Wave Lengths: Catching a break with Taylor’s Andy Powers

“This is going to get really noisy and really dusty for a while,” Andy Powers warns me. He’s not kidding. Grabbing a Makita sander, the luthier goes to town on a thick piece of maple, removing whatever doesn’t look like the back of an archtop guitar. Sawdust flies everywhere.

While the dust settles, Powers walks over to another bench and takes a guitar neck that he’s been hand-shaping and holds it up to the UV light clamped to his bench. His squinting eyes follow the contours. “I’m looking for the way the light hits it,” he explains. “I know surfboard-shapers do it this way. I actually got this from working on hot rods. I was hanging out with an old-timer and he said, ‘You’ve got to get your lights up—you put a light at one end and then you look down it and see where the shadows are…’” Then, mimicking the old man looking at a Chevy body panel, Andy Powers starts sanding down the treble side of a guitar neck. On his table are several hand planes, a crusty pot of hide glue and a dog-eared copy of Callum A.S. Hill’s textbook Wood Modification: Chemical, Thermal and Other Processes.

This is not the scene that springs to mind when thinking about going behind the scenes at Taylor Guitars in 2018. Taylor is, after all, one of the biggest, most efficient and well run guitar companies of all time. It’s a corporation, not a workshop. Yes, on the other side of this room’s wall are all the CNCs, workers, wood stacks and workstations that you’d envision: the tools that have put El Cajon, California, on the map as a musical instrument epicenter. But this room? It doesn’t look too different from all the other solitary luthier’s spaces I’ve been to around the country. The only thing missing is grime, family photos and the dusty bodies of long-abandoned projects. One gets the sense that everything at Taylor has a purpose—and gets finished, even the prototypes.

Lately a lot of these prototypes have come to market. In less than a decade, the stuff that Powers has envisioned out of this room that once housed Taylor’s R. Taylor imprint is monumental: He’s helped shepherd new voicings for Taylor’s 800, 700 and 600 series; he’s championed maple as a sustainable guitar wood; he’s launched the Academy series of entry-level guitars; he’s put out a GS-Mini-sized bass; and, this spring, he began transitioning Taylor to an entirely new bracing pattern they’ve dubbed V-Class. Most guitar companies depend on tradition to keep the lights on. “People accept change from Taylor,” Bob Taylor tells me, “because we’re constantly changing.”

Hyperbole abounds when it comes to describing most professional guitar-makers, but it seems somehow warranted when describing Powers. Even before he started working for Taylor, Andy was a rarity: a gifted athlete, a professional level musician and a fine guitar-maker. He embodies an only-in-California level of wholesomeness: Powers’ mother Nancy decided to home-school Andy and his siblings, giving them ample opportunities to pursue their love for surfing, music and the arts. (She did a good job teaching him how to communicate, too). Meanwhile, his father, Chuck, is a noted Southern California contractor and home builder. He literally grew up around tools, wood and waves.

“I was around 7 or 8 when I attempted my first guitar,” he recalls. “My dad, being a carpenter, was always bringing home scraps of wood. I was really into guitars, just getting into them. I loved the shape of them, I loved the hourglass shape. So I thought, ‘Hey I’ll make a guitar.’

“I made myself a wood box that was kind of shaped like a guitar, got some strings on it, made a neck, all of the frets were crooked,” he says, laughing. “I went to string it up and the whole thing exploded. I don’t know if I’d really call that guitar-making.” Once he calmed down, he ran to his house and inspected his parents’ Gibson LG-1 and noticed the bracing holding the guitar together. “I was hooked from then on. All I’ve ever done is build instruments,” he says.

Powers stayed largely self-taught when it comes to builds, but like others before him, he did track down Irving Sloane’s book on classical guitar construction at the local library. Later, he discovered the Stew-Mac catalog. “I’d spend hours poring over that old newsprint catalog,” he recalls. “I got a pretty informal lutherie education just by looking through parts catalogs. I just absorbed it.” Before he could drive, Andy was selling the ukuleles he built to his parents’ friends.

“I got a letter from the IRS when I was 13,” he recounts. “I go in and show it to my dad, he starts laughing. ‘What does this mean?’ ‘It means you made a little too much money and the government noticed.’ I had to go to the county clerk’s office and there was this hilarious scene. The guy was saying ‘you’re not old enough to work, you can’t have a job…but you have to pay these income taxes. You better figure out something, kid.’ That was my first real business lesson.”

By the time he was 16, Powers had a high school diploma and had established his own company, doing repairs for the local music shops around Oceanside, California. “My mom would drive me around, I’d pick up the guitars, fix them, drive them back,” he says, smiling. In addition to plenty of well known and recreational Southern California musicians, one of his repair clients was legendary furniture-maker Sam Maloof, who also commissioned a Powers ukulele for his grandson.

Powers went on to get an arts degree from MiraCosta College and then a scholarship to study jazz guitar with the legendary Jimmie Cheatham at the University of California, San Diego. He did plenty of playing, but also remembers spending most of his college tenure building and selling instruments to his professors and classmates. “By the time I was done with college, I realized that I have this little business, all my bills are paid, I have a several-year waiting list, I guess I’m a guitar-maker. I’ve never stopped. It was like a habit that I couldn’t quit.”

Powers first met Bob Taylor when he was around 15. The pair were seated next to each other at a Harvey Reid concert, where Andy brought one of his ukuleles for Reid to check out. Taylor saw it first. Bob flattered Andy with, “If you ever need a job, call me! This is amazing.”

Fast-forward over a decade later to 2009. Powers is in full swing as a solo builder, but found himself at the Taylor booth during the annual NAMM Show. “We got reconnected there,” Powers recalls. “Then we got together with another buddy for lunch. A few months later, he calls me out of the blue. He said, ‘Come down here, alone, and he laid out this idea that we needed to work together. He didn’t want Taylor Guitars to be a nameless, faceless production.”

Powers didn’t make the decision lightly. “It took me a few months,” he admits. “Bob was really open-handed with it. ‘Take two weeks to decide, take two years…take whatever you need. It’s either you or nobody else.’”

Ultimately, Bob—a master at scaling—spelled out a career at Taylor in a compelling way. “You could take the things you’re given—the knowledge and the ability you have—and you can make a dozen musicians happy a year. Or you could take those same abilities and the same knowledge and put them into this context [here at Taylor] where you could make thousands of musicians happy a year.” Andy was convinced.

And what happened to that multiyear wait list? “I took the phone off the wall and built them all,” he says.

Today, Powers splits his time between Taylor’s El Cajon factory and his Carlsbad home workshop 45 minutes to the north. He makes the commute in a souped-up ’56 Ford F-100 that, more often than not, has a surfboard in the back. “There are fewer deadlines for specific projects and more of a knowledge that I’m not going to make stupid things,” Powers says of his flexible workday structuring (he averages a workweek day at home). And with each year and new product unveiling, he has quickly become the luthier face of Taylor Guitars in all of their marketing materials.

“I’m good at making guitars and Bob is really good at making an overall setting where they can be built,” Powers explains of their chemistry. “He’s got a machinist’s kind of mindset. When the two of us work together, it’s great.”

And sometimes, all those surf sessions pay off. The epiphany to completely move beyond classic X-bracing on a flattop guitar came to Powers, unsurprisingly, while he was at the beach. It was 2014 and Taylor had already made headlines with their newly revamped 800 series and maple 600 series guitars. “We launched these guitars and they’re cool, people like them, they’re generating a lot of interest and people are making some cool music with them,” Powers reflects. “Well, that’s great, but then what? It was a little scary, because all the things that I thought of that I could throw at a modern Taylor guitar, we just did, so now what? ‘Can I do a better guitar now?’ Because otherwise it gets really boring really quick.”

“I got skunked one morning surfing,” Powers continues. “I’d gone down to Black’s Beach [a surf break near La Jolla, California] thinking the surf was going to be amazing. Was sitting there watching it and then that sneaky little voice inside goes, ‘You got a little better, which is good, but there’s still more here to mine, there’s still more interest, there’s a lot more to do.’ And then a couple of days go by and the weather turns and I’m up at the Oceanside Harbor Jetty and it’s a totally night-and-day difference. I thought that if I could try and duplicate this [on a guitar], that would be an interesting thing. I didn’t really know what would come of it, it was more just a thought that maybe this would be interesting. Let’s see if I could attack this this way.”

Powers then launches into a not-quick synopsis of underwater bathymetry, describing the effect a shoreline shape has on wave construction, the impact that jetties have on swells and how sandbars change your favorite surf spots. He loves talking about this stuff—his passions (wet and dry) all seem to involve wavelengths and geometry of some sort—and the conversation quickly leans more scientific than Spicolli. (Powers may be the only surfer you’ll ever encounter who can quote passages of Hermann Helmholtz’s textbook on the physics of sound, On the Sensations of Tone.)

The upshot is, thanks to the Pacific’s vagaries, a lightbulb had been lit; Andy was thinking about new bracing patterns. “I got halfway through making the first set of parts and realized, this is actually going to work. You can kind of tell how things are moving before a guitar is ever done. You know what they’re going to behave like,” he says. “You know what their relationship is going to be like when you get it put together and it would allow some other what seemed like unrelated concepts to all sort of fit together, intonation being one of them. So I built this guitar and thought oh, okay, now what? Now what do I do?”

These newly braced guitars—now dubbed and patented as V-Class bracing—have some unique characteristics. There’s an even tonality across strings, even by Taylor standards. The intonation is arguably better, the wolf notes simply aren’t there. Powers does his best to describe, simply, the complexities of what’s going on. “Take a classic scallop X-brace guitar top, and right off the bat you’ve imparted all sorts of stiff and flexible spots in the thing by virtue of gluing braces to it, and then you’ve made it even more complex by carving in peaks and valleys into those braces, which make even stiffer and even more flexible spots, so it’s this kind of complicated form that’s just morphing and shifting in shape every time some level of energy hits that thing. So it starts to become clear why, when I play a note of a string, this guitar body top, this system, the air mass inside the body, the whole thing is going to resonate at the closest frequency that it could in response to the note that was imparted to it.

“It does not move like a speaker cone. We want that to be the case—moving in and out [with sound], but really it’s more like a rumpled piece of tinfoil that’s just continuously crinkling and taking on all kinds of different shapes as it moves, because there’s such complexity to the stiffnesses.

“What these V-Class guitars start to do is they take away so much of that top distortion, that wrinkly tinfoil-shape thing that’s just always changing, and it turns it into something more like a speaker cone, where you’re producing frequencies not so much by type of motion, but by the timing of them.”

The state of guitar retail is tenuous. It’s ballsy for a company as large as Taylor to make such a fundamental change to their guitar lineup (V-Class is on high-end Taylors now, but it’s clear it will eventually be on most of their offerings), possibly rendering some of their older models less desirable. I wanted to hear what other respected folks in the industry thought of these guitars.

First, I talked to famed guitar dealer (and guitar designer) George Gruhn—who has seen plenty of musical instrument innovations, fads and trends over the his lengthy career and is never one to mince words—what he thought. “I think very highly of Andy’s work,” he said in an email. “In my opinion, the V brace is a very significant new innovation. The V-braced Taylors, in my view, are vastly superior to any previous Taylor guitars and are truly fine instruments. I had one on loan from them for a few months after the 2017 Summer NAMM show. Everyone who played it agreed it was the best Taylor they had ever heard and that it was a fine instrument.”

I then asked TJ Thompson, noted Martin repair expert and an exceptional guitar-maker in his own right, what he thought of the V-Class guitar he tried out at the 2018 NAMM show. “I got to play one in a soundproof booth and I loved it,” he said. “It can’t really be compared to anything, not even a Taylor. Like trying to compare my Parker Fly and a Strat, you just can’t, wouldn’t trade either, gotta have them both. I can’t wait to try the off-the-shelf production guitars. If they’re anything like the sample guitar I tested, I’ll be buying/playing my first Taylor.”

“I’m curious to see what people will do with them,” Powers concludes. “I mean really, as with any instrument, the players are the ones who end up deciding. They decide what a guitar is or isn’t, right, how they use it. The really iconic designs, the great ones, those ones seem to—they kind of genre-bend, where they’re jumping from one style to the other and somehow they’re totally appropriate for all of them. I look at Leo Fender’s designs and think, those are incredible. You look at a Strat and think, how many different styles of music has that instrument made? You have someone like Eldon Shamblin using it as a rhythm guitar and doing a fabulous job with it, and then you get someone like Jimi Hendrix playing one and go, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Leo had in mind, but I sure am glad that Jimi had the creativity to take that where he wanted to go with it.’ You compare that to, say, Buddy Holly, and go, ‘Wow, you made some very, very different music with that.’”

“There’s all kinds of cool stuff that comes out of a really great instrument. So I think with most things in the instrument world, the really valuable designs, those are the ones that have just those innate musical characteristics that people can use. You look at the piano world, and I bet there are very few pianists in the world who don’t enjoy a Steinway concert grand piano. Those are amazing instruments. You’re going to see someone like McCoy Tyner play on one, you’re going to hear Vladimir Horowitz play on one, you’ll hear someone like Dr. John play on one. You go, ‘Your styles are nothing alike, but boy, they all sound amazing on that instrument.’

“It’s an exciting future,” he adds. “The guitar world isn’t done yet.”

This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal #42. 

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