Finding a successor has to be a big hurdle for anyone who has built a hugely respected company, and as Taylor Guitars reached its 35th anniversary several years ago, Bob Taylor faced precisely that dilemma when thinking about someone who could take the reins and create inspiring instruments for decades to come. Bob called it his “dear god” letter, in which he wrote out a list of qualities such a person would have. As Taylor recounts, it went something like this: “I need a guitar maker who’s a better builder than I am, a pro player, is self taught, has 20 years of experience, is in his 30s, and can make a lifetime commitment.” A wishful list for sure, and one that Bob says he put away for a year or so until a chain of events led him to spending an afternoon with an extraordinarily talented builder and guitarist in the San Diego area named Andy Powers.
Coincidentally, it wasn’t the first time the two had met. Years earlier, at an acoustic concert in San Diego, a then 15-year-old Powers showed Taylor a ukulele he had built. Impressed by its quality, Taylor told Powers to look him up if he ever needed a job. That didn’t happen, but approximately 20 years later Andy was playing at the NAMM Show with Jason Mraz when he had the opportunity to reintroduce himself to Bob and recount the story of their previous meeting.
A few months later, Bob says he was at a stoplight when he started thinking about his “dear god” letter and began checking off the list of qualities that Andy met. He decided to give him a call, and, as if by divine intervention, Powers truly did answer Bob’s dream list to a tee—his middle name is even Taylor for god’s sake! Some meetings ensued, and following a two-week long “classical guitar building camp,” where Taylor, Powers, and luthier Pepe Romero Jr. got together to build some nylon-string instruments, Bob had a heart-to-heart talk with Andy and asked him if he could make a lifetime commitment to building guitars—adding that he always wants Taylor to be a company driven by building and craftsmanship, not decisions made in a boardroom. Andy agreed, and in 2011 he signed on to head-up guitar design for the El Cajon-based company.
To date, Powers’ list of accomplishments for Taylor include creating the Grand Orchestra model, redesigning the 800 and 600 Series (we reviewed the new 614ce in the March 2015 issue), and bringing numerous appointments and upgrades to other models in the line. As far as what the future holds, Powers brings a combination of building skills and musical prowess to the table that is nothing short of mindbending. His influence on evolution of Taylor guitars is bound to have a far reaching effect for decades to come on the company and the players who adore its guitars.
How did you get your start in music?
My parents were both huge music fans. My dad played mandolin, Dobro, and some guitar, and my mom was mostly piano and guitar. They decided early on that they wanted to live by the beach and let music and surfing be a big part of their lifestyle, and so I grew up in this household where there were instruments around and a ton of music. My dad’s a carpenter and his friends were carpenters, surfers, fishermen, and musicians—everybody played something to some degree. So, from the time I can remember, I figured this is what everyone does. I got into guitars mainly because I liked how they looked, but I actually started on piano first. I took lessons from this wonderful teacher, and she did a really fine job of making music approachable for me. More and more, though, I got into playing guitar because I had an affinity for it. We had a little small-bodied Gibson acoustic that I played for a while, and then my parents found me a Stratocaster in the local classifieds. I was super into the Ventures at the time. One of the first things I learned on guitar was “Walk Don’t Run.”
Did building guitars come early for you too?
I was always around woodworking tools and scraps of wood that my dad would bring home from his jobs. One day he brought home a piece of wood that I thought was big enough to make a guitar out of, and that was my first attempt. It was the right shape mostly, but I had no idea what I was doing, and even had to beg a local guitar shop to give me six mismatched tuning keys. I put set of strings on it and watched it blow up as I tried to tune it up to pitch. I was maybe eight years old at the time and having it blow up was probably as much fun as if it had actually worked. But from then I was hooked, and soon as I found another piece of wood I tried it again. That one blew up too.
Those experiments taught you about bracing I assume?
Yeah, after the first one I took the Gibson off the wall and started looking inside, and saw all these sticks that I figured must be there to make it stronger. But on my second attempt, I put them just about everywhere they shouldn’t have gone.
You met Bob Taylor when you were a teen. How did that happen?
I was building ukes as well as guitars, and while they weren’t amazing instruments, they were working pretty good because I’d figured out a lot of mechanics, as far as how to make a top or a back or a neck, how to put frets in, and how to do binding and finishes. I was about 15 when Bob and I ended up sitting next to each other at a Harvey Reid concert. I had this uke with me that I had brought to show Harvey, and so Bob ended up seeing it and goes, “Wow, you’re 15 years old and you built this, huh? If you ever need a job come look me up.” The point is I’d gotten pretty good at building by that time, but I’d also gotten into repairing and restoring instruments, and that’s really when my guitars and ukes started getting better. I was getting jobs from professional musicians as well as from some of the local guitar shops who didn’t have much woodworking capability, or even any interest in doing repairs. So I started working on all kind of guitars that would come my way. I’d fix them, and it was a huge education for me because I got to see everything from the inside out. It started from simple things like setting guitars up and fixing bad fret jobs to people bringing in pre-war Martins that were in paper bags because they were completely broken. So by taking that experience and applying it to the new guitars I was building, my stuff started to get a lot better.
Did that experience lead you to making archtops and other more advanced instruments?
Yeah, because as guitar player I couldn’t ever seem to have enough guitars. I guess I had musical ADD, because I got into so many different styles of music and so many different types of guitars, and I never really focused on any one of them exclusively. I got deep into Django Reinhardt and started loving the Selmer/Maccaferri style guitars, and at the same time I was into Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, and all these monster jazz players. I would look at pictures of archtops, and I got into building them and working on the old ones that came in to be repaired. Bob Benedetto is a magnificent archtop builder, and he wrote a book on archtop guitar making that I thought was so cool. I learned a lot out of that, and I tried building some guitars just like the styles he would build. So I took that as a sort of starting point, and then developed more of my own tastes in archtops. To this day the archtop is still my favorite type of guitar to build.
Did the styles of music you were playing at the time help you to evolve as a builder?
Yes, and that happened with all sorts of instruments. I got into mandolin building because I like bluegrass music, and I got into Telecasters because I was listening to groups like the Hellecasters and really trying to absorb as much of that as I could. So all of these different styles of music and influences were kind of cross-pollinating each other. In fact, I can’t really separate the guitar building because it was always tied to the music and instruments I was playing. I’d go to a gig and I’d be looking at the guitar I was holding and thinking about how I might adjust the action or do this or that. So it was sort of a continuous feedback loop of being immersed in instruments of all kinds, doing shows and playing on records, and building all these different instruments.
Was there a point when you were considering playing music for a living?
At a certain point I realized that I had three big loves in my life: building guitars, playing music, and surfing. I knew if I turned into a touring musician most of my time would be away from my workshop and away from the ocean. But if I built guitars, I could do the two things I love and still play music. So that’s the option I chose. There were times when most of my income came from music—I did scoring for some video games, I did shows, and I played on records and things like that—but all the while I couldn’t quit building guitars.
How did you get into studio work?
Taylor’s 800 series acoustics have also been redesigned by Powers.
There were a couple of recording studios in San Diego, and I’d get to know someone or they’d hear me play, and they’d say, “Hey, we’re going to make a record and you should come and play on it.” When I was younger, though, I was really fortunate to fall in with John Jorgenson. He was playing at a local club that I wasn’t old enough to go to, but I knew he was doing an on-air interview, so I just went down to the radio station and introduced myself. John was immensely kind to me. After I got to know him, he took me around to see how things worked in studios. He was living in L.A. at the time, and he’d call my parents and ask them to bring me there so I could hang out in the control room and watch him lay down parts, see how the musicians interacted, and learn how they would go about making a record. So when it came time to have opportunities to record with people, I already had a working knowledge of how to make a record. I could go into a studio and bring a couple of guitars, a mandolin, a Dobro, or whatever, and sit down and say, “Okay, what are we playing today?” And I could contribute some good notes to those parts. So I have done quite a bit of session work. It was one of those fun facets to put into my musical experience. But again, I couldn’t separate it from the building process. For example, I got into hand-rubbed finishes because I noticed that in the studio a shiny guitar would have a tendency to squeak in my hands or where my right arm touched it. So the next handful of guitars I built had a finish that wasn’t as shiny, and that would help me record a cleaner part.
How much does your ability to focus on small details like that inform the way you design and build?
I’ve always relied on my ability to hear things, both as a player and a builder, and it makes me wonder how some folks who build incredible instruments—but aren’t necessarily musicians—can make guitars without listening as they go? When I play a finished guitar I know instantly what is doing what, because I can listen to it as a player and a builder. It’s like a musician who has perfect pitch can listen to a note and know exactly what it is, but the musician who really has the advantage is the one who can listen that way, but also has a good sense of relative pitch, because then they can hear the relationships between notes.
How did you first approach the design processes at Taylor in order to advance some of their models?
My interactions with Taylor guitars started when I was doing repairs and restoration, because a lot of players had them. I was working for a lot of touring musicians and session guys, as well as the local guitar shops, so I saw many Taylors come in that were built during different eras. When Bob and I decided to work together, I set up shop at the factory and went about learning more intimately what Taylor guitars were about. Bob and I also spent quite a bit of time playing together, and I’d listen to way he approaches a guitar and watch the way he played it and think, “Okay that makes sense as to why this guitar would be made this way.” Once I had that level of understanding, I’d think about it as a player—like what am I hoping to get out of this guitar that is a bit more than what I’m getting right now?” Whether it’s sustain or balance or volume, I would start with areas like that and go, “Okay, I’m going to alter this bracing pattern, or I’m going to change the thickness of the neck or whatever component needs to be changed in order to get more out of that guitar and shape it into something I wanted.
Can you talk about a specific model that benefitted from that approach?
Bob had been building a pretty traditional jumbo guitar since his beginnings as guitar maker, and we decided that while it’s a neat guitar, if I were to reimagine an instrument this size, what kind of guitar would I make? So we drew some different lines and came up with the Grand Orchestra model, which has a personality that’s distinctly Taylor, yet in a more modern and useable context. I see a lot of fingerstyle players gravitating toward bigger guitars because they want that power, but a lot of them are too bulky to have the touch sensitivity that fingerstylists need. So I designed the Grand Orchestra from the ground up, drawing a new shape and giving it a bracing pattern that would work well for a lot of different styles.
Taylors have long been known for having necks that are very accommodating to electric players. Is that element essential to maintain?
You know, I don’t care what a guitar sounds like if I can’t play it. Much of Bob’s guitar-building energy has been put into making a neck that plays good, and that meant a slimmer prolife to fit the playing styles of the time. If you look at a lot of early electric guitars, they’ve had necks that were very much like their acoustic counterparts. Real deep, thick profiles, and lots of times they were V shaped—which is a hangover from the mandolin tradition. But as players’ styles became more fluid and pyrotechnic, you saw more electric-guitar influence starting to happen with acoustics because people wanted them to play like a Strat or a Les Paul. I can appreciate a big, thick neck, but the reality is that, as a player, I’m most comfortable on something that is fairly slim. In fact, most of my guitar making decisions can be brought down to a pretty simple process: I ask, “What makes the best music?” The instrument itself might sound best if the action is really high and it has big strings. However, the musician’s ability to play that guitar is going to be hugely hampered, and the music won’t sound as good. The flipside would be a musician who has amazing dexterity on a guitar with tiny strings and super low action, but the instrument doesn’t sound all that great. Again, the music suffers. So there’s a perfect harmony that you’re looking for where an instrument plays well, the neck is comfortably shaped, and the guitar has a voice that enables the musician to do what they want to do. That’s where the magic happens.
You’ve played a lot over the years with Jason Mraz and you’ve also built guitars for him. How did that association come about?
I met him initially through some mutual friends at a coffee shop in San Diego called Java Joe’s. Jason had seen some instruments I had built for other folks, so we started spending some time together talking about guitars and ukes, and he also expressed an interest in learning how to surf. He was living in Oceanside [California] and my workshop wasn’t far from his place, so being an avid surfer, I said, “Sure, I’ll take you surfing.” And so we started to go surfing together and it became a real enjoyable friendship. I also built some instruments for him and we started playing more music together. He’d be out touring the world, and when he came back to town he’d play different kinds of shows to contribute to the musical community. We still play together at those events, which can range from a coffee house to a big theater. We even put together a cover band to play at my younger sister’s wedding! On his latest album Yes! I was fortunate to be able to contribute some parts on all sorts of different instruments—acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, Dobro, mandolin, and pedal-steel. That record was a long time coming, and I was really thrilled to be part of it.
What are Jason’s go-to guitars now?
Most of what he takes on tour are Taylor branded instruments that I have built. I get to use him as one of my road testers, so I’ll have something I’ve been playing for a little while and I’ll give it to him to live with for a couple of months. The guitars in his quiver have a tendency to change every couple of months based on what I’ve come up with. He also has a pretty traditional guitar made by a small company in Virginia called Rockbridge that’s a neat instrument, and I built a solidbody electric for him, which is loosely based around a ’65 Fender Jaguar that he owns. It’s a really cool guitar in a custom color, and he was using it on tour. He’d bring it back to me every couple of months to fix up, and one day I said, “You should leave this one in your studio; it’s got some years on it, and it’s getting a lot more years on it really quick going on tour.” So I built him something with a little longer scale length and some different things.
I recall you saying once that Elvis Costello had one of your pre-Taylor instruments.
Yes, when I was 18 or 19 I took a uke I had built with me to a festival in Hawaii, and I left it there at a shop that sold high-end ukes. A couple of months later, I was looking through Rolling Stone and there was a story on Elvis Costello, who had just made a record called The Delivery Man, and he’s holding that uke I had built. I heard the tune he’d recorded with Emmylou Harris, and I remember thinking, “I built and played that uke, but I don’t remember it ever sounding like that.” He really pulled some cool stuff out of that instrument.
When you set about reinventing the 600 series guitars to be made out of maple, what sort of challenge did that present?
It can be a challenge, but in my case I have a background of building instruments out of those woods in the archtops, mandolins, and other things I’ve made. Speaking to the new 600s, Bob had built guitars with curly maple for quite some time, and like most builders, he would take the design he came up with and just change the back and sides to maple. But woods all have their own personalities, so what I tried to do is accommodate the personality of maple, and then see if I could shape it to fit what I wanted to achieve. In certain scenarios maple might dictate a really bright sounding stage guitar, but in the case of the 600s I wanted a more broadly gratifying kind of playing experience for a wider range of players. So what that translates to is a guitar that’s a little warmer sounding, has longer sustain, and is more rich and enveloping.
Has the transition from running a one-man shop to directing guitar design for Taylor been an easy adjustment for you?
You know, I love building guitars and playing music, and those two things are all I’ve ever really done. So I’m in a privileged environment here where I get to continue doing what makes me come alive. It’s so remarkable to have been able to partner up with Bob and be looking forward to the next 40 years. Building great guitars and putting them in the hands of musicians is what I want to do, and I’m loving every minute of it.