make them very thin, they are very controllable, and the efficiency is remarkable.
“If you think about the metrics of it, in a traditional nitrocellulose finish, if you take let’s say a gallon can, only about 10 per cent of it is the material that’s left once the finish is dry. So right away, 90 per cent of what was in that can is going to disappear into the environment. It’s bad… but then you couple that with the transfer efficiency when you are spraying that finish, and only about 10 per cent of what you spray makes it onto the guitar. The rest of it is launched into the environment. So now there’s so little of it, you have to do that many times in order to build up a reasonably workable layer. For a traditional nitrocellulose lacquer finish you might be looking at six, eight, even 10 coats of finish, because there was so little material that actually made it and dried on the guitar. That’s got a huge impact.
Andy Powers with the Builder’s Edition 324ce, which features “some of the most difficult woodworking” Taylor has ever done
“In the case of a UV-cured finish, you’re not drying the finish by solvent evaporation, you’re drying it with a UV photoinitiator. There’s actually a chemical you put in there that essentially is catalysed by ultraviolet light. In our case, we’re using electrostatic spraying where the transfer efficiency is up in the 98-99 per cent range, and everything that went on the guitar is the actual finish. So, instead of 10 coats with very little transfer efficiency we can spray two thin coats and have ultra-high transfer efficiency. It works out really well. There are a lot of different ways like that in which you can make the guitar a wonderful instrument that is appropriate for the world we live in today.”
Behind-the-scenes developments such as UV-cured finishing are a perfect example of how innovation in guitar design isn’t just about the instrument itself – it’s also about manufacturing processes. “I’ll build a prototype of a guitar,” says Andy, “but it’s going hand-in-hand with, ‘How are we going to make this?’ We may need to advance our machining, our tooling, our process to actually build it, or the thing is never going to exist. So they have to go hand-in-hand.
“Every aspect of that guitar has these multi-dimensional curved surfaces that all have to be perfectly matched in order to go together”
“Like with the Builder’s Edition 324ce – that’s some of the most difficult woodworking we’ve ever done. Because it has less in common with traditional woodworking and a lot in common with aerospace machining technology. There is not a straight line on that guitar! And there isn’t even a single-entity curve. Every aspect of that guitar has these multi-dimensional curved surfaces that all have to be perfectly matched in order to go together. That’s falling into the world of aerospace machining and real high-tech stuff but we were able to take that and bring it into the world of guitar design. That’s why a guitar like that gets to exist now. But that’s true throughout the history of guitar development. The tools that people used and the materials they had available influenced what they would design and build.”
So much design is, of course, rooted in practicality. At Taylor, this was exemplified in late 2020 with the launch of the American Dream Series – guitars with streamlined appointments designed for uncertain times. “Our factories were shut down, ports were being shut down, a lot of sawyers were being forced to shut down, so it was about designing something new around the materials we had to work with,” Andy reveals. “It was literally like going to the pantry and going, ‘Ok, the kids need to eat dinner, let’s see what we’ve got!’ So I designed a guitar that would work well with those materials, and serve the needs of what a player was looking for right at that moment.
“It certainly didn’t feel like the right time for a lot of flash and extravagance and decoration on a guitar. What I really wanted was the utilitarian character of a good, functioning, working guitar. It’s like the cup of black coffee of guitars. Just put the coffee in the cup, I’m going to drink it that way and it’ll get the job done! In the end those guitars became some of my favourites. It feels like the field that you’re playing on is completely uncluttered. It’s wide open and it lets the musician go wherever they want to go.
The elegant simplicity of the American Dream Series was a result of the pandemic
“A lot of players, they’ll pick up a very elaborate guitar – something with lots of beautiful abalone or shell inlay work, a gorgeous polished finish, the most exotic woods – and it feels like they need to play in a similarly flamboyant, regal, majestic sort of way, to match the instrument. With guitars like the GT or the American Dream Series, the simplicity of that design allows the musician to go wherever they want to go. They can play whatever they want to play on it. It might be fancy, it might be complex music… it might be the simplest three chords you could strum just to accompany some voices around a campfire. Any of it is ok.”
If you look at the history of our instrument, Powers acknowledges that the designs with the most longevity are often some of the simplest. “It’s not something I could prove,” says Andy, “but I suspect that, when you have an instrument like that, that’s full of humility and grace, that allows a wider variety of players than ever to approach it – those end up being the instruments that have enduring success. They are musically viable today, tomorrow, 10 years from now, 100 years from now. Because they don’t exclude any playing style, and they don’t exclude any player. Ultimately my measurement for the success and the quality of an instrument is, ‘Is it enjoyable to play? Is it fun? Is it inspiring? Is it creative?’ If it’s not, it’s not a good guitar, in my opinion.”
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