By Adam Perlmutter

Taylor’s 858e and 552ce offer effortless playability

Twelve-string guitars are notoriously tricky instruments, particularly in terms of playability and intonation, and it can be hard to find a great one, though Taylor has earned a good reputation for its 12-strings. So it’s satisfying to make the acquaintance of not one, but two new Taylor 12-strings, both excellent in all aspects. The good news is that the 858e 14-fret and the 552ce 12-fret models are both uncommonly playable and produce the gloriously shimmering effects characteristic of the best 12-strings.

Smooth Players

Many 12-strings have beefy necks, to withstand the extra tension exerted by the strings. But both the 552ce and the 858e have the streamlined neck profiles that Taylor is known for. And both guitars play well. I’ve encountered modern six-string guitars that are more difficult to play than the 12-strings. The action on both guitars is nice and low, and it feels effortless to play barre chords and single-note passages inflected with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.

For many years, Taylor offered only jumbo-sized 12-strings. The 552ce is Taylor’s smallest 12-string to date, making it friendly to the player accustomed to the six-string. It’s based on the Grand Concert size, with a lower bout of 15 inches, body depth of 43/8 inches, and a Venetian cutaway. A 12th-fret neck-to-body junction keeps the guitar from feeling neck heavy, as is typical of a 12-string. Players with slighter bodies will appreciate the 552ce’s compactness—those with smaller hands will appreciate its relatively short scale length.

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Physically speaking, the 858e is more imposing. This non-cutaway guitar has a Grand Orchestra shape—Taylor’s largest, with a 16.75-inch wide, five-inch-deep body. But despite its impressive size, the 858e isn’t noticeably heavy—it feels balanced and comfortable, and it’s thrilling to play such a brawny machine.

A Dynamic Duo

Both the 552ce and the 858e sound brilliant, with all the jangle of 12-strings at their best. Their intonation is perfect at all frets, and the instruments are free from buzzing and other unwanted transient sounds—they have great clarity and definition for simple melodies and complex chords alike. But the guitars’ voices are dissimilar.

The 858e, with its Indian rosewood back and sides, has the most commanding voice. It’s loud and lively, with impressive volume and projection and a stunning lushness. While it begs to be strummed with vigor and stands up well to the heaviest pick-hand attack, it also sounds rich and resonant when subjected to the most delicate arpeggio work.

The 552ce might not pack the wallop of its more strapping cohort, but it’s got a surprisingly robust sound for a small, cutaway guitar. What the 552ce lacks in lushness, it makes up for in articulation and focus. It sounds sweet and warm, likely owing to its cedar-and-mahogany construction. (The guitar is also available in an all-mahogany edition.) But what’s especially nice about the 552ce is its responsiveness—the guitar comes to life with the lightest touch, making it a nice choice for fingerpicking.

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Both the 858e and the 552ce sound remarkably natural when plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic amplifier, thanks to Taylor’s Expression System 2, the latest iteration of the company’s proprietary electronics. Beautifully detailed sounds are evident when the guitars are captured on Pro Tools using the onboard electronics in concert with an Audio-Technica condenser microphone, though the more polite 552ce might sit slightly better in a mix.

Redesigned Structurally and Cosmetically

Taylor aficionados will be curious to know about the design updates that the company’s young head luthier Andy Powers has realized in the 552ce and the 858e. The 552ce, like all 500 Series Taylors, is built with Performance bracing, in which the normal X-bracing has been modified in the service of optimal tone and the bridge plate has two parts instead of one, to better protect the soundboard from string tension, while producing a more powerful sound.

In terms of ornamentation, the 552ce sees the revival of the faux tortoiseshell binding that Taylor discontinued on its 500s a decade ago. The tortoise looks fantastic next to the mahogany sides, and a matching rosette and pickguard lend visual cohesion to the instrument. Though the 552ce is less decorated than the more upscale 858, it’s no less of a handsome guitar.

The 858ce has the same new features as the other guitars in the 800 Series. Its bracing and wood thicknesses have been optimized for the best sound, and for the same purpose, protein glue is used to attach the bridge and bracing. The body’s gloss finish, only 3.5 mils thick (about 40 percent less than Taylor’s previous finish) has been thinned to allow the box to vibrate optimally.

Luxurious but tasteful details, like an Indian rosewood pickguard, maple body and neck binding, and rosewood purfing, and an ebony truss-rod cover, make the 858ce look as beautiful as it plays and sounds.

Taken side by side, the 552ce 12-fret and the 858ce 14-fret models make a formidable pair, aesthetically and musically.

AT A GLANCE
TAYLOR 858E

BODY
Grand Orchestra size
Sitka spruce top
Indian rosewood back and sides
Ebony bridge
Gloss finish

NECK
Mahogany
Ebony fretboard
25.5-inch scale length
17/8-inch nut
Taylor nickel tuners
Satin finish

EXTRAS
Elixir phosphor bronze light strings
Expression System 2 electronics
Deluxe hardshell case

PRICE
$4,378 MSRP/$3,399 street

AT A GLANCE
TAYLOR 552CE 12-FRET

BODY
12-fret Grand Concert size with Venetian cutaway
Western red cedar top
Mahogany back and sides
Ebony bridge
Gloss finish

NECK

Mahogany
Ebony fretboard
247/8-inch scale length
17/8-inch nut
Taylor nickel tuners
Satin finish

EXTRAS
Elixir phosphor bronze light strings
Expression System 2 electronics
Deluxe hardshell case

PRICE
$3,398 MSRP/$2,599 street

Made in the USA

taylorguitars.com

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