Taylor set out to improve the fundamentals that brought the acoustic guitar out of the Parlor and into the world. The elements Taylor’s Andy Powers set out to build into the remarkable Taylor “V-Class” guitars:
- Greater intonation and less “dead spots.”
- Larger sound, without harshness.
- Longer sustain without sacrificing dynamics.
- Consistency and unique character.
Of course, this is what all acoustic guitar players want, but it’s easier said than done. It took computer age tooling and parts, but that’s only part of the big picture. It took imagination and inspiration. It also took a deep love and understanding the guitars history, construction, strengths and limitations. To better explain how it works, Taylor’s “mad scientist” V-Class inventor, Andy Powers, was kind enough to take time out for an informal chat with us at Sam Ash Music.
Mike: How does V-Class construction improve intonation (Tuning out “Harmonic Distortion”)?
Powers: One criterion that is deeply embedded into the V-Class is the idea of playing accurate notes. It’s a relatively complex answer that I’ve thought about for years (even before my time at Taylor). It’s hard to give an easy answer, but I’ll try. Think of the acoustic guitar as two separate parts:
- What the player does on the string
- The method the body amplifies notes.
When a player plays a note, that note will try to set the body in motion……. but the body and neck may not have a perfectly uniform resonant relationship. For example: Say you play an “A” at 440 cycles per second: What would happen, if a particular body has an aversion to resonating at 440, but has a particular sensitivity for resonating at say… 442? What will happen is the body is going to be set in motion by the 440, but it will start resonating at its sensitive spot of 442. Its close, but not exactly what you played.
Another quirky thing that happens with resonance relationships is, when you have two notes that are close together in pitch, they kinda act like the same poles of a magnet. When you put two of the same poles together, they try to push each other away. That actually happens with resonance as well. Using our example: If I play a note that vibrates at 440 and the body has a sensitive spot of 442, the string is actually going to start vibrating a little flatter than 440 and the body is going to start resonating a little sharper than 442. The spread becomes wider! Some notes on the fretboard resist replicating the notes we played. This causes imperfect intonation, as well as dead spots on the neck. The end result is a body that doesn’t necessarily want to replicate what we play.
What the V-Class system does is create a more controllable set of body resonances. All of the ways V-class moves can be pinpointed and tuned, with a higher degree of accuracy. As guitar players, we are super concerned about string compensation. It’s certainly a very important aspect of creating accurate notes, but it’s not the entire story when dealing with the flattop acoustic sound box. The V-class structure is more like a Violin, Mandolin, or Torres style fan braced guitar. What you get is more parallel rigidity. The notes you play are more accurately aligned with the notes you hear coming out of the guitar.
More than ever in history we are mixing traditional instruments with auto-tuned vocals, sampled sounds and synthesized sounds. Man, the pitch is accurate. It’s as simple as typing in a number and saying this note needs this many cycles per second. ‘Pitch’ is a unit of time – it’s a very measurable thing. That tells me today’s guitarist needs notes that are far more accurate than ever before. A guitarist playing by himself might not need this kind of hyper accurate intonation, but he certainly can hear the difference and appreciate it. For today’s recording artist and studio work? Those guys are going to need it.
Another way to think of V-Class is to compare it to a language translator. A poor translator’s limitations will severely limit communication. A fluent translator can accurately and completely communicate the meaning of a conversation. That’s what I wanted to build into V-class guitars.
More Volume and Sustain (Flexibility Plus Rigidity)
The acoustic guitar’s character has always been a trade-off between volume vs. sustain. Increasing one element, will adversely affect the other. The builder has to compromise and strike a balance. Andy Powers explains how the V-Class sound engine allows both elements to work independently.
Mike: In the Taylor video presentation of V-class bracing, you speak of the industry standard X-braced system’s inherent strength, flexibility, and “dividing” them. Can you expand on what this means, and how it’s incorporated into the “V-Class sound engine?”
Powers: What I was referring to in that case is the compromise between flexibility and rigidity — if you have a lot of rigidity parallel to the strings, that’s what contributes to a long sustaining instrument. If you have a lot of flexibility in the top membrane, or the top of a guitar, that’s what’ll generate all the high amplitude, or a lot of volume. You can see that you can’t have the top of a guitar be both stiff and flexible at the same time. The two are at odds with each other. Conventionally, the guitar would have a compromise, being that it can only be made so strong or so flexible at the same time. More strength, means less flexibility, more flexibility means less strength. Along the way, I’m going to lose something. The conclusion I came to was I need to divide the guitar, and not think of it as one guitar top, doing one thing. Dividing the guitar means I can make parts of it strong and parts of it flexible. It has to work together as a system, so that the different regions of the guitars top, can independently contribute to the guitars overall sound. Volume and sustain are important characteristics I wanted to design into these guitars (V-Class). I can play a guitar quietly, but at a point, I can’t play more volume in to it. I can play a note shorter, but can’t play more sustain into the guitar. Very simply put, sustain comes from the rigidity of the nearly parallel braces, and volume comes from the freely vibrating top, above and below the V brace.
Enhancing and Sculpting Voice of the Guitar
Mike: What can you tell us about how V-Class bracing affect the tone of the guitar?
Powers: This is another thing I’ve thought quite a lot about. Talking about “sound” with words is difficult. It feels like we are using the wrong language. When you ask someone, what is the opposite of “loud,” most of the time, people will say “soft,” but that’s the wrong word. The opposite of “loud” is “quiet”- those are quantitative words. Let’s think about “soft” for a minute. Soft is a qualitative word or a description of character. The opposite of “soft” is “hard.”
Let’s say you want to build a guitar that’s loud, it tends to start taking on a hard characteristic. Some things a guitar maker will do to build volume into a guitar, makes them take on a certain hardness of character that can be become almost brash. It’s in the first part of the note, isn’t it? There is like this…edge to it that almost makes you want to roll a tone control down [laughs].
That’s the same characteristic as someone standing right in front of you and shouting. The brash distorted edge makes it very unpleasant to listen to. Compare that to an Opera singer standing in front of you. When they sing, it’s certainly going to be loud – but there is softness in the characteristic of the sound that makes it not aggressive and agitated. What I wanted to build into V-class is a musical singing quality. I don’t want it brash. I don’t want it to be harsh. Those are not musically appealing qualities to me. I want to eliminate that stuff, and build in high amounts of musical appealing stuff. I want that softness of character, but I want it in a guitar with A LOT of dynamic range.
Mike: The Taylor model on everyone’s mind is the new Grand Pacific models. What can you tell us about the Rosewood body 717 and Mahogany 517?
Powers: When you start to clear away the “harmonic distortion” that creates the intonation problems, what emerges is a more distinct picture. You can start to hear more distinction of the wood the backs and sides are made of, what kind of strings you use, the picks you may use. Everything about the guitar is more accurately reflected, because they are not competing, and being knocked down by that harmonic distortion. What’s interesting to me, because all models of V-class are more distinct, players will tend to have a stronger preference to one over the other.
I’ve sampled a lot of things, I like different flavors, I like a lot of different music styles, so I can find something to love about almost any sound. Using the Grand Pacific models as an example, people will typically love one and won’t like the other flavor. What’s really interesting is it’s almost a 50/50 split on that guitar. Mahogany guys, man they love the Mahogany 517. Rosewood fans really love the Rosewood 717, but they don’t love the 517. It takes someone who has sampled, and likes, a lot of flavors to really like them both. Each guitar and each model are designed to let the unique sound of the wood, and body shape more audible.
Mike: Can you tell us if Taylor has plans for a V-Class Grand Orchestra “super-sized jumbo” model?
Powers: I’ll I can say is “See ya at NAMM.” Wait till you hear it. I feel like we hit the ball out of the park with this one model.
Mike: Is the height, width, materials, and tone-shaping elements of V-Class bracing the same across all styles and sizes?
Powers: Absolutely not! Every single model is internally altered for the materials it’s made with – the size of the guitar, the way the back is voiced…you can’t take the one solution and apply it to every context and expect it to work out perfectly. The big challenges of these guitars (V-Class) are that every single model is similar, but made of unique parts so they work to optimally voice each guitar.
Every brace inside has multiple functions. They contribute strength to string tension, the physical stability of the guitar as well as tuned to create a certain pattern of vibrations and frequencies appropriate for each different instrument. The bracing on the back of each model is different, if you look closely. If you plucked all the braces off the guitars, compare and line them up, you’ll see they are not the same. Each one is cut and shaped for exactly where it needs to go on exactly which model, taking the whole instrument into account. One single series of (V-class) guitars has 100’s of distinctive, unique parts. Every single one of them has to be tooled for, created, organized, accounted for. It’s a huge job. I’m a much hated person on the factory floor! (laughs).
Mike: A picture of the internal construction of V-class reveals that there is a lot less material used to brace the top, than a traditionally braced guitar.
Powers: Oh yeah, there is a lot less wood, and tolerances are tight. There is no need for a front brace, because of the NT neck joint. The neck is supported by a block underneath. All the extra material is milled away. What’s in its place is an extension of the neck, like an arch-top neck sunk into the body.
The V shape offers a lot of rigidity, as a result, we can use far less material to brace the top, freeing it to vibrate, and oscillate. We use some smaller braces as a kind of tone control.
Mike: The internal bridge plate is generally considered the heart of the guitar. The V-Class has an entirely new constriction. What can you help us understand about how it works?
Powers: The bridge plate is a very, very, careful piece of wood working. The bridge plate is notched into V-braces. Those pieces are actually so close in tolerances to each other, that we can’t hand sand them to the right thickness. They have to be milled on a C&C mill to make sure the parts fit correctly. They have to be within a thousandth of a…for comparisons sake, it needs to be precise within the width of a half a piece of paper to get the correct geometry. To work correctly, it requires real tolerances.
Mike: The bridge plate appears much slimmer than a traditional design. How does that affect V-Class?
Powers: It’s pretty small! There are two pieces if you look really closely. There is actually a “wear” plate of really dense rock maple that the ball ends sit on. The 2nd part is a graduated piece that is made of similar spruce to the top. You are getting some of the cross stiffness, with liveliness…
Less damping factor is what it translates to. If you use the spruce plate by itself. The ball ends will chew right through it. So, we tried a lot of things…the hard rock maple does the job and offers a liveliness I really love.
Mike: Can you sum up V-class and what you hope to accomplish at Taylor?
Powers: What we always try to accomplish is simply to build a better Taylor, not to compete with, or re-make what’s already been done. Those guitars are great, but they already exist. They have already been done so well.
I am a builder. I want to make something that’s musically fresh for a player. I want to build a guitar that’s consistent. I don’t want any variables affecting consistency. Because we are in the privileged position of intentionally designing and building everything we use. We build all our own tools: All the fixtures, all the gigs — everything. We’ve even gone so far as designing our own glue spreaders. The exact amount of glue is applied in the exact pattern we want it applied, on each different part.
If you “accidentally” build a great guitar, the next guitar might be “accidentally” not so great. The only way to consistency build something, is to remove unwanted variables I call “accidental customizing” [laughs] — that’s what I want to get rid of. I don’t want a “Friday afternoon” guitar, and I probably don’t want a “Monday morning” guitar [laughs]. But we build guitars during those times, and I want every one of them to be really good. So…we want to remove all the things that accidentally go wrong. If you take that out of the picture, so that what emerges is what you intended to build.
I’m not saying we are perfect. We make mistakes, but we are always trying to be better. That’s the mentality that drives us on — every day I ask myself, how can I make this better? How can I make this more consistent? The speed the wood is dried at, the species of wood used for each part. Working on each part and checking off the list…take the glue spreader for example. Let’s say you have three guys trained to glues braces, but they are doing it with a fingertip. Now, that’s not very consistent! Great, check that off the list. Move to the next part, and check off a thousand different things — what you end up with is some very consistent instruments.
Mike: Will so much consistency cause a specific model to all sound the same?
Powers: After wanting to build every model super consistent, there is ONE variable that I welcome: I want every guitar to reflect the uniqueness of the pieces of wood it’s made from. I don’t want the guitars we build to be nameless, faceless, generic…every piece of wood is different and unique. I want to respect that.
Let’s say you line up ten Sitka Spruce tops. They will all end up within a certain range, but each will tell its life story. You’ll see its good years, difficult years, what kind of neighborhood it grew up in…you’ll learn all kinds of things about that tree. Even if you line up ten of them, they will sound great, but all a little different. I want them to reflect that uniqueness, because every single musician is as unique as their own fingerprints. There IS a guitar that matches so well with a player’s style, that it’s a perfect pair. When I see a player in a guitar shop trying out a few guitars, until he finds that certain one, the guitar that tells the story that he really resonates with, for me that’s the highest and best possible usage for a guitar. I want a player to experience that magic.