Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars recently spoke with Taylor Guitars co-founder Bob Taylor and his master luthier Andy Powers. Together, this pair drives a dynamic and innovative guitar-building juggernaut that continues to raise the bar in the world of modern luthiery.
MFPRG: Bob, let’s talk a bit about Andy. Where’s he from and how did you find him?
Bob: He’s my favorite topic.
Bob: He was in San Diego, just . . .
Andy: I was about 30 miles north of him [laughs].
Bob: He was up there, having spent the last 20 years of his life becoming the best guitar builder I’ve ever met in my life. I met him once when he was a teenager, but that thought never crossed my mind, of him ever working for me. Where I really met him was when he was accompanying Jason Mraz at the NAMM show. We got reacquainted with him as a player. That’s when I realized, “Yeah, I’ve heard your name. You make guitars up in Oceanside.”
A couple weeks later we got together for a day just to do some fun things based around guitars and a couple weeks after that I realized he’s just the guy I need to take over for me. So we talked about it, and I’m telling you, a year later he was able to wrap up all the things he was doing, and came and it’s just amazing. What he’s brought to our company is more than I could have ever hoped or wished for.
MFPRG: So what’s Andy’s role today?
Bob: Andy’s our guitar designer. He’s really head of all guitar design now. He’s pretty much taken that over from me, except for I have a good involvement with him. He does about 99 percent of the design of new models and I cheer him on. I add the wisdom of the marketplace that I’ve gained over 40 years about what the broad, worldwide market will think of what he’s working on.
So he can adjust the look or the feel or the tone or the build-style of a guitar a little bit here and there while still achieving the goals he wants. What I provide is, “Here’s something that would be important for us to do to place into the market.” And then he does it. It’s amazing.
Andy: Yeah. It’s a real rewarding relationship because Bob and I in a lot of ways, as designers and guitar-makers, we think very similar. We have a real similar outlook on things, and yet we bring our own unique strengths into the relationship.
I come at the guitar both as a player and builder, also having a restoration and repair background, because I have a lot of experience with vintage instruments and a lot of different types of instruments from both pianos and violins to arch-top guitars to mandolins or whatever. I bring in kind of a more broad perspective into my building.
Bob has this incredible machining and, for a lack of better description, I guess, implementation. He knows how to take a thing and figure out, “How am I going to build this a thousand times over and every single one must be good?” I might be inclined to go, “Oh, I’m going to sharpen my chisel and make a really great guitar.” He’ll bring his experience of, “Yeah, you can’t trust anybody else but you with that chisel. Let’s figure out a good machine to make that exact same cut, or we need a better tool to make sure that every single one of these is going to turn out the way that we intend it to be.”
It’s a best friend working environment, and I feel the player, ultimately, benefits from that because they’re getting the product of a lot of experience from different directions built into this one instruments.
MFPRG: Andy, how do you approach such an important gig? Is it your dream job?
Andy: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’ve never really thought of guitar making as much of a job. It was more like a habit that I couldn’t quit. I started when I was just a kid. I built my first guitar when I was, or, tried to build my first guitar when I was maybe seven or eight years old. It blew up into a million pieces. It’s kind of all I’ve ever done, other than play music. It’s like a musical rock that I keep rolling down the road.
In partnering with Bob and the Taylor team, yes, it’s a responsibility because I want to make sure that I’m upholding and refining our tradition of building great instruments. On the other hand, building guitars is kind of all I’ve ever done. It really is a continuation of, so far, a lifetime of instrument making and playing. In a lot of ways, it’s just doing what I would do naturally.
Like, Bob and I, we joke about it, going, well, if somebody were to ask me what I would do or what Bob would do if we weren’t guitar makers, we kind of think about it for a minutes and go, “Well, we’d be building guitars.” That’s all, that’s it. That’s all we can do. We’re guitar makers. It’s just like you’re living and breathing.
MFPRG: Is the new 800 Series the first series that features your designs?
Andy: There’s been a lot of designs over the last few years that, say, I’ve been heavily involved in. The Grand Orchestra was a guitar that I designed literally from the ground up. That was an entirely new shape, entirely different concept behind that guitar. But the [original] 800 Series was real special because that was Bob’s first real theory, real model of a guitar that they designed and offered as the Taylor Guitar Company.
Bob and Andy talk about the evolution of the big-bodied Grand Orchestra.
For him to hand that series over…it’s been a real special project because it’s become an icon over the last 40-some years of what a modern acoustic guitar is. For him to say, ‘Hey, okay, these guitars that you’re making, these are really great. Do you want to take our most iconic design, one of the most widely used acoustic guitars in the world and take it and make it your own? Because you can refine it and turn it into something that’s a more musical tool.” That’s been a real special project to me.
MFPRG: Taylor’s known for its continuous advancements in the art and science of guitar building, but what do you find to be the most defining elements of Taylor instruments?
Bob: If I were to talk about the most defining advancement for us, it would be our NT neck. The fact that the neck is, well, just the best neck on the market because the method in which we build it allows it to be perfectly straight and perfectly adjusted. What’s cool about that, a lot of people will jump to the conclusion of our neck is great because you can take it off and adjust it in the future. That’s completely true, totally true.
But what’s better than that is we can take it off and adjust it in the factory, which means that no neck leaves the factory that hasn’t been adjusted to the perfect angle, whereas, with any other system of guitar building, you get it as close as you can and you take what you get from the factory, because you’re not going to move a guitar neck a tenth of a degree in angle to make it better if it meant steaming it off, re-cutting a dovetail and gluing it back on.
The way our neck is, we have a straight fingerboard from the first fret to the twentieth fret and the angles are perfect on every guitar on every model. Because of that, Taylors have been known world around for their playability.
MFPRG: Not just playability out of the box, but the instrument’s long-term playability.
Andy: Exactly. One of the most critical factors in an acoustic guitar is having the neck angle exactly right, because it also determines other small factors that players don’t often consider, say, the saddle height or the bridge height, which determine the break angle for the strings over the saddle. That’s a huge contributor to the way a guitar sounds. Having that neck angle exactly right, from both day one that the guitar is finished, and day 30,026 or something, 20 years down the road, that’s a real big factor.
Another thing that I would say is one of Bob’s real advancements to the instrument is the process for implementing a design like that. They were very deliberate about intentionally building a great instrument. His development of more modern and more sensitive tools. It’s something that really is different, the guitar, itself. Because even the process that we build a guitar body to accommodate that NT neck is a very systematically precise process, to make sure that every instrument ends up as a good one. Not on accident or not by accident, but intentionally good.
MFPRG: So the NT neck is the primary definer, if you will, of a Taylor. Anything else that stands out in your mind as what really separates Taylor from the other instruments?
Bob: I would say that we live in a little bit different category of tone. Even as Andy, and we’ll talk about the 800s in a minute, which is Andy’s baby, but our guitars, the tone is, I would say more clear or bright than most guitars out there. We found that probably half the guitar players out there preferred the tone that works that way. It cuts through nicer when you play with other guitars. It records well, and it’s pleasing to the ear.
Not every single person likes the exact same tone as every single other person and we sort of defined a whole new category of sound: the traditional sound versus, maybe, the modern sound, I would say. We would be that modern sound. It tends to be probably, I would just say, clear. Hi-fi, if you will.
But what Andy’s done is he’s brought in a lot of that traditional tone into our modern sound and is winning over a lot of the people that love traditional-sounding guitars as well.
So you have a guitar neck, a guitar that plays really easy. We brought playability to the guitar. If you didn’t even want to talk about the whole neck, we brought good playability and intonation to a guitar. One thing I do, if I have dealers in, I’ll say, “Raise your hand if you think we make the best-sounding guitar in the industry.” I said, “Go ahead. Do it. I don’t care, because I know that more than half of the hands aren’t going to come up.” And they’re, like, “We’re surprised you’d know that.”
I go, “You’re not going to get 100 percent of hands-on sound.” I say, “Raise your hand if you think we make the best-playing guitars in the industry.” People race to get their hands up in the air. I get 100 percent agreement on that from dealers. Then I’ll say, “Raise your hand if you think we make the most consistently-built guitar in the industry,” and they all go up again. They go, “A Taylor is a Taylor. Every one is a good one. We can open the box and deliver it to the customer.” I would think to an online store that would be meaningful, as well.
MFPRG: As you were prototyping the 800 Series, what did you learn along the way?
Andy: There’s all sorts of different aspects, but it’s not like I was starting from ground zero of how do I build a guitar out of just pieces of rosewood? You’ve got the culmination of a whole lot of [parts]. So it was kind of a process of learning how to adapt different element without being continually like a process of whether it was using a traditional protein-based glue for a real tone-critical component, or thickness of wood through an optimum or particular design, or different bracing pattern. It was just a lot of different guitars and a lot of experience in the background finally coming into a production setting where you’re able to produce this guitar with what we considered the state of our art.
Bob: What was neat about Andy doing the 800s is there wasn’t anything that could go into a guitar, really, that was off the table. In other words, “Hey, what would you want to do to make the 800s better, Andy, if all your dreams came true?” “Well, I’d want to use animal-based protein glue for the bridge and the braces.” “Yeah, well, we can do that,” rather than saying, “Well, that’s going to be kind of hard.”
“I’d like to get the finish thinner.” “okay. We’ll figure that out, too.” “No, I want to get it really, really, really, really thinner. Almost as thin as French polish.” “Okay. We’re going to figure out how to do that.” “Well, I’d like to re-thickness all of the pieces of wood and change the bracing scheme on it.” “Yeah, okay. Let’s do that.”
And then things that were important to us, where that guitar’s always been a white-bound guitar, I’ll say, “It started out with rosewood with white plastic binding. It’s taken a few iterations along the way.” And I said, “No, we can only make some guitars with ebony binding and rosewood binding.” We looked at them and said, “That doesn’t really look like an 800.” And so Andy says, “Well, I’ve got some ideas.”
He started using vacuum dried maple from a certain area of the country. All of a sudden, wham, we’ve got maple binding. But we’re so proud, because we have wood that looks like plastic, you know. [laughs] And we sort of laugh when we talk about it, ourselves. But that guitar’s got a brilliant, bright binding on it, yet it’s wood. When you look at it from across the room, you think, “That is the coolest [cream] binding I’ve ever seen on a guitar.” The closer you get to it, you go, “Whoa. It’s maple. I have never seen maple like that.”
And so some of the things in there that we felt were important he changed, and yet he kept it the same. You know what I mean? He left the guitar familiar, but at the same time, taking it to a whole new level of how cool it could be. With him having free reign to make the guitar better a lot of people [wondered] while we’re doing the 800 Series, “I hope he doesn’t come up with a totally new guitar that’s not an 800 at all.” It’s not really like that. Andy completely understood.
As Taylor Guitars celebrates its 40th anniversary, Bob speculates on where his company will be 40 years hence.
It’d be like The Eagles were having a reunion concert and they said we’re going to play “Hotel California,” Andy. Now, we’d like you to come up and play that song. We know you’re a great player. Well, he wouldn’t make it sound like a new song. He would play notes that make it sound like “Hotel California.”
When he redid the 800s, he naturally had the sense to make it be an 800, but he took his big bag of things that he knew that would improve that guitar and, as a business supporting him, we said, “Yeah, we could do all that.” This kind of circles back to the first question that we had, which is what is one of the greatest advancements, really, one of the greatest advancements we’ve ever done on a guitar in 40 years, was cutting the thickness of the finish of a high-quality guitar in half. We did that on the 800s and we’ll do it on more things. But that was an astonishing accomplishment.
My guitar-making friends out in the industry look at me and go, “You’re joking me. How can you put a 3.5 mil gloss finish on a guitar? I can’t even do that.”
MFPRG: How would you explain the benefit of such a thin finish to guitar players? What’s the benefit to them musically?
Andy: Essentially, you’re removing a lot of the dampening factor. In an instrument, dampening could be good or bad, depending on how you’re using it and what you’re trying to accomplish. The finish of an instrument if it’s perfect, is just to protect that instrument and make it environmentally stable.
If I had a guitar that I didn’t have any finish on, whatsoever, it might sound real good, let’s say, but I could never take it out and play a show on it, because that guitar would be freaking out every time the temperature changes two degrees. The point of a finish is to protect the wood and keep the instrument stable.
But if I have too much finish on there, it doesn’t really do anything, really, it just dampens what’s there. So traditionally something like a French polish finish that’s almost not there, [is] acoustically just amazing. So with the 800 Series, we have been building a guitar with a very good, professional, thin finish, where it’s about 6 thousandths of an inch thick. I kind of put it out there that, yeah, I want to try to do a finish at half that thickness, something like a traditional violin finish. To put that in perspective, that’s the thickness of a single piece of paper. That’s how thin that is. There’s almost nothing there.
Bob was looking at me, like, “Okay. That’s impossible, so it’s probably going to take us a little while to figure that out.” I’m absolutely blown away that we were able to accomplish it, and accomplish it in a way that it’s still within the realm of what a musician could take and use and afford to purchase and perform on. Because, I mean, I’ve French polished instruments [and sat] a week getting the finish on a single instrument just right.
To be able to accomplish something like that, in that setting where this isn't that $50,000 instrument off the bench of an expert luthier, this is an instrument that you could take and play real music, and take it to a club, take it to a show, tour with it, or stay at home and appreciate it in a beautiful living room or something. It’s an instrument that [serves] a musician. So we’re immensely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with that.
Bob: And that’s just a single detail. That’s just a single feature that went into the new 800 Series. A finish is the enemy of sound. It really is. And if you take finish off, you let more sound out. If you’re starting with a guitar that sounds good already, it’s like starting with a racing bicycle that’s built lightweight and strong already. But people in golfing and racing and snowboarding, in any pursuit, once you get to something that’s good, people spend their lives trying to make it a little bit good-er, you know. Another ounce lighter on your bicycle, another flex difference on your club that you’re swinging, to try and make those tiny changes.
Four decades after co-founding his company, Bob relentlessly refines the instruments that have won him accolades.
By taking finish off the guitar, you let more sound out. By using protein glue, you let more sound through. Because modern woodworking glues work almost like a gasket. It’s almost like putting a rubber gasket between the pieces of wood. So in the important places, like where a bridge couples to a top and braces couple to a top, if you use old-school animal glues – which are hard to use, and that’s why the guitars in factories aren’t made from them – it’s just amazing. 100 percent of the sound will cross an animal-glue joint, where, about 70 percent of the sound will cross a Titebond wood glue joint.
All of those things just add up. What Andy’s doing is he’s saying, “I’m trying to take a guitar that sounds really good, and make it sound even better.” To do that you can’t just wave the magic wand over it, or just change the bracing pattern. It’s got to be a culmination of a whole lot of things that are really hard to do.
Andy touched on this at the very beginning. That’s kind of the beauty of what it is that we’re doing. One, is he’s a really great designer and he knows, and has a wish list of things he would like to do to guitars to make them sound better. Taylor has grown to a point where we can do amazing things in our factory, whereas in many guitar factories you wouldn’t be able to do these things that Andy’s asking us to do. Indeed, in our factory 25 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to do them.
MFPRG: What does a better-sounding guitar mean to Taylor? How do you improve the instruments yet still keep a Taylor a Taylor?
Andy: I can answer that. It’s fairly simply. There are attributes of what we call sound that are very subjective, right? But [in reality] if you dig a little deeper, it’s only one particular part of it. It’s what we call the timbre of an instrument. The unique fingerprint, the essence of that particular tone.
Other attributes: the volume, the sustain, the balance, the projection — all of those attributes are measurable and you can work to improve them, because all of those things add up to what a musician considers a dynamic instrument, and expressive instrument. As instrument makers, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to improve and enhance, or refine, these instruments until they become a better, more musically functional instrument.
At the end of the day, our ultimate goal, my ultimate goal as a guitar maker, is to build an instrument that is more than what a musician could ask for. It’s something that inspires them every time they pick it up that they hear in this instrument, and it enables them to express their musical artwork. That’s what a better instrument is.
Bob: I can enhance that question a little bit. The magic bullet, here, is that Andy is an incredible guitar player. That, to anybody buying a guitar, should be welcome news because there are precious few examples of guitar builders who are incredible guitar players. I’ll give you one example. Paul Reed Smith. He’s a dynamite guitar player, and that’s one of the reasons why his guitars are so good.
Andy is as good a guitar player as there is. What happens is, when I make a guitar, I make a guitar that’s as good as a guitar player as I am. If I want more out of it, I’m not exactly sure what and where I want it, because I don’t really play well enough to seek out the improvements that I want on that guitar and how to get there.
But Andy, there’s this instant feedback. He builds a guitar and he plays it. A minute ago he was talking about building a guitar for a musician. There’s the theoretical person out there. What’s cool about it, is Andy’s the test. It’s kind of like a rock climber who’s also designing equipment for rock climbing.
He can use his own guitars that he designs. If he’s happy with it, there’s a really, really good chance that all your other great players are going to be happy with it. What has happened is Andy’s taken a guitar into the realm that our guitars can’t be exhausted by how good of a player you are. You don’t really move past them.
I’m better than an average player, but I’m an average player. Actually, average players are getting better all the time right now. I was better than an average player 25 years ago, but right now the average player plays better than me. But that’s still 90 percent of our clients.
What we’re doing is we’re bringing a better guitar to everybody and then the person who really can play, they can pick up these guitars, like the new 800 Series. I’ve never seen anything like it in our industry, and especially in my life. The reviews that we get on the 800 Series are the ultimate, stellar. I’m not used to that.
I have guys review the 800 Series that have never really given a fair or great score. “Yeah. It’s made well, it plays really well. Their workmanship is really great, but I wish it gave me a little bit more.” Here’s a guy who can play, really, really play, and he’s looking for something in areas of that guitar that he wasn’t able to get before. Not anymore. Now they’re, like, “This is a serious guitar for serious players. I don’t know why anybody would ever want or need another guitar besides this one.”
What Andy did is he gave you those elements of tone, of dynamics, range, of projection -- all of this. And he also made it where the first note on a guitar and the last note, and every note in between sounds like the same instrument. Where I make guitars, I’m not as good a guitar maker as him. Let’s get that clear. I make guitars that might sound like one guitar at one end of it, and another guitar at the other end of it. Andy makes guitars that are a little bit more like a piano. It just sounds like the same instrument from one side to the other side.
It’s an amazing thing. To bring that to people on a large scale – one of the first things you said today that I keyed in on about the, Private Reserve program is that [due to its success] now you need to scale it. There are a lot of guitars out there made by luthiers that are actually really good guitars, but there’s no way to scale that up to where a lot of people can enjoy it.
It’s particularly rewarding for me to work with Andy, because we can – he can design guitars that are, like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s a good guitar.” And then I know how to scale it up.
Andy: Yeah, that’s really one of the valuable things of Bob and my relationship because he has this wealth of experience of knowing how to build something large-scale. I can build this guitar, and then we’ll [sit] in front of my workbench and look at the guitar plan and go, “Okay. How are we going to make this?” And Bob has this experience of knowing, “Well, we’re going to have to design a new tool and make that one cut, but I know exactly how we should build that tool.” Then we’ll go and do it.
I’ve never seen a guitar of this caliber available at such an approachable [price]. This is an instrument that a serious musician could buy and actually perform with. This is within that realm. It’s not up in the rare air territory. That’s something that I’m really thrilled about.
MFPRG: Can players expect some of these 800 Series developments to reach into other parts of the product line?
Bob: We’re taking those same concepts kind of everywhere. But there are other issues that we want to solve with our guitar making besides only a guitar making experience that’s great to a person. We want to broaden what their experience includes. One of the most important things that we want a guitar [player] to experience is that the guitar that they’re playing is sustainable.
Every wood we use in guitar building, that everybody uses, [is] the poster child for deforestation in the wrong places. We’re working on a lot of really wonderful projects. For example, Andy and I have both decided that we’ve got a focused Death Star laser beam on maple as a wood to build guitars. Why? Because it’s growing in our country. It’s the best wood you could ever make a guitar out of and it’s completely sustainable. We can plant maple and harvest it in 50 years, so it’s not something that’s coming from a tropical rain forest that people have control over, things like that.
Andy: The goal is for another generation, we’re a company that’s driven by, a guitar maker producing guitars for musicians. That means that we want to build healthy guitars, healthy instruments for musicians. That means healthy for our forests, healthy for our wood suppliers, healthy for the musician. That means it needs to be a great-sounding instrument that is a modern guitar that is using the forestry resources in a responsible, modern way.
Those kind of things are real important to me as a guitar maker, and as a relatively young one. I want to still be building great instruments, great wood instruments, by the time I’m 90 years old. I want the forests to be in better shape then, than they are now.
So I echo what Bob just said. The point of tackling something like a maple guitar, okay, they’ve got this kind of reputation as bright, light-colored [yet builders have] been using maple as their choice for the last several hundred years. Okay. I get it. It’s a really good-sounding wood if you’re doing the right things to it.
Bob: Beyond that, Andy has ideas for bracing patterns. He has prototypes for bracing patterns that I’ve never seen on acoustic guitars before. They’re radically different than anything you’ve ever seen and they’re the best. We’ve got one model that’s made from blackwood.
Andy: Yeah. Tasmanian blackwood.
Bob: Tasmanian blackwood and spruce with [Andy’s] bracing concepts. It’s literally one of the best-sounding guitars we’ve ever heard in our lives anywhere at any time. We have some bugs to work out on the bracing pattern. The only bug right now is that – and these are the things that trap a lot of development from getting out into the world – one of the bugs, just to sort of let you in on the inside because I find it interesting, is that the bracing pattern easily telegraphs through the spruce so that you can actually see the braces, so it’s unsightly.
It’s not because the spruce is thin. We’re not getting to it that way. It’s just that the direction of pull and the direction that everything is working is also sort of lined up with the direction that sound wants to happen and you have a lot of additions of pressure in certain places, so you see the pattern. If we made a satin-top guitar, you could make it all day long. As soon as you make the gloss-top guitar, you see it, and it would worry people. It would worry them to death, even though there’s nothing wrong with it.
So what we’re doing is making slight modifications and letting it cook and sit. But that guitar just sounds, it just sounds ridiculously good. And it kind of surprises you that a guitar can sound ridiculously good when they already sound ridiculously good.
Andy: But it’s fun, because the exact scenario that Bob was just describing is one of the very natures of Taylor Guitars that makes us unique, is that when Bob and I geek out, we obsess over the details. We’re talking about [a] functionally and visually great guitar, and we’re obsessing about the way light reflects off the top. So when you see the guitar, if light angles just the right way over the top, you can kind of see a little, the light bend in this reflection a little way. That’s the level of refinement that we try to put into these guitars, so that by the time we actually put those instruments into the hands of a musician, it’s really something.
MFPRG: Taylor Guitars has chosen to develop electronics in-house. Expression System 2 (ES2) is the latest result of that development. Tell us more about David Hosler and why pickups are conceived and built in-house.
Bob: Andy and I are really lucky, because when we’re geeking out over here, David Hosler is over in the other room geeking out and inventing the ES2 pickup, which is unbelievable, this pickup.
I could almost answer in the same way that I used to answer when people said, “Well, why do you make your own cases?” I said because one size fits all is the same as one size fits none, right?
When we used to buy cases, we didn’t really have a case that fit exactly all the shapes that we did. They were more, like, “Well, here’s a generic box, and we’ll change the foam inside of them.” I didn’t want one size fits all, because that means one size fits none.
When it came down to pickup manufacturing, there’s something that happens when you do it yourself, and I’ll tell you what it is. It’s that you’re willing to take a look at making design changes to the guitar in order for it to work with the pickup that you would be unwilling to do if it was a third-party supplier. In other words, maybe unwilling is not the way to put it, but let’s say it’s just not going to happen.
For instance, if one of the companies that makes guitars, or makes pickups came to us, let’s talk about the Expression System 1, the very first ES, and they said, “I have a really great idea, but one of the pickups is going to have to go underneath the fingerboard and you’re going to have to be able to take their neck on and off.” We’d go, “No. We’re not going to do that. You need to go back to your drawing board and make a pickup that just drops into our guitar.” You see what I mean?
But what happens is when we start working on the pickups ourselves, then we’re thinking of the guitar and the pickup as a unit. If we get excited about it, the possibilities begin to flow. We open up all of our willingness to do whatever it takes to get there because it’s our baby, it’s our project. The third-party producer is really trying to make a pickup that will work on everybody’s guitar, but will work without much intrusion on the guitar.
The Expression System 2, I think you’d have a hard time selling that guitar to a guitar maker because you would have to convince them that they’d have to drill three holes in their bridge. For us, it’s really an easy thought for us to go there, because it’s our pickup, it’s our invention. It’s easily dependable on our end. It sounds incredible. It’s worth it, and we were able to design the whole thing as a package to where it’s basically invisible anyway. You really don’t even see it, unless somebody points it out.
What happens is those are the real practical sides to answer that question. And yet, those practical things open up art, because without the practical making the possibility for the art to flow, people can’t really think of ideas. When you’re trying to invent something, in your mind you begin to think. As soon as you reach an impossibility, you make a right-hand turn or a left-hand turn. But when you do it all in house, sometimes you reach that impossibility and you all sit around until you break down that impossibility and keep going forward. It’s really hard to do that with [pickups made by] somebody else.
Andy: There’s a certain cohesiveness that comes when you’re able to look at something, that impossibility that Bob mentioned, and go, well, okay, this would be an obstacle that a pickup maker wouldn’t be able to overcome. However, we’re guitar makers. Knowing that this is what we’re going to work with, because we like the way this functions, we have a really good design and a foundationally great concept. Okay, let’s leave that be and overcome this obstacle from a different method or a different direction.
Then when we’re putting three holes in the bridge, that means that we could, let’s say, machine real precisely that bridge to accommodate that, rather than just try to shoehorn the thing in after the fact.
MFPRG: You make it part of your manufacturing process while “the patient is open”, so to speak.
Andy: And then the whole instrument, as a cohesive thing that’s got to deliver for the musician, whether they’re playing at home, whether they’re using on stage in front of 10 people, whether they’re using it on a stage in front of 10,000 people. It’s a complete instrument that delivers what a modern performer needs.
Bob: To arrive at something like that, an ES2, in this particular case took dozens and dozens and dozens of prototypes. What’s nice about doing it in the factory is the people who are slogging along on that might not even – probably the first half of the design of a product, we don’t even have the product in mind. They’re just doing research and development. They’re, like, I need a guitar. Oh, here’s an old guitar. Let me take this guitar and turn it into a Frankenstein.
They have all of these resources at their disposal putting things together and playing it. They might even work for a solid year before they even let somebody hear it, because it hasn’t gotten there yet. All of a sudden they get to a point where they go, “Wow, this sounds good.” I’ll get up from my office and go, “What’s that I’m hearing?” They’re, like, “We’re listening to this thing. It’s the 14th iteration and it’s in this Frankenstein guitar, but, wow. Let’s keep going. Let’s develop that.”
That whole sort of excitement of the evolution of the invention of a product kind of feeds on itself in this tight little space that we have of just a few thousand square feet. Andy’s making guitars in one room and Dave is making pickup prototypes in another room and the electronics are 10 feet away from there and they put together a preamp on a pedal in a project box that [everyone] thinks would sounds good.
So this thing just kind of works and works. And then we make an adjustment to the guitar and then one to the preamp and one to the pickup. It’s a whole package, we’ll try. For us, once we’ve settled into it and we found out that we were in that business, it just became part of our normal day.
The idea that David had on the ES2 was brilliant. He really took a piezo crystal that is usually underneath the pickup, and simply put it behind the pickup. It was like the clouds parted, the sun came in, the sound came out. [laughter]
Bob: There’s all kinds of mechanical reasons for it to work that way, but you have to ask yourself, “You mean in the last 60 years nobody’s thought of that?”
And the answer is, “Yeah, that’s right. No one’s thought of that in the last 60 years.” But he did, and it worked, and it’s just unbelievable what it does.
MFPRG: How would you sum up the benefit to the player? For you guys as players, what does the ES2 mean to you in communicating your music?
Andy: It’s the most plug-in-and-play friendly pickup I’ve ever tried, as a guitar player. I’ve played in all kinds of different situations, as well as a whole bunch of musician friends. With this, I have a pretty good chance of sounding good, no matter what the sound guy is doing.
Bob: The way I put it, is I say when it sounds good it sounds glorious, and when it sounds bad, it sounds really good.
Andy: It’s a real interesting design that works with the materials [the way they] naturally want to work. It’s enabling the piezo crystal material to do what it inherently wants to do. The outward sign of the outward function of that is that you’ve got a guitar that has a much more dynamic kind of response. It’s real heavy on those expressive qualities, the sound that I talked about earlier, a better dynamic range, more expressive, more balance, better volume. All these things that are inherently musical attributes. I plug it in, it always sounds good.
Bob: Yeah. It sounds good through a small amp. It sounds good through a really high-quality acoustic amp. It sounds good through a small, little PA system in a church basement, it sounds good through an incredible PA system in a church sanctuary, it sounds good in a club, and it sounds good in a stadium. It just sounds good. You take a cord, you plug it in, it sounds good.
I would add ES2 as it’s as big of an advancement on our guitars as the NT neck was. It really is the biggest advancement I think our guitars have had, well, in 20 years. It’s something that everybody can enjoy and everybody can depend on. It will, just to let you know, by the end of next year it will be on pretty much every guitar we make, if it’s ordered with a pickup. Right now there’s certain capacity, as we’re scaling up, because we need to be able to make, what, five, six hundred pickups a day to get them in everything. There are certain guitars that don’t have them yet. We started in the gloss guitars and we’re working our way down.
It’s such a fantastic advancement because it brings the quality – when people plug in their acoustic guitars for years and years, they’ve never really had the sound that’s as good as someone who plugs in an electric guitar. If you show up to play and you’ve got an electric guitar, you’re going to plug it in, and everybody knows what to do with it. But there’s a lot of confusion about how to make an acoustic guitar sound good when you plug it in.
Expression System 1 was a huge advancement forward, but ES2 is even a bigger leap than that. It just makes it so easy. No matter how good the situation is, the pickup rises to that occasion. No matter how bad the situation is, the pickup functions right through that and still gives you a great sound. It’s really wonderful.
Andy: Yeah. Pretty remarkable thing to be able to include, as a guitar maker, in the acoustic guitars that we’re making. What we’re aiming for is to build a more expressive, more useful musical tool for [the modern] musician, and the modern musician needs to amplify. That’s how most modern music is played these days.
Bob: And you and I both know that the modern musician needs to amplify even if he’s never going to plug it in. They want that pickup and the truth of the matter is that some people don’t plug their guitar in for the very first time until five years after they bought the guitar. When you understand that by being in the industry like you are and we are, you realize that that guy, when he does plug it in, probably isn’t going to know exactly what to do. So when we can make a pickup that sounds good when he finally gets the cord and he finally plugs it in and he’s finally conquered his nerves and he’s playing with somebody plugged in for the very first time in his life, that his pickup works and it sounds good.
GC: For someone looking for a lifetime instrument or just a new one that’ll inspire them—what advice would you give them in purchasing a guitar?
Andy: One of the things that I would tell someone is to have a conversation with your guys about what [size] of guitar would fit their style best. Every one of these guitars within the, say, the 800 Series, they’ve each been optimized to have their own individual musicality. And 814 is kind of like your Swiss Army Knife of acoustic guitars. It does everything really well.
But for someone who might be more comfortable on a smaller body instrument, the Grand Concert has a unique personality that features it’s real articulate, beautiful, chiming voice. On the other end of the spectrum, if somebody’s looking for a real powerful, lush, deep kind of a sound, the Grand Orchestra might be the perfect fit.
Having your guys as a resource to have that conversation helps someone further define what it is their music needs, and what sort of an instrument they’d be more comfortable on. I would take advantage of that because you guys are experts, and I’d want that opinion and that kind of guidance into the most appropriate instrument for my music.
Bob: One thing that a buyer really gets when they’re talking to someone at Musician’s Friend/Private Reserve, is they can have the experience of your company, just from selling guitars and getting feedback from customers, your sales staff can make incredible recommendations. A guitar is an incredibly personal thing, so it’s great if a buyer would open up and be able to say here’s my level of playing, here’s what I want to do with the guitar.
It makes a big difference when someone’s recommending a guitar if they know that a person says, “Well, for the next five years, I see myself playing in my living room.” That’s going to help me get you into the right guitar. I would say to a buyer “don’t be afraid to buy quality, even if you’re starting.”
Bob: Quality will always be less expensive in the long run. Always. Even though you want to buy a guitar for a lifetime, it’s probably not the only guitar you’ll have in your lifetime. Don’t be too worried about getting the one-and-only guitar that you’re ever going to get. Don’t worry about that at this time. That’s not the big decision that has to be made.
Buy a guitar for what your needs are now, and what you see yourself doing in the next five years with it, and get started. The barrier right now to what you want to do is the guitar purchase. You’re here ready to buy a guitar. Take some advice, share your situation with the sales staff, and pick something that you think will take you through that five years and beyond. Then just let the future happen after that.
Andy: Just start playing, and let the music happen.
MFPRG: Well, guys, anything else you want to throw in before we’re out of time?
Andy: The only other thing about it is how much we appreciate players for choosing our instruments that we love making to express our artwork. I can think of almost nothing else that gives me as much enjoyment as hearing a musician take one of these instruments and make some incredible music with it. We’re incredibly grateful to be in that position, to enjoy that.
Bob: We’ve got a whole other year and we don’t have to go get a job, huh, Andy?
Andy: [laughs]. You bet.
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