byline picby Pappy

I told a friend of mine that Taylor Guitars sent me a freshly-made 816CE from their new generation and when I opened up the case, a new-guitar smell greeted me. The smell of cut wood, glue, and new finish. In a word, it smelled great.

“Smells like freedom,” he responded.

True, my friend is given to hyperbole, but I thought he was on to something with his comment. An acoustic guitar is freedom. What else could you use to disconnect from your electronic guitar world of guitars, amps, pedals, and all their required charging, instrument, or speaker cords and go to a place – any place of your choosing – and just play music. There’s no battery dying, there’s no electricity bill, there are no knobs to twist or gremlins in your signal to track down. It’s just you, your guitar, and the music you make.

The new Taylor 816CE provides the perfect playing partner in this regard. The 800 series is the most popular series in Taylor’s American-made line, which prompted questions when Taylor came out saying that they re-worked it. Just what would they change? What did they change? How would it impact one of the most popular guitars in the acoustic market?

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Well, it turns out that Taylor Guitars refined the 800 series from the ground up with spectacular results. Andy Powers looked at the 800 series and went crazy adjusting it, but everything he did turned out to be an improvement and set a new standard that Taylor and almost any competitor can learn from and apply to their other guitars.

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Regarding the acoustic tone, Powers first adjusted the wood thickness in each model. Some guitars need thicker wood than others, and he made sure that each size in the line received the appropriate thickness of wood to minimize weight, while maximizing strength and volume, and while this plays a large role in acoustic tone, where Powers made an even bigger impact was with the bracing. Each size in the 800-series received a different type of bracing that was designed to get the tone that Powers was after without changing any model depths with the exception of the Grand Orchestra model. Powers’ goal was to make the top and back work together, rather than just have the top be the star of the show, and the results speak for themselves.

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For the particular guitarist out there, finish is always an issue, and it was issue with Powers as well. The standard thickness for Taylor guitars in the 500 series and above that is gloss, is about 6mils (.006″), but Powers, Bob Taylor, and co. reduced it down to a scant 3.5mils. It is a polyester finish and Powers knows you’re going to ask already. There’s a big set of beliefs regarding finish material, but Powers insists that it’s not what the finish is, but rather how thick it’s laid on.

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The guitar still features the traditional Sitka Spruce top with Indian Rosewood back and sides, and it looks amazing. The darkness of the rosewood clashes spectacularly with the spruce, but the maple binding (that also features a layer of rosewood in the purfling) separating the two finishes it off very nicely. Wood binding, by the way, is definitely my favorite type of binding. It looks like it belongs on the guitar rather than being placed on the guitar, which brings a serious sense of class to the guitar.

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Speaking of aesthetics, you may have noticed the unusual pickguard. The pickguard is solid rosewood – not faux rosewood, but a solid piece of rosewood, with the grain of the wood angled to mirror normal strumming patterns. Originally they were designed with the grain going up and down so that it would be horizontal when hanging on your wall, but on a whim, one of the people cutting them changed the angle, and everyone agreed that it was the better option and not just aesthetically – since the wood grain will go with your strumming patterns, it will help disguise any pick marks you may inadvertently give your guitar.

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Other aesthetic choices of note are the new element inlays, designed to look like diamonds from a distance, an abalone/rosewood rosette, an ebony peghead overlay, and a “smokey ebony” fretboard. Bob Taylor and co. were distraught a few years ago at the amount of waste that came from ebony sawmills when they found that very few trees produce the solid black ebony we know, but that was the only ebony anyone was interested in buying, so all the rest was treated as trash. Taylor’s thought was that in this day and age, with our trees going away very quickly, it’s best to have ebony with character now and forever rather than have perfect ebony now and for the next, we’ll say five years, and then no more ebony. Ever. I couldn’t support this idea more. For one thing, perfect-looking things don’t appeal to me nearly as much as things with character – things with identity. They look hand-made and organic. I’m a big fan of that look, and the ebony fretboard on my review 816CE has lovely streaks of light brown going down the length of it that I loved from the moment I opened the case. Is it “perfect” in the traditional sense? No. But it’s perfect for me.

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Going back to freedom for a second, yes, being able to disconnect from your electronic world is certainly a good thing. It gets you alone with your music and that is a valuable tool for development and songwriting. And having an acoustic that sounds good is dreadfully important because it makes you want to play more (and the more you play, the better you and the guitar will sound). But these things alone are not freedom. Freedom is not just the ability to disconnect, but the ability to connect when you want to, as well. Acoustic guitars and electricity have been at odds for a while now, and plugging one in can be a big challenge in some cases, but the 816CE was engineered to be a player’s best friend.

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For one thing, the Expression System that Taylor guitars have been using for years now was redeveloped specifically for the 800-series with the ES2 system, moving the Piezo crystals from under the saddle, where they sit crushed under 60 pounds of force, to behind the saddles where they are under about three pounds of force. This is a drastic difference that makes for a more natural sound when you plug the guitar in and not at all what you would normally associate with the bright, brash Piezo crystals you’ve heard in the past. The result is such a great change that they’re even implementing the same swap on all Taylor guitars from the 500-series up.

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Plugging the guitar in is as easy as plugging a cord into the input jack that doubles as a strap pin. The three control knobs still act as the controls and still lack labels, but that’s more than fine with me. There’s only three knobs to memorize and labels would be a detriment to the aesthetics.

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Lastly, the guitar comes in a case that was made for that specific guitar shape. In Bob Taylor’s book Guitar Lessons “The case was branded, and styled so that it was beautiful and recognizable. It wasn’t a purchased generic case where ‘one size fits all,’ which is another way of saying, ‘one size fits nothing.’ They knew that their case was for their guitar, one for every shape we offered, and that translated into them feeling like we made it for them!” Taylor’s not exaggerating: Their cases are beautiful and functional. They’re strong, with thick padding on the handle (that isn’t stationary so your wrist won’t bother you nearly as much as with standard cases), and a classy brown color. I have long said that Taylor cases are my favorite hard-shell cases.

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Photo Apr 19, 12 08 57 PMSo now that we’ve talked all about the refinement of the guitar, we’re left with the minor issue of the sound. You can refine everything for as long as you like, but in the end it all comes down to the question “How does it sound?”

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Well, in a word, it sounds awesome. Taylor’s most popular shape is the Grand Auditorium (models ending with “14”), but the company sent me the slightly larger (Grand Symphony size) 816CE for review. I reviewed a 616CE in the past and found that the brightness of the maple back and sides balanced really well with the extra size (and the extra bass that comes with it), so I wasn’t upset or anything when I was told what was coming to me. It arrived and I played the first chord and noted right away that bass presence was definitely there. Mids and highs were still present, but there was a nice, thick bass to everything I played. The bass permeated everything I played, and it became something I started to really enjoy. Jazz chords sounded thick and full, I never once thought I would sound better if a bass player was backing me up, and I fell into writing material using the low E as a drone string, letting it ring out as I moved around on the higher five strings.

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For fingerpicking, there was no such thing as harsh highs and the bass didn’t drown out details. The extra bass leant a great deal of “oomph,” to power chords and punk playing. Even strumming open chords sounded better with the additional bass. If you don’t know which size is best for you and you think the Grand Auditorium is the one because that’s what everyone else is getting, you should definitely check out the Grand Symphony size (ending with “16”) and see if it’s a better fit for you tonally. I know that I was convinced that the GA size was THE size for me until a Taylor rep watched me play, pulled down the 616CE and let me strum some chords, and that was when I became a big, big Taylor fan. The difference in tone has a big impact without being so drastic it’s scary, and the size difference is not so much that you would worry about it.

Just… Trust me, and check out the GS size next time you get a chance.

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In fact, if you need a bit more convincing, check out these videos where I play open chords, hybrid picking/Fingerstyle with the addition of some power chords, and power chords with a drone string. I recorded the videos and stripped away the camera’s audio signals, replacing them with the audio that was being recorded simultaneously into two channels in GarageBand. One channel is the Taylor’s electrics through an IK Multimedia Stealth Pedal into GarageBand’s stock preset after clicking off reverb and echo. The other channel is the Taylor’s acoustics recorded through a Blue Snowball. I panned the two tracks slightly left and right so if you listen to this in your car or through headphones, you can hear the difference, but also how they sound together.

Here is the video demonstrating open chords:

Here is the video demonstrating hybrid picking with some power chords:

Here is the video with power chords and a drone string:

Yes, freedom can be showcased in many ways, but since I’m an obsessed guitarist, most things begin and end in the guitar world, and there is no better example of freedom in highs my world than the Taylor 816CE. It’s there to play acoustic outside on the porch or under a tree, or just away from everyone else, but it gives you the freedom to take the exact same guitar into the studio and plug it in with no hassles and record right away. It can handle what you give it to handle, and it sings beautifully always putting you in the best light possible (while looking pretty rad too).

And doesn’t that sound like freedom to you?