In Praise of Small Bodies and Wide Necks

In Praise of Small Bodies and Wide Necks (Winter/January 1999 Wood and Steel)

Guitarists who attend my workshops are generally inquisitive sorts, and ask me about all sorts of things. One of the common topics is choosing a guitar which will be the right size for the player’s needs. I have definite and strong opinions on the subject, which I’m happy to pass along to Wood & Steel’s readers.

When a guitarist picks up a new instrument, all sorts of senses and modes of evaluation come into play, but I think that they generally fall into three main camps-

1) The eyes tell you whether you like the looks of the instrument. Don’t scoff at this as superficial- if cosmetics and design elements didn’t count all instruments would be inlay-free with cheap binding and funky woods . None of these elements affect the sound of the instrument, yet as players we demand good -looking instruments with attractive, straight-grained woods, quality inlays, binding and other pleasing cosmetic touches. I’ve never met a player to whom most or all of these elements didn’t matter.

2) The ears tell you whether you like the sound. Not much objectivity here- some like it bassy, some like it balanced, some like it clear and others fat and chordal. That’s why there are so many body sizes and wood choices. More on this topic later.

3) The body and the hands tell you the rest of the story. Is the body a good size for your playing style and physical size? Is the neck straight and true, playing in tune dependably up and down the frets? Is it repairable if things go wrong somehow? And finally, is the neck width correct for your intended uses?

How about an automotive analogy? I tend to regard dreadnought and jumbo guitars as sport-utility vehicles, grand auditorium instruments as perfect all-around family sedans, and grand concert guitars as roadsters in the English or German sports car traditions. How so? You want volume or fast single-string runs, you want to compete with fiddles and banjos or back up a band or your vocal with powerful strums, and the dreadnought is your guitar. Large body, lots of volume, fat bass, and a narrow neck for fast single-string work all make this the logical choice.

What about the player who has varied styles, some flatpicking and some fingerpicking, and needs the guitar to adapt to situations as varied as strummed accompaniment and solo fingerstyle? Here comes the grand auditorium to fill the bill. It has done this so successfully that it has become Taylor’s most popular body size since its introduction with the 20th Anniversary models in 1993. It’s the guitar that stands up to hard flatpicking and still allows for playing at the other end of the spectrum.

Now we come to my favorite. If you intend to play lots of fingerstyle guitar, if you want to record an instrument which won’t clutter or muddy your mix, if you’re not a huge person and don’t enjoy wrestling with big deep guitar shapes, if you’re a classical player who wants a user-friendly steel string or if you prefer a sound which balances bass and treble and allows the listener to clearly hear the separate voices of your music, the grand concert is for you. The guitar speaks more immediately, with a clarity that allows the listener and the player to discern the precision and musicality of complicated pieces, moving bass lines, creative inner voices and singing melodies, But wait, there’s more.

I’m also a strong advocate of ordering the extra wide, 1 7/8″ neck to complete the package. The grand concerts and grand auditoriums normally come with a neck width at the nut of 1 3/4″, but I like to push this advantage even further. The fingerstyle instrumentalist needs to have a string spacing which allows for separate voices to be easily played with both right and left hands, and the wider neck allows and in fact liberates the player to do just that. Remember that when a classical player goes out to buy an instrument, he or she is given only one choice of neck width, which is two inches at the nut. It’s not a hand-size issue, it’s a utility-of-use issue. Classical players need the space which I described above in the same manner that the steel-string instrumentalist needs it. The Taylor 1 7/8″ neck is almost exactly equivalent to the classical 2″ neck in the actual spacing of the strings, since steel strings have thinner diameters than nylon strings.

It’s long been a popular, but flawed belief that only people with big hands should play wide-neck guitars. You need only take a look at the stubby sausage fingers and small hands of Andres Segovia to refute this thesis, and consider again that the kinds of moving lines and gymnastic chord forms that the fingerstylist comes to use are much more achievable with the wider string spacing than they would be on those narrower necks.

From the very first grand concert instrument I got from Bob and Kurt in 1984 I have specified the wider neck. Players at my clinics in the 14 years since those early days have played my instruments and marveled at the ease of play and the comfortable nature of that neck as well, and Taylor has always made it available as a special-order item. Even though it’s only one-eighth of an inch, it’s the final piece of the fingerstyle puzzle.

Back to the automotive analogy. Any stock Porsche Turbo should do a pretty good job on the track or the slalom course. Putting the wide neck on the grand concert guitar is equivalent to putting the racing tires and suspension package on the Porsche- it takes a great machine and makes it the ultimate machine.

Oh, there are a couple more items you may want to consider. Wood choices can be difficult, but here are some very subjective guidelines. Cedar tops are warmer sounding, Englemann spruce are a bit stiffer and sustain a little bit longer, and Sitka spruce is the stiffest and brightest of the bunch. Maple backs and sides are the choice of players with more complicated mixes, larger bands, or extreme amplification needs because they’re famous for adding their color and standing out without any muddying of the other tracks, and for being as feedback-free as possible. Mahogany is livelier and has a longer decay time, koa even more so, and rosewood has the deepest bass and the longest sustain of the bunch. I haven’t had sufficient experience with walnut to give a considered opinion here other than to say that people seem to like it a lot. My guitar of choice is a 912C (with the wide-neck option, of course) The Englemann spruce-Indian Rosewood combination is such a lovely one to my ears that I recommend it to anyone with solo, instrumental, or recording aspirations. It fills up a mix, has great bass, and the melody and inner voices really sing their own distinctive and discernible songs to the listener.

Even as I write this I anticipate hearing strenuous responses from defenders of just about every choice of woods that there is, and I look forward to agreeing with every one of them. Among the Taylor fingerstyle clinicians the only unanimity is on the grand concert and grand auditorium body sizes with cutaways. You’ll see cedar and mahogany, rosewood and spruce, walnut, maple and koa from these discerning gentleman, and this variety makes the point again- Viva la difference. Happy hunting!