The Introduction of Taylor’s new Grand Pacific models at the winter NAMM show last January heralded chief designer Andy Powers’ creation of a very different kind of guitar than anything we’ve previously seen from this company. They arrive as the Builder’s Edition 517 and 717, and the lower-priced 317. These round-shoulder dreadnoughts all feature V-Class bracing (a Powers innovation that was introduced in 2018), however, they are purposely designed to bring a new sonic personality to the Taylor line. Both Builder’s Edition models feature torrefied Sitka spruce tops, although the 517 has a mahogany body and the 717’s is rosewood. To give players a more affordable option, the 317 has a sapele body and a Sitka top. None of the Grand Pacifics has a cutaway, and this is an intentional element in a design that Powers began working on several years ago.
“I was going back to all these old records that I listened to as a kid, and I thought, ‘Man I don’t have anything like this,’” Powers says. “I know the guitars themselves that made these sounds don’t really sound like the records that I love, because it’s always a filtered thing. They’re played through a microphone and it’s compressed and EQ’d, so all those issues are dealt with. So what I wanted to do was build a guitar that sounded like it was coming off a perfectly balanced and mixed record.
“That was part of what led me to the V-Class idea in the first place. I built the first one off a dreadnought chassis. When I built the second one I went, ‘Man this is really something.’ So I’d been building the shape we now call the Grand Pacific by hand for the last five years now and refining that recipe and exploring it in different ways to see what kinds of qualities I can derive out of that design.”
At the time of this interview with Powers, I was fortunate to have a Builder’s Edition 517 and 717 on hand and had also checked them out at a press event in Nashville last September. And yes, they do sound different from the Taylors we’ve known, and with a body shape vaguely reminiscent of a Gibson J-45, they don’t resemble anything that’s ever rolled out of the company’s El Cajon–based factory. The Grand Pacifics are a little rounder sounding than a typical Taylor with otherwise similar construction. There’s still the same in-tuneness across the span of the fretboard that is one of the benefits of V-Class bracing, but the new guitars have a certain complex, old-soul richness to them, as well as a very balanced delivery compared to most dreadnoughts. This was very obvious when comparing them to my own Martin D-28, which has way more low end than it needs.
Powers adds, “The biggest single difference in personality between this guitar and, say, an 814 — which is the quintessential modern Taylor guitar with Indian rosewood back and sides, a Sitka spruce top and a Grand Auditorium shape — is that when you play an open-position C major chord on an 814 it will sound like you played the notes on a piano. You hear the in-tuneness of them all with the V-Class design. You’ll hear the balance and the sustain and good volume and projection — all those wonderful things. But if you listen to that chord, you will hear every single one of the notes, because it has what we describe as ‘note separation.’ You can easily pick out the E and G and C naturals. If you play that same chord in the same position on the Grand Pacific, what you notice is that you don’t have individual notes; you have the sound of the chord. Instead of sounding like the notes came off the piano, they’re more like you played that chord on an organ. All the notes blend together into a single harmony.”
With their soulful tone and abundant volume and sustain, it’s easy to see how the Grand Pacific guitars appeal to singer-songwriters, fingerstylists and flatpickers, and this was in evidence watching several players perform alongside Powers himself with all three versions of the Grand Pacific at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. The newcomers to guitar (some of whom owned other Taylor models) appeared instantly at home with it, and it was clear that there were qualities to these guitars that encouraged some inspired performances that day.
They all sound a bit different, however. The mahogany 517 is touch lighter in weight, even though it carries Taylor ES-2 electronics, and it has a juicier midrange character, while the rosewood 717 is a bit more vibrant overall with more of a frothy character in the highs.
“That’s a good way to describe it,” Powers says. “I’m terrible at using words to describe sounds, so I tend to describe sound as the way it makes me feel. But yeah, the rosewood one is going to have more froth. The reason is that rosewood will tend to contribute more of its own harmonic structure, so the V-Class bracing system will give you the fundamental note you played plus all the harmonic content coming from the strings. You have this clarity and warmth and richness, but you’re hearing the balance tipped a little more toward what’s happening in the strings rather than the mix of strings and body wood. Rosewood is also significantly heavier than mahogany. You don’t notice it as much on these guitars because the electronics on the 517 are contributing more weight than you might think. The pickup capsule itself hardly weighs a thing, but then you have a preamp and some wire, and a battery box and the nine-volt battery itself, so there’s a bit of weight there.”
One of the things about the Grand Pacific guitars that I didn’t notice right off the bat is how their back bracing is angled, which is not typical for steel-string flat-tops. “That’s a trick I first used back in 2014 on our redesigned 800 series,” Powers explains. “Not on all of them, only certain body sizes. It gets technical pretty quick, but the short answer is we never hear a back or a top. You never hear parts of a guitar. You hear the whole instrument together. You’re hearing the sum of all these parts. Just like when you play a chord you hear the relationship between the notes, not necessarily just the notes. So, angling those back braces changes the relationship between the way the top moves and the way the back moves in response. I’ve been using it as a way to tune the voicing of the guitar to help get the kind of response out of it that I want. It’s almost like a tone control. The first couple of Grand Pacifics I built, I used a pretty conventional ladder-braced back and it was close. Then I started angling the back bracing, almost like EQing the guitar, to get the finished voicing for it. It’s a subtle effect, but it is noticeable. You can’t just do it willy-nilly and expect that the guitar will be better. It’s just going to be different. As in cooking, you kind of treat the ingredients differently to bring out the qualities you’re looking for.”
Common to all three Grand Pacific models is the absence of a cutaway, and this primarily has to do with what characteristics Powers was seeking sonically from these guitars. As he explains, “Certain guitars, like the Builder’s Edition models we introduced last year — man, I want that cutaway. It’s stolen straight out of the electric guitar world, and I love the high-end chime I get out of playing in those high registers. Also, the armrest on that guitar makes it super comfortable.
“But in the case of the Grand Pacific, in order to get the voice and response I wanted requires symmetry. I want both sides of the guitar to be symmetrical, and that means no cutaway and no armrest because it makes for asymmetrical top movement. So in this case it was a functional aspect in voicing this guitar, although I think it also fits the overall aesthetic and gestalt of the Grand Pacific too. Think of it this way: You can measure across the upper and lower bouts and measure the waist and the length and the depth of the body. You can get some numbers, but they only tell you a little bit of what to expect — like the general small, medium and large aspect — but it’s the curves that connect those dots that matter. That’s what actually determines the size, as in the amount of air that’s inside the body. It’s the lung capacity of the guitar.
“So if you have something that has a real full curve on the lower and upper bouts and a fairly broad waist, that guitar is going to have a huge lung capacity. If you make the upper and lower bout curves a little tighter, as if they’re portions of a smaller circle, you dramatically reduce the amount of air inside that chamber. And that has the effect of making a smaller lung capacity, which shifts it to a higher frequency and emphasizes a different part of the register. That aspect is unbelievably complicated to calculate. It takes some gnarly mathematics to be able to do it, which is why guitar makers traditionally haven’t done it. I do it because I’m kind of weird like that. Nowadays, when we build computer models of things after I’ve finished the guitars, it makes it a lot easier to calculate. But that volume-of-air measurement matters a lot in the way the guitar sounds. It’s a very basic and fundamental thing.”
Taylor is famous for using CNC machines and other automated processes to build very consistent-sounding guitars on a large scale. When playing the Grand Pacifics, they sound and feel so organic that it’s easy to think of them as hand-built customs and forget that a lot of high-tech tooling is involved in their manufacture. If anything, though, it speaks to how carefully and painstakingly Powers goes about building his prototypes, refining them to the nth degree and converting all those construction details into machine language.
“I’ll make no bones about it, we automate everything we can,” Powers asserts. “We want to be using CNC machines and we want automated buffing and we want to use lasers when we can, because that can give us a really consistent high level of quality in the build. But those tools will only reflect what you design into them. The way I go about something like this guitar is I get myself some wood, I get my tools out and I build the guitar. Then I build it again and again, and I take a lot of notes and measure the things that are important so that I can come up with a good-for-everybody version of that instrument. Once it’s all completed, I go backwards and I translate all those notes, dimensions and drawings into computer 3D modeled versions, because that way we can build all the specialized tooling to hold every part of every guitar, and we’ve got all the processes to make every single part work and have it be consistent.
“But I don’t let computers come in on the front side. I haven’t heard anything great that’s come from that, because most of the time when you build a way to test something with a computer, you are going to use formulas and design rule sets that are somehow insufficient to make really great, musically useful sounds. For me, it’s best to work as a chef would. Let me make something that sounds good using these ingredients, so that it’s a musically useful and appealing thing for guitarists to play songs with. It’s kind of a modern take on what guitar makers have always done — just try and build the very best guitar you’re capable of and use any tool that’s available to you to get there. Whatever it takes, use it.”