Tinker, Taylor, Player…Luthier

By Massimo D'Angelo

Taylor Guitars is an American guitar manufacturer that was founded in 1974 by Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug and is now a world leader in the building of acoustic guitars and semi-hollow electric guitars.  

Bob Taylor was just 18 when he began working in a luthiers, where he met Kurt Listug. When two years later the owner decided to sell, Taylor, Listug and another colleague decided to rename the shop and go it alone. Today they have over 700 staff with bases in California, Mexico and the Netherlands.  

Guitars Exchange
catches up with the affable Taylor at the Namm show in 2018 where he is happy to talk about his companies special investment in sustainable wood sources, who he’d love to see playing one of his guitars, and how it all started…

GE: How did it all begin?

BT: When I was in high school we had a wood working class and so there I made my first guitar, and then my second, and then my third… [laughs] and after that I found myself at a local custom shop fitting. One day the man who owned this small shop wanted to leave so my partner Kurt Listug and I bought it; we paid some 3,000 dollars, took over the rent, and started making one guitar [at a time] and selling it.

GE: Apart from keeping such a high standard what was the secret behind Taylor guitars?

BT: The main secret behind our success is my partnership with my partner. Because [in our case] he could build [the financial] part of the company while I could build [the luthier] part. Once that is done the quest involves two things: one is to improve the guitar, and then to improve the process. In the beginning the process was very crude – when I was young, I would spend eight hours making guitars and then eight hours making tools everyday – so I worked two days every day. [But] each time I made a guitar it became a little more easy to make it. We’re still improving the guitar today – we’re leaving the X brace behind and now have interiors that make a better guitar – more projection, more in tune, the harmonies are beautiful, louder, more sustain – the process for this is not so easy.  

GE: Many top guitarists play your guitars but, of those who don’t, who would you most like to see with a Taylor guitar?

BT: Ricky Scaggs, who is a country artist from the US, I love his playing. And James Taylor – I believe he invented a new way to play back in the 1970s, nobody played like him. However he plays an Olson guitar, they are very nice guitars, and even if James wanted to play a Taylor guitar I would go ‘no, no’ because James Olson is a friend, and I wouldn’t want to steal him.

GE: How important is an endorsement?

BT: We don’t use endorsing; there is not one advertisment in all of our history showing a famous person playing a Taylor guitar. I think it is very important that you see famous people playing your guitars, and we work with artists, but not to make formal endorsements. All I want is a real relationship. Maybe the most famous person who plays a Taylor right now would be Taylor Swift. I’ve known Taylor since she was 12 years old sitting on a stool in our booth playing to six people, and so that is a real relationship. But [when I go] to someone’s house and they open a case and play a Taylor – I love that just as much.

GE: What is Taylor Guitars doing about the wood issue around the world?

BT: It is very true that for hundreds of years we’ve taken trees and in only some cases did people plant trees; because they took so long to grow, it was seen as a bad investment. [But] we have reached a point where we must plant wood. And also in that process to teach consumers what it is to contribute, because many people think that it is the company that is ruining the forest, but every single person goes to the store to buy wood or sits at a table made of wood. I want to leave more than I take; so with our beautiful ebony project in Cameroon, we […] put money in all the time but we are making changes monthly and yearly to make it try and make it profitable. We have another project in Hawaii with Koa wood and we’ll plant maybe 80,000 trees there […] that will produce wood forever. 

GE: Why should young people pick up a guitar and play?

BT: When you learn to play music, it helps you in so many ways. It allows you to communicate with people who don’t even speak your language; it helps you through bad times and it makes good times better; you can play by yourself or you can play for other people; you can learn chords to sing with and express yourself, be a virtuoso [or] take the poetry you have inside and put it out to the world; and you can take with it you. Everybody likes a guitar; you can make friends with it.                                      

Find full interview in Video Gallery