Mahogany or maple, medium or large, intimate or extrovert… there’s something for everybody with these two fine new electro-acoustics from the USA. Review by Huw Price.
Taylor guitars are hugely respected by countless big-name players. Available in a vast choice of sizes, timbers and appointments, they’re especially noted for accuracy of build, consistency of tone and the stage-worthiness of the pickup systems. In this review, however, we want to look a little deeper, to take one brand-new and one re-worked Taylor and try to find out how they rate for feel and inspiration – which, after all, is what we’re all searching for when it comes to a really great acoustic.
The 522e is part of a mid-year makeover of Taylor’s mahogany 500 Series. The new solid tropical mahogany top promises a ‘midrange-rich musical character, offering a meaty voice and punchy attack’. Also new for 2013 is a black pickguard, which looks superb against the standard ebony fingerboard and bridge, ivoroid body binding – a really nice change from Taylor’s usual stark white plastic – and an ivoroid rosette and ivoroid ‘Century’ fingerboard inlays.
With a body width of 15″, the 522e equates roughly to a 000 in size. The mahogany is fairly plain on the back and sides but the front is highly figured, and Taylor have enhanced the grain and brought out the deep red/brown tones with a perfectly-applied gloss finish. The headstock is bound and overlaid with matte-finished ebony, while the tuners are stock chrome diecast items; we might suggest that Taylor could have really put the icing on the cake with a pearloid or abalone headstock logo. The nut and saddle are made of Tusq, not the real bone offered by many others at this kind of price, but Taylor may well feel that production consistency, again, is the all-important watchword. The factory-supplied strings are coated Elixirs, but if you personally feel that uncoated phosphor-bronze strings always bring out the best in a guitar, then it’s an easy change.
According to Taylor master builder Andy Powers, ‘mahogany acts as a natural compressor. Once a note has been played and the frequency set in motion, you hear the pure note without complex overtones.’ This character is borne out by the 522e – but don’t be misled into thinking that a diminution of complex overtones is necessarily a bad thing.
If you haven’t played an all-mahogany guitar before, you may be surprised how different they sound to spruce or cedar tops. For starters, the 522e is not a loud guitar; many lesser-grade guitars with solid spruce tops may be noticeably louder. The 522e doesn’t really project sound out into the room – instead, the sound seems to hover around the body of the guitar itself, which actually makes for a more intimate playing experience.
The sound is well-balanced, woody generally gorgeous in a warm and country-ish sort of way. Very little effort is needed to generate fine tone from this instrument, and we had just as much fun picking as strumming. Sure, the sound doesn’t have the snap or pop that you might associate with spruce, but it has a sweet, easy-going quality that draws you in and makes you want to keep playing and playing. The particular qualities of solid mahogany tops aren’t best suited to true ‘all-rounder’ duties and we’d guess that solid rhythm players or dedicated Travis-style pickers may feel the 522e’s low notes are a bit too lacking in punch to set up a solid pulse, but if you let those low strings ring out as you’re picking, this guitar is superbly balanced both in standard and dropped tunings.
Getting back to the ‘overtones issue’, the upshot is that the 522e has a degree of clarity, directness and purity of tone that you won’t hear from a spruce-topped guitar of a similar design. This gives better note separation, enabling you to play grace notes, close note clusters and even dissonant intervals without the sound degenerating into harmonic mush. Singing guitarists may also notice that they can hear themselves better, because the 522e doesn’t eat up too much frequency space. Some quick microphone tests also demonstrated just how easily it records and how well it sits in mixes.
Both the 522e and 618e use Taylor’s Expression System, combining a magnetic under-string sensor with two body sensors – one between the tone bars behind the bridge, and one between the two side braces off the bass side of the X-brace. You can reach through the soundhole to switch the body sensors on and off, while the three knobs on the upper bout control Bass, Treble and Volume.
Output levels are high and feedback resistance is impressive, but more importantly the Expression System does a fine job of translating the natural acoustic tone of both guitars into an electronic signal. Though you may well end up rolling off a little treble, you’ll likely find that both guitars’ electric sound can be made to resemble the acoustic tone to a surprising degree. Some might feel that playing leads on the unwound strings emphasises an oddly reedy and hollow quality to the midrange, but the Expression System sounds better than average for general strumming and picking duties.
Taylor describes the Grand Orchestra body as ‘a more robust alternative to the Grand Symphony’. It’s Taylor’s latest body shape, and with a maximum width of 16.6″ it’s the biggest Taylor six-string to date. Obviously it’s approximately a jumbo, but the waist has a little more girth than a typical example. The new, wide soundboard is combined with a deeper body, and a new bracing scheme has been devised to facilitate soundboard movement and produce louder and more complex tone with excellent sustain. Taylor was keen to avoid bottom-heaviness and wanted to design a jumbo that didn’t require a strong playing attack to get the top moving; this really is intended to be an all rounder, with lots of volume and plenty of bass response.
The figured maple back and sides are stunning and they match superbly with a near-perfect spruce top graced with copious cross-silking. In this context the 618e’s white binding looks better to our eyes than cream or ivoroid would have done, and the blue/brown hue of the rosette inlay is subtle yet gorgeous.
Like the 522e the 618e has a three-piece neck with a stacked heel and a scarfe jointed headstock, but this time it’s hard rock maple with a gloss finish. The bridge, bridge pins, fretboard, headstock veneer are all ebony, the logo and position markers are pearl.
This guitar sounds just as big as it looks, but not in a crass or overblown sort of way. Maple acoustics are generally held to have a sound that veers towards the ‘bright’ end of the spectrum, and the 618e conforms to our expectations of the material, but the ample upper partials are well supported by a strong midrange and a bass response so profound that you may find yourself feeling around inside for a hidden built-in subwoofer. Despite this, the 618e is not in the least bit boomy. It’s simply solid and well-defined, and it has such a wonderfully chesty and elastic ‘whump’ that you’ll probably feel almost compelled to start playing bluegrass-style rhythm. Swapping over to a thumbpick for some boom-chicky Travis picking, even palm-muted bass notes pop right off the soundboard like a front-skinned bass drum.
This guitar may have a very high dynamic limit, but it’s not just about bashing out chords. As promised the 618e responds to a delicate touch too, and it’s a formidable fingerstyle instrument. The balance and tone stay remarkably consistent all over the fingerboard and the tone has a subtle and complex quality.
As well as delivering the goods in standard tuning, the 618e has absolutely no problems coping with dropped tunings. You can lower the bottom E and A strings down to C and G with no discernible loss of power or definition. In fact, on sonorous low altered tunings the 618e takes on an almost piano-like quality that’s nothing short of amazing.
At the top of this review we talked about Taylor’s consistency, but don’t mistake our use of the term to mean ‘sameness’. Sure, the company’s quality is consistent indeed – in fact in terms of fit and finish we might even be noticing a slight stepping-up, although as mentioned there are one or two tweaks on terms of tuner choice and trim that we feel would enhance these particular models still further.
Nevertheless, while definitely reliable in terms of playability and quality of sound, these two guitars are very different indeed. The 618e is a real powerhouse: big, balanced, bright. It’s the kind of guitar that you always wanted a J-200 to be, and a fine example of just what can be accomplished with a near-jumbo design if you know how. As for the smaller all-mahogany 522e, it’s one of the most beguiling acoustics I have ever played, and a genuinely inspiring fingerpicking and songwriting guitar and a fine recording instrument too. So if you’ve ever fallen into the trap of primarily thinking of Taylors for their fine utility qualities, think again: these are guitars you can really bond with.