From the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JAMES ROTONDI (Video by James DePrato)
The name Taylor has always evoked a particular sound—articulation and clarity in the top end; plenty of supportive low-end information, top-notch tuning, intonation, and projection; and a bright harmonic richness in the overtones—that’s ideal for thick, overdubbed acoustic rhythms in the studio and detailed, open-sounding solo accompaniment for new country troubadours and acoustic pop writers alike. Few guitars strum better or fuller. It’s a modern sound, lively and highly resonant. Dark, rounded, and vintage-inspired, we conclude, Taylor is not.
With its wide waist and round-shoulder dreadnought body shape, the decidedly vintage-inspired Grand Pacific—Taylor’s newest, and perhaps most adventurous guitar yet—seeks to upend those notions, or as the company’s master builder Andy Powers puts it, to be “the most un-Taylor-y Taylor we’ve ever built.” What’s more, as the first new production Taylor built from the ground up around Powers’ innovative V-Class bracing architecture, the Grand Pacific represents a new chapter in acoustic guitar design at the California giant’s El Cajon, California, headquarters, a shot-across-the-bow for what the company tells us is a likely migration toward V-Class bracing in all Taylor acoustic guitars for the foreseeable future.
Namechecking American roots artists from Bill Monroe to Gram Parsons to Gillian Welch, Powers explains that with the Grand Pacific, his goal is to bring attributes Taylor is known for—and that V-Class seeks to improve on—with a sound and aesthetic that, rather than leaning toward the modern, recalls “those great American records of the past.” One could argue that, in what may well be a new golden age of roots-fueled American music, that’s an entirely sane new path for the Taylor sound.
A Grand Entrance
Pulling our two Grand Pacifics—a mahogany 517e and a rosewood 717—out of their tooled-leather-style cases, I’m struck by the comfortable, almost aged feel and texture of these instruments. They’re a combination of several elements, including their Silent Satin–finished tops, the deliciously smooth chamfered body edges, subtly rolled fretboard edges, sapele body binding, and a new contoured “curve wing” bridge shape.
Likewise, the new top finishes, including a unique low-gloss Wild Honey Burst top on the 517e (which brings to mind a tobacco sunburst Les Paul or a slightly lighter-colored Gibson J-45) are very easy on the eyes. In both cases, the grain of the wood really delights the eye.
Our mahogany 517e produced an extremely focused, rounded, and balanced tone throughout the fretboard when played with a pick. At first a bit dark to my ears, the 517e responded exceptionally well to being whacked quite hard, even emitting a sweet, grainy growl, with gutsy midrange, on hard-struck chords between the fifth and tenth frets. Elsewhere, single flatpicked notes bloomed beautifully, even when played quickly, with excellent volume and sustain, if perhaps a little dampened-sounding.
I personally found the tension and string gauge on our model to be a bit heavy, with modest bending virtually out of the question—though for fingerpicking, that higher tension made for a very noticeable evenness to both high and low strings, really allowing ringing strings to speak as loud as fretted ones and producing bell-like tones even when not struck with total force. With the kind of loud, bold, and controlled midrange tones and tucked-in bass that microphones often love, the 517 is clearly an excellent recording guitar. That said, this is not where you’ll go looking to point a small diaphragm condenser mic around the 19th fret; if zing is your thing, the 517e Grand Pacific may not be your board. If the big, rounded tonalities and loud projection of a J-45 are your jam, however, definitely consider riding the waves with this one.
As you might expect for a guitar with Indian rosewood back and sides, our natural finish 717 had a bit more top-end airiness and sweeter, more pronounced overtones. It’s a good middle ground between a traditional Taylor and the darker, more Gibson-sounding 517. It’s here, too, on the 717, that Taylor’s suggestion that notes on the Grand Pacific “overlap” more than on, say, a Grand Auditorium, seems especially correct. Notes are broad and full, sure, but they also layer in an almost creamy way compared to the articulate, grainy crispness of, say, a 714 or a 314.
What’s more, even with similarly heavy strings, the 717 seemed to play a bit more effortlessly, and the lack of a cutaway presented no special impediment to single-note lines and double-stops in the upper registers, at least up until the neck joint at the 14th fret. This is partly down to the relatively flat, 15-inch fretboard radius, but also the Grand Pacific’s new “compound carve” neck profile; essentially, the neck (made of a satin-finished neo-tropical mahogany) moves from a slight V at the nut to a rounded C at the neck junction, with a rounded, ridge-less heel. It’s comfortable and feels organic as you move up and down the neck.
The 717 is surely one of the best all-around acoustic guitars I’ve played: With its full-bodied, weighty notes for fingerpicking, it would be entirely at home single-tracked live with a solo vocal, but with its lush harmonics popping out in full strum, there’s little doubt it’d produce a nice filtered zing effect as well for rock and acoustic pop rhythms. (Both guitars’ low-end character changes dramatically as your picking hand moves across, and to either side of, the soundhole, for lots of tonal possibilities.) There’s simply nothing missing from its sound, and like the 517, it has a decidedly un-woofy and punchy low-end, which, perhaps the result of the V-Class bracing or just Taylor’s top-shelf guitar design, is immensely appealing.
Playing the 717 is a bit like getting all the bodacious benefits of a dreadnought, but with the contoured bass response and bold mids of slightly smaller-bodied guitar. That said, there’s a volume ceiling to both of these instruments—while there’s plenty of focused power in front of the box, you’re not going to get the kind
of sheer projection you’d expect from an auditorium- or orchestra-sized guitar.
Our 517e boasts Taylor’s Expression System 2 pickup, which sounded predictably hi-fi through a Fender Acoustasonic 90 amp, an SWR Strawberry Blonde, and a Universal Audio Apollo Twin audio interface using UA 610-A and other preamp types. Again, the sound was balanced, focused on a rich, powerful midrange spread, with an excellent if slightly dampened sustain and timbre at all velocities.
Both guitars will surprise longtime Taylor players, who’ll certainly recognize the premium build quality, firm intonation, and note integrity on the Grand Pacific. But with its reined-in top-end overtones and more pronounced fundamental—to say nothing of its tighter, punchier bottom, naturally compressed midrange focus, and bigger note life—the Grand Pacific charts its own course in the map of Taylor’s adventurous outer reaches. It’s a guitar that, in cinematic terms, could be seen as the prequel to Taylor’s blockbuster success with bright, vibrant modern-sounding guitars. The Grand Pacific 717 and 517e (and its sapele little brother, the 317) are, in a sense, post-modern legacy instruments in an imagined early-20th century past for a company that only began making guitars in the mid-’70s. But with V-Class architecture leading the way structurally and sonically, the Grand Pacific line could well be seen as a journey back to the future.
Body Grand Pacific body; torrefied Sitka spruce top with V-Class bracing and maple/Sitka spruce bridge plate; sapele binding; maple/sapele rosette; Silent Satin finish with natural or Wild Honey Burst top
Neck 25.5″-scale neo-tropical mahogany neck with compound carve; 20-fret West African ebony fingerboard, 15″ radius; 1-3/4″ wide at nut; silver side dots; West African ebony head-plate; satin finish; Taylor nickel-plated tuners
Other West African ebony bridge and bridge pins; Micarta saddle; black Micarta nut; Elixir phosphor bronze, medium gauge (.013–.056); hardshell case
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Made in USA
Builder’s Edition 717 Grand Pacific
Body Solid Indian rosewood back and sides
Neck MOP arrowhead inlays
Other 717e (with Taylor Expression System 2 electronics), $3,199 street
Price $2,899 street
Builder’s Edition 517e Grand Pacific
Body Solid neo-tropical mahogany back and sides
Neck Acrylic arrowhead inlays
Electronics Taylor Expression System 2
Other 517 (without electronics), $2,799 street
Price $2,999 street
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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