2011 Taylor 354ce 12-String Guitar, a Review
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It bears mentioning before I start this review that nothing seems to happen quickly with me: I posted on a forum about exploring this guitar a year and a month before we acted. At that point, my wife and I had just visited the guitar store and tried out a Taylor 354ce 12 string. She kind of fell in love with it and I did too.
We were on vacation. Stay-cation. We’d done some nifty home stuff and waited for an approaching hurricane. As our final day together arrived, we got a little stir-crazy and decided we needed to get out of the house. I wanted to visit a guitar shop to see what was new and my wife wanted to visit a craft store, so off we went. The first stop was a locally-owned big box guitar store. At that point, the last acoustic guitar type that wasn’t in my arsenal was a 12-stringer so I asked what they had in a working guitar I could use for recording. The salesguy had already sized me up for my interest range. Looking down I suddenly realized I was wearing my old, worn, classic Taylor T-shirt with the embroidered logo on the left breast. Dead giveaway, huh?
Well, anyway, he said all he had in stock that was within my parameters was the Taylor 354ce. Decoding the model number, I realized that would be a Grand Auditorium-bodied 12 with a sapele body wood and spruce. I was ready to kind of discount it as a small-sounding entry level guitar but asked the guy to bring it out anyway. Once I got the thing in my hands and made my first sweep with the pick, I was more than pleasantly surprised. I’ve always preferred 12-stringers with the more mellow wood combinations. 12-stringers can be absolutely jarring with the wrong woods, so I usually tend to prefer mahogany or maple body woods. I also usually find sapele to have a little “rip” in the upper mids that bothers me and a little boxiness when used in a GA body that isn’t to my liking. When combined with sitka spruce on a six stringer these characteristics can seem to be emphasized. However, the sound of the sapele/sitka on a 12-stringer with a GA box was both very immediate and very balanced without that jarring jangle of a cheap 12-stringer but instead, with a really mellow sort of jangle. Is that an oxymoron? The sound was kind of “literal.” Great definition on all strings but all the overtones kind of blended nicely when you did the thing I like to do best on a 12 – strum big, lush, open chords. The guitar projected nicely and with authority. And on the bass side? I was ready for it to be wimpy on a GA but was once again surprised. It was quite solid but didn’t have any hint of the o’erweening boom some dread or jumbo 12s can have. I could tell it would record very well and very easily. I was really quite impressed. Now we aren't talking about a "lap canon" that will flatten the competition - I'm not a competitive guitarist anyway and this is a Grand Auditorium bodied guitar, after all. I'm thinking in terms of a recording guitar. When I'm recording, I don't lean very far into my guitars. I prefer a good balance between treble and bass without boom.
Once I was familiar with the sound I was able to begin evaluating the other characteristics of the instrument. The action was really quite incredible for a 12-stringer. The full neck profile was comfortable in my hand and Taylor’s typically short frets didn’t feel so short this time. I played the instrument for a good forty-five minutes including plenty of bar chording before I began to feel left-hand fatigue. That’s pretty amazing. The string spacing was about right for my mitts. The fit and finish were absolutely first rate. The new NT headstock scarf joint is much more pleasing to the eye than the old finger joint. The guitar sits nicely in the lap with no feeling that you need to keep adjusting it. But of course, it is a Grand Auditorium. The oversized 12-string peghead doesn’t cause the guitar to be physically imbalanced. The Taylor tuning keys are smooth and comfortable and hold tuning well. You know that peculiar impression you can get when playing some lower-line guitars that they are, well, lower line instruments? There was none of that. The fit, finish, feel, and “gestalt” of the instrument were all first rate, despite the satin finish on the body back. It all just worked. The effect of sound and playability was of a 12-stringer that was, mmm… effortless. You know how some 12-stringers sound and feel HUGE, some feel tight, some feel loose and flabby, some feel heavy, some feel like they are one instant from exploding from the tension, some feel fragile, some feel like a beefed-up six stringer, some feel like only a gorilla could manipulate them, etc. This one felt effortless, natural. Like it was kind of meant to be what it is, in a zen sort of way. That’s kind of a strange thing for me after years of wrestling goliath 12-stringers when asked to.
My wife sat in front of me evaluating the instrument. Those of you who know me know that I call my wife “the great enabler.” It sometimes feels like she’s got more drive to buy me guitars than I have. More than once she has surprised me with a new one out of the blue. She also has a critical ear for guitar sounds. I kept an eye on her while she soaked in the guitar with her eyes closed. Finally she spoke: “Mmmm… This is a really pretty-sounding guitar. I like the way it is balanced. It’s not jarring but is actually really mellow. It has a really full sound. You don’t have a 12-stringer. What does it cost?” When I told her, she said, “Well, I don’t think we are quite ready to dive into it at that price.” She was right. It was, however, a very pretty little micro-fantasy to float around in my head. Still and all, the wheels are turning in her mind. While we were leaving she said, “No two guitars are the same, are they? If you find one that is exceptional, you need to snatch it up, right?” I said “Yep.”
So, I began saving towards one of these guitars a few months back and had come near, but not up to the cost of the guitar. Eventually my wife said, "You are close enough. Let's go to the store!" and hustled me down to the guitar store to try out the 354ce they had in stock. While there, we also tried out a 855ce rosewood/sitka they had in stock as well. Believe it or not, our initial impressions were upheld: We both preferred the 354ce's combination of spruce, sapele, and a GA body on a 12 string. It just yields a nice, smooth, balanced sound and responds well to my light touch. I found myself running through the intro to YES's "And You and I" very quickly.
Overall impressions? You know how sapele can sometimes be quite reddish and light? This time the sapele is so dark and brown that it matches the mahogany neck and actually looks like mahogany. The top has nice, even grain with just the right amount of silking. The body and headstock are sized in such a way that nothing looks out of proportion. I actually like the looks of the guitar, with no reservations. As usual for Taylor, the fit and finish on the instrument are impeccable. The dealer improved the setup a bit and it is as low and comfortable as I've experienced on a 12-stringer. He also kept the guitar behind a wall so it doesn't look like it has even been touched. The build quality of the newer, black-on-black case isn't quite up to the standard of Taylor's classic "pink poodle." It is more lightly built and the lid fit isn't quite right. Its contruction kind of reminds of the Humidicase that came with the Cordoba 55R. The upsides are that it is a definite improvement over an SKB molded case and it isn't as heavy to carry as a Taylor pink poodle either. It's kind of the best of both worlds.
I think Taylor has finally gotten the Expression System dialed in. I've taken it into the studio where I work, plugged it into the console directly, and evaluated it on our excellent monitors to get an idea of the sound of the 2011 Expression System. The funny 7.5k honk from earlier Expression Systems is gone. I wonder if it was a result of phase problems from blending two body sensors? The newest system has done away with one of them and the result is salutary. The hum is gone as well. The result is a pretty literal reproduction of the sound of the guitar. The controls allow you to very musically add bass or chime. I wouldn't have the least reservation playing this guitar out through a PA or running it direct to the console to record a live performance. I also compared plugging in directly both balanced and unbalanced. While the unbalanced signal is fine, plugging in directly to the board with a balanced connector drops the noise floor and adds clarity to the high-end of the signal.
So, I'm really quite impressed. This is a guitar that is easily worth its price. It isn't just an entry-level guitar with ergonomic drawbacks and poor sound but an excellent instrument that can be a great recording and performance tool.
And to my wife, "the great enabler," I say, "Thanks once again, honey!"
SPECS FOR THE REVIEWED EXAMPLE:
Built: May 2011
Top: Sitka spruce
Neck: Mahogany, Taylor NT design with scarf joint at head
Fingerboard Inlays: Large pearl dots
Headstock Overlay: Rosewood
Finish: UV cured, high-solids poly
Body binding: multi-ply black/white/black
Tuners: Taylor-branded Ping, with “kidney bean” keys
Electronics: 2011 Taylor Expression System powered by 9 volt battery
Controls: Volume, bass, treble
Included accessories: Taylor hardshell case
UPDATE: I didn't mention this when I first published this review because I preferred to not air out a customer service issue before all concerned had a chance to respond: There was an issue with the case. The top and body didn't meet by about an inch. I had to horse it around and latch the lower bout latch on the handle side before any of the others could be latched. After a week or so it didn't settle in. I just couldn't see things ending well over time, so at the suggestion of some friends I took it back to the dealer and asked them to evaluate it. They agreed and contacted Taylor. Taylor sent out a new case and we exchanged it when it arrived. Voile'! Excelent customer service from both Taylor and Alpha Music, Virginia Beach, VA.