Tour de Factore: California Dreamin'
- 1999 19 Jul
No serious review of modern day guitar makers would be complete if you didn't add Taylor Guitars to the list. From their humble beginnings to their current status as a world-class powerhouse of innovative guitar design and manufacturing, they definitely have a story to tell. Throw in the fact that they have been very supportive of Christian musicians over the years and you find us on a plane trading our gloomy-gray Seattle skyline for the bright sunny shores of San Diego, CA. We land at San Diego International airport, grab a rental car and head east 20 minutes to El Cajon, the home of Taylor Guitars new state-of-the-art factory.
To appreciate how far Taylor has come, let's give you a little history. Bob Taylor (Co-founder, President) and Kurt Listug (Co-founder, CEO) first met while working at a guitar repair/manufacturing shop called The American Dream. One year later (Kurt was 21 and Bob was 19 years old at the time) they bought the shop from the owner and went into business for themselves.
Bob Taylor wanted a 12-string guitar in the 11th grade but couldn't afford it so he decided to build it himself in his high school wood shop. "That's where the fun started," Bob says of his early guitar building efforts. "I used to fall asleep at night with a copy of Irving Sloane's Classic Guitar Construction folded on my chest. I was a dweeb, a dork, a woodshop nerd who couldn't catch a ball of any shape or size, didn't have a girlfriend, and had never been on a date. In fact when I graduated from high school, my church had a grad banquet. When the emcee asked me why I was the only grad there without a date, my mother announced., 'The only neck Bob knows is the neck on a guitar'."
Many luthiers get into the business after studying and repairing vintage guitars. Not so for Bob. Because he had no formal training, he says he was too ignorant to know that a neck shape should be fat and chunky, so he just keep filing away until it was slim and felt good. "My first customers were blown away," Bob remembers. "Today's guitar industry has been challenged to do the same to their necks."
On their humble beginning Kurt Lustig chimes in, "We struggled for years, almost going out of business a number of times. But the thing that kept us going was this: We were already doing exactly what we wanted to do. If we had quit, it would have been to do something we weren't as excited about, even if it were easier. So we continued. And the small successes along the way were enough to give us hope, to keep going."
As you look at the huge 44,000 square-foot new building with the 25,000 square-foot "older" building next door it's hard to imagine they started the company in a 1,500 square foot space for only $163.00 a month rent. What's most remarkable about their story is the fact that Taylor Guitars is the only American acoustic guitar maker of the Twentieth Century to successfully make the quantum leap from small shop to major manufacturer, while remaining owned and operated by its founders. They have pioneered the use of computer technology in the manufacturing process, demonstrating conclusively that increased production and improved quality standards both can result from applied innovation and technical advances. Bob Taylor is well respected in guitar-making circles and is known for openly discussing his advances with other guitar makers. In fact most major and numerous minor guitar luthiers have taken the same tour at the Taylor plant that we took. It seems that there is no secret formula to building a Taylor guitar, their motto seems to be to "just build it right." Our private tour guide was Mike Mosley from the design team. Mike handles tooling changes and does a considerable amount of his work on computer. He can upload a new program to the mainframe and then download it to any one of their Fadal (CNC-computerized numerically controlled) machines. We watched as several Taylor necks were being shaped to their signature good feeling-to-the-hands thin width by the computerized wood cutting machine.
The company's annual sales grossed over $25 million last year and they are producing over 140 guitars a day. When a dealer orders a guitar by model number, right then is when it is given a serial number and then the pre-cut and sorted pieces of wood for that particular model are given the same serial numbers (the neck, top, back & sides etc.). The guitar is virtually started on the day it is ordered and the whole process takes about two weeks. Taylor's goal is to never have an un-sold guitar in the warehouse. Another unique aspect to their guitar building approach is that you will have the same employee work that guitar part (say a guitar neck for example) through 4 or 5 different stages of assembly. So your guitar's neck is carried from start to finish by one employee who then signs his name (not a number) to it. This has two advantages: one it breeds personal accountability and a high regard for quality, second it reduces factory-line fatigue by giving the employee a chance to move around within their department and work at several different stations throughout the day. We saw every bit of the operation, from where they store the wood in climate-controlled rooms, to the high-end spray booths custom designed for spraying UV-curable finishes, to the two guys whose job it is to play each guitar and thoroughly inspect it before it gets shipped out as a Taylor.
This year as Taylor celebrates their 25th anniversary as guitar makers, we wondered what Bob thought about the next 25 years. "That's when the fun starts. You see, I believe we are making guitars about as good as 'the guitar as we know it' can be made. But 'the guitar as we know it' really is in dire need of improvement. Action and tone change with humidity. Acoustic guitars are hard to amplify. Those are big, big things to solve, and require a lot of smart people and a healthy chunk of R&D money. Manufacturing techniques need to be improved. Tools need to be invented. Craftsman need to be taught. And the quest for tone will never go away. The problem is-now , I know how fast 25 years can go by, so I need to get busy and accomplish more in the next 25."
You can take the tour at Taylor Guitars yourself without prior appointments at 1:00 p.m. sharp Monday through Friday. For any other info on Taylor Guitars call them at 619-258-1207 or visit their website at www.taylorguitars.com.