Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Taylor, Wherefore Art Thou?

Taylor Guitar's marketing dept. thinks this image defines cool.

I bought my first really good guitar, a Taylor acoustic guitar in the summer of 1991.  I still have it and it's been a wonderful guitar to play and own.  It's in the vintage class now that it's over 20 years old and even though some frets need to be redressed, it's tone has grown richer over time.  Since then I've owned several more Taylor guitars and they were all outstanding.

Robert Taylor shook up the industry in 1980s with quality made acoustic guitars famous for one main innovation–thin necks like one would find on an electric guitar.  For years acoustic necks were a thick and round as a club.  The thinner neck made the guitar easier to play since the low profile neck–as it became known–reduced hand tension and strain.  Complex chords were easier to place and position.  The old guard of acoustic guitars in America, Martin and Gibson, followed Taylor's lead and starting make thinner necks for their instruments as well, although Martin's necks still aren't as thin as a Taylor.  It was innovation long in coming.  

By the 1990's Taylor guitars were being widely seen played by noted country artists and they are popular among prayer and praise Christian bands.  Many rock musicians use them as well.  Besides the necks, the tone on a Taylor guitar features a   good balance between the bass and treble.  Another innovation was the introduction of the Baby Taylor.  For years guitars for kids were cheap, junky things and basically unplayable.  Taylor fixed that by introducing small guitars for children that adults learned to like as well.  I had one for a while and they are very nice guitars even if the string spacing is a bit too tight for my hands.  They make great travel guitars.  Soon, Martin had out the Little Martin.

But lately, I'm wondering where Taylor is headed.  A few years ago they came with the acoustic-electric T series which are very good performance based instruments even if they are a bit pricy.  Now they have a whole line of solid body electrics.  Who plays those things?  Fender and Gibson had cornered the market and have for years.  Taylor is not introducing anything that is innovative with these guitars such as when they started with the low profile necks.  Not only that but the established forerunners feature better prices.  The Taylor electrics are just too high priced for what they are.  Fender and Gibson have been around for years and many great players have owned them.  Their guitars like the Stratocaster and the Les Paul feature iconic designs.  Nothing says rock and roll like a Strat.

The latest catalog for 2013 shows just about every guitar now sports onboard electronics complete with a preamp and transducer installed.  I was surprised to see this.  While amplification is a great need for preforming musicians great and small, what about us traditionalists that want to play unplugged?  Well, there's Martin who still produces a large number of acoustic guitars free of this stuff.  Gibson's acoustic guitar line and a host of other manufacturers do as well.  I own two Martins now neither of them has a pickup installed and besides they are a much better fit for where I'm at musically.  And best of all, they are both more affordable that an equivalent Taylor.

So I wonder where Taylor is going.  I have always liked them as a company.  They practice good conservation with the environment.  Robert Taylor is an innovator and his success is a classic American story.  But the marketing picture above, showing an aging hipster (Hector Penalosa, Taylor employee) with Taylor hung around his neck, could almost be a metaphor of a company that is loosing its way.  It looks silly. You would never see Martin producing such an embarrassing marketing archetype.  But then Martin seems to have a better sense of who their customers are.  (Not to mention their long and deep connection to American musical history–Williams, Elvis, Cash, Dylan, Baez, Young, Stills, etc.)  People buy acoustic guitars to sound natural, to make acoustic music.  That's why you see so many bluegrass musicians playing Martins.  I don't know of any bluegrass band that has a guitarist with a Taylor and if there is, they are few in number.

Sure, you can still buy a Taylor a la' natural, most likely used and sometimes new, maybe order a custom one with nothing onboard.  And I will add another Taylor in the future as they still make the best 12 string guitars available.  I just hope in the coming days they stick to a course of solid acoustic innovation and don't get bogged down trying to compete where giants have already tread.   Acoustic guitars are what made the company so great.