Taylor Guitar Story – From the Beginning
|“Look at that.” Seated in his neat, spacious office in Taylor Guitars’ factory complex in El Cajon, California, company co-founder and CEO Kurt Listug cannot stifle a laugh as he studies a faded snapshot. The photograph, mined from the depths of an old cardboard box filled with dusty memorabilia, depicts the original Taylor shop on its very first day of existence — October 15, 1974.On the left, pony-tailed, 22-year-old employee Tim Luranc is examining something, while then-part-owner Steve Schemmer shovels water from the floor into a bucket. A companion photo shows the adjoining room on the same day. Crude, garish, overhead lights illuminate a funky old refrigerator amid indistinguishable clutter; a “humidity-controlled” booth with plastic-film walls; and a rough concrete floor pocked with puddles of standing water and clumps of soggy sawdust. “Primitive” and “wet” aptly describe both scenes.||
In Taylor’s early days, the morning after a rainstorm frequently began with cleaning up pools of water and soggy sawdust caused by flooding.
“That place was so bad,” Listug recalls, shaking his head. “The roof leaked like crazy, and whenever it rained, the place flooded. It rained hard the night before we opened, so we spent the entire morning of our first day in business trying to get as much water out of there as we could.”
Co-founder and company president Bob Taylor surveys the photos and fills in the gaps.”
See those clumps of wet sawdust? When it flooded, we’d take all the sawdust that we’d already swept up, and sprinkle it around the floor to soak up the water. It made the place even more of a pig sty,” he says, laughing. “But it was fun. What did we know? We were just kids. Somehow, we’d skirted having to get real jobs. We didn’t have a boss, we were making guitars. What could be better?”
Despite the semi-aquatic conditions and inauspicious circumstances of Taylor’s first few days of life, Listug’s voice betrays a genuine wistfulness as he recalls the “hungry years” that made it possible for the company to be celebrating its 25th Anniversary in 1999. Listug enjoys reminiscing about the long, painstaking process of co-shepherding Taylor Guitars from its humble, naive beginnings to its current status as one of the world’s most successful and highly regarded acoustic guitar manufacturers.
In one respect, there is no escaping the company’s history, thanks to numerous human and material reminders of the company’s scuffling days that can be found throughout Taylor’s modern, high-tech facility. Primary among these, of course, are Taylor and Listug, who have made musical-instrument history by becoming the first American luthiers in this century to take an acoustic guitar company from one-off shop to production-level manufacturer without relinquishing ownership or creative control. Other first-decade Taylorites who are either still on the job, or who have left and come back, include Luranc (profiled in the Summer 1994 issue of our quarterly newsletter, Wood&Steel), Steve Baldwin (1983–), and Bob Zink (1984–profiled in the Fall ’98 issue).
Among significant relics are a few early-vintage Taylor guitars that have been re-acquired over the years, and which repose in a safe place known only to Bob Taylor. Several tidy binders and scrapbooks on file in the current building’s conference room contain articles and advertisements that delineate Taylor’s progress from baby steps to leaps. Still, it’s the cardboard box that provides Taylor and Listug their best opportunity to relish the sometimes poignant, often hilarious chronicles of the firm’s first two decades. Looking at photographs of the duo as long-haired, bearded teenagers, Listug effortlessly spins anecdotes, punctuating his commentary with frequent, almost reflexive chuckling.
“I remember, as a teenager, driving with my parents past this guitar-repair shop called the Blue Guitar, in the Old Town area of San Diego,” he said. “I thought guitars were the coolest thing, and I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than working on them for a living. So, I pestered Sam Radding, owner of the American Dream shop in Lemon Grove, to hire me, even though I didn’t have any of the necessary skills. Eventually, a work bench opened up, and I quit my job painting buildings at San Diego State University and started doing finishing work. That was in August 1973.
“A week or two later, Bob Taylor got a bench there. He’d been coming around for a while, buying guitar parts and showing Sam the guitars he’d made. At the time, Bob was 18 and I was 20.”
In spite of his hirsute appearance, the young Taylor was quiet, reserved, and very “straight,” and, for a while, the rest of the American Dream employees more or less ignored him. One day, Bob abruptly put an end to that.
“He came in where a few of us were eating lunch, sat down, and firmly announced, ‘Well, I’m Bob Taylor,’” Listug remembers. “It was a real ice-breaker, and after that we all got along great.”
Kurt Listug at the sidebenders, 1979
|“I remember being quite the odd duck in a real hippie shop,” Taylor admits. “My hair was a lot longer, and I had a beard, but otherwise I was just a clean-cut boy in a white t-shirt who went to church three times a week with his mom and dad and sister. My whole life experience up to that time was just being a ‘good boy.’ I’d never been in trouble in my life; I spent my time in school doing projects and getting straight A’s, winning industrial-arts expositions. I didn’t know what alcohol or drugs were. Still don’t. Didn’t know about college, or girls, or anything except tools, and working with things. And here I was, working with these kids who, compared to me, were partying, wise-to-the-world, guitar-building, hippie musicians. So, Kurt, Bob Huff, Michael Stewart, Steve Hilliard, Sam Radding, and Barbie Cousins — they’d be off to the side, giggling at me.”You might say that Taylor ended up at American Dream partly by default, partly by provident design. As a 17-year-old, he had seen a 12-string acoustic guitar in a local store window, and, lacking the funds to purchase it, had decided to make his own. He built three guitars while still in high school, working on them at night in the back of a service station, in between filling gas tanks and wiping windshields. Eventually, Taylor took his finished instruments to Sam Radding at American Dream. Radding was convinced that he had a future in the trade.During their first year at American Dream, Taylor and Listug made a few guitars, but mostly did repairs. When Radding decided to sell the business in 1974, the employees split into rival purchasing groups of two, each team jockeying for position while trying to figure out how to come up with the requisite capital. Finally, a triumvirate of Taylor, Listug, and Schemmer bought the American Dream. Euphoric with ambition, they renamed it the Westland Music Company.”We thought that would sound impressive, and make people think we were bigger than we really were,” Listug laughs. “But Bob was the real guitar-maker, and, besides, we had to have a logo that would fit on the headstock, so we soon named the guitars Taylor guitars.”||
Bob Taylor, 1979
|By the time the fledgling company hoisted its new banner, Taylor and Listug had a pretty clear idea of how their guitars would differ from others on the market. Their first few instruments certainly functioned well enough, but they weren’t exactly things of beauty.”Those first guitars had some structural problems, and sometimes the backs would ripple,” Listug recalls. “We knew they couldn’t compete, aesthetically, with the best guitars on the market, so we just kept working at it until we had a marketable-looking guitar.”After selling a few prototypes at the workshop, the partners decided to take their wares directly to dealers. In 1976, Listug loaded some guitars into Bob Taylor’s van and headed for the music stores in Los Angeles.”They liked them, and I actually came home with checks in my hand,” Listug says.One of the first dealers to buy a Taylor guitar was the venerable McCabe’s, in Santa Monica. John Zehnder, who today is the store’s chief repairman, director of its music school, and banjo and mandolin instructor, remembers those first Taylors.||
Steve Emric binds a guitar at the Lemon Grove shop, circa 1986
|“In 1976, Taylors provided an affordable and viable alternative to Martins, which were the standard,” Zehnder said in a phone interview. “The Taylors’ low-profile necks, and the fact that they offered several choices as to neck widths, were a real advantage. Plus, they sounded good, and, because of the way they were made [with bolt-on necks], we were able to make repairs instantly, which was greatly appreciated by our customers. In many ways, Taylor guitars were a real breath of fresh air.”Random acceptance, however, did not translate to across-the-board success. Wholesale receipts just barely enabled the luthiers to continue making guitars.”We got into this business just as the acoustic guitar market was going south in a big way,” Taylor says. “It was dying a cruel death. We first started trying to sell Taylor guitars at a time when Mossman, Gurian, and LoPrinzi [guitars] were just peaking, so every time Kurt would get to a store, another rep had just been there, and the dealer would say, ‘Oh, we just took on the Mossman line. We don’t have any money left.’”I remember one particularly bad day, clear as a bell,” Taylor continues. “It was Friday, the end of another work week. There was no money; we were so broke. It was a pretty depressing scene. Then, late in the day, this guy came into the shop. His name was Charlie See — grandson of Martha See, founder of See’s Candies. He ended up buying a guitar that was hanging on the wall, and ordered a Brazilian rosewood 815 with abalone on it. It was about 7:30 that evening by the time he left, and he wrote us a check for $1,873, which was like a hundred-thousand bucks to us! All of a sudden, we were back in business. We had enough money to pay that month’s $163 rent and buy more supplies. We could make guitars for another week or two.”In 1977, Taylor Guitars linked up with a distributor in the hope of boosting sales. It would prove to be an unproductive move.”We ended up getting only $150 for a 510, $380 for an 855,” Taylor recalls. “That was a very unprofitable time, but it was a great learning time. It forced me to learn something about production techniques. I had to separate the chaff from the wheat — what’s important, what’s not important. The main improvement was simply getting past a stupid mental barrier — the notion that if you take a lot of time to accomplish a task, somehow it’s better than accomplishing the same task, just as well, in less time. I’m glad I was very young when I learned that that notion just doesn’t make sense.”Taylor and Listug ended their affiliation with the distributor in 1979, but for years, the company remained fixed at a plateau of making 10 guitars a week and not seeing a profit. Because they were unable to break into any new markets, newly finished guitars just lay, unsold, around the shop. Bills went unpaid.”We were really stupid,” Listug recalls with a grin. “We thought that if we simply made more guitars, we’d make more money. So, we’d hire extra people to turn out more instruments, and then we’d have to spend more time and money marketing the extra production. All we were doing was raising the overhead. And, without any capital to pay for expansion, we just dug ourselves a deeper hole of debt. Then, Bob got married, and one day he said, ‘If I can’t make a living at this, why am I doing it?’”
“Actually, by that time, I’d kind of mentally burned my bridges as far as doing anything else was concerned,” Taylor allows. “Every once in a while, people would ask me, ‘Well, what if it just doesn’t work out?’ And I’d say, ‘It has to work out.’ I detested the thought of having to explain to everyone why I quit. That kept me going more than anything else — the fear that for two years or more, I’d have to run into people who’d ask, ‘What happened?’ and I’d have to explain that we weren’t doing well and had to give it up.”
To save the business, the partners fired everyone and slowed production. In the short term, that enabled each of them to take home $100 per week — enough to make ends meet. Gradually, they paid past-due bills and retired ancient debts. It was, to be sure, a meager living.
“When we got to the point where we could take home $200 a week, I thought we were doing great,” Listug says. “I had a friend who was making $300 a week, and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa — $300 a week!’”
Adversity, it would seem, is best visited upon the young, who don’t know enough to be stymied by it. As lean as things were, the Taylor gang never was at a loss for good times.
“Matt Guzzetta [currently Taylor's Senior Machine and Tool Designer] ran a motorcycle gas tank manufacturing shop right next door,” Taylor remembered. “We’d have these big, pot-luck, music-and-food parties once a month on a Saturday night. Everyone would open their shop and we’d have maybe four local bands going — a lot of really great San Diego players. Matt ran his shop for years, and when it finally closed, I had him do a job for me at Taylor Guitars, and he’s been here ever since. But if you ask Matt — as much as he likes working here — he’ll tell you that we ruined everything and began going ‘downhill’ after we stopped having those parties.”
In 1981, Taylor Guitars took out a bank loan to purchase equipment that would enable them to smooth out some production wrinkles. But without the benefit of marketing, unsold guitars continued to pile up. A year later, they sold a number of guitars to a single dealer, and used the cash to put Listug on the road in a quest for new dealers.
“I told him, ‘Don’t even come back if you don’t get any orders,’” Taylor laughs.
Listug’s new role of traveling salesman took him throughout California and as far as Maine. Being away from the daily grind of the business renewed his energy and perspective, but the trip wasn’t without its disasters.
“I had second thoughts about all this when my car broke down in a snowstorm in Wisconsin,” he says. “But the dealers I visited loved our guitars. On the way home, I sold the six guitars I had with me, so we had cash for Christmas.”
In 1983, Taylor and Listug bought out Schemmer. Newly equipped with machines they’d designed to handle the most laborious aspects of tooling and processing raw materials, the streamlined company finally began turning a profit. The influx of money was spent on technical refinements that resulted in higher-caliber guitars. Things were looking up, but a breakthrough was needed. It would come from a most unexpected source.
Hand tools used to make guitars in the mid-70′s
|In the mid-’80s, synthesized rock so dominated the charts and airwaves that acoustic guitars seemed anachronistic — the implements of coffeehouse folkies and ’60s diehards. Up to that time, Taylor Guitars had allowed its distributor to represent the company at the semi-annual trade shows of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). But, in 1984, Taylor and Listug exhibited their own guitars at the winter NAMM show, and ran smack into that era’s industry realities.”Those NAMM shows were hard,” Listug says. “We were set up near the Martin booth in 1985, when we showed our Artist Series [limited-edition, color-stained guitars]. Even Martin was singing the blues about how lousy business was.”Hoping to lure rockers into trying their acoustics, Taylor and Listug accepted a challenge from Glenn Wetterlund of Podium Music in Minneapolis to create a guitar for one of the day’s superstars — Prince, who needed a 12-string for some recording sessions. At the time, Prince was in his “purple” phase, so Taylor made him a purple-stained 655. But, there was a catch: Prince would not perform with instruments bearing a visible brand name. As a result, Taylor would make a guitar that would be seen by millions (Prince played it in both his Purple Rain and Live Aid videos) — and the Taylor logo would be nowhere in sight.Whether the “Prince guitar” in any way impacted the eventual re-emergence of the acoustic guitar is debatable, but it sure didn’t hurt Taylor Guitars. By then, word of Bob Taylor’s handiwork was spreading through the music world, and famous and unknown musicians alike were snapping up his guitars. In the hope of selling more guitars, the company felt compelled to expand its Artist Series to accommodate the sometimes peculiar demands of an elite clientele. Jeff Cook of the country-rock band, Alabama, wanted a green guitar for the cover of the group’s Christmas album. Steve Stevens wanted abalone inlays shaped like the atomic-energy symbol. Billy Idol had the Saturn-shaped graphic from his Whiplash Smile album engraved all over his custom Taylor. Bonnie Raitt was so thrilled with her store-bought Taylor that she gave the company carte blanche to create a unique design for her.In 1986, flatpicking pioneer Dan Crary collaborated with Bob Taylor on what would become the Dan Crary Signature Model. Momentum was building, and the company tried to stay ahead of the flow. In 1987, Taylor Guitars moved from its Lemon Grove location to a 5,000-square-foot plant in the Santee area, and two years later Taylor and Listug invested heavily in the computer-operated milling machines that remain the heart of the factory’s wood-processing department. The staff, which now numbered 35, was producing 50 guitars a week, with an average price tag of $1,600. In 1990, Leo Kottke and Bob Taylor teamed to create the Leo Kottke Signature Model 12-string. Both it and the Dan Crary remain popular models to this day.With business booming, Taylor Guitars soon outgrew its Santee plant. Over summer vacation, in July 1992, the company moved into its current location in El Cajon. Two years before the move, a local magazine had quoted Listug projecting that Taylor Guitars would gross $10 to $12 million annually by the end of the ’90s. Instead, the company grossed $30 million in 1999, making that 1990 prediction seem conservative.Today, the company employs 335 staffers, and occupies a 143,000-square-foot complex that includes two factory/office buildings (the 25,000-square-foot building that opened in 1992, and a new 44,500-square-foot factory/office building on the adjacent lot), a case factory, a Baby Taylor factory that opened in the summer of 2000, and additional leased space in new buildings near the Taylor factories.
Taylor and Listug are able to pay their bills, and the company is in good financial shape. The company is making the best guitars in its history; business is better than ever; and the future definitely has that rosy tint of robust health.Still, Bob Taylor has seen enough in his 28-plus years as a luthier/businessman to know that things can change in a hurry. Appropriately, his compass during any unforeseeable storms will be the lessons learned in Taylor Guitars’ worst days.”
Those early years were nothing but day after day of bad news,” he says. “But we’re better off for it. It’s a really great market for acoustic guitars right now, and I think there are some guitar makers doing well because it’s a great market. They’re getting a lot of money for their product, but they’re wasteful in their thinking and in their handling of money and materials. So, if the market goes south again, and prices tighten up, and we’re all fighting over the same sales, those people might not be prepared for it. We know what those conditions are like — what that’s all about — so, we’d be in better position to weather the storm. I’d hate like heck to have to go through all that bad stuff again. But, right now, I’m glad we did. We’re a better, more resilient company because of it.”
|Bob Zink mixing rosewood dust and epoxy, 1984 (today, Zink is the Purchasing Manager at Taylor Guitars|