Taylor Guitars has thrived by being different
The founders of Taylor Guitars have a reputation for playing a different tune.
It’s been that way since Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug borrowed $10,000 from family in 1974 to fund the upstart start-up, taking on well-known competitors who had been manufacturing guitars for decades. Taylor and Listug, then all of 19 and 21, figured the only way to make it in the business was to do everything differently.
They tinkered with traditional shapes and colors. They bolted on parts that usually were attached in a more permanent fashion. They advertised like no other guitar company ever had. And they kept a large portion of their manufacturing in California — in El Cajon these days, less than 10 miles up the road from the company’s Lemon Grove roots.
“There’s no reason why you can’t run a profitable business in California,” Taylor said. “I like what Ben Franklin said about how we are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride and four times as much by our folly.”
Taylor Guitars is now an $80-million company that has sold more than 1 million guitars.
But the early days were less than harmonious.
“Nobody knew who we were, and we were only one step away from going out of business every day,” Taylor wrote in his recently published book “Guitar Lessons: A Life’s Journey Turning Passion into Business.”
Taylor and Listug had bought out their boss at a tiny workshop/storefront called American Dream, and their roles developed pretty much at the beginning: Chief Executive Listug handles the finances and the marketing; President Taylor is chief guitar maker and designer. (American Dream co-worker Steve Schemmer also was part of the team; Taylor and Listug bought his share of the business in 1983.)
The hand-made Taylor guitars slowly built a following as players discovered the instruments’ sound and adjusted to their design innovations, including Taylor’s way of attaching a guitar’s neck to the body with a bolt, which made it easier to manufacture and adjust the instruments.
“Taylor Guitars rose from a little boutique outfit to join the ranks of the big boys. Now, it’s an icon in the industry,” said Shawn Hammond, editor in chief of Premier Guitar magazine.
Taylor “was able to figure out a way to create a neck joint that has the convenience of a quick-build bolt-on technique but that also sounds really good.”
As loyal customers provided feedback, the few designs that Bob Taylor learned at American Dream morphed into an ever-changing line of acoustic and electric guitars. Taylor incorporated computer-assisted design and machining for the instruments, which allowed for a more consistent product, pushed past previous design limitations and reduced cost and waste.
At Taylor’s 200,000-square-foot El Cajon factory, which is open for public tours, the company’s mixture of delicate hand craftsmanship and cutting edge technology is on display. One example of the latter is a robotic painting machine, built by Pinnacle Technologies Inc. of Italy for $250,000, which uses an electrical charge to increase the amount of spray paint that adheres to the instrument.
“It gives a super high-quality result with virtually no environmental impact,” Taylor said.
A roster of Taylor guitar owners reads like a guest list from the Grammys: Katy Perry, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Taylor Swift, Prince, John Mayer, Jackson Browne, Sting, Paul Simon, Stanley Clarke, Bryan Adams and many others.
Hammond said artists pick Taylors when they want to make sure their guitars aren’t lost in the midst of a live performance.
“They have a very detailed treble response that enables them to poke out through the din of other instruments,” he said. “That is how they got into the market. They had a sound that shined brightly in a band setting, a very articulate and sparkling sound.”
The result has been customers — from stars to regular folks — who talk about their Taylor guitars as if they were old friends.
Four-time Grammy nominee Jewel has played Taylors since she was 18.
“They are beautifully made, and that beauty is reflected in how they sound,” she said.
Zac Brown, who fronts the Grammy-winning country-rock Zac Brown Band, said he was hooked on Taylors from the earliest stages of his career.
“I got my first Taylor when I was 14 — an 810 — and that was like the Holy Grail,” Brown said.
Scientist Joyce Jones, administrator at the Vaccine Research Institute of San Diego, owns two Taylors and is contemplating a third. She recently strummed an eight-string baritone at the company’s factory store that she said was “divinely inspired. I am basking in its glory.”
Taylor’s least expensive guitars — those costing around $300 to $1,300 — are made in a 300-worker factory in Tecate, Mexico. But the bulk of the company’s revenue comes from guitars that range from $1,900 to $10,000, and to as much as $20,000 for specialty jobs. Those are made by the 400 employees in El Cajon.
During a recent interview, Bob Taylor looked surprised when asked why so little of the product line is manufactured in Mexico, where there are fewer environmental regulations, cheaper labor and lower taxes.
“We’re not tempted by that. We live here,” Taylor said. “This is home for us.”
Taylor guitars weren’t just made differently, they were also marketed differently.
Starting in the early 1990s, Taylor Guitars began pouring money into print advertisements modeled on those by Harley-Davidson Inc., which seek to create a feeling about owning the product rather than showcasing glamour shots of the goods.
The idea came to Listug after he and Taylor bought Harleys in 1990 to celebrate surviving 15 years in business and reaching about $5 million in sales. Both were struck by the cross-cultural appeal Harley had created around their rides and with their advertising.
Taylor ads sometimes didn’t even include a guitar and never used celebrities. One was a shot of a pastoral scene, with the words: “In simplest form guitar just a hollow box made of wood, it’s up to you to decide how to fill it.” Another, called the “Trees” campaign, said: “A piece of fine wood can become a coffee table or the sweetest sounding guitar; this is for everyone who has no desire to play a coffee table.”
More recently, the company has promoted itself using sophisticated glossy catalogs that read like a specialty magazine.
During the recession, sales hovered between $56 million and $57 million. Sales rose to $70 million in 2010 and are expected to hit $80 million this year, Taylor said.
Occasionally, there are unforgettable special requests, he said, such as a call not long ago from Zac Brown, who was scheduled to do a video with Jimmy Buffett. Brown had heard that Buffett was going to be bringing his signature series beach-themed Martin guitar to the gig and Brown wanted his own island-themed guitar.
“Zac wanted to make sure he had something that was just as good, just as memorable to play,” said Taylor as he strummed Brown’s new guitar, which the company finished in one week.
Brown hadn’t seen the finished guitar yet, which started out as a six-string nylon guitar with Indian rosewood back and sides and a Western red cedar top. They added twin inlaid palm trees with walnut wood roots, Hawaiian koa wood trunks, green acrylic leaves, a yellow heartwood sun and a pelican made of maple, Hawaiian koa and myrtle woods.
“I think he’ll like this,” Taylor said.
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