Guitar Review: Taylor 918e Grand Orchestra
About a century ago, the world started seeing a transformation from the small parlor-type guitars to ever-larger models. Today you’ve got dreadnoughts (actually named after a class of battleship), jumbos, auditoriums, and grand auditoriums. Guitar makers were in a veritable arms race before amplification, and that spawned some great designs and some now-classic but then-radical designs such as metal-bodied Nationals and Dobros. Out of all these bigger-sounding, bigger-bodied acoustics, it seems the dreadnought is so familiar that many guitarists associate it as the baseline size and shape. But that may change as we see the confluence of great guitar building, great materials, and great design work such as Taylor’s 918e Grand Orchestra. It’s a big ’un – in fact, it’s Taylor’s biggest body – and it sounds big. Big volume, big tone.
My test model, a 2013 First Edition, is so gorgeous that your first instinct is to keep running your eyes over it rather than start picking it. That’s okay. It’s a lot to take in. The headstock, fingerboard, and bridge feature the Cindy design, a delicate, intricate abalone and mother-of-pearl inlay pattern that includes lilies and a tiny hummingbird. From the multi-ply abalone binding around the top to the matching design of the soundhole rosette, it’s impossible not to be impressed. Close examination inside and out brings you to say one word: clean. The workmanship, fit, finish, and overall attention to detail are impeccable. If everything in your life were this well done, you would probably never need a warranty or worry about a product breaking down.
Most acoustics I’ve played or owned have been dreadnoughts, and with few exceptions all have had a pickguard. This guitar is bigger and has no pickguard. If you’re a hard strummer, you might scratch the top. On the other hand, Willie Nelson has strummed the living daylights out of his guitar, and that “wear and tear” has been a signature. By not having a pickguard, the top can vibrate more freely, which adds to its tone and presence, a real plus. It’s a bigger soundboard, and stifling that beautiful Sitka spruce would only subtract from its sonic beauty. Plus, that big ol’ expanse of Sitka looks great uninterrupted. With no cutaway, the symmetry of the 918e is awesome and very appealing.
Details, details, details. The neck’s heel joins the body in a nice “V” shape, but where do you put a strap button? Sensibly, the button is attached to the heel on the “south” side, below it if you’re viewing from a normal playing position. I found this is a great spot for confident support. The other strap button is the output jack at the bottom of the guitar, right near the battery access (more on that later).
The Gotoh 510 tuners have a 1:21 gear ratio, making tuning very smooth and precise, and there’s no slop in the rotation. The gold-plated buttons feel great: almost kidney-bean-shaped, rather than rounded over with distinct edges. Nice touch, and comfortable every time you grab them. The onboard Expression System of transducers and controls has three small knobs on the shoulder of the upper bout. They’re easy to turn and visually unobtrusive, with a low profile that keeps them out of your way when you don’t need to tweak them. Every aspect of the 918e shows that Taylor put as much into the ergonomics as they put into the cosmetics. (Take a look inside with an inspection mirror if you want to see the definition of clean work – not a glob or smear of glue or a rough edge to be found.)
Playing the 918e
I expected the large body to feel, well, large or unwieldy, like a guitarrón, that huge bass you see in mariachi bands. However, it doesn’t. I’m used to a dreadnought, but the Taylor just doesn’t feel large or the slightest bit unwieldy. If you’re hesitant to try a guitar like this, don’t be.
Many guitarists are impressed by sheer loudness, and while I fit that category sometimes, I always like to know how subtle, dynamic, and expressive a guitar can be, how it responds to light touches as well as to a good, hard strum. I’m not quite sure what I expected – probably less support or a bit of imbalance – when I played lightly, but I found that the 918e kept all of its sonic range. To me, this is worth so much more than a guitar that can merely shout when whacked, because part of what makes an acoustic guitar so great, so soulful, is the way it responds when you get intimate with it and express yourself through dynamics. The bottom end doesn’t go limp at low volumes, the top doesn’t get thin, and from low to high the balance remains very steady. A crescendo sounds like a crescendo, not like the guitar is being punished or pushed. To me, that’s the sign of great response.
Speaking of support, when the 918e’s low E string is dropped to D, the string speaks in a solid, articulate voice without overpowering the rest of the low end. I even tried my favorite oddball tuning that finds C# on the two outer strings, and the balance held up beautifully, with the low end still strong and present. This kind of focus when dipping low will surely make alternate-tuning players pretty danged happy.
The neck has a nice even profile curve that is typical of a good acoustic, wide enough for easy chording and with 14 frets free of the body. The satin finish feels good, and the frets are perfectly dressed. From the minute you first wrap your hand around it, you can’t help but feel at home on the 918e’s neck.
My test guitar was outfitted with the Taylor Expression System, in which there are two magnetic pickups (one body sensor and one dynamic string sensor) that feed through tone-shaping circuitry and out through a jack in the strap button on the lower bout. There are three controls: bass, treble, and volume. All three have center detents, so you can tell whether you’re boosting, cutting, or, as I like to call it, at square one. Because I’m not much of a fingerpicker, I typically use a medium or hard pick, so cranking the treble up high makes the sound a bit too brittle, which is exactly what you’d expect. I found the best tone (for me) came from leaving the treble knob at its center position, while I tweaked the bass up or down, depending on whether I was picking back closer to the bridge or strumming closer to the neck. In any of these cases, I was able to get a solid, useful tone. Taylor recommends starting out with a flat setting (on both the guitar and an amp), and working from there. Follow this advice, and you can’t go wrong.
Aside from excellent tone, one of the Expression System’s greatest attributes for the onstage guitarist (or someone who likes to listen through studio monitors instead of headphones while recording) is the way it thwarts feedback. Even when you crank up the treble or bass controls, it doesn’t go runaway on you and start howling. In fact, I had to really, really boost the amplifier and ping the strings with the guitar pretty close to the monitors to cause feedback. For almost every live application, you can ditch the microphone entirely, and in the studio, you can use a feed from the Expression system to augment what you’re getting off the microphones. In short, it gives you a lot of options.
The 9-volt battery compartment is conveniently located at the lower bout right next to the endpin jack, and a small red LED on the circuit board inside the body, near the neck, indicates that the system is working and that the battery is okay. Plugging a cord in turns it on; unplugging turns it off. Simple.
A cool feature of the Expression System is that the output jack can accommodate a standard mono 1/4″ plug or a 1/4″ TRS-to-XLR cord for direct connection to pro gear such as mixing consoles. The latter approach lets you drive longer cables without signal degradation and lets you jack straight into a P.A. system without a direct box. (For more details on the Expression System, as well as some great pictures that show where the sensors and preamp are located, visit http://www.taylorguitars.com/media/expression-system-system-overview)
After living with the 918e for a while, I’ve grown very comfortable with it, although it only took a few minutes to bond. Its tone, feel, and overall beauty make it one of those guitars that could make you forget about its price. It’s nowhere near cheap, but it’s reasonable for the materials, craftsmanship, and tone. Excellent design and versatility both onstage and off contribute to its heft, both as a working instrument and as a future investment. The Taylor 918e Grand Orchestra is one of those instruments that is destined to be an heirloom, but you can bet once you have your hands on it, it will never gather dust.
Taylor 918e Grand Orchestra Specifications
Body style: Grand Orchestra
Back and sides: Indian rosewood
Top: Sitka spruce
Neck: Mahogany with satin finish
Bridge pins: Ebony with abalone dots
Headstock overlay: Ebony with Cindy inlay
Overall length: 41-5/8″
Body length: 20-5/8″
Body width: 16-3/4″
Body depth: 5″
Scale length: 25-1/2″
Number of frets: 20
Neck width at nut: 1-3/4″
Nut material: Bone
Strings: Elixir medium-gauge (.013 to .056)
Electronics: Expression System
List price: $5,658
Street price: $4,349