TAO Guitars by John and Serge – Luthiery in Equilibrium

by JP Holesworth

Originally Published in our Perfect Pair Issue

In this hi-tech world of ours where people still love hamburgers, a burger can be ordered from the dollar menu on up to a $25 burger in Manhattan or Tokyo– and all price points & locations in between. The persistence of iconic guitar designs is another type of comfort food where custom shop reissue and relic’d Teles, Strats and Les Pauls parallel Manhattan’s priciest burger & fries platter.

So where do we go from here with guitar design? Forward? Backward? Futuristic? Retro?

Perhaps the answer is “Yes– all the above.”

Serge Michiels and John Joveniaux of Brussels, Belgium based TAO Guitars by John & Serge, are keenly interested in styles, cultures, automotive designs and architecture of the 20th century; the entire 20th century. TAO guitars incorporate styling cues that span even pre-20th-century stringed instruments and lines but pick up at Orville Gibson’s 03 body carve, through the Art Deco age and roadster automobiles of the ’30s-’40s, to the American hot rod era and the earliest creations of Leo Fender and beyond.

Everything is synthesized and refined into a timeless, kinetic equilibrium that seems both comfortable, and prepared for revolution at the same time. Thus the name TAO; Asian for “The Way”, and their Zen logo symbolizing that everything is here and now. TAO’s craftsmanship is impeccable, and all materials are top notch. Players from Billy Gibbons to Rick Nielsen to Walter Becker have been spotted along The Way. And although it’s difficult to predict if these guitars will ever attain more than cult status, they’ll probably be extremely valuable, museum-worthy treasures long after John & Serge have stepped beyond this earth.

GC: TAO’s first build was a lute. Do you still have it, and did your attempt to refine this ancient instrument offend any lute purists out there (joke)?

John: Haha! Well yes, we still have it. Mainly our intention was to start by connecting ourselves with one of the genesis of the guitar and at the same time to get into the fine instrument making. More than trying to offend the purists, we were looking for a challenge: make a lute with some kind of improvements taught from the modern guitar world.

Serge: In fact it was an Arabic lute. I became aware of this instrument through the music of David Torn who was relying on this instrument for some eastern flavors. I soon fell in love with the deep warm sound of the “oud”, the fretless neck making it one of the most expressive plucked instruments. As we couldn’t help but to put some Tao touch in this project, we end up drawing a special bracing, carbon layered & carbon bar reinforced neck, Gotoh tuners, a modernistic rosette, cutaway and arm beveled! So sorry for the purists out there.

GC: You two started TAO in John’s attic! When did you realize that you could be such a dynamically creative team, and launch this guitar line?

John: All of this came quite naturally. Serge had all those crazy good ideas, but no real clue of how to put them together. On my side, I had some school and family background of organizing things, so I tried to ensure that those ideas took shape. Even if we do not reduce each other to a specific task, that’s basically the bedrock of our team. The guitar line we have now, grew up in our mind for about 4 years during the time we were developing our ideas as we built replicas (Fender and Gibson’s guitars and basses…), then 3 more years to materialize the actual line.

Serge: After we first met, it took us a week or so before we started confronting our ideas about guitar making both technically and philosophically, projecting us in the future. That was a cool & rewarding time, “the beginning”.

GC: Before the internet, living/growing up in Europe, how easy was it to discover so many details about classic American automobile and guitar design culture?

Serge: This goes back to my youth. I don’t know why but I’ve always been into car culture, particularly the American breed. I think I was the only kid (11 years old) in my neighborhood to ask the bookshop to order me “Hot Rod magazine”; as soon as I started playing guitar I was hooked by the whole electric guitar idiom. I instantly started buying magazines & books. I bought my first “Guitar Player” magazine back in ’81, with Buddy Holly on the cover. I still have it… I’m some kind of collector for those things.

John: For me, that was pretty easy. Serge had already all the books! (thanks!). In fact, I was born when “Guitar Player” was printing that Buddy Holly issue, so I almost grew up with the internet.

GC: Besides vintage guitars and cars, what are some other areas and eras from which you draw inspiration?

Serge: Anything that my sick brain could turn into a guitar design idea. I would say architecture & furniture design, graphics, ancient Japanese crafts, watchmaking…I particularly like early 20th century art with the likes of the “Viennese Secession” movement, Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Loewy, some ’50s & 60’s designs all the way to the present time with Ron Arad or Philippe Starck, to name a few.

John: Well, definitely design of all kind, going from furniture to bicycles, lamplight, ashtrays– every object that has aesthetic and/or technical intention. This also works with graphic design which I’m especially obsessed (with).

GC: Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” What goes into making TAO guitars just as progressive as they are retro?

John: Where would Zappa be without Johnny Guitar Watson, Edgar Varese or Stravinsky? Everything is a balance. Maybe that’s why I feel connected to our name Tao.

Serge: Being a total guitar whore, my mind was infected by every possible influence that goes back from Orville (Gibson) and George Beauchamp, Leo (Fender), Ted Mc Carty… to modern days experimentalists such as Steve Klein, Teuffel and anyone in between. So for me, our design is a natural synthesis of our roots. The whole idea behind our models was to propose a mix of how a vintage guitar should sound & feel, but with perfected playability and a new “of his time” appearance.

GC: The body jewel on the El Mirage model represents a 1930’s V-16 Cadillac Fleetwood Roadster wheel ornament, in motion– and it’s cleverly crafted from a knife and spoon. Was this idea the result of an evolving process, or a sudden flash idea? What’s the story?

Serge: I would say evolving process because as usual we’ve been through a serious brainstorming; several drawings, some missed attempts, and then the sudden flash comes down, and that’s the spoon & knife idea allowing us to finalize the part.

John: What do you think of that? Yes, not bad! (the day after…) You know what, maybe no, or maybe like this…ok…hmmm…actually, no, let’s try this totally different thing! Ok! (few weeks goes on, back and forth…). Why not mix all of this? Yeah! That’s pretty much the way we work…

GC: When conceptualizing a guitar design, do you imagine a certain kind of individual it might appeal to?

John: I would say yes and no… For the main designs we try to make a versatile instrument, but for the “one-off” customs, that’s different. I think it’s very challenging to work with constraints, like for the “El Mirage”, Billy F. Gibbons was a fantastic pretext and inspiration to get the T-Bucket into its wildest field.

Serge: Not really. We listen to a lot of music in our workshop, we have both a lot of influences and we design our guitars with the idea that it could appeal to some really different playing style. As Brice Delage brilliantly demonstrates on the T-Bucket video, you could go from Country Western Swing to more rocking sounds. And that was our goal.

GC: Are there any legendary instrument and artist/musician combinations which help to form or epitomize your standard for tones and visual aesthetics?

John: I will stick to the classics on this one with Larry Graham and his all white dressed JB (Fender Jazz Bass), and also Sir Paul McCartney and iconic (Hofner) violin bass, which represents to me one of my favorite tic tac sounds, like in the “Glass Onion” track.

Serge: I would start with Jimmy Bryant. His recording with pedal steel legend “Speedy West” is the purest incarnation of the early Fender sound. It’s a ”must hear” for all guitar connoisseurs. Then you will have the Rev. Willie G. tone on “Brown Sugar”, a milestone of the overdriven Les Paul tone. I’ve also always liked the Rick Nielsen approach to custom guitars. But if I had to pinpoint say, the T-Bucket concept, I would say Jeff Beck with his “Tele-Gib” Blow by Blow era.

GC: Both the Phaeton & TAO’s newest Disco Volante start with Orville Gibson’s 03 body carve concept, then diverge between the Phaeton’s 30’s-40’s American automobile cues and the Disco’s nod to its namesake ‘52 Alfa Romeo. Tell us about your fascination with this body concept, and if there are other TAO possibilities in the future for the 03 inspired platform?

Serge: This guitar is like the unicorn, it has always fascinated me. His rounded anthropomorphic body design is so sexy. It eventually finds his way in our design as a template for our more “Gibson oriented” models. It will sure find its way in some future projects.

John: Yes indeed, as a bass player this body concept has always been in my head as the perfect starting point for a Beatle bass reincarnation. But my Jack Bruce affection catches me up too for the EB (Jack’s legendary Gibson EB-3 bass) version of it. Maybe some customer will help me out to decide which one to start with…

GC: The T-Bucket and El Mirage pay obvious tribute to another first, the Esquire/Tele platforms, yet they are unmistakably TAO instruments. What was some of the evolutionary process leading to the arrival of these models as they are today?

Serge: It all starts up with us building some Fender style guitars. We’ve built a two humbucker pine body T-style for a friend, with a shorter cutaway bout. We found it a pleasant looking T-style alternate contour, so we took it as a start point for our new T-Bucket model. It led us to the next level of doing an offset body to perfect the balance and give it a more dynamic appearance. Then we started to add all these little details that helped us to perfect the whole concept; like our special fret job, the bowl carve on the headstock, the hidden tuner bushings, the dashboard style side marks …

John: Right! And then some ergonomic features with the arm rest and the rib cage. The sound orientation evolved also when we decided to go for a Gibson scale. It felt natural to put in a humbucker bridge pickup, and as we were looking for a “best of both worlds” sound, we developed the “Z-coils” neck pickup to keep a snappy color. Finally, the front grill for the control plate and the pickup cover were originally from an old Philips radio with a fake woody panel, which had a very cool 70’s look but too complicated to craft so we checked for striped material and found this great looking rubber. That was it! (See T-Bucket & El Mirage images)

GC: Why the decision to keep the standard bolt-on neck with your T-types?

John: Simply because it’s a integral part of the T style guitar’s tone equation.

Serge: Our opinion on the “glued in vs bolt-on” everlasting debate will be that when you do the thing right, either way, will have its benefits & sound character.

GC: Please describe your “Carbon Flex” truss rod, and explain its benefits.

Serge: We got this idea from Steve Klein‘s article in “American Lutherie” (issue #81) around the use of carbon fiber. It consists of a wood carbon sandwich core inlay in the neck that has a larger pull than the actual bar which adds stability to the neck & helps it to have a more steady curve.

GC: A couple TAO trademarks seem to be solid finishes & a lack of mother-of-pearl fretboard inlay ornamentation. Where many boutique builders draw attention to inlay and blazing maple tops, you guys concentrate on unique lines, contours and hardware. Is this more of the automobile influence?

John: Automobile, we can’t deny, but above all regarding the aesthetic aspect, I love sleek looking things, We would not reject someone who wants blazing woods, but that is our suggestion.

Serge: I don’t feel like fancy woods is what makes a good sounding guitar. I think our prime goal was the tone, & I still believe the more you put fancy things on a guitar, the more you get in the way of pure unaltered sound.

GC: Many builders of aged and relic’d tribute guitars are into nitrocellulose lacquer simply because it can be aged and worn/damaged more easily than poly. Some boutique builders doing straight/un-aged finishes are going with poly, but applied very thin. Which finish materials do you guys prefer, and why?

Serge: We have always favored nitro, we are pretty comfy with it, but I can understand that commercially some builders will go for poly because of its stability & toughness. Some will do catalysed nitro, which for my taste is closer to the poly, but it is true that if you can handle to bring poly to a minimum thickness, it could be just the right compromise sometimes. Concerning the grainy matt finish we’re putting on our body, after being through a lot of research we ended up with an acrylic lacquer that we keep to a minimum thickness .

John: Regarding necks, we are great fans of oiled finishes. We used it many times and loved it very much. The feeling is incomparable, and it expresses the wood to its maximum. Due to technical reasons with our custom side marks, we had to go for a lacquered neck with a very thin layer in order to protect the graphic. For that, we use nitro or ultra-thin poly according to customer’s tastes. Regarding the oiled finish partisans, we also offer the T-Bucket with dots and oil finish.

GC: TAO’s solid finish approach means that you select wood primarily for its tone, strength, and carve-ability, as opposed to natural wood finish appeal. Do we really still need rare, “endangered” woods for good luthiery? How do you like working with Spanish cedar?  

John: Primarily for its tone, we choose every wood part: neck, fingerboard & body for their pitch relatedness, and match them for particular tone results. The smell of the Spanish cedar is just incredible, and the warm tone of this wood is a very good balance with the wide open harmonics we want in our instruments.

Serge: Concerning endangered species, I think Juha Ruokangas proved to us long ago that you could make fantastic sounding guitars out of alternative woods (birch top on Spanish cedar body). I think he’s responsible for bringing the Spanish cedar wood to the ball game. I like the tone of it, the lightness and uh! That smell!!

GC: Any challenges in obtaining the woods you prefer to your location in Belgium?

John: Not really. There is almost no interesting wood that we can use from Belgium growth. We mainly get our wood from friends in Germany, or sometimes directly from the US.

Serge: You could sure find lightweight swamp ash easier living in Florida, but then we use this European maple that we really love or the Spanish cedar, Alpine spruce that we sure can find here in Europe.

GC: As luthiers in control of what you build, but not making your own pickups, how difficult is it finding the right pickup maker to help you arrive at the plugged-in tones you intend for your guitars?

Serge: It’s a long process, you start with a sound in your head which sometimes comes from a fantasy realm. Then you begin a long quest finding the closest to your dreams. Our quest has ended for the moment because of the magic of Dave Stephens of SD pickups, who helped us refine our guitars with his “Mona Lisa” approach. He also refined our “Z-coil” neck PU, originally made by BKP in the UK, with some of his magic potions.

John: Overall, it’s just a matter of finding the right person who can stand our outrageous peakiness. About that, there’s a new challenge arising, just the same as we did for guitars, we soon have to focus on finding the right equation for our upcoming basses.

GC: We usually ask luthiers where they stand regarding CNC and have heard a variety of practical and philosophical explanations both pro and con. What’s the TAO approach to “hand built”?

John: Mmmh! That’s not an easy one, as I love CNC made guitars from some builders out there. The biggest issue for me is the corporate feel these guitars will tend to, even when they’re quite good instruments. I think the difference with our way of crafting is that it will retain a more human feel to it, anchored in a long tradition that I feel related with. Thus it makes each instrument more unique.

Serge: The difference for me is like engineering vs craftsmanship. I would certainly not discard engineered stuff, ‘cause I love some so much, but I will always believe that there’s a lot more satisfaction in owning a Boyd Coddington or Roy Brizio hot rod than going to the next BMW or Benz concession and buying yourself the same nice car that anybody else has. Handcrafted guitars are what I live for.

GC: The Charger bass, inspired by the ‘68 Dodge Charger, celebrates the American muscle car era. How do you find working with bass players, their needs and their culture, compared to guitarists?

Serge: That’s more of John’s domain as he’s a solid bass player. I think that he really understands the needs of the bass breed. The funny thing is that we’ve sold as many basses as guitars.

John: Well I’m a bass player, & Serge is a guitar player, so needless to say it’s a need for me and I guess for us to make some basses. Actually, we’ve made some and it happened that except with the Charger, we started each design with the guitar version in order to speak to a larger community. But that’s only a matter of time. I can’t wait to make some of our designs as bass versions.

GC: Any favorite luthiers who inspire you, past or present?

John: Michihiro Matsuda, Steve Klein, Ken Parker, Taku Sakashta, Kurt Hendrick, Ulrich Teuffel, Claudio Pagellli, Antonio Pioli…

Serge: D’angelico, D’aquisto , Monteleone, Ted Newman Jones, Kurt Hendrick, Michael Stevens, Claudio Pagelli , Ulrich Teuffel, Saul Koll, Ken Parker, Steve Klein, Michihiro Matsuda, John Bolin, Taku Sakashta.

GC: Care to share 5 of your favorite guitar players or artists of any type, living or deceased?

John: Colin Hodgkinson, Larry Graham, Ani Difranco, Jim Campilongo, David Byrne, Bjork…

Serge: You should have put 2 zeroes after the 5: Harvey Mandel, Terje Rypdal, Terry Kath, Ollie Halsall, Pete Cosey, David Torn…

GC: Where do you see TAO in 10 years? 20 years?

John: 10 years, maybe we’ll celebrate the first acoustic Tao design?
20 years, no idea, that’s too far…

Serge: On top of the world! Hahaha!

GC: I should mention that the TAO website is beautifully formatted, with great copy and descriptions. Who writes the content?

John: Thanks. That is clearly more Serge’s touch. Generally, he works on it for a few days and comes up with an almost ready to go version, a couple of corrections, and I take care of the web part.

Serge: The other important factor I would mention here is the superb work of François Chevalier, our photographer of choice, who has this talent to bring the best out of our instruments visually.

GC: Serge, you recently visited the USA for the very first time on a trip to NYC. Besides guitar-related business, what did you find interesting about New York? How does American craft beer and our French fries stand up to Belgian ales and pomme frites?

Serge: Art & architecture, the energizing feeling, the food (too much!), the simple pleasure of looking at the cityscape… I’ve really appreciated the fact that you could find yourself in real different emotions & frames when walking through the city; from the peaceful vibe of the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park to the total frenzy of Time Square to the almost European feel of Brooklyn, I just fell in love with this city. Beer-wise I was already aware of the American drafts. I had already tasted the Brooklyn lager Goose Island and Anchor Porter which is my favorite. Their summer beer & stout are pretty good. Down in NYC, I relied exclusively on Blue Moon & Samuel Adams. It’s world known that Belgium is one of the great beer nations with classic brewing methods, so I could feel the influence there. But we have way more choice & type of tastes down here. For what we call “les frites” let’s say that it’s the same story than in Belgium… you’ll have the corporate stuff and besides that you will find some more handmade ones, so to say. But cheddar cheese on the fries… Wow! That’s heavy.

GC: Thank you for spending time with us here! Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your philosophy and approach?

John: Styling is an important part of what we do, but it’s the emerge part of the iceberg. We’re focusing so much on playability & tone that you’ll have to play one to really understand what our work is all about, a true labor of love.

Serge: “The boundless evil caused by shoddy mass-produced goods and by the uncritical imitation of earlier styles is like a tidal sweeping across the world. ” – Josef Hoffman & Koloman Moser 

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