There’s something about a small guitar that speaks to my subconscious desire to play. Maybe it’s a combination of lightness and comfort, that “Hey, pick me up!” vibe that makes me grab the instrument even when I didn’t think I was in the mood to make music. Of course, it’s what happens after you pick up the guitar that really matters. If I’m just grabbing it off the stand on impulse, there has to be a reason to keep playing. Otherwise, it goes back to its perch and I get back to what I was supposed to be dong in the first place.
The Taylor AD12e-SB Grand Concert didn’t go back on the stand very often.
Part of the company’s relatively affordable American Dream series, the $1,999 AD12e-SB covers a lot of bases. Taylor calls its Grand Concert shape compact, and I think that’s a good way to describe an instrument whose tone belies its size. It also offers the easy playability that Taylor fans expect, along with the proven performance of the Expression System 2 electronics. Its earthy good looks fit nicely into the American Dream vibe.
For those new to the moniker, Taylor describes its American Dream series as American-made “all-solid-wood guitars that match great tone with an accessible price.” Of course accessible is a matter of perspective and a guitar listing for just under two grand isn’t exactly cheap. Having previously reviewed the larger and less expensive AD27 (currently selling for $1,699 with electronics) and with other AD instruments available for as low as $1,499, it’s interesting to note that the AD12e-SB costs about 18 percent more. Speaking from the admittedly subjective point of view of a cheapskate, $2,000 is about the line where “bargain price” becomes less of the point and performance carries more of a premium.
An Austere Charm
Based on our test model, the AD12e-SB finds the right balance between price and performance. It’s built to favor tone and playability over flash. I think I used the analogy of well-worn jeans when I reviewed the AD27, and it’s just as applicable here.
Like the earlier model, the AD12e-SB has an austere charm—not just visually but also texturally when you hold it. There’s a raw quality to the wood, a utilitarian vibe. While not unfinished, the application is ultra-thin (.002″), to optimize resonance. The tobacco sunburst top is new to the American Dream lineup and, along with the thin matte finish, helps the guitar stand out visually despite relatively few other appointments.
Materials include a Sitka spruce top and solid walnut for the back and sides, with Taylor’s V-Class interior bracing. Taylor says its designers chose walnut for its midrange. And as we’ll see, they’re not wrong.
The neck is tropical mahogany, a sustainable alternative to African mahogany, capped with a eucalyptus fretboard. Scale length is 24-7/8 inches. With a 1-3/4-inch nut, the neck profile is typical Taylor: full but not fat. The feel is somewhere between a traditional acoustic and that of an electric guitar. It’s very playable platform.
Other materials include white body binding, Tusq for the nut and saddle, a faux tortoiseshell pickguard, black top purfling and satin black tuners. Taylor says the appointments are kept minimal to help hit the guitar’s price point, but the AD12e-SB’s aesthetic works also better without the extra decoration. Think Levi’s 501s versus designer jeans.
Small Package, Big Sound
I was curious about playing a walnut acoustic before I picked up the AD12e-SB, but I actually didn’t really know what it was made of before unzipped the AeroCase. (As an aside, I’ve grown to really like these as a compromise between a hardshell case and a typical gig bag.) I guess the suspense was ruined because I knew what the guitar sounded like before reading the literature on how it was designed to sound.
As I mentioned earlier, Taylor says walnut gives the guitar a warm midrange, and while that’s true, it’s a little bit incomplete. On the test guitar, it was more the blend between mid and highs that grabbed my attention, as well as a round bass that belied the instrument’s size.
Tone adjectives are almost as bad as sports clichés in that they’re open to interpretation while also being somewhat repetitive. Bold and warm sound like barista words, and one person’s warm is another person’s dull. Resonant? Well, isn’t a guitar supposed to be resonant?
That said, there I would use two words for the AD12e-SB: balanced and responsive. First the balance: That warm middle Taylor touted feels very centered in relationship to the highs and lows. I was especially impressed with the clarity and depth of the lower strings. There were no real peaks or valleys in the resonance as I went lower and while the bottom strings had some treble bite, they didn’t have the rolled-off low end you might expect from a guitar this size.
As Taylor’s promotional material suggests, the AD12e-SB is an especially good fit for fingerstyle playing and accompaniment and that transition high to mid to low is part of the reason. But it’s also nicely balanced for strumming. It’s not super loud, but it can fill the room unplugged without making you sweat too much.
The responsiveness is what really tips the scales toward fingerstyle. You just don’t need to work very hard to get a tone out of this guitar. As a result, your fretting hand can form the notes while your picking hand controls tone, attack, shape, and dynamics. There’s a lot of room for nuance and texture within chords and arpeggios, which rewards you for focusing on the details of every note.
Single notes are replete with overtones. I was especially impressed with those on the higher strings, which sounded harmonically rich and never thin or reedy. If tight is the word most often associated with a small guitar’s bass response, I’d choose punchy here. There’s more body and bottom to the low notes that I expected.
Strummed chords have a nice balance as well. The guitar is loud enough that you don’t have to wail on it to play big chords behind vocals. Like a lot of smaller guitars, too much force can sound harsh, but on the flip side, a very light attack still produced a rich enough tone.
Fingerstyle may be AD12e-SB’s intended use, but the guitar’s full midrange and balanced treble actually impressed me when I played with a flatpick. A lot of smallish guitars can sound a bit clickety-clackety to me when played with a pick because the attack emphasizes the highs and upper mids. The Taylor’s relatively full low end reduced that effect while preserving the cut that you’d want from a pick.
Low action and good intonation are what I expect from a Taylor. I wasn’t disappointed. The guitar wasn’t buzzy—another positive in the tone department. My only criticism was slightly jagged fret edges, though perhaps the consequence of a New York winter’s dry air. The intonation and action remained stable over the temperature change into early spring.
We’ve covered Expression 2 system extensively in the past, so there’s not much to add here. However, recording direct without a microphone to add air really showed how well the electronics can work when set correctly. Did it sound miked? No. Did it retain the balance and dynamics of the ambient acoustic tone? To a very large degree, yes. For live performance, it’s more than acoustic-sounding.
I also like the placement of the controls (bass, treble, volume), the feel of the knobs, and the way the whole system visually fits into the guitar’s aesthetic.
A New Voice to the Party
Having tested a number of Taylors lately, as well as a number of smaller guitars, I have to say the AD12e-SB stands out from both crowds. I know Taylor is a high-end factory, but this instrument still has a handmade vibe, which is very cool. It looks different while still ticking the boxes as a traditional flattop. The electronics work great. The neck feels right. If you like Taylors, it does the Taylor thing really well.
But in the end, the tonal balance and responsiveness brought those qualities to a new place. Judging from this guitar, walnut had a lot to offer as a tone wood: warmer than maple, with some of the clarity of rosewood and the warmth of mahogany. As a fan of small mahogany instruments like the Martin 00-18, I like how the AD12e-SB guitar brings a new voice to the party.
BODY Taylor Grand Concert size; solid Sitka spruce top with V-Class bracing; solid walnut back and sides; ebony bridge and bridge pins; Tusq saddle; firestripe faux tortoiseshell pickguard; matte finish with Tobacco Sunburst top
NECK 24-7/8″-scale tropical mahogany neck; 1-3/4″ Tusq nut; 20-fret eucalyptus fingerboard with acrylic dot inlays; Taylor satin black tuners; matte finish
OTHER Taylor Expression System 2 electronics; D’Addario XS Phosphor Bronze Light coated strings (.012–.053); Taylor AeroCase
MADE IN United States
PRICE $1,999 street