Created during the COVID-19 quarantine, the new American Dream series from Taylor Guitars is designed to meet the moment, distilling the instrument to the essence of what makes a great acoustic guitar. Featuring their innovative V-Class bracing, and built in their El Cajon, CA factory, this series, which includes the AD17 and AD27 (available with our without electronics), introduces the lowest-priced US-made, all-solid-wood guitars in the Taylor line.
We caught up with master guitar designer Andy Powers to discuss the origin of these instruments, the production challenges of social distancing and his hopes for the music players will make with the Taylor American Dream guitars.
The HUB: Where did the idea for the American Dream series come from? How did it start?
Andy Powers: I started hearing from my friends, and so many of my musician friends, that essentially, “Everyone's out of work.” Well, that's a pretty daunting prospect to be faced with, and I know that's the case for many people throughout every industry.
We thought, “What do musicians need out of a guitar right now?” They’re not going to be going out and playing or hearing music. They're going to be playing it for themselves, you know, making their own entertainment the way that people would have maybe a hundred years ago. They're playing for their immediate families and not for big crowds, not for, you know, professional shows, or those environments where we typically would be playing music.
So, here in the shop everything was remarkably quiet and kind of eerily shut down, and I'm wandering around going, "Man, what are we going to do?" Well, at a base level let's talk about fundamentals. We want to be playing songs. We want to be sharing songs. We want to be sharing our stories. I need an instrument that's appropriate for these times. Right now, there’s no place for frills, filigree, or decoration.
This is the time to get down to basics of guitar. For musicians to make those songs, it's got to sound good, play good and serve the musician well. This train of thought had me feeling like, "Man, this is like right back to the beginning again."
That's what I've always done, what Bob [Taylor] has done. If you're faced with a scenario that you don't know what to do next, you just start working on it.
The HUB: What were the biggest changes or challenges in designing these guitars under the current (pandemic) conditions?
Andy Powers: A lot of our design work I do out of a workshop that I'd built out behind our house. Bob is the same way; he has a personal workshop that he spends a lot of time in. We started putting long hours in at those workshops and here at the factory with nobody else around.
I mean, when you look at the [American Dream] instruments, it becomes pretty obvious that there wasn't a lot of radical intensive tooling in order to make these, you know? For the Grand Pacific shape, we already have a bender to make sides. We have the V-Class bracing architecture that works and we have parts that are already sized.
So, some of the other aspects of developing it were kind of streamlining that process to see if we could make it more efficient using materials that we had on hand. That's where a lot of the work came from.
The HUB: How much had to change in the factory itself to make it happen?
Andy Powers: We've been slowly bringing people back as we're able. We’re not all the way back up to the production levels that we were working at before all of these events started taking place, partly because we've had to incorporate so many new guidelines: how many people can be in a space, how far apart, who touches what, and how often is this commonly touched surface cleaned.
In a lot of ways, we're very fortunate, probably more fortunate than most manufacturers, because we have space to work, and, you know, we can work in an organized, neat manner. That was already in place. None of our folks were tripping over each other before, so it made it maybe a little easier than what some folks have faced. But yeah, it's been a real challenge. So, there is a smaller group of folks building these guitars than you normally would have seen from us.
It's very similar to the way the other models go because building tools, and building a process for making these guitars, that's the way that we ensure consistency in what we're doing.
The HUB: What is the philosophy of the build itself?
Andy Powers: If something is contributing to its comfort, playability, sound ... those elements are going in. If it's not one of those aspects, man, it's out. There's no room for that anymore, at least not on these guitars.
The finish is a lot simpler than what we normally would do even on a 300 Series guitar, or a 400 Series guitar. Now the purfling, the edge trimmings, the inlay work, those kinds of aesthetic details, they're as straightforward as we could make.
The HUB: How’d you settle on which woods to use?
Andy Powers: One of the things that somewhat inspired this project is while we were initially shutting down, we took the opportunity to work through a lot of the material that we have, inventory, that was cast aside. Think of it as orphaned wood.
As you can imagine, when you're importing logs, and boards, and parts for guitars, there's a lot of material that's really great woodworking wood, really fantastic tonewood, and maybe for one reason or another it wasn't the “pristine” slice. It may have had some character mark, or some rustic attribute, you know, a small pin or a mineral vein, or some little thing where we look at it and go, "Mmm, that doesn't meet the standards for perfection, the cosmetic perfection that we would normally expect for maybe an 800 Series guitar, but I can't bring myself to throw it away because it's a perfectly wonderful guitar neck, or a perfectly wonderful set of sides, or a back, or a top. We'll set it aside for now."
So, that goes on for years, and we’ve finally built up enough of this material where we're, you know, kind of looking at these stacks of wood going, "What are we going to do with this? Let's clear a lot of this out." And so that was part of the inspiration for this. I'm looking at all this orphaned character-grade wood, first-rate tonewood, functionally and sonically. That's exactly what I need right now. I need to build a guitar made with this kind of character, this distinctly rugged American character, and build very straightforward guitars using it. That's the perfect thing to do.
The American Dream name actually came a little later because Bob and I were talking about these guitars that I had started to build and kind of laughing over it going, "Well, this is just like going back to the very first days of the Taylor Workshop. Before it was Taylor Guitars, we had started as ‘The American Dream Guitar Shop’, and those days were filled with the kinds of challenges that we face right now. So, it seemed fitting to re-visit our beginnings and go, "Hey, this is where we came from. We're going to work our way out of this."
So those tonewoods, the Ovangkol, the mahogany necks, spruce tops, that was part of what informed those choices. It was on hand. We were cooking from what was in the kitchen already.
The HUB: It seems like the Grand Pacific has really been embraced by players. Can you talk a little bit about the body shape and why you think people are enjoying it?
Andy Powers: It's right in the middle of what most players would come to expect out of an American acoustic guitar. It has a very broad appeal, and a big, broad sound. It fits a lot of different acoustic guitar styles.
It's somewhat of a slope shoulder dreadnought—I guess you could describe it that way. The waist is a little different, the shoulders of course are different, they've been kind of refined into more of what I describe as a “West Coast” sort of flavor. It’s a distinctly Taylor kind of aesthetic—but it is a very broadly appealing acoustic guitar sound that fits a lot of styles. So, I felt that was a real appropriate guitar kind of framework to work from.
It's right in that ballpark of what you would want out of an acoustic guitar.
The HUB: V-Class bracing has now been integrated into several different models, including the American Dream series. What have you learned over the past few years?
Andy Powers: In our experience refining V-Class and adapting it to so many of our models, we’ve found it to adapt quite well. With this design you can make small adjustments and affect the sound dramatically. The V-Class idea, and one of the initial discoveries in that, was it allows a lot bigger variety of sounds to come out of these guitars. So yeah, it has grown in quite a lot of ways over different sizes, different woods and shapes over the last several years.
The HUB: We got two of the American Dream guitars to try out and they had this wonderful sort of “lightness” to them. They felt like they were resonating a bit more than other guitars. Is there anything unique about these guitars that gave them this sort of airiness? It’s almost a “woodiness” quality. It’s hard to describe.
Andy Powers: Yeah. Actually, what you're trying to describe is the change in damping factor. I mean, that sounds super technical, but if you look at an instrument, one of the factors that you need to kind of take into account is what is it finished like? How thick is the finish? What is the finish? How dense is the finish? How much of it has been absorbed into the fibers of the wood? How much is sitting on top of the wood?
They seem like such small, tiny, little distinctions, but for a vibrating piece of wood, it makes a radical difference. That's why we do use different types of finishes and different thicknesses of finish on different series, different models of guitar, to bring out certain characteristics, because an unfinished guitar doesn't actually sound very good. It's too much of all the kinds of sounds, all the kinds of vibrations that you don't necessarily want and so the finishing process is something that can be used to further tune the guitar and help complete its voicing.
So, in these guitars, the finish that we're using is a bit of a departure from most standard Taylors. This finish is ultra, ultra-thin and a little softer. It's not quite as dense as some of the other finishes that we use. So, what you're hearing is a little more direct result of the raw wood plate vibrating on the top, back, sides and whatnot.
It starts to get technical quick, but I mean, guitars, you live in the land of subtlety. You know, you change one tiny, little thing and whoa, everything got different.
The HUB: That “damping thing” really made a big difference.
Andy Powers: Yeah. It does. It starts to take on the kind of character you'd feel from a guitar that had a lot of years on it already. Because the fact is, in older instruments, most finishes, most wood finishes, actually become thinner the older they are. Not so much because they're wearing away—certainly we've seen the battered Strats and battered old flat tops and whatnot where the finish is just gone, you know—but there's some chemical processes that contribute to these finishes becoming thinner and thinner the older they are. So, these guitars start kind of in that similar range, so you'll find more of that kind of character coming out in the guitar.
The HUB: Given everything that’s going on right now in the world, what do you want guitarists to experience and take away from the American Dream Series?
Andy Powers: If I could ask a musician to do exactly what I wanted, I'd say, "Pick the instrument up, play a song, because what we need, what your community needs right now is for musicians to be sharing their stories, sharing their songs, sharing their artwork." I mean, the process of playing music is so integral into the human experience it feels like the very vitality of life.
If you went thousands and thousands of years back, you might see something like, "Well, I need something to eat, I need a place to stay so I don't get eaten. And then what? Well, I'm going to make some music because I need a way to share experience with others around me." So, when I look at a musician, a lot of musicians are finding, "Well, if I can't play shows, what do I do? Where do I go?" Well, go somewhere. Start with your immediate family. Start with your friends. Start with a Zoom call or whatever. Whatever way that you can foster that sense of community.
The HUB: Couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Andy!