Traveling, the Middle East, and the Zac Brown Band, Day 1

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It was March of 2010 when Bob Taylor first met singer-songwriter/guitarist Zac Brown, the charismatic bandleader of the Grammy award-winning Zac Brown Band. Zac’s Taylor NS74ce is a mainstay of his live performances, so when Zac and Bob were introduced before a concert in San Diego, they already had a natural conversation starter. The two hit it off right away, bonding over what would turn out to be a slew of shared interests, including guitars, food, camping, cool machines and big ideas. Zac ended up paying a visit to the Taylor factory the following week, and the two enjoyed more hang time together. Their burgeoning “bromance” led Zac to invite Bob to accompany him and the band on a weeklong USO tour of Iraq in April. Bob accepted in a heartbeat. Along the way, as Bob spent time with Zac, his band, the sound and film crew that accompanied them, and the American troops stationed in Iraq, the experience had a profound and unforgettable impact on Bob. He chronicles his trip in a six-part travelogue that officially kicks off the Taylor Guitars Blog.

I’m no stranger to travel. When I was a kid, our family drove to and fro about the U.S. My dad spent twenty-some years in the Navy, mostly stationed in San Diego, but there were two years in Virginia. We drove there. We drove back. It was a ’57 Ford — not a Fairlane, not a Galaxie 500, just a Ford. Funny that it didn’t have a model name. It had four doors, and on the way back to San Diego after the stint in Virginia, my dad removed the back seat and put it in the moving van. In its place was a piece of plywood, where the four kids could sit Indian-style, or wallow about on top of each other for the journey.

We stopped at a new restaurant everyone was raving about that served chicken. Some Colonel named Sanders had the idea. It was tasty and we were on the road, driving day and night, staying in motels. I loved it. It was never boring, and I never wished it to be over. I was in the fourth grade on that trip and have lived in San Diego since. But we still drove whenever vacation time came.

The best trip I’ve ever been on was when I first graduated from high school. I partnered with my buddy Mike, who’s been my brother-in-law from the return of that trip till this day. My dad gave me the keys to his new Datsun 510, the only new car he’d ever bought, and Mike and I drove around the western United States and southwestern Canada over a period of four weeks. You can never replace the feeling of the first time you’re free and on your own. There have been a couple moments where the feeling is close, but that trip was the best.

I finished my second and third guitars on that trip. They were a pair, one for Mike, one for me, one left-handed and the other right-handed. Mike’s a southpaw, and probably one of the reasons Taylor makes every guitar in a left-handed version to this day. At each motel that first week I glued on bridges, filed frets and strung these two guitars because I wasn’t able to finish them before the trip.

I was also carrying a banjo I’d made that year to provide versatility during what were our bluegrass years. I took to playing banjo easily back then, even though what I wanted to be was a good guitar player. The guitar playing reached a peak with me; I could have been a contender on the banjo but lost interest. However, not before Mike and I were driving in Colorado and looked out our right window to see a train that was about a hundred miles long. On the side of the cars it said “The Rock Island Line,” and with that we stopped the car on the side of the road, got out a banjo and guitar, and played and sang that song for an hour. We were free and on our own, having all the fun and none of the responsibility of life.

Since then I’ve managed to get around, and there have been a lot of first-time experiences, but all were taken in stride because that switch had already been flipped on my trip with Mike.

There was the first time in a high-rise hotel in Tokyo, standing at the window looking down on a sleeping city, in a room so small you had to step out of it to change your mind. I realized I was a stranger in a strange land that day, but it became familiar quickly, and I’ve returned several times. There have been islands in the South Pacific with my family, places we never wanted to return home from. There’s been driving around Australia alone, or Baja California, which is my favorite place on Earth. I return there to camp along the Sea of Cortez every year, with my buddies, in our expedition cars, remote and alone. The feeling comes back when we’re there.


I’ve driven the Sahara in my Land Cruiser with my buddy Thilo Kramny from Munich, and let me tell you, that is remote, with weeks of sand dunes and no roads, just a GPS to keep you in the country, where you have a Visa to travel.

If you leave from my house and go to the Sahara, you can keep going across Libya, through Egypt, and then you hit the Red Sea. Moses was the last guy to walk across, so you’d need a boat, and on the other side is Saudi Arabia. Hang a left and go north for a ways and you’ll end up in places where we have troops and are entangled in war. There, our family members are away from home, and we all wish for their safe return.

Being a desert lover, I’ve always wanted to see this unusual part of the world. But it’s off limits, except for an opportunity that I wish to write about. I’m on a plane with the Zac Brown Band, under the control of the USO organization, and I’m feeling that travel feeling again. This is a new place, a new experience, and a long way from home. It’s really exciting, even though I’ve got a respectable amount of traveling under my belt.

I’ve only recently met Zac, but we hit it off right away. We like the same things: music, camping, cooking, eating, things that explode, bluegrass, rock and roll, machines, employing people, BBQ, four-wheel-drive trucks, and eating, which I already said, but it bears repeating. And of course we both like guitars. I’m a good guy to know if you like guitars.

I’m traveling with a new, scaled-down GS prototype, which is due to be released in June or July. This is a guitar I began to dream up about a year and a half ago. It’s hard to realize that we’ve made 50 Baby Taylors a day for some 14 years or so. That guitar started a category, and there are now a lot of people making some kind of guitar like it. This new guitar is a way of upping the ante in that game. It’s as portable as a Baby, even though it’s bigger, but it’s only a couple inches longer and wider. Its design allows the body to be big enough to develop real guitar sound. Its strings are longer and therefore tighter, and it has an optional pickup that a user can buy and simply pop in. Anyone can do it.

My ambition with the guitar was to create something that was very portable and affordable, but also be a guitar that a player could do a pro gig with. It’s my hope to prove that to myself on this trip.

I will be blogging each day, if possible, about this journey. I’m excited because it’s something that is bringing new experiences into my life. It’s farther from home, it’s off limits unless you are invited, it’s about our country and our troops, and I’m taking a new guitar.