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This article was originally published in issue #17
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Put together Irish luthier George Lowden and the songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson and the result is likely to be spectacular.Gary Coopergives the background.Michael Casswelldoes the hard part.
Lowden acoustic guitars are widely held to be among the best. They have been serious contenders for any professional or wealthy amateur's money since they first began to appear, during the mid-1970s, when George Lowden began making professionally in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Since those days, Lowden has had a complicated history. Starting out in Northern Ireland during a violent and depressed era was a stroke of ill-fortune in itself, soon to be compounded by enormous fluctuations in the acoustic guitar market, which has gone from the depths, during the synth-obsessed 1980s, to the peaks today, where the acoustic guitar is at a peak of its popularity. For a time, Lowden worked in Japan, where guitars were handmade in a specialist craftsman facility. Later he established a factory in Ireland. Later still, he moved to France. Now he is back in Ireland again, overseeing a small team once more in a family-owned business. There have been commercial spills and tumbles on the way (the full story is on the company's website) but consistently throughout his career, Lowden's reputation has been spread by devotees who have numbered his guitars among the best in the business.
Ironically, part of the attraction of buying a handmade guitar like a Lowden is that each one is an individual instrument - even if it is built to a specific model or design. The woods will vary, minute changes in build all show and, above all, what you start out with might not be what you end-up with, because real acoustic guitars - the best ones - change with age as they mature.
We borrowed a Lowden Richard Thompson model to be our introduction to the Lowden family.
The guitar we have here is a Richard Thompson signature model, also known as the F35-C-RT (writes Michael Casswell). Folk rock guitarist Richard Thompson has played Lowdens for many many years, so Richard and George got together to make this signature model. Richard being a very accomplished acoustic player, and George being a superb luthier, it was bound to be winner.
The top is AAAA grade cedar (that's a lot of 'A's), and the back and sides is Ziricote. Ziricote is a wood I'm not familiar with (apparently it's Central and South American Cordia dodecandra - also used in furniture making - Ed)but it certainly has a lovely look to it. The neck is five-piece laminate of mahogany, rosewood and walnut and the overall finish of the guitar is a natural satin. There is an ebony fretboard (in common with much ebony today, surprisingly light in colour) and the gold Gotoh tuners reinforce the ebony theme, having buttons of the same wood.
As you would expect from a guitar of his quality, it's the little details that show the difference. The centre back seam is made of strips of rosewood, mahogany, sycamore and walnut, the headstock overlay is bookmatched Ziricote, the purfling is sycamore rosewood and mahogany - there has been a very great deal of work put into this guitar and it shows.
Internally, Lowden uses bracing he calls 'Dolphin Back'. When you look inside you can see each brace is thinly scalloped (like the back of a Dolphin), making it lighter and more resonant. A very nice touch.
Our sample was so new that I doubt anyone had done much more than string it up and play it to make sure it was fundamentally OK and that is something you need to think about when trying guitars of this quality. They will age and somehow shape their sound to match your playing. It may sound crazy but it's true. This guitar sounded great but it will sound even greater in a few years time. Have a listen to the sound on the video and you'll see what I mean.
I am a big fan of Lowden guitars, and have played four or five in various sessions or situations. This particular model, though it's a signature guitar (some players are put off by that) and though it is far from cheap is, apparently, a best-seller for one of the UK's top acoustic specialists (Sheehan's music from Leicester) who also told us that Lowdens in general are among his best selling premium quality acoustics. We're not surprised!