Guitar Tasting Tips
Have you ever watched Gordon Ramsay on
the TV show Hell’s Kitchen That’s the show
where he makes people feel like idiots for
attempting to be good cooks. The other day I
was watching, and he did some very interesting stuff that relates to guitars.
Since a good chef must have a refined sense of
taste, he conducted taste tests with his students.
First, however, he had to break them down into
realizing they are, in fact, idiots, so he made two
dishes, each a tartar, one with beef and one with
scallops. The students raved, saying it was the
best beef and scallops they’d ever tasted, until
he revealed that the beef was actually tuna, and
the scallops were in fact sea bass.
Now, there are some people who have super
ears. For instance, my friend Leo Kottke can
tell if a guitar is Honduran mahogany or some
other kind of mahogany, even if you give him
the other kind without him knowing it. He’ll
perceive that something is off and ask if this is
the same as his other guitars. In a way, that’s
just like when you ask your mom if she changed
her meatloaf recipe. You know it’s not quite the
same, but you don’t know what changed.
a more refined, virtuous way to feel about our
connection to guitars. But I’m suggesting that
we’re really in it for the overall experience. All
the other factors play into the equation and, in
turn, influence the sound that we hear. So, feel
free to put just as much emphasis on the visual
beauty of the wood, or the craftsmanship, or
the shape, or the story behind the guitar as
you do on the way it sounds when you play it.
The fact is, they all contribute to what you ultimately hear, and it’s perfectly valid.
Next, he blindfolded the poor subjects and
served them food, challenging them to
identify what they were eating. They failed
miserably. The funniest moment involved one
student whose favorite food was black truffles;
when fed black truffles he winced, saying
it was the most disgusting thing he’d ever
eaten, and had no idea what it was.
Here’s something to remember. The basic
shape and design of a guitar contributes about
95 percent or more to its sound. That’s why a
Taylor always sounds like a Taylor, and a Martin
always sounds like a Martin, no matter how
each of us might tweak our guitars. We use
wood from the same supplier—heck, from the
same tree! It’s true. It’s our design and building
processes that make the guitars different.
The last five percent is where we all live, and
that’s where you make your thin slices of
change. Once you know you like the sound
of a particular brand, you know you can’t go
wrong within that brand range. The final decisions about woods and shapes are the choices
that hone in closer to what you like.
The point is that food is more than blindfolded tests. That’s why we’ve all fed friends
something and only revealed what it was
after they said they liked it. We know that
anticipation changes perception and modifies
our likes and dislikes.
The human senses are very acute. We can
taste whether our favorite recipe is spot on
or slightly off. But that works only when we
know what we’re about to taste and are
prepared. Take away the anchor points—the
anticipation, the preparation, the familiar
context—and we’re mostly lost. It’s been
proven that after a couple of rounds of tasting, a blindfolded person becomes confused
as to whether a drink is 7Up or Pepsi.
Two things are true. One, if I blindfolded you
and put 20 guitars in your hands, you’d eventually become very confused as to which is which,
and which is your favorite. Even if you didn’t act
confused, you’d pick different guitars as your
favorite. But it’s equally true that in the real
world, with your eyes open and in your normal,
familiar surroundings, you can definitely hear
which guitar is your favorite and fall in love with
certain combinations of features, such as woods
and shapes. In fact, if your guitar is having a
bad day tonally, you’ll notice it.
In my business, I am always asked to explain
how each minute change in a guitar makes it
different. Is rosewood better than mahogany?
Is maple smoother? Is cocobolo crisper? Does
Sitka spruce have more punch than Adirondack,
or vice versa? I draw the analogy with food. I’ve
noticed that when someone is moving logically
and systematically through a process of guitar
tasting, they can perceive the slightest differences. But take away the anchor points, and
those differences disappear for almost all of us.
The lesson from this is that your eyes, your
favorite music, your favorite memories, your
friends and guitar heroes, and what you know
about wood and construction techniques all
make a difference in how you perceive the
sound coming from a guitar. This is part of
the mojo of guitars. It’s perfectly valid, even
though if you were tested on it, you might fail
to prove what you like.
A lot of us like to think that we’re in it just for
the sound, that the other features of a guitar
don’t matter to us, and that somehow this is
Bob Taylor is the co-founder and president of Taylor
Guitars. He built his first guitar as a teenager and has
since gone on to establish Taylor Guitars as one of the
world’s premier acoustic, acoustic/electric and electric