That's no small feat: the basic idea of a soundbox joined to a fretboard with plucked strings providing musical notes has been around since the 1500s. In the US, the premium acoustic-guitar market is ruled by three companies, each with its own approach to the instrument.
Pennsylvania-based C.F. Martin & Co. has been in business since the late 1800s. Nashville's Gibson, Martin's chief 20th-century rival, got started in 1902. And California's Taylor Guitars is the new kid on the block, founded in 1974.
Martin has long been beloved for the sheer exquisiteness of its acoustics and created the most popular acoustic shape, the dreadnought. Gibson's guitars have often been flashier and are often favoured by rock, blues, and country players for their earthy, grittier tone and eye-catching looks (Keith Richards was a fan of the Hummingbird, and Pete Townshend likes the J-200 jumbo).
Taylor — named for co-founder Bob Taylor — has a reputation for a sparkling high-end and unrelenting innovation in the context of a 500-year-old instrument. I really like Gibsons and can't argue with Martins, but many times when I strum a Taylor, especially upscale, made-in-US versions, I'm blown away by the power of their guitars. Taylors are also popular with guitarists who often plug in and play amplified: the company's proprietary "Expression" system is stupendous.
This year, Taylor shook up the acoustic world with the introduction of a new internal-bracing system for its pricier acoustics. Called "V-Class" bracing, it was devised by Andy Powers, a master guitar maker who joined Taylor in 2011 and has been talked about as an heir to Bob Taylor's leadership.
I both sampled a V-Class guitar for a month and discussed the innovation with Taylor.
First, the axe: Taylor lent me a 914ce guitar to review, a $5,000 (about R70,000) instrument that reminded me how much better a crummy player such as myself can sound with a truly great guitar in hand. Clearly, this isn't a purchase that any player will take lightly — a guitar of this calibre is a lifetime investment.
The 914ce is a cutaway grand auditorium shape, which means that the instrument is a bit smaller than a traditional dreadnought; I increasingly favour this design, which is easier to play standing with a strap than a dread, as well as when sitting.
Taylor is using the V-Class bracing in a range of guitars, with the least expensive coming in a $3,000 (just over R40,000) and the most costly weighing in at $9,000 (over R121,000). All are made in El Cajon, California, near San Diego.
The 914ce I checked out has a Sitka Spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, and a West African ebony fretboard. The details are glorious, with a graphite nut, Micarta saddle, very solid Gotoh 510 tuners in a sort of mellow brass, and the onboard Expression amp system, complete with a jack in the strap button. You can get lost studying the inlays on the headstock and the fretboard.
Unplugged, playing the 914ce is like holding a piano in your lap: the dynamic range is miraculous. Plugged in (I ran the guitar through a Fender Pro Junior IV because I don't have an acoustic amp), the 914ce is bold and balanced.
There's a reason why musicians who play in churches and a lot of electric-centric folks adore Taylors: the amplified characteristics are stunning, replicating the natural sound of an acoustic even at higher volumes.
But most players are going to become addicted to the unplugged virtues of the 914ce. I certainly did, and I threw everything I had in standard tuning at it, with forays into my preferred alternative tunings, DADGAD and open-G.
At this level, acoustics don't have flaws — they simply have varying degrees of magnificent virtues. But the V-Class bracing lives up to its billing and then some. By nature of their legacy design, acoustic guitars are never really perfect, and almost everybody fights a bit to achieve what they want, no matter how skilled they are.
In coming up with V-Class, Powers sought to solve an age-old problem with the so-called "flat top" design — what most players recognise as the steel-stringed acoustic guitar.
With flat tops, there are some limits on what a traditional guitar will allow," Powers said when we chatted on the phone. "There's a balance point between volume and sustain."
Volume is self-explanatory and is a function of how flexible a guitar's top is: More flexible equals more air moved equals louder, and if you have a bigger top, you have more volume. You can also make it louder with a super-flexible top, such as the drumhead on a banjo.
Sustain, however, is governed by stiffness. That's why notes last longer when played on a stiffer instrument. To return to the banjo example, those sharp, loud notes decay very rapidly.
Powers was certainly familiar with the industry standard X-bracing, given his pre-Taylor career as a custom builder and musician. But the constraints of the old ways frustrated him.
An unlikely insight came from his second home (outside the guitar workshop) — the Pacific Ocean, where he regularly surfs. Wave patterns in water suggested a new idea to him, and V-Class entered the experimental stage.
The results were quickly successful, but also intimidating.
"Oh my gosh, I've opened a Pandora's Box!" Powers recalled. "This guitar is actually gonna do what I want it to do. I was excited and scared at the same time."
Several years of development followed, during which Powers would concoct a design, test it, figure out if something was a fluke, and then get control of a feature so that it could be replicated.
Powers also had to contend with his own "Eureka!" feelings, not to mention feedback from his luthier compatriots.
"I thought, 'I'm an idiot for not seeing this sooner,'" he said. But the world of guitar makers is not large, and when Powers revealed his concept, they scratched their heads.
They didn't treat him quite as if he'd rolled out a square wheel. "We don't know all that much about the instrument," he said. "The more we learn, the less we know."
My time with the 914ce reminded me that if you're a casual guitarist and deeply amateur musician, you can certainly enjoy a fine instrument. But it also highlighted how much a good guitar can help a great player better express him or herself. In my experience, even some famous guitars, such as the Gibson J-45, don't much like to be played all over the neck.
Not so with the new Taylors — where the V-Class bracing, combined with the company's neck-to-body joining for which its already renowned, means that you can hit every single available note and savour the sustain and volume that Powers focused on while remaining deliciously in tune. And even if you don't like single-note playing and prefer strumming chords, the difference between a three- and four-finger G chord on the 914ce is a revelation.
My acid test for a guitar, when you get right down to it, is can I write a song on the instrument. The reason why is that there's no correlation between cost and results: I've written numerous songs on a $5 (R67-odd) Yamaha that I bought at a yard sale.
The 914ce yielded a slightly fast-playing number with a little riff at the beginning, a benefit of the neck, which is slick and swift.
According to Powers, more talented musicians see larger vistas when they first sample a V-Class guitar.
"Some of them get really quiet," he said. "Quite a few start swearing. And few chords in, it's almost as if the guitar has turned into their voice."
The V-Class innovation comes along at a good time for the acoustic guitar. Musicians such as Taylor Swift— a Taylor player, naturally — have spurred interest among new, female customers to pick up a humble thing made of wood and string to see if they can make it sound cool.
With Gibson's recent bankruptcy declaration and the general shift in pop away from anything that resembles guitar heroes, there's been no shortage of eulogies for an instrument that's defined music since the 1950s. But Powers isn't buying it.
"I've heard all kinds of gloom and doom about the future of the guitar," he said. "But I don't think it's going to disappear. We have an inherent need to tell stories and make music. We might just not have the exactly same instrument that we had decades ago."
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