Can a great guitar get even better? Alun Lower finds out how Taylor is trying to improve on perfection…
I had a thought-provoking debate with a fellow guitarist recently. Having just laid his hands on a stunning, handmade guitar produced by a reasonably well-known UK luthier, he was now of the belief that the average punter “must be mad” to spend their hard earned on a top-flight acoustic “manufactured” by a big-name guitar company. Gibson, Martin and Taylor were just three such brands that no longer met the expectations of this particular gent and his (admittedly stunning) new squeeze. For a moment, I wondered whether or not he was right. I love an underdog and am always overjoyed when as a reviewer I have the opportunity to try out a guitar that matches or even exceeds the standards sets by these goliaths of the guitar biz. Of course, common sense returned me from my madness before too long. Anyone that underestimates the dedication and sheer craftsmanship that goes into creating these companies and their enviable reputations is being utterly ridiculous. Sure enough, before you could even utter the phrase “box-shifters”, a wager was on. All I needed now was a prime example to prove me right.
How fortunate for me then that Taylor should introduce a complete revamp of their talismanic 800 Series – a run of guitars designed to showcase the classic rosewood and spruce combination at its very finest. Anyone that has had the pleasure of playing one of these guitars will know that they were already pretty damn good to begin with – a showcase of Taylor’s dedication to immaculate build quality and unrelenting pursuit of tone. It begs the question – what on earth is there left to improve?
Well, according to Taylor, just about everything, as it turns out. From the more obvious cosmetic adornments to the subtleties of bracing, it seems that not a single stone has been left unturned in Taylor’s quest to drive the 800 Series towards the apex of its evolution. The visual impact upon opening the case for the first time cannot be overstated. The rosewood pickguard for one is a new addition and one I much prefer it to a slice of faux-tortoiseshell. It’s just that little bit more decadent and luxurious without bordering on gaudy. A bit of trivia – Taylor match the grain of the pickguard to each guitar’s back and sides, and the angle positioned strategically to minimise pick wear. Clever stuff.
The spruce top is a magnificent example as you would expect, and another aspect of the redesign concerns the binding that blends the top so expertly with the gorgeous rosewood back and sides. The primary ingredient is pale maple, chosen without any curling or flaming so as to retain a clear, precise aesthetic. It works a treat and has been further accented by immaculately cut layers of rosewood purfling. Andy Powers, the luthier who helped mastermind the redesign of the 800 Series, likens the rosewood detailing to a picture frame, and that’s a pretty accurate comparison – it really does look the business and enhances the overall outline of the body. The detailing continues to the soundhole also, where a circle of green abalone is once again surrounded by rosewood – even the inner edge of the soundhole cutout appears to have had hours of attention poured upon it.
Even the gloss finish used on the body of the guitar deserves a mention. While Taylor’s previous gloss finishes have all weighed in at a fairly standard six millimetres, the company has somehow managed to reduce this down to a mere three and a half. Indeed, casting an eye over the always-marvellous Taylor neck join shows that really there is an almost indiscernible difference between the satin of the neck and the gloss of the body, with almost no overlap and certainly no sloppy build-up to be seen.
The mahogany neck is superbly finished and comes with its own cosmetic flourishes. For some time now Taylor has co-owned an ebony mill in Cameroon, making conservation and sustainability an important watchword in their more recent designs. While most guitar makers will only touch ebony with a perfectly dark, piano-black quality, Taylor has fully embraced the varied colouration that appears on cuts that many guitar companies would simply discard. The end result is a fingerboard that not only plays and sounds the part but also looks striking, organic and, well, beautiful. Why more guitar companies don’t make the best use these wonderful woods is absolutely beyond me, but perhaps this is something we’ll start to see more frequently in the near future. Elsewhere on the fingerboard, there are some lovely new green abalone inlays inspired by Taylor’s classic diamond-shaped decorations, and the crisp pale maple binding leads up to the immaculate Taylor headstock, beautifully finished and inlaid with the company’s logo.
Stepping off from the Tusq nut and following it down to the Micarta saddle, our journey takes us once again down to the 810’s body, but this time to look at the internals. What’s particularly interesting about the way the new 800 Series has been engineered is that each model comes with its own individual tweaks and measurements – our dread won’t have the same wood thickness as a Grand Symphony for example, and likewise the bracing has been adapted to optimise the tonal response and characteristics that each of these body shapes is known for. Even the glue holding the guitar together (animal protein glue in this instance) supposedly has an effect on the sound you hear. It’s easy to be sceptical, but it’s clear Taylor has taken this very seriously and stands firm behind its assertions. All that remains now is to find out whether all these improvements are just for show or whether they translate into some kind of tangible musical benefit.
It’s not often I can be certain that guitar is going to sound good before I’ve even played a note, but I have to admit that on this occasion that’s exactly what happened. Reading up on Andy Powers’ views on dreadnoughts on Taylor’s website, I agreed with his opinions on many levels in the way that so many dreadnoughts can sound, well, a little flat. Sure, there’s the big low-end punch and rich mids – but high-end quality is something that tends to stand out on smaller, curvier models (which is why the Grand Auditorium has always been my preferred Taylor body shape, personally).
However, when I first unpacked the 810 and let my hand fall down over the strings at the bridge, I was immediately struck by the strength and clarity of the resulting boom that found its way out of the soundhole to greet me. It’s a difficult sensation to describe, but that one moment implied that the 810 was about to school me on just what a dreadnought can accomplish. And after losing several days lost in a haze of what I can only describe as tonal nirvana, I’m left in no doubt that the 810 is no ordinary dread.
The single most impressive thing about the tone is really just how powerful it is. You really do get a sense that this guitar has lungs like Pavarotti and just wants to sing with all its heart. The low-end punch is everything a high-end dreadnought owner should expect – plenty of oomph, piano-like clarity and a foundation for creating massive chords that push every note towards the audience at a rate of knots (no pun intended). But when you hit those higher strings, you suddenly find yourself met by the bell-like chime that makes a concert or parlour guitar so utterly intoxicating. It shouldn’t belong on a dreadnought – but it’s right there. And it is glorious.
The purely acoustic experience it utterly sublime, offering truly exceptional balance across the strings and a seemingly endless array of harmonic overtones at every turn. Every chord, every note is drenched in tone, responding effortlessly to every nuance of your attack and playing style.
As my time with the 810 came to an end, I found myself extremely conflicted about the fact that I would have to ship this guitar back to Taylor. On the one hand, I was having to say goodbye to one of (if not the) best dreadnoughts I’ve ever played. But on the other, if I had kept the guitar back then I would have to be equally fearful of my other guitars springing to life in the night and murdering the poor thing in its sleep, out of sheer envy.
In all seriousness, the 810 shows just what can be accomplished when a company with the resources and experience of Taylor puts its mind into improving what 99% of the guitar-playing world would have identified as a damn near un-improvable guitar. The knowledge and craftsmanship poured into this instrument is palpable, and I challenge any jaded guitarists among you to get out there and give one a spin. If you have the cash to spend on a serious guitar, you need to try out the Taylor 800 Series. It’s as simple as that. And yes, I believe I’ve won my bet.
Build Quality 5
Sound Quality 5
Value for Money 4
Pros: Piano-like response, loud, clear, articulate – everything you’d want in a guitar
Cons: Lack of electronics, other than that absolutely none at all
Overall: An outstanding guitar that every player should try at least once
Retail Price: £2,519
Body Size: Dreadnought
Made In: USA
Top: Sitka spruce
Back and Sides: Indian rosewood
Tuners: Taylor nickel
Neck Width: 1-3/4”
Scale Length: 25-1/2”
Strings Fitted: Elixir phosphor bronze medium
Gig Bag/Case Included: Deluxe hardcase