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Still Learning, One Surprise at a Time

Bob Taylor shares moments of learning and inspiration

I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to improve guitars, trying to perfect certain aspects, and trying to build a personal experiential database of knowledge. It’s been rewarding to arrive at a point where there are things that I just out-and-out know about guitars. But, like so many things in life, I find that with each time I gain some equity in knowledge or feel like I fully understand some aspect about building the guitar, I also arrive at a crossroads in guitar making where I might not know which way to go. I also trip over good things, new sounds, or even new ways of solving a player’s problem I wouldn’t have perceived even one day before.

Acoustic aficionados love to hear of the meticulous research that leads to improvement, and, truly, much of what experienced luthiers have to offer from their life’s work is a result of simply staying on a goal for years—or even decades. All of us can cite examples of advances or innovations we’re proud of. I can toss my knowledge of how to dry wood properly into that category, and you’ve probably heard me talk about humidity control and noticed that I speak as an expert regarding those subjects. But there are many things I have learned and still do along the way that come just from being in the right place at the right time or being willing to make something different.

For example, when we dreamed up our 12-fret Grand Concert model, I never could have predicted how much I’d love its sound. So, if you talk to me today about these changes, I can give you a full explanation of why they sound or work that way. But beforehand, I truthfully would not have been able to predict them. Only after I’ve made the improvement am I able to suss out the exact, measurable details that caused it. Basically, you have to build it first to figure it out.

My friend Zac Brown plays a nylon-string guitar tuned down a half step to Eb. He had trouble for years because the strings were too loose. You can imagine how floppy nylons would be at that tension. Well, on the day I heard about it, I’d just released a baritone steel-string with a 27-inch scale length. If you had a 25.5-inch scale and asked me to put an extra fret behind the nut—almost like capoing down from the nut—that imaginary neck would be a 27-inch scale, more or less. So I made Zac a guitar with that baritone neck and he tunes it to Eb, but the tension is normal. We capoed him down and it worked like a champ—it has since sent a lot of cool ideas a-swirling around in my head. Probably none of them will match the success of the first simple idea.

I think it’s a lot like that when you play guitar, and I always like to relate what I’m doing with guitars to what you’re doing when you play guitar. You can practice, gig for years, play what you play to perfection, and then one night find a catalyst that causes what you already do to come together in a new way. I remember playing with a keyboard player once who unlocked some chord secrets for me that the guitar players I’d hung out with never could. He just explained a few things in a different way, and the light came on for me. It’s possible if I’d met him five years earlier, what he said would have gone over my head, but that day it all sunk in and helped a great deal.

I think we all have those experiences, and sometimes they turn into a new product, a new song, a new guitar solo, or even a whole new direction. I doubt they could happen for you or me if we didn’t have our head in the game and weren’t willing to give something new a try. And I find that the more I’m engaged in guitar making, the more often these wonderful, unexpected moments present themselves. Isn’t it the same with you? You play, you practice, you meet new people, you get nervous, you try out a new scale and play a new solo, and sometimes it all just comes together and becomes a bit better. With enough of that, one day it starts to look like you know what you’re doing—because you do!

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.