Taylor describes himself as a tinkerer, someone who always was fascinated with the way things work. He claims to be much more interested in making guitars than actually playing them. One thing is for certain - Bob Taylor was and is a very savvy businessman. Because of this, and all it implies, it's no secret that he has detractors in the guitar world. Is this fair? I don't think so.
Many acoustic guitarists get all misty eyed and not a little envious when they talk about the solitary craftsman, carving and cutting and sanding away to make guitars that are somehow endowed with almost magical qualities. While there are certainly more than a few of these types of luthiers out there, it can be somewhat uncomfortable and not nearly as romantic to think of guitar making as a business with employees, problems with suppliers, competition in the marketplace and the fickle nature of the guitar buying public. Taylor "got it" early on and the result was going from a tiny shop that could barely produce a guitar or two every other week to a successful factory employing over 700 people in California and half that many just over the border in Mexico, shipping almost 500 guitars a week.
I found Taylor's description of evolving relationships with his employees absolutely fascinating. He recounts an incident that opened his eyes about the necessity of defining the worker/employer synergy. It was his habit to host a large picnic every summer at his home for all his employees. This event grew as the company did and one summer, after spending days preparing and of course paying for the event - attended by the workers' families too - he overheard one of them say something to the effect of: "Well, I guess this is where my raise went."
You can almost hear his hurt and then resolve as he realized the days of trying to be a buddy AND a boss had come to an end. I have seen similar incidents in a few other businesses as they grew and my guess is that this bitter pill must be swallowed by just about every boss at some point in time. Taylor then goes on to describe how he and other top people at his company learned to train and educate his employees, define their expectations and make sure discontent could not grow without being dealt with.
He is very candid about problems with production as the company evolved and I think the thing that impressed me the most was his willingness to try new construction techniques while still being aware of the importance of producing guitars that were at the same time traditional and modern. Durable finishes, neck connections that allow for quick and easy reset and adjustment, neck shapes that would appeal to both acoustic players and electric guitars who were used to much lower, faster action - these innovations and many more made guitarists take notice.
Meanwhile, Martin guitar company remained the largest manufacturer of high quality guitars, made in the USA. In spite of Chris Martin IV taking control of the company at a point in its history when the challenges were huge and Martin's reputation was slipping, and turning things around, Martin still seemed to be relying on antiquated designs and construction techniques. Their attitude seemed to be: Look, we haven't been around since 1833 for no reason. We make wonderful instruments and if you can't deal with having to pay hundreds of dollars for a neck reset due to our use of the traditional dovetail neck joint, well, that's just too bad.
It is obvious when reading "Guitar Lessons" that Bob Taylor took aim at Martin early on. He is effusive in his praise of their instruments but knew there was room for another builder of fine American guitars, ones that addressed some of the issues players had with Martins. And there is no question he succeeded.
If you have any doubt about this, take a look at the new Performing Artist series from Martin. Look at the body shapes and look at the pickguard. Kind of reminds you of a..... well, you know. Check out the Fishman Aura electronics. You have to wonder if Chris's grandfather would have approved!
For my part, I have come around completely on Taylors. The first few I played some years ago didn't seem to have any complexity of tone and were way too treble-ly for my tastes. But then about a year ago I began to see and play Taylors that that sounded great, and played like a dream. The fit and finish was superb and the use of interesting tone woods like Nigerian Satinwood, walnut and others were striking to the eye. Then I purchased a 2001 Taylor 810. This series from Taylor is a direct imitation (or perhaps, tribute?) to Martin's venerable Dreadnaughts. If you've been reading this blog for a while you know that I have been a huge Martin fan for decades and have owned many, many Martin dreads. But you know what? This 810 blows just about every Martin dread I've ever played or owned right out of the water. Not only does it have deep, resonant bass but it has the signature sparkly treble that Taylors are famous for. I know I'd probably be laughed out of the local picking parlor if I showed up with it for a bluegrass jam but who cares? It is truly an exceptional guitar in every way.
I'm sure Bob Taylor will continue to be controversial. I've heard that he doesn't pay his workers very well and that he is absolutely dictatorial with his dealers. True or not, it is fact Be that as it may, many Taylor guitars are world class instruments and deserve a serious look by any guitarist who knows the value of tone, playability and looks.
Pick up a copy of "Guitar Lessons" by Bob Taylor. I promise you will come away with a deeper appreciation of what it takes to grow a successful company. One that just happens to make great guitars.
Peace & good music,