Taylor 918e Review
Almost four decades into its history, Taylor Guitars continues to evolve, as seen not only in the instruments developed and built in Taylor’s El Cajon, California, factory, but also in the architecture of the company itself. It is nearly impossible to manufacture steel-string flattop guitars without being somewhat informed by the classic steel-string blueprints, but Taylor has always set itself apart from the examples set by companies like Martin, Gibson, and Guild. Having redesigned all its other original body styles over the past decade, Taylor recently decided to reevaluate its jumbo shape—a design it inherited from luthier Sam Radding, whose American Dream guitar shop provided the foundation for Taylor Guitars in the early 1970s. The resulting guitar, the Grand Orchestra,or GO, is the first Taylor model not primarily designed by founder Bob Taylor. Instead, Taylor’s master luthier Andy Powers, who has been with the company since 2011, took on the project of reinventing Taylor’s largest body shape, choosing to include some structural traits atypical of Taylor guitar designs.
Taylor is rolling out its new body shape with a set of three limited-edition (100 each) models that correspond to the company’s existing 500, 600, and 900 series in terms of the woods and appointments used, though each model includes a few tweaks unique to the GO. When I visited Taylor’s factory in November 2012, Powers showed me the new design, and a few weeks later, Taylor sent us a maple-body 618e and a rosewood-body 918e to check out. Because the 900 series has traditionally been the top-of-the-standard-line Taylor, we chose to focus on the 918e for this review, but you can check out both guitars in the video review on our website.
Deep, Original-Shape Jumbo
If you’re used to a jumbo guitar that has a tight waist and rounded upper and lower bouts, Taylor’s GO body may look more like a grand auditorium at first glance. But with a width of 16 3/4 inches at the lower bout, the guitar can rightly gain admittance to the jumbo club. Taylor’s original jumbo shape had a waist that measured 9 7/8 inches (combined with a 17-inch lower bout), but the GO measures 10 7/16 inches in the same place, creating a body shape that morphs grand auditorium, dreadnought, and jumbo outlines. The real whopper is the guitar’s depth: 4 13/16 inches at the lower bout and 4 1/8 inches at the upper bout. Considering that the thickest spot on Taylor’s original jumbo is 4 5/8 inches, that is one deep body!
Peeking into the soundhole, I noted that the guitar’s four back braces are much more delicate, with reduced height and width, than what I’m accustomed to seeing in a Taylor. Similarly, the top’s X-bracing is not only incredibly light, but is also less scalloped and shaped more parabolic than the design used on most Taylors. The 918e includes Taylor’s NT neck, a three-piece design that is bolted to the body. Taylor stopped using a finger joint to attach the headstock several years ago and now uses a rather elegant-looking scarf joint—on our review guitar, the wood grain was so carefully matched that you had to look closely to even see it. Even more remarkable was the matching of the mahogany pieces used on the stacked heel—I had to look very closely to discover a faint line where two pieces of wood met.
The guitar’s back and sides are made from the top-grade Indian rosewood long associated with Taylor’s 900 series, and the wood on our review guitar has an incredible depth and richness of color. The Sitka spruce top is very tight grained, even in color, and full of attractive medullary rays. The instrument’s abalone purfling (combined with a red stripe on the sides and back) and fingerboard, headstock, and bridge inlays lend an air of sophistication, and they’re executed with the highest degree of precision, which can also be said of the rest of the guitar’s craftsmanship. A set of smooth-turning Gotoh 510 tuning machines complete the guitar.
Power to Spare
Our review guitar came strung with medium-gauge strings and, as is typical of Taylors, the factory setup made it easy to play all over the neck. Strumming some first-position chords in the key of G revealed a powerful voice with an incredibly powerful bass response. But it was immediately apparent that the guitar could do more than just be loud—it had a dynamic range that came to life with even a gentle touch. Players who require a penetrating strumming sound should take note, because the 918e performed beautifully in this role. Jamming on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with another guitarist, I discovered that single-note playing and soloing up the neck sounded great as well. But when I dug in really hard with my heavy Wegen flatpick, I felt at times that the bass notes were a touch overwhelming, losing a bit of focus in the process. But overall, considering its fairly light top construction, and easy response to a lighter touch, it was impressive how well the guitar handled flatpicking duties.
As a fingerstyle guitarist, I tend to prefer light-gauge strings, so I restrung the 918e with a set of lights to explore its fingerstyle potential. I was glad I did, because the reduced string tension allowed the guitar to breathe a bit more with a gentler touch, and I was taken by how complex and dynamic the resulting tone was as I explored a Chet Atkins–style arrangement of the jazz standard “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” I like guitars that can be loud without requiring a heavy attack, and the 918e definitely meets that criteria—I wouldn’t think twice about using it to play a house concert without amplification, for example.
As much as I enjoyed the guitar’s rib-cage-shaking bass, I also found that it sometimes overwhelmed the higher frequencies, especially when playing fingerstyle in alternate tunings that lower the sixth string to D or C. There seemed to be a peak in the lower mids that made it hard for the upper and middle registers to keep up, at times leading to a slightly unbalanced voice. And, because it claims so much of the sonic spectrum, some players may find that the guitar seems better suited to solo playing than for a group context.
The grand orchestra body may also be a challenge for some players to hold comfortably. Even though I’m tall, the combination of the guitar’s depth and the way its wide waist sat on my lap made my right arm fatigue faster than when I played my own Taylor 355, which has the company’s original jumbo body. Taylor should consider making its bevel a standard feature, at least on this high-end model.
As indicated by theein its model name, the 918e includes Taylor’s proprietary Expression System (ES) electronics. Consisting of a magnetic pickup embedded underneath the fingerboard extension and a soundboard transducer mounted directly to the inside of the top, the ES includes an internal preamp with three discreet knobs for volume, bass, and treble mounted into the upper bout of the guitar. An assembly at the tail block includes an endpin jack for balanced or unbalanced 1/4-inch output and a compartment for the system’s nine-volt battery.
I took the 918e to a club gig where I plugged it into the house PA (using an L.R. Baggs Para DI) to play solo fingerstyle tunes and to jam with two other guitarists. I had been worried that, given its size and low-end response, the guitar’s sound might be difficult to dial in or be prone to feedback, but my fears were unfounded. The Expression System delivered the instrument’s inherent acoustic tone with authority and, even though I was using an AER Compact 60 amp as a monitor directly behind me, I didn’t encounter any feedback, even when I turned the volume up during a jam with the other players. The Expression System has a typical voice of its own: a warm attack and balance combined with a slight electric quality that is more pronounced when playing up the neck, and this worked especially well when playing with the other guitars.
New Taylor Voice
The 918e represents a new tonality for Taylor, with volume, punch, dynamic range, and a high degree of tonal complexity. It’s worth noting that the maple-body 618e we also received shared many of these qualities, though with a bit less richness but more tonal balance. Taylor intends to follow the initial launch of the Grand Orchestra with select, ultra-limited, First Edition models, including a koa model, before eventually integrating the body style into its standard line.
SPECS: 14-fret Grand Orchestra body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid Indian rosewood back and sides. Adirondack spruce X-bracing. Bolt-on Taylor NT tropical mahogany neck. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. 25.5-inch scale length. 1 3/4 inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at the saddle. Bone nut and saddle. Gloss body finish and satin neck finish. Gotoh 510 tuners. Taylor ES electronics. Elixir medium-gauge strings. Made in USA. Left-handed model available.
PRICE: $5,658 list/$4,500 street.
MAKER: Taylor Guitars: (800) 943-6782; taylorguitars.com.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar April 2013