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A Slow Market Spurs Innovation

How the recession has given birth to new gear

After a very long expansion period for the guitar market, 2009 brought our first serious setback in years. Having just passed my 35th year as a co-founder of Taylor Guitars, I’ve seen a lot of change in this industry since my partner Kurt Listug and I started on Oct. 15, 1974, so I thought I’d toss my perspective into the mix.

The guitar is embedded into our current society as the most popular instrument. That wasn’t true when I started building at age 16. In fact, back then it was still a pretty rebellious act to show up to certain places with a guitar. Church music, for example, was based on organ and piano. Nobody brought a guitar; if you did, you were seen as some kind of hippie. In those days acoustic guitars were only for folkies, but now you hear them on just about everything, including hip-hop tracks. Along the way, in the late ’70s disco music put acoustics on the back burner of everyone’s mind for a while, but they later emerged from that tragedy stronger and more useful than ever. I like to say that now, there isn’t anybody that doesn’t like a guitar! Even grandparents buy guitars for their grandkids. When I was a grandkid, they bought trumpets.

Just the fact that I say “industry” tells you something of the growth from back then. Although 2009 brought a slowdown in guitar sales—just like everything else—it didn’t bring a slowdown in interest or playing. In fact, guitar playing has probably increased again this year; it’s just that some people are putting off purchases.

You might be curious as to how someone like me—or other industry types in shoes like mine—might react to that. Of course, there are jobs on the line, somewhat lower sales, and challenges due to our economic times. That said, these factors have also created an opportunity for guitar manufacturers to take some time and focus on guitar players’ interests. As a result, this year could eventually end up being one of the biggest periods of development that I can remember. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure there were other manufacturers like us that have had a bit of extra time on their hands due to a lack of intense pressure to fill orders, so why not steer toward addressing all the specialty guitars that people have been asking for over the years? Speaking for myself, that’s what we did here at Taylor. But I also noticed other manufacturers—even much smaller ones— doing the same as well. Much smaller guitar makers and other producers of stringed instruments were the focus of the recent Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase in upstate New York, where a full slate of 30 luthiers showed up to exhibit their new products—up from only eight luthiers that appeared at last year’s gathering.

I feel fortunate to live in this wonderful age when the equipment available to all guitar manufacturers is so capable of helping us to design and build some of the coolest guitars ever built. Because of that, I believe we are seeing ideas and innovations that continue to soar to the highest heights—all because we have nearly limitless capabilities. Fueled by the great database of past experiences and innovations, guitar manufacturers—or at least those that have some vision—can easily work toward new ideas, new models and new sounds, which in turn enable you the player to have great experiences when it comes to your music.

For us at Taylor, this ability to look forward in a “slow” year has allowed us the time to explore things and do things that we haven’t done before. For example, we took a serious look at guitars that join the body at the 12th fret, which makes them sound very different: deeper, warmer and often louder, because the bridge moves backward to the middle of the soundboard. But my intention is not to sound like an advertorial. You read this magazine because you’re an enthusiast, and this year I believe that some manufacturers have found that players are very interested in the marketplace, as well as the guitar itself. And many folks have been asking what we’re up to, so I thought I’d tell you … straight up. In the end, the guitar is what garners interest. In that sense, I truly believe that when we all look back at 2009, we will come to view it as the year of the guitar.

There are till so many untapped ideas, and that can only mean one thing: that the future does indeed look bright. This year’s story isn’t quite over yet, but I have to say that what started out as a slow year is ending up wonderful because of innovation and a love of guitars— both on our end and yours. I’ve seen people step up and buy because they’re cuckoo about new guitars. I know that about you.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor is the co-founder and president of Taylor Guitars. He built his first guitar as a teenager and has since gone on to establish Taylor Guitars as one of the world’s premier acoustic, acoustic/electric and electric guitar manufacturers.