Cue Twilight Zone music.
You enter a room. On a guitar stand in the corner is this new offering from Taylor. It’s an extremely attractive, maybe even a little alluring, but otherwise regular acoustic guitar. As you get closer to it you notice that it’s a little bigger than you’re expecting. You realise that’s because it has a 27″ scale length. Interesting. Must be a baritone. Or maybe you’re shinking. You look a little closer and see that appointments include a Grand Symphony body, Indian Rosewood back and sides and Sitka Spruce top. Inlays are an elegant set of abalone diamonds, nicely complemented by abalone inserts in the bridge pins. Something looks a little odd about those pins, but it’s not until you reach out with a trembling hand, pick it up and bring it close to inspect the headstock that you realise, good lord, this thing has eight tuning pegs, yet the neck is only wide enough for six. Maybe you’ve crossed into a parallel universe. Maybe it’s a trick of the light. Or maybe you’ve just entered… the 8-string Baritone Zone.
Sorry, got carried away there for a minute. Watched an episode of Futurama with their ‘The Scary Door’ Twilight Zone parody and I guess it kinda stuck with me. But back to the point at hand, this freakily cool baritone guitar from Taylor’s Specialty range is indeed an 8-string guitar with a 6-string-spaced neck. Strung B E A D F# B, the middle two strings are doubled in octaves, 12-string style. Taylor arrived at this concept by combining the XXXV-B baritone and the XXXV-9 9-string (which added octave strings on the D and G while doubling the B). Bob Taylor explains: “We made a 6-string baritone and it was cool. But meanwhile over on the other side we’re making this 9-string guitar. I played that baritone and said ‘let’s make a 9-string out of that.’ And we played that and I go ‘it’s one too many strings, let’s just try the D and the G’… or whatever those notes would be on a baritone. I’m not smart enough to transpose that five frets down. But those two middle strings, we played it and it was like, ‘Aaah! We’re home! It was like a 3-point landing on something that seemed like we must be brilliant! Because this low guitar that could wear you out and make you weary after playing it for a couple of songs, all of a sudden had tonal ranges in the normal guitar spectrum, because those two octave strings carried the guitar up to where a guitar should be, which is really, it’s not a baritone instrument, it’s really more of a tenor instrument. It’s up there where people think music should be made.”
The craftsmanship of the Baritone 8-string is outstanding and the playability is utterly flawless. For a guitar that’s a few inches longer and two strings busier than most players are used to, it’s exceptionally easy to play. The string tension doesn’t really feel any different to any other guitar, and a few minutes are all you’ll need to get comfortable with the contrast between the doubled-up middle strings and the regular single ones. It’s not quite a 6-string, not quite a 12-string – but once you stop intellectualising and start playing it all makes sense. The trick is to tune out the fact that you’re pressing down an octave pair, and just get on with playing. The sonic results are pretty impressive, as the low end of the baritone aspect is countered by the zing and ring of the higher-tuned octave strings. Overall the tone is a little lighter than you might expect, with more attack and tighter bass, which makes it a great rhythm section guitar or a secret studio weapon. This is great because if the low end was too boomy, Taylor would risk losing the detail of the low end and obscuring the highs.
Plugged in, the attack softens a bit and the treble rounds out to a fine three-dimensional voice. While I had the guitar on loan I used it to flesh out some arrangements recorded on 7-string guitar by sustained open chord parts, and it added a nice airiness to the top end while tightening up the low end and providing a nice, comfortable harmonic bed over which to wail. But that’s not all: I had a great time using it to add some sparkle and dimension to my 7-string riffage; to play chord, melody and bass stuff Tommy Emmanuel style with my fingers; to aggressively (well, not too aggressively, since it was only on loan and I had to be careful!) strum out open chords; and to delve into 60s-style octave jangle freakouts without having to sacrifice the ability to go back to straight single notes and single-octave power chords. It really is a guitar that encourages creativity, since it doesn’t already have a pre-defined set of ‘rules’ to guide your playing.
The thing that ties it all together is that it’s a fun guitar to play and to explore, whether you’re using it as your main instrument, or for some additional chime and thump in the studio, or to access hitherto locked areas of your songwriting. Bob Taylor summed up the appeal of the 8-string like this: “The great thing about having those extra strings in the middle is that you can play on them, you can play around them, you can accentuate them, you can de-accentuate them, you can strum them, you can fingerstyle them. And it seems like anybody that plays guitar gets on that and says ‘Oh, I know how to use this! I know just what I want to do!’ When you play it, it sort of comes naturally, how to employ what it can do. And that’s why people are excited about it: because it offers something truly new.”