This is the interview that nearly never was. Just before Christmas 2005, I met the revolutionary acoustic guitar designer, Bob Taylor, at the home of the Taylor Guitars UK importer, Robert Wilson, head of Sound Technology. It was intended to be the cover story on the next issue of MI Professional, but the magazine collapsed before it could be published. In the vacuum, Music Trade News (MTN) was launched but, to the surprise of many, a buyer emerged for the title MI Professional, which was re-launched with this interview as its cover story. By then, as regular readers will know, I had moved on to MTN. Which is probably why MI Professional decided not to credit me with a by-line. It may even be why they claimed that someone had been flown to California to do the interview. In reality, it took place in a Robert Wilson's house in Hertfordshire, England. Bob Taylor's story is a fascinating one - not least because he broke many of the "rules" of making fine quality acoustic guitars and gave rival manufacturers quite a shock in the process. What appears here may differ very slightly from the published version, but not in any significant way.


 

BOB TAYLOR

While MTV's Unplugged series is widely credited with having revived the fortunes of the acoustic guitar, less credited, but certainly no less real, was the development of acoustic guitars that were easy to play. To a generation that learned its trade using Super Slinky strings on Fender Strats, the traditional acoustic offerings by makers like Martin, Gibson and Guild could sometimes seem like hard work. Then along came Taylor. It seemed as if the Californian guitar maker had read the rulebook, thrown it away with a shrug, and started again from scratch. Here were acoustic guitars that were, to a traditionalist, just plain wrong - they had bolt-on necks, slim ones, and they had low actions, too. Heresy!. All the same, they sounded fantastic: even, some began to whisper, as good to the ear as the products of the venerable makers into whose sales Taylor rapidly began to eat.

Rock players loved Taylor and sales began to soar. Today, the company is one of the largest of its kind in the world, still making up-market acoustic guitars, still selling everything it can produce and still expanding. So how did founder and President Bob Taylor achieve what anyone with a grain of sense would have told him was impossible - to come from nowhere, with no big money backing, to challenge the biggest names in the acoustic guitar business in not much more than a decade?

Bob Taylor describes himself as a 'woodshop nerd' when he was attending high school in San Diego. It was there, during the early 1970s, that he built his first guitars and when he left, instead of going to college, he went to work at a local custom shop called The American Dream. 'In less than a year three of us, Kurt Listug, who is still my partner in the business, Steve Schemmer and I took over the lease, bought the tools and set up on our own,' he says.

'At first we made guitars for local guys, but we realised that we were going to run out of customers fast and that what we should do is start a brand of our own to sell in the stores. I had some guitars designed by then, so we went out and found out how the wholesale and retail relationship works. We talked to a few stores in LA, they became Taylor dealers and we started making a few guitars - just a few, hand building them, struggling with every one, but enjoying every minute. That was 31 years ago and in that time, I learned how to build a factory, Kurt learned how to market guitars and how to be a good cost accountant and develop really good financial sense.'

So there was no Mr Big to bankroll the fledgling company?

'No, not at all - it was, and is, just us. Eight years into it, Kurt and I bought out our partner, Steve. Kurt and I see eye to eye on a lot of things and we've got a good partnership going. We went to the bank and we borrowed money but we never sold stock. We'd take out a loan to buy equipment and we'd pay it back. Then we'd take out another for more equipment and we'd pay that back and that's how we did it. In fact, I think we were seven or eight years into it before we borrowed our first money - other than mortgaging our houses or getting something from grandpa, loans from parents - that sort of thing.'

It must have seemed a Herculean task - taking on the legendary names of the guitar business with a new brand and little in the way of finance or business experience.
'We started out by saying, we want to sell to music stores, so we walked into a music store and asked him how he bought guitars and what sort of discount did he get. As you can imagine, we were shocked! We were used to selling a guitar for 400 bucks and getting 400 bucks in our hands - now we found out we were going to get a fraction of that. But we did that for a couple of years and then we were approached by a wholesaler, a company called Rothschild Musical Instruments. Paul Rothschild was a music producer - he produced the Doors and Janis Joplin, so he was well known. They handled Alembic, Oasis, L'Arivee, Travis Bean - lot of new products and that was their idea. They'd seen this little explosion of really finely crafted products, but they weren't able to make their business work, so eventually, two or three years into it, we decided we needed to go back to being in charge of our own destiny. That was ten years after we'd started - that first ten years was like we were just at school.

'It was back then to where we had begun; being our own wholesaler, selling directly to music stores. Kurt just went out on the road and began to visit dealers. He'd put four guitar samples in the trunk of his car and wouldn't come back until they were sold.'

This would have been impressive enough in the UK, but did he really try to cover the entire USA single-handedly?

'Kurt covered it all. He just got in his car and wouldn't come back for six months.' says Bob Taylor, with frank admiration. ' I'd wire him money, pay his credit card bill for him and he'd just come back at Christmas. He'd call me from Ohio on Thanksgiving morning saying, "Well, I'm at a Holiday Inn and I'm watching the ball game and I'm going to go down and get some turkey. Tomorrow I've found a couple of stores to visit." He'd go to these places and just cold call. He did that for a couple of years and then eventually we began hiring salesmen. We tried using independent reps, but that only lasted for about six months.'

Mr Taylor is under no illusions, about how difficult was the task he and Kurt Listug had set themselves, nor how unlikely it was that they would succeed.

'It's really quite interesting. We're the only example in a hundred years of US guitar making
history where somebody has started as a small shop and turned into a major manufacturer. And to put that in perspective, we'll make 65,000 guitars this year and we have a 40 per cent market share of high-end guitars in the US.'

As he points out, Guild sprung more or less fully-formed into life from Epiphone and you have to go back to the early days of Gibson before you can find a company that has pulled off anything like what Taylor has achieved. Fender? Well, that's the electric side of the business - and there was CBS along the way.

'It was hard, I will admit. I remember when Kurt called me one day telling me that he'd been to a shop and the guy had played the guitar and said, "You know, this is a really great guitar. The only thing that's wrong with it is that it doesn't say Martin on the headstock". That was so typical of the reaction we got.'

So how did they combat it?

'We didn't. We didn't do anything, except get up each day and just keep on trying. Really, we let the guitars do it. We found dealers that loved the guitars enough to say "I like this, I have customers I want to show this to". You took a lot of Nos, but the Yeses were enough. Barely, but they were enough.'

Along the way, he says, were a series of quite distinct milestones - not to say hurdles.

'There are marketing challenges and there are production challenges as you grow: ceilings, or points of resistance. I tend to think of them as guitars per day and then there are employee numbers that go with that. Two guitars a day - ten guitars a week, 40 a month, four or five hundred a year. When you think of a maker that is making four or five hundred guitars a year, I think of that in terms of a guy whose got maybe ten employees and is producing two guitars a day. That seems to be a real point of resistance - getting beyond that.

'The great thing about acoustic guitar building, especially when it was non-electrified, was that you could start with no money. The cost of entry was real low. You needed a lot of raw talent, the ability to take handtools and make a good product and sell it. That's the good part, but it's also the bad part. Because the costs of entry are low, what happens is that people grow to that two guitars a day point but they haven't grown their technology or their industrial understanding. A lot of makers reach that point, but they're not able to go to the next step, because they really are building guitars in the most primitive conditions. It works for maybe a guitar a day - but you're really pushing it to get two a day out of a set-up like that.

'As you progress, you repeat that in different processes. The next one's going to be about 10 guitars a day, then there's one at 50 guitars a day. We make 300 guitars a day.

'There's also another point of resistance that's to do with employees. More people in the United States sell their companies at 40 employees than at any other size and I think it's because people get to the point where what it is that they started out doing isn't what they are doing any longer. They don't enjoy it and they decide to get out.

'Kurt and I reached that point at 40-45 people and we thought, this is wearing us out. So we found a little empty office in the industrial park, we went down there for five days, we hired a consultant and we finally came out of there with one question. If we could learn how to take care of employees, could there be rewards for that extra size? Would it be worth it? And we answered yes, so that's what we decided to do. The rewards were that by focusing on the employee group, it allowed us to make a happy home at work, allowed a lot of growth to take place and allowed us to remain owners of the business, without being eternally frustrated, feeling that you're baby-sitting a bunch of people.'

Had they had offers from other MI companies up to that point and had they been tempted?

'Oh, we had offers and we still do - from then, up till this day. The interesting thing is that most people want to buy a successful company, but typically it's unsuccessful ones that the owner wants to sell. One of the reasons that it's only Kurt and I, is because in the first ten years, when it was really tough, Kurt was fastidious in sticking to his better sense that we didn't want partners. We were going to do the hard work ourselves. We'd had a partner and it hadn't worked out, so we knew what that was like. What we had was a great partnership and we decided to keep it like that.

'There were times when it was so abysmal in the first ten years, times when you thought "I've just got to quit doing this and go get a job". But then you begin to reason it through. I'd have to pay off all my bills, because I'd never quit owning money, and then I'd think, well if I paid all my bills, what's the point quitting? So I'd just get back to work and forget the idea.'

It's clear that the partnership between Messrs Taylor and Listug has been pivotal in the company's success. 'The two of us have added up to way more than two. It enabled Kurt to focus on sales and marketing and me to focus on design and production and that has put us in a far better position than so many companies with just one man, who has to try to do everything in the business by himself.'

Another key to Taylor's success, and an area that has been very much Bob Taylor's own, has been a degree of new thinking about acoustic guitar design, coupled with mechanised production which, for some, has seemed at odds with traditional acoustic guitar making.


'Part of it was a grand scheme and part of it was just intuition,' he laughs. 'You have to understand that I was just 19 when I started this. I'd made three guitars and then I discovered Martin. I was still in high school and I sold one of my motorcycles and bought a D18. I thought "Wow - these guys know how to make a guitar!". But that's all I knew about them. Now a lot of guys go into luthiery having studied guitars, but I didn't know anything: everything I learned, I learned by myself. If you look at a Taylor, it's a Taylor, it's not a copy of anything - everything is different. I wasn't at all bound by what other people were doing, simply because I had no idea what other people were doing. I just found I had a sound that people liked and it took me a long time to understand what that was. It was a more compressed, brilliant tone and there were a lot of people who loved the way that performed and recorded. It was a guitar that played well with others.

'And yes, that traditional thing was raised when I was in Japan a few weeks ago, being interviewed by the press there. Japan is very traditional and I was asked something like: "You're responsible for a lot of high technology in building your guitars and we know that you use a lot of machinery and lot of modern techniques. What would you say to that?" And you could tell what he was thinking - it was in the tone. My response was, well, yeah, we use as much as we can afford and/or conceive of to get the job done to improve the process. And you know what that gets us? That gets us that we still make guitars in the United States. There are no guitar manufacturers in Japan because they didn't invest in their factories.'

But will what worked when facing down competition from Japan work with China?

'Well, my job, in part, is making a liar out of every guy who says "Honey, this is my last guitar". I have to work out how to make the two or three thousand dollar guitar interesting. If I don't continually develop something new, keep the game alive for the guy who knows the difference between a Chinese guitar and Taylor or a Martin quality guitar - if I let it slide to where there's no difference - then that's my own fault.'

But, ever thorough, Mr Taylor has an extra trump up his sleeve - a growing production facility just 20 miles over the all-important border with Mexico. So can we expect to see budget Taylors?

'Well, I've got some guitar designs that could make a very nice mid-price guitar. The tooling is right, the design is right but even with that I can't compete with the Chinese, not when we are based in California. But we are developing the talent down in Mexico so that one day we can, most likely, introduce a secondary brand - a whole other brand, a really nice middle range guitar.'

If a young guitar builder happened to be reading this article and decided he wanted to emulate Bob Taylor's success, does he think it can still be possible, given the way the industry is now structured?

'I think it can, yes. But it has to be a qualified answer. It's really hard to do it by yourself. A couple of things were really important for me and the biggest one was my partner. Our partnership was one of the things that allowed Taylor to flourish. But it is not easy to make a guitar factory that makes profits that has good employee relations and all that goes with that.

'What I brought to it was a pretty unique blend of talents. Probably one of the most interesting things about me as a luthier, is that a lot of luthiers think if they use any element of technology, or if they grow the business, they will compromise what they produce and I never felt that way. I think, not only will I not compromise it by doing that, I will actually make a better guitar as a consequence. Those things are not mutually exclusive.'

Possibly not since Leo Fender revolutionised the electric guitar in the 1950s has the guitar business experienced anything like Bob Taylor - a man who not only has ideas about the instrument but, perhaps even more importantly, ideas about how to produce it. He and Kurt Listug are still young, still enjoy running their own show and still have ambition. If the past has been an astonishing story, the future could prove just as enthralling.

Ends.

2006 Gary Cooper