From the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY Brian Wise
In an age when eye-catching, futuristic musical instrument designs grab headlines and social media buzz—whether it’s a 3D-printed violin or a sleek, carbon-fiber piano—a new system of guitar bracing might appear to be a tougher sell. After all, these braces, which reinforce a guitar’s top and back, are all but invisible to the player and listener, and they can seem rather inconsequential even to a guitarist.
But some guitar lovers know how crucial the unglamorous bracing is to the sound and playability of any instrument. When Taylor Guitars unveiled its new V-Class bracing system in January, the company insisted it would be a groundbreaking step designed to boost the volume and sustain of its instruments, while also improving their intonation. The company presented several models to dealers, the music press, and select performers, followed by a formal rollout at the 2018 Winter NAMM trade show in Anaheim, California.
Bob Taylor, who cofounded the El Cajon, California–based company in 1974, said it was time to “stop trying to tweak our inventory within an inch of its life” and instead make a bolder, more decisive change. He entrusted Andy Powers, the company’s 37-year-old master designer, to develop a new system that would challenge X-bracing, long the most popular pattern for flattop guitars, and pioneered by Taylor’s closest competitor, C.F. Martin. The new system would signify a passing of the baton (or pick) as Powers makes his mark on a company whose greatest designs have upended tradition.
A Dance of Strength and Flexibility
As the name implies, V-bracing consists of two braces that join at the base of the top, near the end block, and extend out on either side of the soundhole in the form of a V. Three cross-braces add further support. “I took a fresh look at the X-brace design and thought, Well, for one, it works pretty good,” Powers told Acoustic Guitar. “But it represents a compromise. That compromise would be: How do you make something that’s really strong and really flexible? How can it be those two things?”
More to the point, Powers identified an uneasy tradeoff between volume and sustain. The rigidity of X-bracing, he says, enables notes to have a longer sustain—the kind of effect one finds on a solidbody guitar like a Gibson Les Paul, for example. But achieving volume requires a more flexible surface that promotes air movement. A banjo, with its flexible drumhead, has such qualities—tremendous volume with little sustain. “You try and tweak that balance between volume and sustain and sometimes you lean a little more in one direction or another,” Powers said of his quandary.
Powers, who is a lifelong surfer and occasional surfboard shaper, had a revelation one morning as he watched the waves off the San Diego coast. He observed how a stone jetty was funneling the churning surf into smoother wave patterns. Watching further, he wondered if one could create a bracing pattern that would have a similar effect. It would allow the sides of a guitar body to freely vibrate, enhancing volume while providing a stiff foundation for the strings, thereby promoting sustain.
“Calm, still waters with good waves coming in—that’s what I wanted to happen,” Powers said. As he developed a solution, he also fell back on his studies of mandolin, violin, and archtop guitar construction. [See Shop Talk sidebar below.]
With so much contemporary popular music played on electronic instruments and relying on pitch-corrected vocals, guitarists are increasingly expected to have flawless intonation. Powers discovered that the V-bracing had the added effect of improving intonation within chords. “There’s always a fighting, or beating, between what a guitar can deliver and the note you’re actually trying to play,” he noted. “You get this rub. There’s a friction,” which Powers says can make a guitar sound slightly out-of-tune.
George Gruhn, the owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, was pleased with a model that he tried last year. “Tone is difficult to describe, but in general, I think the V-brace gives a remarkably well-balanced sound,” he said. “It seems to cancel out some conflicting harmonics that make things sound out of tune at times. It’s one of the most in-tune guitars I’ve ever played by any maker.”
Building on a History of Innovation
Powers’ use of a surf analogy recalls an early episode in the history of this Southern California company. In one of his first, scrappy efforts to rethink guitar construction procedures, Bob Taylor sought to decorate a fretboard with mother-of-pearl. Unaware that he could purchase the materials at a guitar shop, Taylor went diving for abalone off the coast of La Jolla, broke up the shells with a hammer, and ground the pearl into usable pieces. This freewheeling approach to materials and craftsmanship has underpinned the company’s design changes over the decades, whether it was the launch of computer-controlled production machinery in the 1980s, inventing a new type of bolt-on neck joint in the 1990s, or investing heavily in sourcing sustainable wood in recent years.
To this day, Taylor and company co-founder Kurt Listug insist that a skilled artisan should be high up in the corporate ranks. “Think of other guitar builders,” Taylor says, “and ask yourself, ‘Can I put a name to that company’s luthier? What’s the wellspring of their guitars?’”
The son of a carpenter and artist in Oceanside, California, Powers crafted his first guitar by the age of eight. As a home-schooled teenager, he began building and selling guitars and ukuleles to his friends. After receiving an associate of arts degree from MiraCosta College in San Diego, he studied guitar performance and musicology at the University of California at San Diego. During this time, he established the Andy Powers Instrument Co.
Just as his business was starting to evolve, Powers crossed paths with Bob Taylor, who eventually set up a meeting and convinced him to join his company. The veteran guitar builder was planning for the future of the company, with the eventual goal of scaling back his direct involvement, and needed a builder with deep historical knowledge and the potential to stay on for the long haul.
Since Powers’ arrival, he has ushered in several changes to Taylor’s line of guitars: re-voicing the company’s top-selling 800 and 600 series, introducing a line of small-body 12-string guitars, and making a number of subtle bracing changes across the catalog. But company officials see Powers’ V-bracing development as analogous to an automaker that moves from internal combustion to an electric-powered engine.
The system is being introduced immediately on four of the company’s high-end guitars. The first, a new Builder’s Edition (K14ce, priced at $4,999), combines Hawaiian koa back and sides with a torrefied Sitka spruce top, and a new-style cutaway. [See review on page 74.] The others: an all-koa Grand Auditorium (K24ce, priced at $4,499); the rosewood 900 Series (914ce, $4,999); and the top-end Presentation series, with striped West African ebony back and sides and a redwood top (PS14ce, $8,999).
Powers, who drives around his hometown in a restored vintage pickup truck, and describes himself as a “pretty old-fashioned guy,” creates his designs with pencil and paper, chisels, and a set of cartographer tools passed down from his great, great grandfather. The V-bracing design took shape as he tested concepts built first with hand tools and then translated into design software and made on Taylor’s CNC machines.
“A lot of the guys around the shop talk smack,” he said, referring to his sometimes-quaint approach. “They’re really smart guys—talented machinists and engineers. In fact, we have a recent MIT grad whose specialty is computer modeling. So I’ll draw this out with pencils and these old cartography tools, and get something exactly the way I want it. He constructs a more detailed computer model.”
Stepping Out Into the World
While there is a big transition with Powers’ vision for the future of the company’s guitars taking over the founder’s vision, the foundation of Taylor Guitars as a modern guitar maker remains rooted in traditional materials. The V-braced guitars use customary tonewoods like Sitka and Adirondack spruce and conventional wood glues and screws. Outwardly, the guitars are distinguishable from Taylor’s X-braced models only by a black graphite nut, instead of an off-white one. Additionally, a new design for the label will highlight Powers’ signature, while folding Bob Taylor’s signature into the background. “We want to signal that our company has a guitar maker, and changing the label is a really big deal to us,” said Taylor.
Michael Simmons, a sales manager at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, was pleased with several models that he tried. “They sound just like a Taylor, only more so,” he said. “They are bright, with a strong, balanced midrange and a clear, resonant bass. They sound wonderful when fingerpicked. They’re really good, modern-sounding guitars.”
Simmons notes that Taylors have recently been outselling Martins in his shop, but cautions, “The world is not going to start doing V-bracing. In some ways, from a guitar-weenie perspective, it’s a really big deal and a major change,” said Simmons, who is also a cofounder of The Fretboard Journal. “But when you compare them through the ears of someone who doesn’t do this eight or ten hours a day, six days a week, it’s a small change. It’s like tweaking the tone controls.”
Guitar builders have tried different bracing patterns since before the Civil War, an era when C.F. Martin is generally credited with having introduced the first X-braced guitars. Though X-bracing dominates the modern steel-string acoustic world, other patterns have emerged over time. In the 1920s and 1930s, ladder bracing took hold, promoted by low-cost department store brands like Silvertone, sold by Sears, and the Oscar Schmidt Company, a favorite of door-to-door salesmen. Other luthiers have employed a reinforced double-A pattern; Martin has used an A-frame X in select guitars.
The tight competition between Taylor and Martin is shown in the numbers: Both have budgets slightly over $100 million, and while Martin in 2016 had 968 employees, Taylor had 870, according to Music Trades. Any sweeping change poses a risk to its market share. “I would not want to bet my company on it,” said one veteran dealer, who spoke about the company’s transition to V-bracing on condition of anonymity.
Bob Taylor considers the V-bracing a risk but a highly calculated one. “Dealers were like, ‘Holy crap, how are you going to do this? Some of them were like, ‘I don’t want you to do this, but you have to do this.’” He adds: “It’s something we feel is good business in the long run. We can’t just try to satisfy the latest craze. It’s like mom and dad have to figure out what’s best for the family; we’re going to figure out how to go forward.”
By starting out with a quartet of elite models, Taylor officials believe they can better manage the transition to V-bracing throughout the company’s El Cajon–built guitars. Depending on customer response, the company plans to gradually add the new bracing pattern to other series over the next three years.
It remains to be seen if Taylor can maintain its fabled consistency in the process of the rollout. Simmons wonders if the company has hit a sweet spot, but cautions that some guitar makers reach a peak and then over-refine their instruments, going too far in their quest for innovation.
But Bob Taylor insists the company aims to keep one foot rooted in the distant past. “Andy’s just trying to make amazing guitars,” he said. “When we look to the next 40 years, we felt we needed to look in a direction that will involve a new class of bracing. That could take us into the next 100 years of innovations.”
Following a tour of Taylor’s ultramodern factory in El Cajon on a warm Southern California morning, I had a chance to speak with Andy Powers about how he mashed together many ideas to come up with his new design. As we sat on stools in his workshop, Powers animated his ideas by grabbing braces to demonstrate how his vision came together.
Where did some of your ideas for V-bracing come from? It reminds me a bit of the parallel bracing from an archtop guitar.
I’m a huge archtop guitar fan—I love playing them, I love making them, I love looking at them. I’ve built archtops with X-braces and parallel braces and I like the volume and sustain I can get out of parallel-braced designs—which are never parallel, they’re more like a V. So, the V comes from the archtop, but it’s backwards from the way it would usually be.
How did you get to the backwards version?
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Well, I wanted to put them in the center. I knew from building many kinds of X-braced instruments that an X offers a lot of torsional stiffness and I can adjust them like this [holding two braces in the air and making wider and narrower Xs, and moving them forward or backward]. I know from building parallel-braced archtops that those longitudinal braces are really strong. I didn’t want to put it right in the middle, because I have a soundhole. But if I kept it mostly central, it could be strong, but also flexible enough to really move. By splaying them this way, I can get the guitar to distribute it evenly into both halves of the guitar and get the whole thing to physically move.
The braces don’t tuck into the kerfing as they do on a typical flattop guitar, they stop short.
They don’t need to—it’s not a benefit if they do. In fact, in this situation, it’s more of a hindrance. We do the same thing with our Performance bracing, which are X-braced guitars.
On an X-braced guitar, most of the time you want the braces to go into the kerfing because the top is working in a different way. But by stopping the braces short of the lining, you change the boundary, the rim, of that guitar. Most of our guitars have a channel that runs around the lower bout that we call the relief rout, and what that does is define the functional perimeter. The rim is not as uniform if you leave that up to the lining or kerfing, but the relief rout fixes that.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.