Since 1974, Taylor Guitars has been a champion guitar brand, renowned for its signature sound and instrument-manufacturing innovations. In this feature, Inhabitat goes behind-the-scenes at the company’s headquarters and factory in El Cajon, California, where tour guide Ryan Merrill shares the Taylor Guitars approach to sustainability, sourcing wood and making guitars.  

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a group of children following an adult guide on a tour of a guitar factory

Inhabitat: What can you share about the process of making a Taylor Guitar?

Merrill: The very first step of building our guitars is housing them in this outdoor tent when the wood arrives. What we’re seeing here is mostly mahogany. When we bring in wood from around the world, they’re accustomed to other types of climates, places that are generally a lot more humid – Cameroon, India, Hawaii. When it gets here, we therefore need to make sure that wood acclimates to our weather, temperature and humidity. If we don’t, then as that wood is drying out in the factory, and we’re working on the guitar, it’s going to start bending and warping in different ways.

We want all that bending and warping to happen here outside rather than during the process when we are building guitars because we have some tools in there that have high accuracy. And with that level of accuracy in cutting, if the wood is warping, it’s going to cause some problems. So we leave this wood outside here to acclimate. Water that’s sitting inside the grain of the wood, you want to bring down to about 10%. Sometimes that takes two weeks, sometimes that takes a month.

Related: YouTube stars partner up in #TeamTrees campaign to plant 20 million trees

racks of guitars hanging up in a storage room

Inhabitat: What does Taylor Guitars do with any leftover wood cuttings?

Merrill: The first measure of our sustainability endeavors is that after we’ve cut wood for our guitars, the scrap wood — instead of us throwing them into the trash bin — we actually utilize it by giving them to other companies that need them, like toymakers, people who make birdhouses, even companies that turn the wood into mulch.

Inhabitat: Forest management, reforestation and the sourcing of ethically harvested tonewoods — the wood used to build acoustic guitars — are important values to Taylor Guitars. Tell us more about that.

Merrill: We understand that in order to make our products, we have to cut down trees. But we make sure to plant moretrees than we are taking out of forests every year, and we’ve continued to be dedicated to that goal.

A pipe dream Taylor Guitars has is to plant all of the trees we use for all of our guitars on the land we own. That way, we won’t have to source our wood anywhere else in the world, but just focus on effectively using that one piece of land that is ours with all our trees on it. Of course, that’s still what we are working toward.

For now, the two places we are focused on are in Cameroon, where we have our ebony, and in Hawaii, where we have our koa. Out in Hawaii, for instance, we own over 570 acres on the Big Island, where we are planting koa trees. Now, koa trees take about 40 to 60 years to grow — that’s a long wait for us to be able to use those trees for guitars. Ebony is even longer, taking 100 to 200 years to fully mature.

rows of guitars displays in a store

Inhabitat: Now, on display here in the corporate headquarters gallery are an array of signature Taylor Guitars, made from various types of wood. What’s the importance of wood type, or tonewood? And, why are certain ones chosen over others for guitar-making?

Merrill: The type of wood affects the instrument sound. First, it’s important to know that woods flavor the sounds. And, historically, there’s hundreds of years’ worth of experimentation on what types of woods are best for what is now the modern guitar. And the main ones that have been settled on are rosewood and mahogany, which are the hardest woods. 

So, in a mahogany guitar, you’re going to hear a lot of mid-range sounds, not a lot of bass, not a lot of treble. In rosewood, you’re going to get a lot of bass, you’re going to get a lot of treble, but not as much of the mid-range. You’ll probably notice we’ll get more deep tones and more sparkle with rosewood.

Inhabitat: These are some exotic-sounding names of tonewoods lining this guitar gallery wall. Tell us more about them.

Merrill: Cocobolo is a South American rosewood, so it has a very similar tone to a rosewood guitar. Ovangkol is an African relative of the rosewood. Sapele is an African relative of mahogany. Most tonewoods are going to fall within those two very broad categories. There are some exceptions — we have maple, which is a very bright wood. It’s the only wood that’s distinct from mahogany and rosewood. We have something like koa as well, which has the mid-range of mahogany and the sparkle of rosewood, but it doesn’t have the bass of rosewood. 

Koa guitars have become increasingly popular amongst guitarists. And that’s because as koa wood ages, it gets more dense, which means it will start to produce a better low-end sound. So, if you buy a koa, it might sound one way, but then five years down the line, someone might pick up that same guitar and go, “Wow! This has way more bass than I ever heard out of this instrument!” And that’s one of the very unique things about koa — just the amount that it opens up over time.

two irons and a metal tool resting atop a wood guitar being made

Inhabitat: Taylor Guitars has been recognized as a leading guitar-making pioneer. What are some things you can share about what makes you stand out from other guitar manufacturers?

Merrill: We’re the only company making sapele guitars. We’re the only company making ebony bodies. And we’re the pioneers of the V-bracing, whereas all other guitars elsewhere are still employing the X-bracing.

Inhabitat: What’s the difference between your V-bracing and the conventional X-bracing in guitars out there?

Merrill: One of the beautiful things about the V-brace is that it’s very forgiving of notes that aren’t quite in tune. With an X-brace, the notes start to warble — you can hear the notes bouncing back and forth. You can kind of hear the decay there — decay is just the note fading out.

When you compare that with something like a V-brace, the notes just keep ringing — we call it bloom, where it almost grows into a larger chord after you first strum it. You can hear the difference, it sounds fuller, and a lot of that comes down to the sustaining, and that’s the V-bracing being a little more forgiving with those notes.

a picture of "Taylor's Commitment to Sustainability" sign

It was fitting for Merrill to say the word “sustaining” to describe the V-brace and what it does to guitar notes, because it circularly tied into Taylor Guitars’ sustainability initiatives. As the tour winded down, a large plaque — entitled “Taylor’s Commitment to Sustainability” — was visible on the way out, reminding everyone of the quality the company stands for in the soundness of its products and supply chain.

Images via Mariecor Agravante