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This article was originally published in issue #38
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You may not have heard of Waterloo but you’ll almost certainly have come across its parent company, Collings, which has been producing some of the most sought after acoustics and electrics on the market from its Texas based workshop. We've reviewed quite a few Collings guitars in the past - both electrics and acoustics - and none has failed to be anything less than stunning.
Waterloo represents a departure from owner and designer, Bill Collings, who had a desire to produce instruments that are as close in design and aesthetic to the depression era Kalamazoo guitars made by Gibson. These acoustic guitars were produced in the '20s and '30s as more affordable alternatives to the high end models in Gibson’s range and ended up having a particular sound all of their own that many people are still very fond of to this day. Being built to a budget by Gibson meant that corners had to be cut and Collings has tried to match these period instruments down to every detail, even leaving excess glue in the construction just as with the originals! Don’t let that fool you though, these are exceptionally well built guitars that really hit the mark with their authenticity and although they are at least half the price of the average Collings guitar, these are not cheap instruments, being US-made through and through.
The WL-14 is the flagship guitar from Waterloo and features solid mahogany back and sides matched to a solid spruce top finished in either a vintage looking Sunburst or Jet Black option. The solid mahogany neck has a dark Indian rosewood fretboard joining the body at the 14th fret in true vintage style, with small acrylic inlays for a minimalistic look. The body and sound hole are offset with plain, but very attractive, Ivoroid binding and the ebony nut and bone saddle really add to the authentic vintage appeal. Adding Golden Age Restoration tuners aids the design and the hardware has been aged to fit beautifully with the aesthetic of the period being evoked. A celluloid tiger stripe pickguard and semi-gloss nitrocellulose finish complete a guitar that really looks like it could have been directly from the early 20th century.
There are a number of options on the WL-14 that allow the customer to tailor the instrument for his or her needs. Waterloo offers a T-bar for those requiring lightweight rigidity, perhaps as a travelling instrument, or you can choose a standard truss rod for greater set-up options. The guitar can be ordered with either X-bracing or the more period correct Ladder bracing, the latter offering a more vintage voiced guitar that is perfect for fingerstyle Blues playing, the former giving a more balanced tonal range. The neck profile is a deep ‘V’ shape by default that could be a little challenging for smaller hands, so Waterloo offers a lower-profile option if required. Happily, all these options add no extra price to the guitar so you can make your choices without having to worry about mounting costs.
Construction of the WL-14 is exceptional in every respect, even down to the unsanded bracing and glue spots left here and there. The idea of these guitars is to produce an instrument where all of the work goes into producing tonal quality and matching the vintage aesthetic of the original Kalamazoo guitars and in this respect the WL-14 is a huge success. Collings has produced a guitar that has all of the charm and tone of the original but is designed to play as well as any modern acoustic on the market. The little Waterloo imperfections that would be cleaned up beautifully on the Collings guitars add a level of ‘grit’ and ‘realness’ to the WL-14 where you can almost sense the person working on the build.
Tonally, the WL-14 is instant vintage in every respect. You’ll find none of the deep, piano like bottom end and tonal balance that modern acoustics strive so hard to achieve. This is a raw and more alive sounding instrument that immediately harks back to those old fingerstyle Blues recordings that so many know and love. It imparts a sense of nostalgia for those early acoustic sounds and is a huge amount of fun to play. In the hands of the right player this is a tone that can really produce a unique emotional response in the listener, as the imperfections that so many modern guitars try to perfect create an unmistakable voice that works so well with intimate, story-telling, fingerstyle based music.
The Waterloo WL-14 is a superb achievement from Collings in reproducing the vintage appeal of the early depression era instruments in great detail. Unlike the originals though that could often be hard to play and deteriorated rather quickly, the WL-14 is a joy to play and as well made and authentic as any US instrument you’ll find. Whilst it’s not cheap it certainly isn’t expensive either considering the instrument that you get for your money. For those who take their fingerstyle blues seriously, the WL-14 is an essential guitar to check out.