A lot of big guitar companies use a simple strategy for building affordable flattops: take the blueprint for an existing model, find a factory overseas, and build the same guitar with less expensive labor and materials. Taylor, however, has always gone its own way. And many of the unique guitars that it builds for entry-level buyers—the Baby Taylor, GS Mini, and Big Baby—have become front-line instruments for superstars.
Given the success of those instruments, as well as Taylor’s mid-priced, Mexico-built 100 and 200 series guitars, the arrival of Taylor’s new entry-level Academy Series may come as a surprise. But the Academy series—which includes grand concerts, a nylon-string hybrid, and the dreadnought reviewed here—is the welcome product of Taylor’s emphasis (obsession, perhaps) with design refinement at the affordable end of the flattop market. And my time with the 10e suggests that the efforts are neither empty marketing gestures nor design half measures. This is a thoughtfully built, fine-playing flattop that consistently delivers sonic surprises and consistently feels more expensive than it is.
Sound Build from South of the Border
The Academy Series guitars are the first new offerings from Taylor’s new Tecate, Mexico, factory, and the build quality is solid and representative of Taylor’s knack for getting priorities right. The setup is excellent, and despite trips from Southern California to Iowa and back to California again in late winter, the intonation is nearly perfect. While I personally might like the action on the slightly lower side, the Academy is exceptionally playable, feeling like a guitar from much further upmarket. The few construction shortcomings I could find—primarily stray glue around the wood band that stands in for traditional notched kerfing—has no bearing on the guitar’s performance.
I love minimalist flattop design, so I’d appreciate the Academy’s outwards austerity under any circumstances. But the lack of bling tells a tale of well-considered design priorities. Like Taylor’s GS, Baby, 100, and 200, the Academy uses an arched laminate sapele back, which eliminates the need for back bracing. It’s an effective cost-saving measure in manufacturing, but it also eliminates mass and, in the estimation of many, improves resonance. There’s no binding, which lends balance and air to the elegant if slightly boxy lines and proportions. And while the synthetic headstock overlay and plastic truss rod cover look a little “econo” under close scrutiny, they look natural and well-integrated with the rest of the design with just a few steps back.
The most overt deviation from the Academy’s back-to-basics minimalism is the seamlessly executed beveled arm rest. Though this feature is typically associated with boutique flattops (it adds an expensive extra set of steps to the build process), the bevel is actually very consistent with the Academy’s function-over-form ethos. It makes the guitar noticeably more comfortable–especially when playing seated—reducing strain on the elbow and forearm.
The ES-B preamp, pickup, and tuner system, which is powered by two 3V lithium batteries, is relatively unobtrusive. It occupies a space about the size of a large postage stamp on the upper bout.
Midrange and More
The Academy’s somewhat unconventional small-scale dreadnought body shape and short 24 7/8" scale lends the guitar an interesting—and surprisingly complex—tone profile. The 10e is strongest and most defined in the mid- and upper mid-range. But that doesn’t mean the 10e is just louder in that frequency band. Individual notes from the first through fourth strings genuinely sparkle with pleasing overtones that color arpeggios and extended chords and add extra resonance, atmosphere, and harmonic content to octaves in open tunings. The same qualities (and the guitar’s excellent set-up and intonation) make capo-up voicings sound fantastic, too, and it’s easy to imagine the 10e performing spectacularly in overdub situations where you want to add dimension with a second acoustic voice.
The emphasis on high-midrange content (which in some respects and to many ears is a signature Taylor sound) doesn’t exactly come at the expense of low-end content. Bass tones are present and, in fact, quite resonant. They just don’t have the mass, power, or overtone color you would hear from a full-sized dread or jumbo.
Delightfully, these tendencies—and the balance between frequencies—shift as you vary your picking intensity. The 10e exhibits great dynamic response, which is not a compliment you can pay to a lot of guitars in this price class. And a softer fingerstyle approach, which was really my favorite way to use the 10e, summoned a lot of bass presence from the shadows and added an almost mahogany-like mellowness to the midrange. On the flip side, strong attack with a heavy flatpick coaxed a cool, punching-outside-its-weight-class sassiness that’s perfect for bluegrass runs and country blues figures. The 10e also responds well to aggressive flatpick strumming, “distorting” in a pleasing way that reveals surprising headroom and harmonic detail.
The ES-B pickup and preamp provide solid, reliable amplification, and sound quite pleasing in light fingerstyle applications. The heavier flatpick approach that the 10e often invites predictably reveals some of the system’s limitations—enhancing some of the 10e’s more nasal midrange tendencies while narrowing the workable, distortion-free frequency bandwidth. But in this price range, the 10e is a welcome, easy to use, and perfectly serviceable addition that will work well for all but the most aggressive picking styles.
Taylor’s ongoing, evolving commitment to building unique, high-quality, playable, and toneful instruments in this price category is a very cool thing. And the 10e is an imaginative and thoughtful guitar that clearly leverages lessons learned from Taylor’s already fruitful endeavors in this range. In terms of comfort and playability, Taylor should be applauded for accomplishing their design objectives with style and grace. But the 10e has admirable musical breadth and complexity, too, and like the GS Mini and Baby, is likely to find admirers who use it in situations well beyond the realm of beginners and budget-minded players.
Watch the Review Demo: