Travel sized acoustic guitar with full sized playability and a surprisingly big voice
$679.00 MSRP, $499 "street"
By Phil O'Keefe
Travel guitars are an interesting, if somewhat niche product. They allow many guitarists the ability to take a guitar with them in situations where a full-sized instrument might be too cumbersome or obtrusive, but their playability is often a bit of a compromise due to very short scale lengths and narrow fingerboards, and their small bodies often produce less than inspiring sound quality. However, many musicians are willing to tolerate these shortcomings simply because they have had little choice -- when traveling, a compact sized instrument is easier to take along; you could have big sound, or a small instrument, and you couldn't really get both -- until now.
Figure 1: The Taylor GS Mini
Taylor is no stranger to travel guitars. Their own Baby Taylor model has been a big success and a part of their product line since 1996, and for the past few years, I myself have been fond of keeping one handy when working in the studio -- not only for its own unique and slightly quirky recorded timbre, but also as a guitar I can grab and use to quickly demonstrate musical ideas and suggestions to other musicians. As handy and as useful as the Baby has been, it does have some limitations; most noticeably, it doesn't offer the volume and projection of a full-sized instrument, nor anywhere near the full range frequency response of a large guitar. Taylor took the features that made the Baby so popular and expanded on them with the GS Mini, with the intention of creating a guitar that could serve equally well as a travel companion or modern-day parlor guitar for use around the house. Based on my experiences with the review unit, I'd say they nailed those goals.
CONSTRUCTION AND MATERIALS
The GS Mini is a classy looking little guitar, with a definite Taylor vibe to the aesthetics. The solid sitka spruce top has a satin varnish finish and is bordered by black / white / black purfling around the edges, which matches nicely with the black and white three-ring rosette around the full-sized 4" soundhole. A tortoise pickguard with a familiar Taylor styled shape is also included, and like the Baby, the GS Mini has a black Lexan laminate on the front of the traditional Taylor shaped headstock, with the Taylor logo displayed at the top. The truss rod adjustment is also located at the headstock, and is hidden under a black plastic cover. The black headstock face visually ties in nicely with the GS Mini's ebony fingerboard and bridge.
The two piece, bookmatched solid sitka spruce top has some dark figuring here and there in the wood - it's not as even in color as the spruce on some of Taylor's high-end models, but the bookmatching means the patterning is uniform, and while looks are subjective, I thought it gave the guitar some unique and individual visual appeal. (Figure 2) The top is X braced, and careful examination of the interior with a light and a dental mirror revealed scalloped braces and clean construction, with no unexpected gaps or globs of glue.
The body is a scaled down version of Taylor's own GS, or Grand Symphony body style. There is some open-pore grain texture to the satin varnish finished African sapele laminate back and sides. The back is arched and braceless. The body wood has some striping to it -- areas where the shading is subtly darker and lighter; similar to figured maple, but with much wider bands. (Figure 3) The appearance is not unlike the highly figured American mahogany on my Taylor 510, and the similarities go beyond the cosmetic - the overall tone of sapele is also very close to mahogany, although with a touch of added "zing" to the highs, in a manner similar to maple. The resulting tone of the GS Mini has a bit of midrange emphasis, and is articulate and bright in the treble, with excellent note definition. The full depth (4.5") body and full-sized sound hole gives it a bigger, deeper bass tone than the small body length and width would lead you to believe, but it lacks the beefy wallop of a full sized jumbo or dreadnought. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by just how full the bass is. There's a brilliance to the bass notes that really speaks nicely on bass register runs and alternating bass accompaniment.
The slightly open grained satin texture extends to the solid sapele neck, although it doesn't affect the smooth feel or playability, which I would describe as being very fast and nearly effortless. Taylor's patented NT Neck supports the fingerboard even in the area over the guitar's top, and allows for easy adjustability of the neck angle, and even eases neck resetting and replacement if the need arises. Neck width at the nut is 1 11/16" which is a fairly standard size. I didn't feel like my fingers were cramped into a overly narrow fingerboard. This is important, because in conjunction with a shorter scale length, a too-narrow fingerboard can lead to playing difficulties. Thankfully, Taylor kept the fretboard width full-sized. The nut and compensated bridge saddle are made out of NuBone, a synthetic material from GraphTech. NuBone is a derivative of their proprietary TUSQ man-made "ivory" material, with similar tonal properties.The sealed tuning machines bear no branding marks, but have a similar look and feel to some of Schaller's tuners. Regardless of who makes them, they feel very smooth and held their tuning just fine.
Figure 2: The review unit's bookmatched Sitka Spruce top
Figure 3: The laminated Sapele back and sides are nicely figured. Note the thickness of the padding on the included "hard bag"
PLAYABILITY AND SOUND
Let's get right down to it -- the GS Mini plays, responds and sounds far more like a "real" acoustic" than a "travel guitar." Compared to the Baby Taylor (Figure 4), the GS Mini is capable of getting quite a bit louder, and can easily hang with full sized instruments at informal jam sessions in the backyard or living room without compressing and bottoming out. In fact, the guitar is surprisingly touch sensitive, and responds equally well to being played with gusto as much as it does to being delicately caressed. This outstanding dynamic response is fairly uncommon in smaller guitars, and is a big part of the Taylor's appeal from a playability standpoint.
The shorter 23.5" scale length feels compact, but not nearly as closely spaced as the 22.75" scale of the Baby Taylor models. The stock strings are also heavier; a medium gauge set of Elixir Nanowebs. While this may be heavier than many players are used to using, the feel is offset by the lower tension of the short 23.5" scale length. Coupled with the comfortable neck, the feel is surprisingly "electric" and extremely easy to play, inviting you to explore the entire length of the fingerboard. The big strings under lower short scale tension also helps add fullness and warmth to the tone. The guitar arrived tuned to standard E tuning straight out of the box, and unlike some acoustic guitars, is designed to handle standard tuning with medium gauge strings without risk of damage. The action is exceptional. It's low and consistent up and down the entire length of the neck. Electric players should feel quite at home on it, and the fast neck makes this a good choice for a backstage / dressing room warm-up guitar. Of course, the small size will also work well in cramped tour bus quarters too.
The guitar works equally well when played with a flatpick or fingerstyle. The voice is crisp and clear, with fullness in the bottom but no boominess or mud. The dynamic response to changes in the force of the player's touch is outstanding, and it's really easy to go from soft and delicate tones to a shockingly loud full volume roar when strummed or plucked hard. There doesn't seem to be nearly the same degree of compression and volume limiting when the guitar is driven hard - unlike many small bodied travel guitars. While the sound lacks the booming bass of a full-sized dreadnought or jumbo bodied guitar, there is a lot more fullness to the sound than you might expect based solely on its relatively small dimensions. Taylor attributes this to the larger soundhole and deeper, full-sized body depth. Whatever the reasons, many players are pleasantly surprised by the tonal balance when they first play a GS Mini. To capture that sound when recording, I found that traditional mic techniques, such as a condenser at the 14th fret, worked well, but I felt I had the best results with a good pair of small diaphragm condensers in an XY stereo setup placed about 8 - 12" directly in front of the soundhole.
Figure 4: A size comparison -- the GS Mini, a Taylor 510 Dreadnought, and a Baby Taylor
OPTIONS AND ACCESSORIES
The GS Mini was designed to accept the optional ES-Go pickup. This is a magnetic stacked coil humbucking pickup that "floats" at the front of the soundhole without actually coming into contact with the top. According to Taylor, it can be easily installed by the guitar's owner using factory-installed fixtures inside the GS Mini. All of the mounting clips are already pre-installed, and adding the ES-Go requires only a few minutes and a small screwdriver. When coupled with Taylor's V-Cable, which incorporates a built-in volume control into a right-angle 1/4" plug, this gives the player a built-in pickup and a volume control at the output jack, which is located at the rear strap button. Unfortunately, I was unable to test these as part of this review (although I hope to do so in a separate review in the near future), but with even a casual look inside the GS Mini it's easy to see the mounting clip for the optional pickup and the tie-down points for the interior wiring.
One thing that isn't optional is the case. The included "hard bag" is stiffer than many gig bags, and nicely padded. In addition to standard handles, there is a pair of adjustable shoulder straps that allows you to carry the instrument hands-free as a "backpack." The hard bag also includes a decent sized external zippered pouch that's perfect for packing your strap, tuner, cables, spare strings and whatever other accessories you decide to take with you. (Figure 5)
Figure 5: A travel guitar needs a good case, and the GS Mini comes with a heavy duty and highly padded "hard bag"
TAKE ONE WITH YOU
As a "travel guitar", the GS Mini works quite well. It's not much longer than the Baby Taylor (36 5/8" vs the Baby's 33 3/4" length), so fitting it into overhead bins on airliners shouldn't be a problem. It also makes really nice beach or campfire guitar. Due to the solid spruce top, I'd want to give at least some care to avoiding extremes of temperature (and proper humidity conditions are important to any solid wood guitar), but the laminated back and sides seem fairly sturdy and up to the rigors of on-the-go use. The included "Hard Bag" is also helpful here, with the included "backpack" straps allowing you to wear the guitar on your back when hiking or biking - just don't fall!
If you pressed me for a single word to describe the GS Mini, it would be "seductive." Time and time again, I found myself drawn to it; picking it up and playing it at a moment's notice and for just the sheer fun of it. I have not had this much pure playing fun with an acoustic guitar in quite a while. Not only is it super-easy to play due to the shorter scale length, fast neck and low action, but the voicing is far more full-range and inspiring than most travel sized instruments, which further reinforces its allure. This is a guitar that has appeal beyond the strict limits of the typical "travel guitar", and I can see it becoming a favorite of younger students, those with smaller hands, and even those of us who are accustomed to playing full-sized acoustic guitars but who want something in a handier size to keep at the office, sitting on a stand next to the couch, or to take with us when we travel. It's not just great for the journey, but a terrific musical companion once you arrive.
Shape: GS Mini
Finish: Satin Varnish
Back / Side Wood: Sapele Laminate
Top Wood: Sitka Spruce (Solid Mahogany available as an option at no additional cost)
Bracing: Scalloped X-Bracing with Relief Rout
Fretboard Position Markers: 5mm Dots
Number of Frets: 20
Tuners: Die-cast Chrome
Headstock Overlay: Lexan
Nut & Saddle: NuBone (TM)
Bridge Pins: Plastic
Overall Length: 36 5/8"
Scale Length: 23.5"
Body Length: 17 5/8"
Body Width: 14 3/8"
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.